Education Minister Armen Ashotian on Thursday effectively confirmed reports that he has banned state-run universities from accepting scholarship donations from Gagik Tsarukian, a millionaire businessman leading Armenia’s second most important governing party.
Ashotian denied any connection between the move and reported tensions between President Serzh Sarkisian’s Republican Party (HHK) and Tsarukian’s Prosperous Armenia Party (BHK).
In recent years a charity belonging to Tsarukian has provided scholarships to university students from low-income families meeting a number of academic criteria. Those students have always been selected by university administrations.
Ashotian, who is a senior member of the HHK, said the universities will no longer be allowed to accept such assistance without his ministry’s approval. “Personal scholarships in state universities can be introduced only with the permission of the relevant state body,” he told journalists. “Nobody has made such negotiable offers to us.”
Ashotian added that the Gagik Tsarukian Fund and other charities keen to help students will now have to apply to the Ministry of Science and Education in the first instance.
Reacting to Ashotian’s order, Vahe Enfiajian, a senior BHK member involved in student funding, told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am), “Right now we are dealing with our organizational issues. There is a board that will discuss that issue.”
Ashotian denied any political considerations behind his directive. “The ministry has many projects and I often appeal to Armenian entrepreneurs and philanthropists to invest in education,” he said.
Tsarukian, who is thought to be close to former President Robert Kocharian, reportedly came under renewed pressure from his senior coalition partner last month after he pointedly declined to reaffirm support for Sarkisian’s reelection in 2013. Kocharian gave in late September more indications that he would like to return to the political arena.
Earlier this month, Sarkisian engineered the resignations and sackings of several top state officials, including parliament speaker Hovik Abrahamian. Some observers regard that as an attempt to ward off a potential challenge from his predecessor.
Tsarukian’s charitable activities have sparked controversy before. The BHK leader began his and party’s political activities ahead of the May 2007 parliamentary elections with the distribution of relief aid to tens of thousands of impoverished farmers. He also paid for free medical aid and other supposedly public services provided to urban residents.
The practice was denounced as wholesale vote buying by the opposition and some pro-HHK figures. The BHK, which has the second largest faction in the current parliament, denied any wrongdoing.