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By Anna Saghabalian
Opposition leaders on Monday accused the influential Minister for Local Government Hovik Abrahamian of representing “criminal elements” which they believe are playing a growing role in Armenia’s political life.

The accusations came as the leaders of major opposition parties held further discussions on their plans to form a broad-based “anti-criminal movement” that will confront the Armenian authorities. This was the first time they implicated concrete members of the government in illicit activities.

Garnik Markarian, the leader of a small party called Fatherland and Honor, alleged that Abrahamian has developed extensive business interest by illegal means and is therefore a vivid example of “criminal elements” holding power in Armenia. He said Abrahamian, who is one of the most influential members of the ruling cabinet, owns more than 60 big and small businesses, including just about every winery in his native Artashat district south of Yerevan.

The opposition allegations about the “criminalization” of power followed the recent influx of more wealthy and influential individuals into the governing Republican Party of Armenia (HHK) which was sparked by its far-reaching alliance with Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian. Government critics say their main mission is to help Sarkisian and the HHK rig the parliamentary and presidential elections due in 2007 and 2008 respectively, The Republicans have vehemently denied the allegations, challenging their opponents to come up with concrete facts.

But the allegations have been picked up by the Intellectual Forum, an opposition-linked organization uniting prominent intellectuals critical of the government. It was condemned at the weekend by a group of other renowned intellectuals mostly supportive of the Armenian leadership. In a joint statement, they described the verbal attacks as an “attempt to undermine our statehood” masterminded by unspecified “foreign agents.”

They were understood to primarily refer to Aram Karapetian, a pro-Russian opposition leader and the main initiator of the “anti-criminal movement.” Karapetian claimed on Monday that the statement was commissioned by Sarkisian.

But one of the main authors of the statement, Meruzhan Ter-Gulanian, denied this, saying that its signatories were simply incensed with the Intellectual Forum’s claim that “Armenia has been turned into an international criminal base.” “If somebody makes such an evaluation of their own motherland, their own state, one might think that they are financed from abroad,” Ter-Gulanian told RFE/RL.

But as it turned out, not all of the signatories fully agreed with the statement’s content. Vartan Petrosian, a popular comedian, said he is against branding government critics as foreign spies. “I could have signed it with some reservations, but I had no time to edit the text,” he said.

Asked why he signed the statement, another, more prominent actor, Sos Sargsian, said, “To be honest, I don’t know. They brought it to me and said I have to sign it. And so I signed without getting into details.”

(Photolur photo: Hovik Abrahamian.)
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