By Karine Kalantarian and Hovannes Shoghikian
Leaders of a dozen opposition parties gathered in Yerevan on Monday to discuss ways of countering what they called a growing role of “criminal elements” in Armenia’s government and political life in general.
Some of them called for a broad-based “anti-criminal movement” that would try to bring those elements into line and strive for the freedom and fairness of next year’s parliamentary elections. However, no agreements on its creation were announced after the one-hour discussion, with participants saying only that they will hold more such meetings in the coming weeks.
“We are witnessing a growing role of criminal elements in the country’s political life,” Aram Karapetian, the leader of the radical Nor Zhamanakner (New Times) party and one of the meeting’s initiators, told RFE/RL. “They carry out murders and other actions that can not leave us indifferent.”
By “criminal elements” the oppositionists as well as some political commentators and journalists often mean wealthy and influential individuals with questionable reputations and close government connections. A number of such individuals have joined recently the governing Republican Party of Armenia (HHK) along with Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian, raising fears that the HHK is intent on winning the 2007 elections at any cost.
Sarkisian angrily dismissed such concerns late last month, insisting that those of his loyalists who are not well-educated, can only speak the slangy language and have notorious nicknames are not crime figures. “The criminal elements are those who spread such slander,” he said.
However, the oppositionists who attended the discussion think otherwise. One of them, Garnik Markarian, said his small opposition party called Fatherland and Honor will initiate a meeting of prominent Armenian intellectuals soon to publicly name “criminal elements” holding senior positions in government. “We will put compelling evidence on the table,” he said.
In a bid to substantiate its allegations, the opposition also points to recent months’ upsurge in high-profile murders committed in Armenia. Their latest victim, senior tax collection official Shahen Hovasapian, was killed in a car bombing in broad daylight last week.
Aram Sargsian, a senior member of the opposition Artarutyun (Justice) alliance, demanded on Monday that the Armenian parliament hold an emergency debate on the law-enforcement authorities’ failure so far to solve most of those murders. “The executive branch is simply not performing its duties,” he charged at the start of the National Assembly’s autumn session.
The demand was rejected by the deputy chief of the Armenian police, General Ararat Mahtesian, who insisted that the law-enforcers are doing their best to solve those crimes and that the overall crime rate in Armenia remains low. “The police are also worried and are taking serious measures to solve these crimes,” Mahtesian said.
“I don’t think that the situation with crime in Armenia is serious now,” he added. “I believe that on the contrary the situation is under control. Serious crimes have always been committed here and they must be solved.”