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By Astghik Bedevian
Parliament speaker Artur Baghdasarian expressed concern on Friday about the growing involvement of wealthy government-linked businessmen in politics, saying that it threatens to raise Armenia’s “vicious” culture of vote buying to new heights.

Baghdasarian echoed warnings made by other leaders of the governing coalition in connection with the ongoing creation of political parties by “oligarchs” close to President Robert Kocharian. The richest and most influential of them, Gagik Tsarukian, has reportedly set the task of winning the next parliamentary election due in 2007. Several other tycoons also reportedly plan to join him or form their own parties soon.

“We know that there are many shadowy manifestations in our political field,” Baghdasarian told RFE/RL in an interview. “That includes rumors about various oligarchs financing various political groups. People have now decided to set up parties. I find that positive in the sense that they are moving from the shadow field to public politics.”

“The bad thing about it is that the role of money is increasing in the political field,” he said. “The vicious tradition of buying votes, which is widespread in Armenia, could have even worse manifestations in the future … When everything depends on who pays how much money, the public loses faith in the electoral process and the state.”

Tsarukian is expected to lure prominent public figures and even some opposition politicians into his party called Prosperous Armenia. Individuals familiar with his thinking say he hopes to make a strong showing in the 2007 election by capitalizing on their populist appeal coupled with his vast financial resources. Many fear that much of that money will be spent on vote buying. Wealthy candidates routinely resorted to the practice in the national and local elections held in Armenia in recent years.

Prosperous Armenia is thus seen as a serious threat to both the opposition and the three parties represented in Armenia’s government. The largest of them, Prime Minister Andranik Markarian’s Republican Party (HHK), is particularly worried about Tsarukian’s and other oligarchs’ entry into big politics.

One of the HHK leaders, deputy parliament speaker Tigran Torosian, said on Wednesday that the country’s mainstream political forces, including those opposed to Kocharian, should join forces in the face of what he described as a serious threat to Armenia’s democratization. “It is evident that money will soon be playing a very important role in the activities of those newly created parties,” he told RFE/RL. “Hardly anyone can hope to win seats in the parliament after a few months [of preparation]. In this situation, parties must understand that they must join forces … to ensure that the 2007 elections fully meet international standards.”

But such cooperation appears highly problematic, not least because of a deep divide separating the supporters and opponents of Kocharian. Some observers also say that the emergence of “oligarchic” parties is part of Kocharian’s strategy of handing over power to Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian in 2008 and securing his own political future.

Another serious obstacle is persisting squabbles between the HHK, Baghdasarian’s Orinats Yerkir Party and the third governing party, the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutyun). Baghdasarian did not deny that he feels his coalition partners are trying to undercut Orinats Yerkir ahead of the next election. But he insisted that the coalition is not falling apart, saying that the three parties will soon sign an agreement that will commit them to continuing to work together until 2007.

The 36-year-old speaker, seen as a potentially strong candidate in the 2008 presidential election, went on to reiterate his support for a compromise solution to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, saying that it would speed up Armenia’s economic development. “We must be interested in a speedy and mutually beneficial resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh which could open totally different prospects for Armenia,” he said.

Orinats Yerkir’s coalition partners and Dashnaktsutyun in particular favor a harder line on Azerbaijan.

Baghdasarian noted in this regard that he continues to think highly of former President Levon Ter-Petrosian, who was forced to resign exactly eight years ago after advocating major concessions to Azerbaijan. “I believe that Levon Ter-Petrosian made a great contribution to the establishment of our statehood and treat him with deep respect,” he said.

(Photolur photo)
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