An outspoken opposition deputy looked set on Thursday to be ousted from the Armenian delegation at the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly (PACE) after branding President Serzh Sarkisian a chronic gambler during his latest appearance in the Strasbourg-based body.
Zaruhi Postanjian of the opposition Zharangutyun (Heritage) party lashed out at Sarkisian on the PACE floor at a question-and-answer session that followed a speech delivered by him there on Wednesday. Postanjian accused him of resorting to vote rigging to defeat his main challenger, Zharangutyun leader Raffi Hovannisian, in last February’s presidential election.
“That is why you cannot de jure represent the will and the rights of the Armenian people here,” she charged. “I will therefore ask you another question. Have you been to a European casino lately, and -- since you are known to the public as a gambler -- did you lose 70 million euros ($95 million) there and who paid for your loss?”
“Mrs. Postanjian, I am deeply convinced that I represent the Armenian people and I am proud of that,” retorted a visibly calm Sarkisian.
“I have never been to any casino in Europe, I don’t gamble, and unfortunately I don’t have 70 million euros at my disposal,” he said. “If I had such a chance I would donate part of [that sum] to you to make sure you are happy with life and do not accumulate so much malice.”
The bitter exchange immediately caused a storm in Yerevan, with politicians, civic activists and other Armenians passionately discussing it on online social networks. Even some government critics questioned the wisdom of putting such a question to Sarkisian in Strasbourg.
Lawmakers from Sarkisian’s Republican Party of Armenia (HHK) were particularly furious with Postanjian’s embarrassing verbal attack, comparing it with high treason. “Today Zaruhi Postanjian was more of a Turk than any Turk, more of an Azerbaijani than any Azerbaijani,” one of them, Karen Avagian, wrote on his Facebook account.
Galust Sahakian, the HHK’s parliamentary leader, went further, saying that if he were the president he would use abusive language to respond to Postanjian’s allegations. “I don’t think that would upset Zaruhi,” Sahakian told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun) on Thursday. Swearing at Postanjian, a 41-year-old mother of four, is less of an offense than accusing Sarkisian of being a gambler, he said.
Parliament speaker Hovik Abrahamian, who is also a senior HHK figure, likewise condemned the opposition lawmaker’s allegations as “slander” in a written statement. More importantly, Abrahamian said that he intends to remove Postanjian from the Armenian delegation at the PACE comprising representatives of virtually all parties represented in the National Assembly. He argued that slanderous statements run counter to both the Armenian constitution and PACE statutes.
Postanjian denounced the speaker’s move as illegal, promising an “adequate response” to it. Speaking to RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am) from Strasbourg, she also defended her decision to ask the controversial question, saying that it preoccupied the vast majority of Armenians.
“Eighty percent of the population knows that in Armenia there is widespread injustice and elections are rigged,” she claimed. “Armenian citizens know that their votes were stolen and Serzh Sarkisian is the one who carried out that theft and fraud.”
Asked whether she has any evidence of Sarkisian’s visits to casinos, Postanjian cited similar allegations that have been made by opposition politicians in the past. One of those politicians, Victor Dallakian, is currently a deputy chief of the presidential staff.
Opposition reaction to the speaker’s plans to strip Postanjian of her PACE seat was cautious. Ruben Hakobian, Zharangutyun’s parliamentary leader, disagreed with the harsh measure but stopped short of defending her behavior on the PACE floor.
Aghvan Vartanian, a senior lawmaker from the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutyun), said Postanjian’s incriminating question was “not correct.” But he declined to comment on her imminent expulsion from the Armenian parliamentary delegation. Aram Manukian, a deputy from the opposition Armenian National Congress, also refused to comment.