By Emil Danielyan and Astghik Bedevian
Opposition leader Raffi Hovannisian was reportedly searched and questioned by Armenia’s National Security Service (NSS) about his increasingly high-profile political activities on his way to a major international conference on Wednesday.
Hovannisian’s office said he was stopped by an officer of the Armenian successor to the Soviet KGB at Yerevan airport as he was about to board a plane bound for Vienna. “Raffi Hovannisian was questioned about the purpose of the trip, the Armenian constitution and other matters unrelated to airport security,” it said in a statement faxed to RFE/RL.
The statement said the officer, identified as Arsen Poghosian, checked the U.S.-born former foreign minister’s hand luggage and documents, including a draft letter to President Robert Kocharian, to see if they contain any “state secrets.”
“Agent Poghosian, upon making several telephone calls, invited customs agent Karen Petrosian to the scene and instructed him to determine whether Raffi Hovannisian was in violation of relevant customs laws, suggesting a further examination of Hovannisian's personal papers in a separate room,” it said. “There, under Poghosian's watch, it was Petrosian's turn to scour through the documents in pursuit of state secrets.”
The statement added that Hovannisian, who served as Armenia’s first foreign minister in 1992, was allowed to take the delayed flight after the NSS officer photocopied the letter to Kocharian and promised that they will “meet” on his return. “Hovannisian has over the years had several similar experiences -- during the Soviet period and in Turkey -- but never before in the independent Republic of Armenia whose flag he raised at the United Nations,” it said.
Hovannisian was heading for Ukraine’s capital Kiev to participate in an international forum attended by U.S. Senator John McCain and former Czech President Vaclav Havel. He is due to return to Yerevan on Saturday. The NSS could not be immediately reached for comment on his reported questioning.
Hovannisian, who was granted Armenian citizenship in 2001 after a decade-long wait, has stepped up his political activities of late, subjecting the Kocharian administration to harsh criticism. He has been at the forefront of opposition protests against the Armenian authorities' handling of Sunday’s constitutional referendum. Opposition leaders reject the vote as fraudulent and plan more street protests later this week.
Garnik Isagulian, a retired KGB officer who advises Kocharian on national security, warned earlier on Wednesday that any attempt to overthrow Armenia’s leadership will prompt tough action from the law-enforcement authorities. “The opposition is trying to provoke the people into certain actions,” he told RFE/RL. “We are aware of their plans. They want victims whom they can exploit for saying something afterwards.”
Speaking during a live radio debate with another opposition leader, Aram Karapetian, Isagulian also said the opposition will fail to effect regime change even if it gathers one million people in the streets of Yerevan. “We cannot rig numbers like you do,” responded Karapetian. “We are more modest; 30,000-50,000 [protesters] would be enough for the opposition.”
(RFE/RL photo: Hovannisian opening a series of opposition rallies in Yerevan on Friday, November 25.)