By Gevorg Stamboltsian
Prosecutors said on Thursday they are considering opening a criminal case against Gyumri’s embattled Mayor Vartan Ghukasian who has been accused by President Robert Kocharian of mismanaging the distribution of new housing in Armenia’s second city.
The move intensified speculation about Ghukasian’s imminent ouster by the government in Yerevan which he defied on several occasions in the past.
Hamlet Hovsepian, the chief prosecutor of the northwestern Shirak region of which Gyumri is the capital, told RFE/RL that Ghukasian is suspected of illegally renting out office space to a close relative. He said the municipal authorities bypassed the city council when making the decision.
Asked whether Ghukasian will personally be charged with abuse of power, Hovsepian replied: “Things will clear up in a few days’ time.”
The case, concerning the ground floor of a local public building, pales in comparison with accusations made against the flamboyant mayor by an inter-ministerial government commission earlier this month. The commission, led by the head of Kocharian’s oversight service, Vahram Barseghian, claimed to have found “numerous abuses” in the distribution of thousands of new apartments built in the earthquake-ravaged city with the multimillion-dollar assistance of a U.S.-Armenian charity. Its preliminary findings were publicly endorsed by Kocharian.
“There were instances of abuse of power by the mayor,” Barseghian repeated on Thursday. He said his commission will release a more detailed report by April 20.
To add insult to injury, a Shirak court annulled recently another mayoral order allowing the construction of a private gasoline station on a plot of land used by the Gyumri-headquartered Russian military base in Armenia.
Some political commentators and media view all of this as a prelude to Ghukasian’s dismissal. Under Armenia’s constitution the central government can unseat elected local chiefs if they are deemed to have broken the law. Such a move must be initiated by the government-appointed governor of a region where a particular city or village is located. The current Shirak governor, Romik Manukian, has been at loggerheads with Ghukasian ever since his appointment last summer.
Ghukasian, who vigorously campaigned for Kocharian’s reelection last year, has refused to comment on the controversy all along. Officials in his press service said only that the allegations are grossly exaggerated.
Meanwhile, talk of his impending resignation was brushed aside by a parliament deputy representing a Gyumri constituency. Samvel Balasanian denied reports that Kocharian has already sanctioned Ghukasian’s removal.