By Hovannes Shoghikian
Businessman Gagik Tsarukian continued to hand out politically motivated aid and receive an enthusiastic reception by supporters as he took his Prosperous Armenia Party’s election campaign to the eastern Gegharkunik region on Tuesday.
More than two thousand people turned out for a campaign rally held by Tsarukian in the economically depressed regional town of Vartenis. After addressing the rally and promising to improve the plight of local residents, he was again mobbed by dozens of people keen to ask him for help or hand him letters containing such requests. One of them, a woman, said she asked the tycoon to provide her with potato seeds free of charge.
Some of the requests were granted on the spot. “When should I send it?” Tsarukian asked a man who pleaded for a wheelchair for a disabled family member. “How much does it cost? Come over here. We’ll give you one.”
The Prosperous Armenia (BHK) leader also publicly donated a brand new ambulance van to a local hospital. He made similar donations during some of his previous campaign trips, provoking fresh opposition allegations of illegal vote buying.
“That’s not a vote bribe,” he told RFE/RL. “I gave this present to the people of Vartenis to meet their needs and help them take care of their health. I demand nothing from them in return.”
Tsarukian has been dogged by allegations of vote buying ever since he embarked on a nationwide provision of agricultural relief, free medical assistance and other services last fall. His aides deny the handouts violate a legal provision that bans election candidates from distributing any material benefits to voters, saying that the aid is formally financed by Tsarukian’s charity. They also say that the “oligarch” close to President Robert Kocharian has long engaged in charitable work.
The party has reportedly handed out “lottery tickets” allowing their holders to get various electrical appliances and other goods during its campaign trips to other parts of the country. The Yerevan newspaper “Haykakan Zhamanak” printed a picture of one such ticket bearing the BHK logo on its front page on Tuesday.
The politically motivated aid is believed to have been integral to the party’s rapid growth and the fact that it is one of the top contenders of Saturday’s parliamentary elections. The BHK, which is widely regarded as Kocharian’s new power base, claims to have more than 400,000 members, a figure which critics say is grossly inflated and misleading. The lack of credible opinion polls make it difficult to gauge the extent of its popularity.