An Armenian opposition party has strongly criticized the top clergyman of Vanadzor for effectively voicing support for the pro-government mayor of Armenia’s third largest city controversially installed three months ago.
Bright Armenia and two other opposition parties have been boycotting sessions of Vanadzor’s municipal council elected in October in protest against what they call government foul play.
The council chose Mamikon Aslanian of the ruling Republican Party (HHK) as mayor despite the fact that the HHK and its ally, the Armenian Revolutionary Federation, control only 15 of its 33 seats. The 18 other seats were won by the three opposition groups.
Aslanian received 19 council votes cast in secret ballot, meaning that four opposition councilors secretly broke the ranks. It is still not clear who they are. Bright Armenia believes that they were forced to vote for the HHK candidate.
Archbishop Sebouh Chouldjian deplored the opposition boycott when he celebrated a Christmas mass in a Vanadzor church on January 6. Chouldjian, who heads the Gugark Diocese of the Armenian Apostolic Church encompassing the city and surrounding areas, described membership in the council as a “holy service” to local residents.
“The people are demanding nothing but service from you,” he appealed to councilors in his sermon. “They entrusted you and nobody has the right to squander, deplete or exhaust that trust.”
Armenia - Opposition leader Edmon Marukian (L) argues with government loyalists during the election of Vanadzor's mayor, 10Oct2016.
Bright Armenia’s leader, Edmon Marukian, denounced Chouldjian’s comments as “one-sided” over the weekend. “His Eminence has stopped being [politically] impartial,” he told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am).
Marukian also faulted the Turkish-born cleric for attending Aslanian’s inauguration ceremony. “He went there and blessed a mayor elected through a theft of [council] mandates,” charged the Vanadzor-based parliamentarian.
Aslanian rejected the opposition criticism on Monday, insisting that Chouldjian did not take sides in the local political dispute. “As a clergyman, he only called for a consolidation for the sake of the city, rather than the mayor or any political force,” he told RFE/RL’s Armenian service.
The mayor also dismissed Bright Armenia’s plans to ask the Armenian government to call a snap municipal election in Vanadzor. He said there are no legal grounds for disbanding the council even if it remains paralyzed by the opposition boycott.