By Ruzanna Stepanian
Victor Dallakian, an outspoken opposition leader, on Wednesday pointedly declined to refute reports that he will lead a new political party set up by one of Armenia’s wealthiest and most powerful men close to President Robert Kocharian.
The party called Prosperous Armenia is said to be harboring far-reaching political ambitions that will manifest themselves in the next national elections. Its founder, Gagik Tsarukian, is the official owner of the Multi Group holding company that comprises dozens of small and large businesses. Sources close to his party say Dallakian, who is currently affiliated with the country’s main opposition alliance, is the one who will top the list of its candidates for the 2007 parliamentary election.
Dallakian effectively confirmed the information in an interview with RFE/RL. “I would just say that nothing is ruled out in politics,” he said. “There will be quite interesting political developments in Armenia in 2006. I do not rule out the emergence of new serious political forces that will play a serious part in Armenia’s political life.”
“I believe that the Prosperous Armenia party may have a serious influence on future socioeconomic and political developments in Armenia,” he added.
Dallakian has until now been one of the most bitter detractors of Kocharian, having referred to his administration as a “junta” and “clan.” He was at the forefront of the Armenian opposition’s unsuccessful attempt to topple Kocharian with a campaign of street protests in Yerevan in the spring of 2004.
The veteran lawmaker was also one of several prominent oppositionists who were attacked and beaten up by unknown men at the time. He blamed the authorities for the violence.
Tsarukian, by contrast, has maintained a warm rapport with Kocharian and his chief lieutenant and most likely successor, Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian. The burly tycoon’s close ties with the ruling regime are thought to have been instrumental in the rapid growth of his business empire which now involves a wide range of economic activities. Some local observers believe that he is entering big politics with Kocharian’s and Sarkisian’s blessing.
In a recent televised interview, Tsarukian promised to unveil the make-up of his party’s governing board soon. He said it will mainly comprise well-known intellectuals and other public figures, rather than government officials and wealthy individuals. Still, it will almost certainly receive behind-the-scenes support from other feared “oligarchs,” notably Samvel Aleksanian. The latter enjoys a highly lucrative monopoly on imports of sugar, wheat and cooking oil to Armenia.
A source familiar with Tsarukian’s thinking told RFE/RL that Prosperous Armenia aims to win the 2007 election and will field a candidate for the presidential election of 2008. The source said it has already been offered to team up with one of the three main pro-Kocharian parties represented in government. The offers were turned down by Tsarukian, he added.
Dallakian predicted that the Republican Party of Prime Minister Andranik Markarian will no longer boast the largest parliament faction after the 2007 vote. “I think that given the creation of new political forces, notably the Prosperous Armenia party, and the existing opposition, the Republican Party will hardly have such a weighty presence in the [next] National Assembly,” he said.
“This force is not being created to bring any individual to power. Prosperous Armenia should contest elections on its own,” added Dallakian.
Tsarukian is seen as the most influential of Armenia’s government-connected “oligarchs” who are not averse to flaunting their wealth amid widespread poverty. They usually live in huge mansions and travel in motorcades made up of luxury cars with virtually identical license plates. Most of them hold sway in a particular area of the country. Tsarukian and Aleksanian, for example, ran unopposed and were easily elected to parliament from their de facto fiefdoms in the last election held in May 2003.
This increasingly entrenched system has repeatedly been denounced as “feudal” by opposition leaders.