Several dozen bus drivers went on strike on Wednesday, saying that they risk losing their jobs because of controversial free public transportation sponsored by Gagik Tsarukian, a millionaire businessman leading Armenia’s second largest parliamentary party.
The protest action appeared to be the latest twist in a bitter dispute between Tsarukian and Artur Harutiunian, his former protégé and business partner based in Abovian, a town 15 kilometers north of Yerevan.
Harutiunian reportedly fell out with the Prosperous Armenia Party (BHK) leader late last year, openly challenging the tycoon in an area that has long been considered his de facto fiefdom. Some media reports linked that with the BHK’s worsening relations with President Serzh Sarkisian’s Republican Party (HHK), of which Harutiunian is a member.
Early this year Tsarukian launched, through his eponymous charity, free bus services between Yerevan and Abovian and another regional town, Charentsavan. The move dealt a severe blow to Harutiunian’s King Delux bus company that operates Yerevan-Abovian and Yerevan-Charentsavan routes on a commercial basis. The nearly 100 people driving its buses and collecting fares have also suffered as a result.
The striking drivers condemned Tsarukian’s supposedly benevolent activities. “They are not meant to help the people, they are meant to stop us transporting passengers,” one of them told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am).
“It’s benevolence for some people and starvation for others,” said another driver. He warned that the protesters will block a major highway if the authorities do not step in to remedy the situation.
Artur Dallakian, the King Delux director, said the company has already lodged formal complaints with the Ministry of Transport and the State Commission on the Protection of Economic Competition against what it regards as illegal actions by the Gagik Tsarukian Foundation. “I see only personal motives [behind them,]” he told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am).
Tsarukian’s representatives denied, however, that the tycoon is keen to force his ex-protégé into bankruptcy. “The Tsarukian Foundation does various kinds of charitable work all over the country and free busing will continue,” said Vahe Hovannisian, a BHK deputy who has coordinated the charity’s activities.
Speaking to RFE/RL’s Armenian service, Hovannisian did not deny that Tsarukian has not sponsored free transport in other parts of Armenia.
Another BHK lawmaker, Elinar Vartanian, denounced the King Delux owner as a “bad entrepreneur” and accused him of forcing the drivers to go on strike. In a written statement, she said that three other transport firms have offered to hire those drivers “on good terms.” It was not immediately clear who owns those companies.