By Satenik Vantsian in Gyumri
Vartan Ghukasian, the controversial mayor of Armenia’s second largest city of Gyumri, won a fourth term in office in a tightly contested weekend election that saw tight security measures taken by the central government.
According preliminary official vote results released on Monday, Ghukasian, who is affiliated with the governing Republican Party of Armenia (HHK), won 58 percent of the vote. His 27-year-old main challenger, Martun Grigorian, got 37 percent.
Grigorian, who got elected to Armenia’s parliament last year, mounted a strong challenge against the incumbent mayor amid speculation that he is secretly backed by the HHK and its leader, President Serzh Sarkisian. However, the young businessman denied any links with the ruling party during the tense election campaign.
The Yerevan government sent special police units to Gyumri to stave off possible clashes between the two rival camps. The heightened police presence in the city close to the Turkish border was visible on voting day. No violent incidents were reported during the polling and the vote count.
Speaking to RFE/RL on Monday, Grigorian effectively conceded defeat. Still, he described as extremely suspicious a record-high voter turnout of almost 45 percent reported by the local election commission. He also claimed that police hindered and even harassed his campaign workers on Sunday.
Ghukasian has been dogged by controversy ever since he was first elected mayor in 1999. Critics have long accused him of leading a business clan that controls much of the local economy and tolerates no competition.
He has also earned notoriety for his flamboyant behavior that has occasionally turned violent. In August 2005, for example, Ghukasian reportedly shot from a pistol at a group of Russian soldiers stationed in Gyumri after a drunken argument in a local restaurant belonging to his brother.
Ghukasian has also faced corruption allegations that nearly cost him his job four years ago. Local prosecutors considered at the time launching criminal proceedings against him on charges of illegally renting out public office space to one of his close relatives.
In March 2004, an ad hoc investigative commission formed by then President Robert Kocharian claimed to have found “numerous abuses” in the distribution of thousands of new apartments built in the earthquake-ravaged city with the multimillion-dollar assistance of U.S.-Armenian billionaire Kirk Kerkorian. Ghukasian was personally implicated in those violations. But although the commission’s findings were publicly endorsed by Kocharian, the flamboyant mayor was never prosecuted or sanctioned otherwise.
In April 2007, Ghukasian narrowly survived an apparent assassination attempt when unknown gunmen opened fire on his motorcade outside Yerevan, killing three of his bodyguards. Ghukasian and his deputy Gagik Manukian were seriously wounded and hospitalized. The case has still not been solved.
Ghukasian was again in the news in May 2007 after a high-profile gunfight between two groups of young men. One of them was led by his son Spartak. The latter was subsequently arrested and sentenced to 18 months in prison. He was granted parole after serving one third of the sentence.