By Shakeh Avoyan and Emil Danielyan
Gagik Tsarukian, a wealthy businessmen close to the Armenian government, denied on Tuesday any involvement in the previous night’s bombing of a car used by the editor of a leading independent newspaper. Leading media associations, meanwhile, strongly condemned the apparent attack on Nikol Pashinian of the “Haykakan Zhamanak” daily, saying that violence against journalists is becoming the norm in Armenia.
In a joint statement, the Yerevan Press Club and the Committee to Protect Freedom of Speech said the incident was made possible by the authorities’ failure to properly investigate attacks on Armenian reporters that have increased dramatically this year. “We demand a serious and objective investigation and call for resolute steps to rein in terror which is already turning into a public scourge,” the statement said.
“Journalists’ life in Armenia is now in danger,” said the more radical National Press Club. “We demand that the authorities punish the perpetrators and masterminds.”
Also expressing concern was the Armenian government’s human rights ombudsman, Larisa Alaverdian. “The trend of settling scores with journalists through violence is unacceptable and casts shadow on Armenia’s reputation as a country which is guided by democratic norms and respects one of the fundamental human rights, the freedom of speech,” she said in a statement.
Pashinian’s four-wheel drive vehicle parked just outside the “Haykakan Zhamanak” office in downtown Yerevan burst into flames late on Monday after what the newspaper staff said was a strong explosion. Its front section, including the driver’s seat, was practically destroyed.
Police launched an inquiry and concluded unusually quickly that the fire was caused by a “breakdown of the car battery’s wires,” effectively denying that Pashinian came under attack. “Haykakan Zhamanak” journalists shrugged off the conclusion. They believe that the car was hit by a Molotov cocktail or another explosive device.
The Yerevan Press Club also brushed aside the police explanation, saying that it means the authorities will not investigate Pashinian’s claims that the attack was the work of Tsarukian. Pashinian says the tycoon was infuriated by recent “Haykakan Zhamanak” reports critical of his activities.
Tsarukian was asked by reporters to comment on the allegations as he inaugurated a brandy distillery in Yerevan belonging to his Multi Group business empire in the presence of President Robert Kocharian and other senior officials. He replied that “Haykakan Zhamanak,” Armenia’s best-selling daily, is too insignificant a force to threaten his own reputation.
“In order to boost their standing people may say different unnecessary things,” he said, bursting into laughter. “Imagine if one of our athletes said, ‘I want a fight with [U.S. boxing star] Mike Tyson’.”
“[In this case] I am Tyson and you are ‘Haykakan Zhamanak’,” the former arm-wrestler added in response to a follow-up question from a reporter.
Kocharian, for his part, would not comment on the issue. But his very presence by Tsarukian’s side at the opening ceremony indicated his unwavering support for one of the country’s richest and most feared men.
Incidentally, the ribbon-cutting ceremony was also attended by several prominent opposition figures that regularly accuse Kocharian of presiding over a clan-based economy that enriches a small circle of government-connected “oligarchs.” One of those oppositionists, Victor Dallakian, said, “The opposition and I personally have repeatedly stated that Kocharian leads a clan-based system and is responsible for all the crimes that take place in Armenia. As for businessman Gagik Tsarukian, I find positive his activities in this particular area.”