The Armenian government flatly denied on Tuesday any political reasons behind the launch of criminal proceedings against former Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian amid serious concerns about the case voiced by his Prosperous Armenia Party (BHK), the second largest parliamentary force.
“I rule out any political motives,” Prime Minister Tigran Sarkisian told reporters. “Nobody has been charged. We are only talking about clearing up some circumstances.”
“Unfortunately, when the state tries to carry out some actions to clarify phenomena hidden behind one or another piece of information people immediately allege a political subtext,” he said.
Eduard Sharmazanov, the chief spokesman for the ruling Republican Party of Armenia (HHK), chided Oskanian for claiming that the National Security Service (NSS) has opened a criminal case on alleged money laundering by himself and his Civilitas Foundation think-tank for political purposes. “I want to ask the distinguished deputy not to see political reasons for everything,” Sharmazanov told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am). “We must learn not to make political evaluations of legal matters.”
The NSS, meanwhile, released some details of the investigation conducted under a Criminal Code clause dealing with “legalizing particularly large amounts of revenue obtained in a criminal manner.” In a written statement, the security agency said the case stems from a nearly $2 million donation which Civilitas received from two U.S. companies last year. The sum was transferred from proceeds from the sale of their Armenian subsidiary, Huntsman Building Products.
The NSS claimed that Civilitas failed to declare the donation to tax authorities. It added that it has ordered tax inspections and is taking other measures to ensure an “objective and comprehensive investigation.”
Oskanian was quick to brush aside the allegations. “In order for there to be money laundering, there must first be dirty money,” he said in a statement. “In this case, the source of the funds is known, the buyer is known, the transfer of the funds to me and to Civilitas according to the donor’s wishes have been transparent and electronic. The attorneys have said that no tax obligation was created as a result of the transaction.”
In a separate interview with RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am), Oskanian insisted that his Yerevan-based foundation did disclose the donation in its 2011 financial report which he said was drawn up by an independent accounting firm.
“If tax authorities have some suspicions, there are other ways [to verify them,]” he said. “The fact that the National Security Service deals with it means that there definitely was a political order to fabricate something against Oskanian or Civilitas. I can’t find any other explanation right now.”
Asked who he thinks issued the alleged order, the ex-minister said, “I don’t want to name names.”
The BHK, of which Oskanian is a senior member, effectively endorsed his allegations of political pressure. “We do have concerns that there may be some persecution,” BHK spokesman Tigran Urikhanian told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am). “We will be closely monitoring developments. If we see any inadequate action, we will immediately draw a conclusion, issue a statement and take steps.”
That the case is politically motivated was also suggested by Levon Zurabian, a leading member of the opposition Armenian National Congress (HAK). “If we lived in a democratic state this would be seen as a normal process,” Zurabian told a news conference. “Yes, law-enforcement authorities can look into the legality of NGO funding. But since we have precedents [of politically motivated prosecutions] I will not be surprised if it emerges that this is indeed political persecution.”
Oskanian, who served as foreign minister in the administration of former President Robert Kocharian from 1998-2008, has stepped up his criticism of the government since joining the BHK earlier this year. His name was second on the list of the party’s candidates for the May 6 parliamentary elections, a fact which some analysts link with BHK leader Gagik Tsarukian’s reputedly warm ties with Kocharian. The latter has signaled over the past year his desire to return to active politics.
The BHK stoked more speculation about Kocharian’s political comeback when it decided to pull out of President Serzh Sarkisian’s ruling coalition after the parliamentary elections. Media commentators have speculated that the ex-president, Tsarukian or even Oskanian could challenge Sarkisian in next year’s presidential election.
“It’s too early to talk about that,” Oskanian said when asked about his possible participation in the presidential ballot. “I have not raised such an issue so far. After all, it’s the Prosperous Armenia Party that has to decide.”