By Karine Kalantarian
Seyran Saroyan, an influential army general who recently retired from the military to join the election campaign, on Wednesday called for an end to immunity from prosecution enjoyed by Armenian parliamentarians.
Saroyan, who commanded Armenia’s Fourth Army Corps until last month, is running for parliament in a single-mandate constituency covering his town of Echmiadzin and surrounding villages. He has been endorsed by the governing Republican Party (HHK) led by Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian.
“If we want to have normal deputies we must abolish that immunity so that everyone comes to the legal field,” Saroyan told RFE/RL in an interview. “If, God willing, I get elected, that will be my first objective. And we’ll then see whether so many people will again scramble to get into parliament.”
The 39-year-old prominent veteran of the war in Nagorno-Karabakh did not say how he would go about scrapping something which is enshrined in the Armenian constitution. The constitution can be amended only by means of a referendum.
Saroyan’s surprise decision to quit the armed forces and become a politician was announced amid rumors that the HHK is looking for ways of unseating Hakob Hakobian, a controversial pro-government lawmaker who is expected to go on trial on charges of tax evasion and assault later this year. Hakobian, who joined the HHK last year, is running for parliament from the same constituency.
Saroyan insisted, however, that the decision to contest the May 12 elections was entirely his, saying that Armenia needs “people like me who think about developing the country.” “We have mainly the rich and the poor,” he complained. “If we don’t have a sizable middle class in our country, we won’t achieve anything.”
Saroyan added that as a member of the National Assembly he would strive to enlarge the Armenian middle class by advocating a tougher government crackdown on widespread tax evasion. “Nobody must have the right to steal anything from this state,” he said.
Saroyan, who had been promoted to the rank of major-general by President Robert Kocharian at the age of 32, is believed to have made a big fortune over the past decade thanks to his proximity to successive governments in Yerevan. He as well as another top army general, Deputy Defense Minister Manvel Grigorian, wield a considerable economic and political clout in the Echmiadzin area.
Critics have long accused the two close friends of dominating the area through an atmosphere of fear. Many residents of Echmiadzin, a historic town 20 kilometers south of Yerevan, would agree with this assertion. “We live in a military zone with a military discipline,” one of them told RFE/RL.
While admitting that he is a wealthy person, Saroyan claimed that he owns no businesses in Armenia. “I only have businesses abroad. I received them as gifts from my friends long time ago,” he said, speaking in an Echmiadzin winery which is officially owned by his father.
The bearded general also opined that low-income Armenians should be happy to be represented and governed by wealthy individuals. “A poor person can’t take care of other poor people,” he said. “Only well-to-do people think about good things.”