The European Movement in Armenia (EMA) has given such awards to prominent Armenian politicians and public figures ever since its establishment in 2005. The EMA is affiliated with the European Movement International, a Brussels-based organization promoting peace, democracy and human rights across Europe.
The movement is headed by Pat Cox, former president of the European Parliament, and boasts former presidents of France and Portugal among its honorary presidents. Its secretary general, Henrik Kroener, was on hand to personally hand the annual award to Tsarukian.
In a statement, the EMA paid tribute to Tsarukian for “spreading European traditions in Armenia’s political and public fields” and assisting in a “generation change” in the local political arena. It also praised his “active participation” in the Armenian parliament’s committee on European integration. The EMA, some of whose projects are funded by the European Union, did not specify just how the former arm wrestler has contributed to Armenia’s democratization and closer ties with Europe.
Tsarukian rose to prominence in the late 1990s as a wealthy businessman close to then President Robert Kocharian. Those ties helped him dramatically expand his business interests and earn the reputation of one of the country’s wealthiest and most feared “oligarchs.” His extravagant lifestyle has sharply contrasted with modest earnings posted by his companies, giving rise to allegations of large-scale tax evasion.
The burly tycoon entered the political arena in late 2006 with the establishment of his Prosperous Armenia Party (BHK) widely seen as Kocharian’s brainchild. The BHK kicked off its activities with a nationwide distribution of relief aid to farmers as well as provision of medical and other services to low-income residents across the country.
The practice was denounced as wholesale vote buying by opposition and some pro-government parties. The BHK denied any wrongdoing and went on to finish second in the disputed parliamentary elections of May 2007. It has since been represented in Armenia’s government’s by at least two ministers.
Over the past decade Tsarukian has also been dogged by opposition allegations linking him violent attacks on political activists and journalists critical of the Armenian authorities. In particular, representatives of Levon Ter-Petrosian, the main opposition candidate in the February 2008 presidential election, claimed that at least 14 of their activists were assaulted during voting in Abovian, a town 15 kilometer north of Yerevan where Tsarukian has long held sway. The BHK leader strongly denied any involvement.
Incidentally, Abovian is currently governed by Tsarukian’s son-in-law. The latter stood in the most recent local election unopposed and was easily elected mayor last year.