Armenian opposition lawmaker Zaruhi Postanjian has defended her controversial statements made at the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly (PACE) session in Strasbourg last week amid continuing criticism that by challenging President Serzh Sarkisian over his alleged gambling habit she “offended the nation”.
Postanjian, who is a member of the Armenian delegation at the PACE from the opposition Heritage party’s parliamentary faction, likewise brushed aside the opinion that she misused the opportunity by posing a question that did not refer to the latest policies of Sarkisian and his administration regarding some topical domestic and international affairs, including the apparent U-turn in Yerevan’s declared European integration policy after the announcement of the intention to join the Russia-led Customs Union.
In an interview with RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am) on Sunday the opposition lawmaker explained that in the prelude to her question she made clear that Sarkisian had “stolen the vote of the people” in last February’s presidential election by means of “an organized crime” committed with the assistance of his political allies.
“That’s what I tried to convey in those 30 seconds [allowed to address a question at the PACE session],” said Postanjian.
Postanjian came under fire from senior government loyalists in Armenia immediately after she challenged Sarkisian at the Strasbourg Assembly to comment on rumors that he has gambled away 70 million euros (about $95 million) at a European casino. The president flatly denied that, describing the allegation as “another product of your [Postanjian’s] imagination”. Meanwhile, lawmakers representing Sarkisian’s ruling Republican Party of Armenia responded with personal insults against Postanjian, with some of them branding her a “Turk” and claiming that her allegations amounted to high treason.
Armenian Parliament Speaker Hovik Abrahamian announced last week that Postanjian would be expelled from the Armenian delegation at the PACE over what he claimed was her ‘slanderous’ statement that ran contrary to the country’s Constitution and the National Assembly Regulations. The kind of reaction and possible sanctions triggered a statement from the opposition Heritage party that condemned what it called a smear campaign unleashed against its prominent member by the authorities.
In the interview with RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am) Postanjian did not cite any specific evidence based on which she asked the question at the PACE session, claiming only that it was a ‘common knowledge’ in the Armenian society that Sarkisian is a chronic gambler.
She also referred to similar allegations made by veteran politician Viktor Dallakian a few years ago. On several occasions before being appointed presidential representative to the National Assembly last year, Dallakian, who had served as a member of parliament from a single-mandate constituency for many years, accused Sarkisian, among other top Armenian officials, of gambling at casinos abroad. Neither Sarkisian nor other government officials have responded to his allegations.
Postanjian, meanwhile, again insisted that the question had a great deal of relevance to Armenia, where state officials, she contended, misappropriate public money only to gamble it away in casinos abroad.
“This is one of the ways through which our stolen national wealth gets ultimately siphoned off,” the Armenian oppositionist claimed.
Postanjian said she did not hear any angry responses from other PACE delegates regarding her question at the session as other members of the Armenian delegation claimed. She said instead many approached her to express their support in the face of possible reactions and persecution at home.
“The parliament speaker’s statement immediately became a matter of discussion at the PACE Bureau and since there is no formal process yet, there is no formal reaction at this moment,” explained Postanjian in reference to the threat to oust her from the Armenian delegation.
The opposition parliamentarian also answered critics who consider it unbecoming of an Armenian representative to “wash dirty laundry” in the international arena. She said that rather it is shameful to have “large-scale emigration, malnourished children and elderly people, abandoned villages” at home.
“We have now reached the level after which we are going to lose Armenia,” she commented.
Postanjian also called it only natural that some of her fellow party members should have a different opinion about her words and actions.
Despite the overall support voiced by Heritage and its leader Raffi Hovannisian, some members of the party, like its deputy head Ruben Hakobian, still questioned the rationale of raising the kind of issue at an international body.
“We have a plurality of opinions within our party, and everybody has an opportunity to freely express their views,” concluded Postanjian.