President Serzh Sarkisian has made the first joint public appearance with businessman Gagik Tsarukian after the Prosperous Armenia Party (BHK) leader’s unexpected decision not to challenge him in next February’s presidential election.
Sarkisian shook hands with his most popular potential rival as he attended an annual awards ceremony organized by Tsarukian at a restaurant just outside Yerevan late on Wednesday. Television pictures broadcast the following day also showed the two men sitting at the same table and having what appeared to be a friendly conversation.
The event was held to honor Armenia’s leading athletes and their trainers. Tsarukian, who is also the chairman of the Armenian National Olympic Committee, gave awards to Armenian participants of the 2012 Olympic Games in London.
Sarkisian similarly handed medals to several athletes and coaches. In an ensuing speech, he also indirectly praised Tsarukian’s management of sport affairs, speaking of “successes” achieved by Armenian athletes in 2012.
“These successes give our people a better recognition and bring inspiration, and theses successes also condition our progress in other areas. Comparing 2012 with previous years, we can say that it was a successful year and we have had a good collection of medals,” the president said in remarks broadcast by the Tsarukian-controlled Kentron TV station.
Armenia won one silver and two bronze medals at the London Olympics, finishing 60th in the overall medal standings. Many Armenians, including some pro-government politicians, consider this performance a failure. Some have blamed Tsarukian for that.
Sarkisian urged Tsarukian and Armenian Olympic athletes and officials to ignore that criticism. “I am confident that we will win gold medals at the next Olympics,” he added.
The ceremony took place two weeks after Tsarukian, whose party boasts the second largest parliamentary faction, unexpectedly announced that he will not run in the February 18 presidential election. The announcement in turn came four days after his confidential meeting with Sarkisian. Top presidential allies insisted afterwards that the BHK leader was not forced to quit the presidential race.
Tsarukian was widely expected to nominate his presidential candidacy in the weeks leading up to the December 8 meeting. Senior BHK representatives said most members of their party want him to run for president and increasingly criticized the Sarkisian government.
Tsarukian reportedly charged during a December 5-6 trip to Brussels that Armenia is governed by corrupt individuals. Sarkisian’s Republican Party of Armenia condemned those claims as “shameful.”