Gagik Tsarukian, a wealthy businessman leading Armenia’s second largest governing party, insisted on Monday that the Armenian economy has not been effectively monopolized by a handful of “oligarchs” and strongly defended their involvement in political processes.
Tsarukian also revealed that he is paying government ministers affiliated with his Prosperous Armenia (BHK) party to avoid taking bribes and enriching themselves otherwise. “Today I pay my ministers so that they behave themselves and don’t set their sights on getting rich at the people’s expense,” he told journalists.
The BHK is represented in President Serzh Sarkisian’s government by four ministers that are in charge public healthcare, urban development, social security and sports. The party came in second in the last parliamentary elections, capitalizing on its leader’s vast financial resources and populist appeal.
Tsarukian, who is reputed to be close to former President Robert Kocharian, made no secret of the fact that he remains actively engaged in business despite a constitutional provision banning parliament members from any entrepreneurial activity. “It is mainly people who have everything and don’t need to make money at the people’s expense that should engage in politics,” he said.
“What have they done for the people to talk about politics, the people and the country?” the tycoon snapped, lambasting critics who say that the close ties between government and business in Armenia have been a breeding ground for widespread corruption and a lack of fair business competition that have long hampered economic development.
Like the country’s other wealthiest men, Tsarukian is widely believed to have made a big fortune thanks to his close government connections. Opposition leaders and civic activists also accuse the oligarchs, of effectively monopolizing lucrative sectors of the Armenian economy.
Visiting Yerevan earlier this month, the World Bank’s managing director, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala warned that Armenia can step on the path of sustainable development unless its leadership changes the “oligopolistic” structure of the domestic economy, bolsters the rule of law and shows “zero tolerance” of corruption. “I think you can only go so far with this economic model,” he said.
When asked whether he agrees with that view, Tsarukian said, “Of course not. She doesn’t understand anything.
“The economy will develop when people get equal opportunities in all fields. That can’t happen if people just sit on chairs and make decisions.”
The former arm-wrestler acknowledged at the same time that the leading Armenian entrepreneurs, who have long been facing allegations of gross tax evasion, should display greater social responsibility and help the government boost living standards. “We benefited in the past and must now be able to invest those benefits in our country and our future, in the development, stabilization and prosperity,” he said.