By Atom Markarian
Armenia’s tiny class of millionaires, heavily dependent on government connections, has emerged as one of the main beneficiaries of Sunday’s parliamentary elections, wining a record-high number seats in the new parliament.
Preliminary official results of the vote show that about half of the 131 members of the National Assembly will be wealthy businesspeople who have capitalized on the increasingly important factor in Armenian politics: money. For the first time, many of them entered the parliament through the proportional representation lists of pro-establishment parties -- a new trend indicating the growing influence of big business in Armenia.
The governing Republican Party of Armenia (HHK), the official winner of the polls, had the most business-dominated list of candidates. It is topped by about a dozen government ministers. Most of them are likely to keep their jobs and cede their parliament mandates to the so-called middle echelon of HHK candidates.
Among them are the owners of large businesses such as the Jermuk Group mineral water firm, Kilikia brewery and the Great Valley liquor group. Also likely to become a deputy is Areg Ghukasian, the brother of the president of the self-proclaimed Nagorno-Karabakh Republic who runs lucrative salt mines in Yerevan.
Wealthy entrepreneurs were also high on the list of candidates fielded by another major party supporting President Robert Kocharian, the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutyun). The party teamed up with tobacco tycoon Hrant Vartanian as well as the owners of the Avshar liquor company and the Ashtarak Kat dairy in the run-up to the elections.
At least six businessmen are expected to enter the parliament through Orinats Yerkir, a pro-Kocharian party that will likely have the second-largest parliament faction with at least 20 seats.
Petrol and cigarette importer Gurgen Arsenian delivered the biggest election surprise when his hitherto unknown United Labor Party was declared by the Central Election Commission to have cleared the 5 percent vote threshold for winning seats under the proportional system. Arsenian, who also staunchly supports Kocharian, is accused by the Armenian opposition of buying his party’s way into the legislature.
Allegations of vote buying have also dogged wealthy candidates who, as was the case in the previous elections, dominated in the 56 single-seat constituencies contested on the first-past-the-post basis. Money appears to have been the decisive factor in their victories. The government-connected candidates rarely held campaign rallies or delivered public speeches. They instead routinely distributed computers and other equipment to schools, paved battered streets, repaired buildings and even distributed fertilizers in their constituencies.
More importantly, many of them are widely believed to have bought votes for an average of 5,000 drams on election day. The practice was reportedly widespread in impoverished rural areas.
Support of the several dozen businessmen not affiliated with any party will be vital for Prime Minister Andranik Markarian’s HHK which lacks an absolute majority in the parliament. The wealthy lawmakers, for their part, are expected to seek government protection and privileges that have always been vital for doing business in Armenia.