By Narek Galstian
An Armenian opposition party led by former Foreign Minister Raffi Hovannisian alleged further harassment by the authorities as it was effectively squeezed out of its government-owned offices in Yerevan at the weekend.
Senior members of the Zharangutyun (Heritage) party found themselves unable to enter the premises located in a building housing a major state theater after officials changed the locks on their external doors. One of the officials, who identified himself as the theater’s chief engineer, said they acted in accordance with the theater management’s orders.
Zharangutyun activists claimed, however, that the orders came from the highest echelons of Armenia’s government in retaliation for their leader’s recent verbal attacks on President Robert Kocharian. “It is clearer to us that this is the result of a political order,” one of them, Hovsep Khurshudian, told RFE/RL.
Hovannisian has leased a section of the property belonging to the Hakob Paronian State Comedy Theater for nearly 15 years. It housed his think-tank, the Armenian Center for National and International Studies, until Zharangutyun’s creation about three years ago.
The theater director, Karapet Shahbazian, denied that the opposition party was locked out of its headquarters for political reasons. He said that the entire building was recently transferred to the jurisdiction of the Armenian government’s Department on State Property Management and that he has repeatedly told the tenant to sign a new lease agreement with the latter. “I have warned them that we are not the owners of the building and that they can sign a new contract with Department on State Property Management,” Shahbazian said.
Zharangutyun leaders dismissed the explanation, saying that their current lease agreement with the theater was due to expire only in June. “They insisted that we vacate the offices earlier,” said Karapet Kalenchian, another party activist.
“They broke the doors and entered the office,” said Khurshudian. “We don’t know how long they stayed inside and what they took away with them. All we know is that they then sealed the door.”
But Shahbazian denied that his workers entered the premises, insisting that their internal doors, locked by Zharangutyun officials, remain intact.
The party’s de facto eviction from its headquarters came amid a controversy sparked by Armenian state television’s attacks on Hovannisian’s wife Armine who runs the Yerevan office of the U.S. youth education charity Junior Achievements (JA). The Kocharian-controlled Armenian Public Television charged last month she is diverting the organization’s money to illegally finance Hovannisian’s increasingly high-profile political activities.
Armine Hovannisian and JA officials have dismissed the allegations as “disinformation.” Speaking to RFE/RL last week, she linked them to her husband’s recent open letter to Kocharian which effectively implicated the Armenian leader in high-profile political murders and vote falsifications. The Public Television chief, Aleksan Harutiunian, scoffed at the claims, saying that Armenia’s largest TV channel will continue to “investigate” the matter.
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 party is expected to be a major contender in next year’s parliamentary election.
(RFE/RL photo: Raffi Hovannisian.)