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By Emil Danielyan
Gagik Tsarukian, a government-connected millionaire businessman, is the most popular and revered individual in modern-day Armenia, according to a new U.S.-funded opinion poll released this month.

The findings of the poll commissioned by the U.S. Agency for International Development are the latest indication of the former arm-wrestler’s growing populist appeal that should make his Prosperous Armenia a major contender in next spring’s parliamentary elections.

The survey was designed by the U.S. Gallup Organization and conducted by the Armenian Sociological Association across the country from November 10-19, with 1,200 randomly chosen people asked to answer a long list of questions relating to domestic politics, foreign affairs and the unresolved Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.

One of the questions read, “Of the prominent Armenian people and characters in Armenian history and folk culture, who is most suitable to be a national hero or leader in the present?” The late Prime Minister Vazgen Sarkisian was the most frequently named figure, with 15 percent of those polled describing him as a national hero. He was followed by two military leaders of the early 20th century and Karen Demirchian, Soviet Armenia’s former leader who was assassinated along with Sarkisian in the October 1999 terrorist attack on the Armenian parliament.

Of all the living Armenians mentioned by respondents, Tsarukian had by far the highest rating: 8 percent. Trailing him were opposition leaders Artashes Geghamian (3 percent) and Artur Baghdasarian (2 percent) as well as President Robert Kocharian (2 percent).

Tsarukian had 4 percent support in the previous USAID-funded study that was conducted in August. The apparent rise in his popularity may well be the result of the recent upsurge in his ambitious party’s election-related activities promoted by the Tsarukian-controlled Kentron television and other channels loyal to Kocharian.

Tsarukian also emerged as the winner of a separate survey that was carried out by another Armenian polling group, Vox Populi, among about 600 residents of Yerevan last week. Vox Populi said 13.5 percent of them rated him “man of the year.”

Prosperous Armenia now claims to be by far the largest political party, boasting at least 240,000 members and over 400 offices in a country of three million. Its publicity stunts have included provision of large-scale agricultural aid, free-of-charge medical assistance and other public services to low-income people across the country. Critics, among them some leaders of Armenia’s two main governing parties, regard this as a massive vote buying operation.

Parliament speaker Tigran Torosian, a leading member of the ruling Republican Party, complained to a visiting Western ambassador last month about the emergence of new parties led by “apolitical figures.” In an apparent reference to Prosperous Armenia, he said their electoral success would deal a “blow to the multi-party system.”

For his part, Vahan Hovannisian, a leader of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation, suggested on November 24 that many Armenians are now ready to sell their votes to the highest bidder. “If a voter, who has lived in independent Armenia for 15 years, knows everyone, has seen every politician on TV for umpteenth times, read party programs … but has still not made up their mind, then they are expecting money,” he said.

Critics also point to a huge disparity between millions of dollars spent on Prosperous Armenia’s election campaign and modest earnings posted by Tsarukian-owned businesses. The largest of them is only 76th in the government rankings of Armenia’s 300 leading corporate taxpayers, giving more weight to allegations that the tycoon is grossly evading taxes.

Tsarukian, who is close to Kocharian, rounded on his detractors at a meeting with thousands of Prosperous Armenia activists in Yerevan’s Ajapnyak district late last week. “I would love to know what they have contributed from their personal accounts,” he said in a speech broadcast by several TV stations over the weekend. “Have they personally financed any good thing? Let them talk about that, instead of hurting the people and slamming things done by others.”

Kocharian publicly defended his reputed protégé on December 15, saying that it is wrong to attribute Prosperous Armenia’s expansion to Tsarukian’s “benevolent actions.” "There is demand in our society for a new political force that comes up with a very understandable slogan, ‘We think about the people,’" he said.

(Photolur photo: Gagik Tsarukian.)
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