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By Emil Danielyan
The Prosperous Armenia Party (BHK), one of the presumed favorites to win the May 12 parliamentary elections, campaigned in the southern Ararat region on Thursday in the mysterious absence of its leader, businessman Gagik Tsarukian.

Senior BHK members gave conflicting explanations for Tsarukian’s failure to attend this and other the pre-election events organized by the party over the past week.

“He is absent because he is ill and lying in bed,” Vartan Bostanjian, a member of the party’s ruling council, told RFE/RL as he toured the area along with several other BHK election candidates. “It’s not serious. He just caught a cold. I also have a cold. Didn’t you notice that?”

“We had events yesterday as well and he wasn’t able to attend them,” said Bostanjian. “I’m sure he will recuperate in the coming days.”

The remarks contradicted what Gohar Yenokian, another senior BHK figure, told more than 200 hundred supporters in the town of Ararat moments before. “He is so confident that Ararat will elect him that he decided to campaign in other places,” she said, explaining Tsarukian’s conspicuous absence from the event.

For his part, the party’s spokesman, Baghdasar Mherian, claimed that the influential tycoon is too busy to attend all BHK meetings with voters. “He has a very tight schedule and can not attend all meetings,” Mherian told RFE/RL, denying Yenokian’s claim that Tsarukian is campaigning elsewhere in Armenia.

Tsarukian kicked off the BHK campaign with a series of rallies held Yerevan and nearby towns on April 10-11. He left for Moscow for talks with Russian government officials and lawmakers on April 12 just hours after mysterious explosions outside two BHK offices in Yerevan. He visited those offices on his return from Moscow two days later and has not been seen in public since then.

The blasts were strongly condemned by President Robert Kocharian and virtually all major Armenian parties. Kocharian, who is believed to sponsor the party, ordered law-enforcement authorities to quickly identify and prosecute the attackers. Nobody has been arrested so far.

The BHK campaign in Ararat and other regional towns failed to generate the kind of enthusiasm among voters that characterized Tsarukian’s public appearances last week. Its meetings there were held indoors and were mainly attended by party members.

In his speeches, Bostanjian touted the BHK as “the most accepted party” in the country and denied any connection between Tsarukian’s controversial “benevolent actions” and the upcoming elections. “Mr. Tsarukian has strictly instructed us not to give people material incentives to vote for us,” he said.

Bostanjian, who is a senior professor of economics at Yerevan State University, also urged local residents not to sell their votes to other parties. Speaking to RFE/RL separately, he said the BHK’s main difference from those parties is that “we are not thieves or mobsters.” The jibe appeared to be primarily directed at the governing Republican Party of Armenia (HHK).

Ernest Soghomonian, another top BHK candidate whose son Victor is Kocharian’s press secretary, apparently had the HHK in mind when he told supporters in the town of Vedi, “Once a political force becomes too big and powerful it gets in trouble.” “The BHK has awakened other parties,” added Soghomonian. “They are now far more attentive to the people. We have created an environment of political competition.”

Many of the people who attended the meeting in Ararat work at the town’s big cement plant owned by Tsarukian. Some praised the tycoon for breathing a new life into the Soviet-era enterprise which struggled to remain afloat before being controversially privatized by his Multi Group five years ago.

“He gives us work, and we can support our families,” said Gevorg Balian, who works there as a senior engineer. “He cares not only about the plant but local people. How can you not respect him?”

The plant’s director general, Levon Hambartsumian, joined the BHK visitors in urging local people to vote for the party. “No normal person can fail to join the party after reading its program,” he declared. “Armenia will flourish thanks to Gagik Tsarukian and his party.”

Not everyone in the audience was convinced, though. A young woman who claimed to have been forced to quit the company last year said she will vote for the party only if Hambartsumian and other top executives promise to “listen to your workers once in a while and talk to them in an understandable language.”

“People believe in our party,” insisted Mkhitar Manukian, who heads the BHK chapter in the nearby village of Norakert. He claimed that at least 50 percent of the villagers will vote for Tsarukian’s party.

But there was little anecdotal evidence of massive popular support for the party which claims to be by the largest in Armenia. “I’m still undecided,” said one man in Vedi.

“I don’t know who Tsarukian is,” grumbled another, older local resident. “So many politicians have come here and given false promises. Everything is false.”

(RFE/RL photo: Vedi residents listen to BHK campaigners.)
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