By Karine Kalantarian
Ara Abrahamian, an Armenian-born Russian tycoon, said on Wednesday that the recent release of six Armenian pilots controversially imprisoned in Equatorial Guinea cost him $2 million in “investments” in the west African nation’s infrastructure.
The aircrew of an Armenian cargo plane were set free in June after spending more than a year in a notorious local jail on dubious coup charges. They were arrested in March 2004 and sentenced to between 14 and 24 years’ imprisonment last November along with a group of South African nationals on charges of involvement in a reported plot to topple Equatorial Guinea’s longtime president, Teodoro Obiang Nguema. Their trial was denounced as “grossly unfair” by Amnesty International.
Abrahamian, known for his Kremlin connections, was instrumental in the pilots’ release and he explained why. “The pledges which I gave to the president of Equatorial Guinea have been fulfilled by 100 percent,” he told reporters in Yerevan. “We have invested more than $2 million in building a water supply system in Equatorial Guinea.”
“There were also other pledges and they have all been fulfilled,” he added without elaborating.
Abrahamian, who heads the largest organization of ethnic Armenians in Russia, began trying to secure the pilots’ liberation at the beginning of this year, after the failure of similar efforts by Armenia’s government. He repeatedly visited Equatorial Guinea’s capital Malabo to discuss the matter with Obiang.
“We made friends and now keep in touch,” Abrahamian said, adding that Obiang, whose regime is regarded by the United States as one of the most repressive in the world, has accepted his invitation to visit Moscow.
The Russian-Armenian tycoon is currently spearheading a similar rescue mission in another African country, Nigeria, where a group of Russian sailors are kept in prison on smuggling charges. He on Wednesday predicted their imminent release and cited a price tag of $1 million.
But Abrahamian insisted that money alone could not buy the freedom of the Armenian and Russian prisoners. “It requires a lot of work and participation of many people,” he said vaguely. “The investments are only a small part of our work. You will soon see what is happening in Nigeria.”
Turning to the situation in Armenia, Abrahamian signaled an improvement of his relations with the country’s leadership and Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian in particular. He credited the latter with the elimination of unspecified problems which he said hampered his involvement in the ongoing massive redevelopment in central Yerevan.
The businessman has previously criticized the authorities in Yerevan for their lack of enthusiasm about his unsuccessful efforts to set up a Moscow-based global organization representing Armenians scattered around the world. He also held them responsible for the failure of a small party sponsored by him to win any parliament seats in Armenia’s 2003 elections.
Abrahamian claimed that the Ramkavar Azatakan Party was not the only group that enjoyed his financial backing in 2003 but refused to name names. “I will do the same in the 2007 elections,” he said. “Time will tell which party [I will back]. Nobody has approached me yet. We will provide appropriate assistance in accordance with Armenia’s laws.”
Armenian law prohibits parties and other election contenders from accepting any material assistance from foreign nationals.
Abrahamian was also asked if he is ready to endorse Sarkisian in the next presidential election due in 2008. “He has helped me a lot and we have very good relations,” he replied. “But I must first know whether or not he will run [for president]. More importantly, I must know his platform and his team. I will then make a decision.”