By Irina Hovannisian
The Prosperous Armenia Party (BHK), a key election contender, faced more opposition accusations of vote-buying on Monday after lavish dinner parties thrown by its millionaire leader Gagik Tsarukian for many women across the country.
Tsarukian’s Kentron television and another major Armenian TV channel aired over the weekend a 30-minute “special report” on celebrations of International Women’s Day that were organized by the tycoon in Yerevan and dozens of small towns. Viewers were shown scores of women marking the March 8 holiday in restaurants and receiving flowers on the occasion. The largest of the parties involved live performances by some of Armenia’s most popular pop singers.
It was the latest in a series of “benevolent actions” that are thought to have earned Tsarukian’s party a considerable following over the past year. Representatives of opposition parties were quick to denounce it as another manifestation of wholesale vote-buying.
“That is no benevolence,” said Suren Sureniants of the Hanrapetutyun party. “That is a process of bribing and humiliating people. A benefactor is not supposed to pursue political goals.”
A BHK spokesman, Baghdasar Mherian, rejected the accusations. “Can the people who claim that our benevolence is political propaganda cite one example of a woman being told to vote for Prosperous Armenia after being handed flowers?” he said. Mherian also argued that the tycoon close to President Robert Kocharian has engaged in charitable work since 1992, comparing him to Diaspora Armenian philanthropists like Kirk Kerkorian and Charles Aznavour.
Armenian law forbids politicians and political parties running for office from providing any goods and services to people in the hope of securing their votes. Officially, Tsarukian’s stated benevolence is done through a charity named after himself, meaning that his party technically does not violate this restriction.
Tsarukian raised eyebrows last autumn by financing a large-scale distribution of agricultural relief and provision of free medical aid and other public services to tens of thousands of impoverished people. BHK representatives say that the assistance has no connection with the May 12 parliamentary elections, a claim dismissed by opposition leaders and some representatives of the governing Republican and Dashnaktsutyun parties.
The BHK claims to have recruited 370,000 members, or more than all other Armenian parties taken together. The party, widely regarded as Kocharian’s new power base, is expected to do well in the forthcoming elections. But whether or not its real popularity matches the staggering membership figure remains unknown due to a lack of credible opinion polls in Armenia.
(Photolur photo: Gagik Tsarukian.)