By Astghik Bedevian
Armenia’s controversial Culture Minister Hovik Hoveyan was forced to step down late Thursday over reports that he attacked and pistol-whipped electricity workers after a brief cut-off in power supplies to his apartment.
Hoveyan revealed the news to RFE/RL following a humiliating interrogation by the Armenian police and an internal investigation conducted by the governing Orinats Yerkir Party, of which he is a member.
“Unwilling to give rise to unnecessary attacks on my party and government partners and considering the fact that attempts to exploit the issue have already been made, I announce my resignation,” he said after an emergency meeting of the party’s leadership.
According to the Electricity Networks of Armenia (ENA), Hoveyan, his son and several other men visited an a power distribution station in Yerevan on Wednesday to express their fury with the disruption which the national power utility says occurred on New Year’s Eve and lasted for about 20 minutes.
“They used force against our workers,” ENA spokeswoman Margarit Grigorian told RFE/RL. “Two of them were hit by pistol butts and taken to hospital with injuries. Their condition is satisfactory now.”
Grigorian claimed that the ENA office was attacked shortly after receiving an angry phone call from the minister’s apartment. “An official on duty explained that a mobile laboratory was sent to the scene to find out what the problem was …, after which that incident occurred,” she said.
The national Police Service confirmed that ENA workers were beaten up. “Circumstances of the incident are being clarified and relevant materials are being prepared,” its chief spokesman, Sayad Shirinian, told RFE/RL. He refused to give any further details, saying only that no criminal case has been opened yet.
Hoveyan initially denied any involvement in the incident. He claimed to be lying in a hospital bed with a fever when contacted by phone on Wednesday. “They are lying,” he said of the allegations.
However, police sources said that in fact Hoveyan was being questioned at a police station in Yerevan while he spoke with an RFE/RL correspondent. Also questioned were the two utility workers who were allegedly injured by the minister and his son, the sources said. The police and ENA refused to identify them.
Speaking on Thursday, Hoveyan admitted that he went to the utility office the previous day but came up with a different version of the event. He claimed that power cuts in his apartment building in central Yerevan were “periodical and long-lasting” between December 31 and January 4 and that its residents repeatedly got “rude answers” to their inquiries. Hoveyan said a group of those residents, including his son, decided to visit the ENA station and he joined them later on.
“I witnessed a scuffle when I got in,” he said. “More than a dozen people attacked several residents and my son … I intervened and tried to calm things down. I think that no father, no Armenian person could have behaved differently in such a situation.”
Hoveyan refused to clarify whether he was armed and whether he hit anyone with a pistol or otherwise.
The incident came as a huge embarrassment for Artur Baghdasarian, the ambitious speaker of Armenia’s parliament and the leader of Orinats Yerkir. The party’s governing board discussed it a two-hour emergency meeting on Thursday. Hoveyan announced his resignation immediately after the meeting. It was promtply accepted by President Robert Kocharian.
Hoveyan has been dogged by scandals ever since being appointed culture minister in April 2004. Some of them were sparked by his decisions to appoint Orinats Yerkir members to run several state-run cultural institutions. One of those decisions was overturned by a Yerevan court.
The former poet’s public pronouncements have been no less controversial. He complained, for example, last March that too many Armenians are now practicing folk dances because of socioeconomic hardship. In an August 2004 interview with RFE/RL, he singled out the ability to organize funeral services as one of the key traits which young Armenians should develop to meet the challenges of adult life. And a few weeks later he opined that most of the statues placed in downtown Yerevan in the 1960s and 1970s are already too old and should be replaced because they haunt city residents at night and “interfere with their dreams.”
Ironically, Hoveyan’s appointment was supposed to reverse the damage to Orinats Yerkir’s credibility that was inflicted by Tamara Poghosian, the previous culture minister. She too is affiliated with the party often accused of populism. Poghosian’s flamboyant statements and alleged incompetence made her the subject of widespread media ridicule.
Baghdasarian was also forced to replace another Orinats Yerkir representative in the Armenian government, Urban Development Minister Ara Aramian, due to his son’s involvement a March 2004 shootout in a Yerevan café that was apparently heard by Kocharian.
The latest scandal could be exploited not only by the Armenian opposition but also Orinats Yerkir’s partners in the governing coalition: the Republican Party and the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutyun). Incidentally, it was the top story in the Wednesday and Thursday news broadcasts of the Yerkir-Media TV station controlled by Dashnaktsutyun.