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By Ruzanna Stepanian
The head of the Armenian branch of a U.S. education charity on Tuesday dismissed as “slander” allegations by Armenia’s state television that she is illegally financing political activities of her husband and opposition leader Raffi Hovannisian from the organization’s budget.

Armine Hovannisian, executive director of Junior Achievements of Armenia (JAA), charged that the H1 channel of the government-controlled Public Television and Radio spread the “disinformation” in retaliation for his recent harsh attacks on President Robert Kocharian. “There is only one year to go before elections, and I think they attacked me in order to somehow discredit my husband Raffi,” she told RFE/RL.

In a February 15 report aired during its prime-time Haylur news program, H1 alleged that JAA funds have been diverted to the financing of opposition rallies organized by Raffi Hovannisian and collection of signatures in support of the latter’s presidential ambitions.

The report referred to the Armenian-American chairman of JAA’s board of directors, Jack Berberian, as the organization’s main donor and challenged him to investigate the use of his funds by Hovannisian’s wife. “Does he know that the money he has provided for the education of Armenia's youth is invested in a family business that serves one man's political ambitions?” it asked.

Berberian angrily rebutted the claims two days later, in an open letter to Aleksan Harutiunian, chairman of the Public Television and Radio. Berberian ruled out the possibility of financial abuses, arguing that JAA is audited by a U.S. firm and releases detailed financial reports on an annual basis. He further argued that the Yerevan office of Junior Achievement, a Colorado-base charity which seeks to promote Western values among young people around the world, receives the bulk of its funding from the U.S. Agency for International Development, rather than U.S. philanthropists of Armenian descent.

Berberian demanded that H1 “immediately refute the disinformation and stop hampering Armenia’s sustainable development with such false reports.” Armine Hovannisian voiced similar demands in a separate letter to Harutiunian and the chief of Kocharian’s staff, Armen Gevorgian.

Harutiunian scoffed at the demands on Tuesday, saying that the state TV will continue its “investigation” into JAA’s activities. He said it has so far aired only “30 percent” of its purported compromising material. “Raffi Hovannisian had better draw conclusions from that report,” Harutiunian told RFE/RL.

The report in question was attributed by an H1 news presenter to Haylur’s hitherto unknown “investigative team.” A pro-Kocharian TV commentator who did its voiceover was quoted on Monday by the Hetq.am online news service as admitting that he was not involved in the “investigation” and simply read out a script handed to him by H1 editors. “A source at Public TV told us that the text of the report had been sent to Haylur from the information service of a state agency,” said Hetq.am.

Armine Hovannisian, meanwhile, links the televised allegations to the toughening of her U.S.-born husband’s anti-government rhetoric which came to light during opposition rallies staged in Yerevan in the wake of last November’s disputed constitutional referendum. Addressing one of those rallies, Raffi Hovannisian challenged Kocharian to answer two dozen incriminating questions that effectively implicated the Armenian president in high-profile murders committed in Armenia and Karabakh over the past 13 years. A Kocharian spokesman shrugged off the questions as “absolute nonsense.”

“This looks like their response to Raffi,” said the opposition leader’s Armenian-American wife. “They seem to think, ‘How dare a citizen demand answers from the top civil servant?’”

Hovannisian served as Armenia’s first foreign minister in 1992 but was effectively denied Armenian citizenship until 2001, something which prevented him from contesting the last presidential and parliamentary elections held in 2003. His Zharangutyun (Heritage) party is expected to be a major contender in next year’s parliamentary election.

(Photolur photo: Hovannisian addressing an opposition rally last December.)
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