By Astghik Bedevian
Armenia’s leading opposition groups condemned on Tuesday the overnight arrest of one of the two prominent government critics accused of being illegally financed by a Russian businessman allegedly plotting regime change in the country.
Former Foreign Minister Aleksandr Arzumanian was taken into custody late Monday two days after officers of the National Security Service (NSS) found and confiscated $55,400 in his Yerevan apartment. The NSS says the cash was part of a $180,000 payment allegedly wired to Arzumanian and another former government minister, Vahan Shirkhanian, by Levon Markos, a Russian citizen of Armenian descent who is at odds with the authorities in Yerevan.
NSS investigators on Tuesday again interrogated Shirkhanian but refrained from detaining him. Shirkhanian, who was Armenia’ de facto deputy prime minister in 1999-2000, told RFE/RL afterwards the he refused to answer any questions from them. “The interrogation was very short,” he said. “I went there as a witness [in the case] and came away as a witness.”
The NSS searched Shirkhanian’s apartment and confiscated $28,000 on Saturday. In a statement on Monday, the Armenian successor to the Soviet KGB said he and Arzumanian received the sums after meeting Markos in Moscow late last month. Neither men has been formally charged yet under an article of the Armenian Criminal Code that deals with attempts to “legalize revenues obtained by criminal means.”
Both oppositionists have admitted visiting the Russian capital recently but denied meeting Markos or receiving any cash from him. Arzumanian insists that the confiscated cash was earned by himself, while Shirkhanian claims to have received $80,000 from Moscow-based “friends” to organize his daughter’s wedding party and rent office space for a non-governmental organization headed by him.
Markos fled Armenia in 2005 to avoid prosecution on what he and his friends consider trumped-up fraud charges. The NSS statement said he is “pursuing some goals in the pre-election period” but did not specify whether that has any connection with a “civil resistance movement” launched by Arzumanian and Shirkhanian late last year.
According to Karapet Rubinian, another movement leader and prominent representative of Armenia’s former leadership, the NSS told Arzumanian that he is arrested because of refusing to show up for fresh questioning on Monday and for talking to the media. Rubinian claimed that the arrest is illegal and unjustified.
“This political persecution has nothing to do with the [May 12 parliamentary] elections,” Rubinian told journalists. “The authorities have already distributed parliament seats. Their main worry is post-election processes.”
He was speaking after an emergency meeting of top representatives of the country’s main opposition forces, including the Orinats Yerkir, Zharangutyun, Hanrapetutyun, and People’s parties. They are expected to issue a joint statement demanding that the authorities immediately release Arzumanian and punish those who have initiated the “illegal actions” against the former foreign minister.
“The society must not let them do what they want,” said Vazgen Manukian of the National Democratic Union (AZhM). “Today they caught Alik [Arzumanian,] tomorrow they will catch others.”
“Such actions will happen as long as power in Armenia can not be changed by means of elections,” agreed Raffi Hovannisian, the Zharangutyun leader and another former foreign minister. “Aleksandr Arzumanian’s case is not a separate incident. It’s a challenge. The action taken against him mirrors the pettiness of Armenia’s rulers.”
(Photolur photo: Aleksandr Arzumanian.)