By Ruzanna Stepanian
Gagik Tsarukian, a millionaire businessman close to President Robert Kocharian, said on Thursday that his recently formed political party is aspiring to victory in the forthcoming parliamentary elections and a “serious role” in Armenia’s government.
Tsarukian also pledged to strive for the freedom and fairness of the vote as he presided over a pre-election congress of the Prosperous Armenia Party (BHK), which claims to be by far the largest in the country.
The media-shy tycoon again failed to detail his own political plans and to answer other lingering questions about his party. He was scheduled to speak at a news conference that followed the gathering but never turned up, leaving it to other BHK leaders to meet journalists. One of them, Deputy Transport Minister Vartan Vartanian, said Tsarukian will hold a separate press conference “in the coming days.”
“Without underestimating any other force, I want to emphasize that we have the ability to win the upcoming parliamentary elections and to play a serious role in the country’s governance,” Tsarukian told more than 600 congress delegates and guests, including Prime Minister Andranik Markarian and the chief of Kocharian’s staff, Armen Gevorgian. The BHK has managed to become a “powerful, influential and trusted” force in a matter of one year, he said.
The party has opened over 500 hundreds offices across the country and claims to have recruited as many as 370,000 members over the past year. Its dramatic growth is widely attributed to Tsarukian’s vast financial resources and populist appeal resulting from what his aides describe as “benevolent actions.” That has included provision of agricultural aid, free medical care and other supposedly public services to poor people. Critics, among them some leaders of Armenia’s two main governing parties, regard this as wholesale vote buying.
Tsarukian insisted in his speech that he and his party are genuinely committed to Armenia’s democratization. “We respect all of our competitors and are ready to cooperate with them in ensuring free and transparent elections,” he said. “There is no alternative to free and fair elections. Any other path would ruin Armenia’s entire political stage.”
Tsarukian also stressed that he is “not aspiring to any government position.” “As chairman of the Prosperous Armenia Party, I have never pursued personal interests,” he said. “I have always said that for me politics is not a way to get a government position.”
Vartanian likewise said that the unusually muscular former arm-wrestler “does not intend” to take up a high-level post in the government or the National Assembly. He also said that the BHK will consider anything less than a second place in the vote tally a failure.
Many local commentators believe that the BHK’s main mission is to guarantee Kocharian a continued role in government affairs after he completes his second and final term in office next year. The presence of Kocharian’s chief of staff at the congress will only strengthen this perception.
Asked whether the BHK is indeed the Armenian president’s new power base, party spokesman Baghdasar Mherian replied, “The party was set up by Gagik Tsarukian and a group of his supporters. Today you saw those supporters. Robert Kocharian was not here.”
Also attending the gathering were two leaders of another pro-Kocharian party, the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutyun). One of them, Hrant Markarian, earlier implicitly accused Tsarukian and other government-linked “oligarchs” of buying their way into government.
But the other Dashnaktsutyun figure, Armen Rustamian, was far more sympathetic to the tycoon as he addressed the BHK delegates. “I am sure that this is a party really created for the people,” said Rustamian.