Tensions between President Serzh Sarkisian and his former main coalition partner rose further on Monday when the Armenian parliament debated controversial criminal proceedings launched against former Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian.
Prosecutor-General Aghvan Hovsepian publicized details of the fraud case as he asked deputies to lift the fellow lawmaker’s legal immunity from prosecution.
Oskanian again strongly denied it as a “political order” directed against himself and his Prosperous Armenia Party (BHK), the second largest in the National Assembly.
Information about the criminal case has been scant until now, with Armenia’s National Security Service (NSS) only alleging money-laundering stemming from a lavish donation made to the Civilitas Foundation, a Yerevan think-tank founded by Oskanian, by U.S. philanthropist Jon Huntsman Sr. in 2010. The money was generated by the sale of a construction materials plant that was built by Huntsman in Yerevan in the early 1990s.
In his speech at the National Assembly, Hovsepian said that $1.4 million in proceeds from that deal was transferred to one of Oskanian’s Armenian bank accounts in January 2011. He said the Syrian-born former minister not only failed to deposit the sum with a separate Civilitas account but also spent more than $181,000 of it “for personal purposes.”
“I cannot say publicly which restaurant or hotel bills were paid with that money,” Hovsepian said when pressed by some lawmakers. He said the NSS should therefore be allowed to charge Oskanian with large-scale embezzlement and money laundering.
Corresponding articles of the Armenian Criminal Code carry between 4 and 12 years’ imprisonment.
Oskanian strongly denied misappropriating any portion of the donation, saying that “every penny” of it was transferred to the Civilitas account on Saturday. He as well as several other deputies argued neither Huntsman nor the Civilitas management has filed any complaints about the matter.
Hovsepian dismissed this argument, saying that law-enforcement authorities do not need such a complaint to launch a criminal investigation. He also described as coincidence the fact that the case was opened shortly after Oskanian, who served as foreign minister from 1998-2008, returned to the political arena and began harshly criticizing the government early this year.
Oskanian insisted, however, that the case is politically motivated. “Armenia is preparing for presidential elections and this case is an attempt to exert strong pressure on the BHK ahead of those elections,” he told the parliament. “These authorities are talking to political opponents in the language of hostage takers.”
The BHK leadership likewise claimed to be facing “political persecution” when it reacted to the Armenian authorities’ decision to prosecute Oskanian on Friday. A senior BHK lawmaker, Naira Zohrabian, said during Monday’s debate that the party’s parliamentary faction will walk out of the parliament building when the mostly pro-government deputies vote on the chief prosecutor’s petition on Tuesday. Zohrabian said the BHK will also consider boycotting all parliament sessions in protest.
The opposition Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutyun) and the Zharangutyun (Heritage) party said they will also boycott Tuesday’s parliament vote. They too alleged political motives behind the case.
Zharangutyun leader Raffi Hovannisian linked it with the presidential ballot due in February. “Either everyone or no one must be stripped of immunity,” Hovannisian told a news conference. “That includes the current and former presidents along with their staffs, the current and former prime ministers and ministers and their staffs, the current and former parliament speakers and deputies.”
Hovannisian said at the same time that Oskanian himself is responsible for past government “repressions” because of having been a key member of former President Robert Kocharian’s administration. The Zharangutyun leader singled out the Kocharian government’s deadly post-election crackdown on the opposition in March 2008.
Nikol Pashinian, a deputy from the opposition Armenian National Congress (HAK), similarly cited Oskanian’s alleged responsibility for the 2008 bloodshed. Pashinian, who spent nearly two years in prison as part of that crackdown, said this is a key reason why he will vote for Oskanian’s prosecution despite considering the accusations politically motivated.
It was not clear if the six other HAK deputies will do the same. HAK representatives said their parliamentary faction will announce its stance on Tuesday.
Meanwhile, the ruling Republican Party of Armenia (HHK), which holds the majority of parliament seats, again effectively confirmed its intention to strip Oskanian of his parliamentary immunity. Galust Sahakian, the HHK’s parliamentary leader, also denied any government pressure on the BHK. “We were singing the same song as recently as six or seven months ago,” he said.
The BHK was represented in the Armenian government by four ministers until June. Gagik Tsarukian, its top leader close to Kocharian, decided to pull out of the governing coalition following parliamentary elections controversially won by the HHK.
As the parliament discussed Oskanian’s fate several dozen people, most of them Civilitas employees, demonstrated outside the National Assembly building to voice their solidarity with the ex-minister. They booed HHK deputies entering the building and held placards denouncing the ruling party. One protester also carried a banner saying that “The people are with Tsarukian.”
Salpi Ghazarian, the Civilitas director, was among the protesters. “I hope that there are enough honest, sincere, caring and intelligent people in the parliament,” she told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am). “If their aim is to punish Vartan Oskanian for some political considerations, such punishment will primarily hurt Armenia’s reputation.”
Earlier in the day, Civilitas circulated statements by two of its Honorary Board members, Canadian-Armenian filmmaker Atom Egoyan and U.S.-Armenian rock singer Serj Tankian, condemning the case. “The persecution of Vartan Oskanian is a deplorable and politically motivated action which is extremely dangerous to the health of the country,” said Egoyan.