By Astghik Bedevian and Ruzanna Stepanian
An ambitious political party, set up by one of Armenia’s wealthiest and most powerful men recently, unveiled its political manifesto on Friday in advance of the first conference of its leaders and activists.
Gagik Tsarukian’s Prosperous Armenia Party published the “basic principles” of its program in four daily newspapers amid the ongoing mass recruitment of its rank-and-file members among public sector employees in the government-connected tycoon’s de facto fiefdom. The process is part of his reported plans to win or at least make a strong showing in next year’s parliamentary election.
The 33-page document calls for the establishment of rule of law in Armenia which it says must be governed by “individuals enjoying the people’s trust, espousing sublime values and pursuing honest goals.” The party also pledges to broaden political pluralism in the country by giving the opposition a greater role in parliament and even a representation in the Armenian president’s National Security Council.
Tsarukian, who has made a huge fortune thanks to his close ties with President Robert Kocharian, also promises through his party to fight for fair business competition by enacting anti-trust legislation and combating monopolistic practices.
The foreign policy section of the Prosperous Armenia manifesto stresses the need for Armenia to “deepen cooperation” with NATO and the United States. It at the same time calls for the continuation of the traditionally close Russian-Armenian relationship.
Prosperous Armenia sources told RFE/RL that the main author of the document is Victor Dallakian, a prominent opposition lawmaker and bitter critic of Kocharian’s regime who is expected to act as the nominal head of the party. They said the party will hold a public conference at the end of this month and its founding congress is planned for this fall.
The party, whose creation was announced in December, is regarded by Armenian analysts as a new support base of Kocharian and his most likely successor, Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian. Dallakian’s unpublicized inclusion into its leadership thus came as a huge surprise. The oppositionist, who has repeatedly denounced the “Karabakh clan” ruling Armenia, privately assures journalists that Prosperous Armenia will not operate under the tutelage of the Kocharian-Sarkisian duo.
Individuals close to Tsarukian have said that his party will differ markedly from other typical Armenian pro-establishment groups in that its leadership will mainly comprise prominent public figures, rather than government officials and wealthy businessmen. The party has already set up 41 territorial branches across Armenia. The figure matches the number of electoral districts existing in the country.
The composition of Prosperous Armenia’s central governing body has still not been officially announced, though. Sources say it will include several rectors and deans of state-run universities, five members of the National Academy of Sciences, at least seven pro-government parliamentarians even a pro-opposition journalist.
Incidentally, three of the four dailies that published the full text of the Prosperous Armenia manifesto are highly critical of the Kocharian administration. One of them, “Haykakan Zhamanak,” had alleged that a November 2004 arson attack on its editor’s car was the work of Tsarukian.
All four papers printed on Friday twice as many as copies as they do usually. The additional print run was also subsidized by Tsarukian.
The burly oligarch’s party is almost certain to win the 2007 election at least in Abovian, a town 15 kilometers north of Yerevan, and surrounding villages. Tsarukian was born and lives in one of those villages, and the entire area is considered to be his exclusive zone of influence.
The leader of Prosperous Armenia’s local chapter, Gegham Hayrapetian, told RFE/RL on Friday that local residents impressed with jobs created by Tsarukian and his charitable activities have been applying for party membership en masse. He said only those of them who want to join the party “very much” are actually admitted into its ranks.
Abovian’s Public School No. 1 is a case in point. All of its 40 or so teachers are already affiliated with Prosperous Armenia. “Look at our repaired roof. [Tsarukian] did it for our school,” one of them, Marietta Sardarian, said when asked to explain why.
Both Sardarian and the school principal, Sevil Hovannisian, insisted that none of the teachers was constrained to join the party. Their collective decision was an “expression of gratitude” to the tycoon, said Hovannisian.
The situation is similar in Abovian’s sole public policlinic. According to its director, Ruben Harutiunian, at least 40 of his 250 employees enlisted in Prosperous Armenia in a matter of days.
The recruitment process there is handled by the policlinic’s chief therapist, Margarita Karapetian. “People can’t be indifferent to Gagik Tsarukian because during all these years they have felt his support on their skin,” she said. “Perhaps it’s time for a payback.”
Support for the man, who epitomizes Armenia’s tiny class of millionaires riding in long motorcades and surrounded by notorious bodyguards, also seems strong among unemployed residents of Abovian. “I’m going to join [Prosperous Armenia] because [Tsarukian] is a great benefactor, a good Armenian,” said one man as he played backgammon in a local public park. “I’ll do whatever he asks me to.”
Another jobless man loitering nearby said he too will become a Prosperous Armenia member because Tsarukian had once given him firewood to heat his home in the winter. “It’s worth supporting that person,” he said. “It’s even worth making him our king. I just can’t think of a better president for Armenia.”
(Photolur photo: Gagik Tsarukian.)