By Astghik Bedevian
Armenia law-enforcement authorities accused on Monday two former government ministers staunchly opposed to the country’s leadership of illegally receiving and “laundering” money from Russia for subversive political purposes.
The accusations came after officers of the National Security Service (NSS) searched and confiscated large amounts of cash from the Yerevan apartments of former Foreign Minister Aleksandr Arzumanian and former Industrial Infrastructures Minister Vahan Shirkhanian on Saturday.
In an ensued statement, the NSS said the sums were sent to them by Levon Markos, a Russian businessman of Armenian descent who fled Armenia in 2005 to avoid prosecution on fraud charges and, according to the security agency, is “pursuing some goals” in the run-up to the forthcoming parliamentary elections.
The statement said Arzumanian and Shirkhanian met Markos during an April 24-26 visit to Moscow and received a total of $180,000 upon their return to Yerevan. The money was wired in several installments in the name of nine different individuals acting as “figureheads” for the two oppositionists, it added. The NSS did not specify how they were supposed to use the alleged financial aid, saying only that its officers found $55,400 in Arzumanian’s apartment and $28,000 in Shirkhanian.
Both men admitted on Monday visiting Moscow late last month but strongly denied receiving any financial aid from the fugitive businessman. They told RFE/RL that the NSS claims are aimed at suppressing an opposition movement which they launched last year to strive for regime change in Armenia. The small group called the Civic Resistance Movement is boycotting the elections.
Arzumanian, who had served as foreign minister from 1996-1998, claimed that he visited the Russian capital to attend the funeral of Russia’s former President Boris Yeltsin and did not meet Markos. “I have known Levon Markos since 1977 but have not met in the last several years,” he said.
“Serzh Sarkisian considers Levon Markos his number one enemy and is persecuting that man, having already seized his assets by fraudulent means,” added Arzumanian. “He is simply trying to extend that animosity to his political opponents in Armenia … I have not engaged and will not engage in any illegal activity.”
Shirkhanian likewise denied meeting Markos or getting any money from the latter. “I have known Levon for 20 years,” he said. “That person provided huge assistance to Armenia during the Karabakh war. But I didn’t see him during my last trip to Moscow.”
Shirkhanian also said he has received a lump sum from other Moscow-based individuals. “I asked my friends and they sent $80,000 for my daughter’s wedding party and for renting office space for my [pro-Russian] non-governmental organization Shanghai Club of Armenia,” he said.
Both Arzumanian and Shirkhanian were summoned to the NSS headquarters in Yerevan for questioning on Saturday. The latter was also interrogated by the former KGB on Monday. “The whole thing is designed to intimidate the opposition,” he charged afterwards.
Neither man has been formally charged under an article of the Armenian Criminal Code that deals with attempts to “legalize revenues obtained by criminal means.”
(Photolur photo: Aleksandr Arzumanian.)