By Emil Danielyan and Astghik Bedevian
Businessman Gagik Tsarukian pledged to turn Armenia into a prosperous country free of opposition parties as he resumed his participation in the intensifying election campaign over the weekend.
Thousands of people attended campaign rallies held by his Prosperous Armenia Party (BHK) in Yerevan’s Davitashen and Arabkir districts, underscoring its status as one of the main contenders of the May 12 parliamentary elections. Many waved flags and held up BHK banners to the accompaniment of the party’s campaign songs, one of them performed by a hip hop band.
Addressing supporters in Davitashen on Saturday, Tsarukian claimed that its victory in the polls would lead to a quick improvement in their living conditions. “In no time, our country will become prosperous, there will be smile on everybody’s face, everyone will do their job,” he said. “And there won’t be an opposition because if a man can support his family, then everyone will go about their business. Rest assured that we will deliver.”
The tycoon close to President Robert Kocharian again declined to specify how his party would strive for economic betterment once in government. He repeated instead that he is not seeking a government position or greater wealth.
“Gagik Tsarukian opened a party not to get a post or make money by using a post,” the BHK leader said of himself. “Gagik Tsarukian has everything. But Gagik Tsarukian does not care about of himself. He also cares about his people.”
“I set up the party not to lose popular respect but to double and triple it,” he added.
The Davitashen rally, followed by a pop concert, marked Tsarukian’s first public appearance in more than a week. Senior BHK members gave contradictory reasons for his conspicuous absence from campaign events organized by the party last week. Some of them said he is ill.
Tsarukian confirmed this as he briefly spoke with RFE/RL in Davitashen. “Don’t I have the right to be ill?” he said after his speech. “I’ve already recovered and will now conduct our campaign.”
As he walked off a makeshift podium there, the former arm-wrestler was again mobbed by dozens of people keen to hand him letters or shake his hands. His beefy bodyguards had trouble holding them back.
Tsarukian’s image of a generous benefactor is integral to his increasingly obvious populist appeal. He is believed to have spent millions on dollars on handing out humanitarian aid and providing free medical treatment to scores of impoverished Armenians last fall as part of the BHK’s preparations for the elections.
Critics, among them some pro-Kocharian politicians, have denounced that as a wholesale buying of votes. Some also accuse Tsarukian of large-scale tax evasion, pointing to a huge disparity between modest taxes paid by his businesses and his massive wealth.
But the criticism has not prevented the BHK from attracting a large following. “This party will really build a prosperous country,” said Norik Nazarian, a middle aged Davitashen resident. “We see what he’s done.”
“We watch TV and see his benevolence,” said Lid Hunanian, a local pensioner. “That is why we joined his party.”
“He is helping the people a lot without being in government” reasoned her husband Sergey, also a BHK member. “If he comes to power, he’ll probably do even more.”
Natella, a young woman who also attended the Davitashen rally, likewise praised Tsarukian for his “good deeds.” But she said she has not yet decided who to vote for on May 12.
The crowd was boosted by employees of a Tsarukian-owned cement plant in the southern town of Ararat who were bused to the rally. “We trust Tsarukian and believe that the work of his team will be good for the country,” said Vrezh Abrahamian, a production manager at the Ararat Tsement company. In his words, more than 90 percent of some 1,300 people employed by the company are affiliated with the BHK.
“He gave us jobs, and we appreciate his work, his benevolent activities in the town,” said Alvard Umrikian, another Ararat Tsement worker.
Despite being one of Armenia’s biggest industrial enterprises operating at full capacity, Ararat Tsement is only 107th on the list of the country’s leading corporate taxpayers published by the State Tax Service in January. According to the STS, it paid only 412 million drams ($1.14 million) in various taxes in 2006.