Gyumri’s controversial Mayor Vartan Ghukasian has resigned as a regional leader of the ruling Republican Party of Armenia (HHK) amid growing signs that the government in Yerevan does not want him to run the country’s second largest city anymore.
Ghukasian, in office since 1999, was relieved of his duties as chairman of the HHK branch in Shirak province, of which Gyumri is the capital, at a weekend party meeting chaired by parliament speaker Hovik Abrahamian.
Abrahamian insisted that the mayor resigned the party post “at his own request” and was not forced out. “He has done a very good job,” he told journalists.
“I’m not a partisan figure by character,” Ghukasian said for his part. “I’m more of a churchman than a party figure. I want to rest from these political things a little.”
Ghukasian’s political future has been a subject of media speculation since Armenia’s May 6 parliamentary elections. The HHK won the disputed vote by a landslide. Still, it was defeated by the rival Prosperous Armenia Party (BHK) in all three electoral districts covering Gyumri.
Various Armenian media outlets reported in the following weeks that the HHK leadership in Yerevan holds Ghukasian responsible for those defeats and will not support him in the next mayoral election scheduled for September 9. Some news reports last week said that the ruling party headed by President Serzh Sarkisian has decided to endorse Samvel Balasanian, the BHK candidate for Gyumri mayor, as part of a confidential deal with the BHK. The latter left Armenia’s governing coalition after finishing second in the parliamentary elections.
Balasanian on Monday confirmed reports that he met Sarkisian shortly before being officially nominated by the BHK last week. Speaking to RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am), he claimed that the meeting had no connection with the Gyumri election.
Speaker Abrahamian, who is also a deputy chairman of the HHK, declined to specify whom the ruling party will support in the ballot. Eduard Sharmazanov, the chief party spokesman, said on Monday that the HHK leadership has made no decision to that effect yet.
“When the right time comes you will know the party’s official position,” Sharmazanov told RFE/RL’s Armenian service. “There is no secrecy. The issue simply hasn’t been discussed.”
Ghukasian, meanwhile, would not say if he will run for reelection. “We will see,” the mayor told journalists on Saturday.
The Gyumri mayor has been dogged by controversy throughout his political career. Critics have long accused him of leading a business clan that controls much of the local economy and tolerates no competition. He has also earned notoriety for his flamboyant behavior that has occasionally turned violent.
In April 2007, Ghukasian narrowly survived an apparent assassination attempt when unknown gunmen opened fire on his motorcade outside Yerevan, seriously wounding him and killing three of his bodyguards.
Ghukasian, 51, has also been repeatedly embarrassed by his notoriously unruly elder son Spartak. The latter was sentenced to 18 months in prison in 2007 for provoking a street gunfight between two groups of young men in Gyumri. He was granted parole after serving one third of the sentence.
Media reports over the weekend claimed that Spartak Ghukasian shouted abuse and threats outside Balasanian’s Gyumri house after it was announced that the businessman will run for mayor on the BHK ticket. Balasanian said that “eyewitnesses” informed him about the incident. “It looks like there is an attempt to create tension,” he said.
The Gyumri mayor denied the allegations through a spokeswoman later on Monday.