Gyumri’s controversial Mayor Vartan Ghukasian said on Friday that he will not run after all for another term in office in next month’s local elections and will step down after 13 years at the helm of Armenia’s second city.
Ghukasian was widely expected to stand in the mayoral vote slated for September 9. However, the ruling Republican Party of Armenia (HHK), of which he is a member, last month pledged support for another candidate representing the Prosperous Armenia Party (BHK), a former member of the country’s governing coalition. Ghukasian was also dismissed as head of the HHK branch in Shirak province, of which Gyumri is the capital.
The 51-year-old mayor refused to rule out his participation in the election up until the legal deadline for the nomination of candidates expired at 6 p.m. on Friday. His press secretary, Lilit Aghekian, told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am) moments later that he has decided not to seek reelection “despite the fact that thousands of people in Gyumri were urging him to run.”
“Mayor Vartan Ghukasian has not nominated his candidacy,” Aghekian said. “He is not tired of working, he is only 51. He is tired of conspiracies, including from mass media, which you have witnessed for 13 years.”
The development made the BHK candidate Samvel Balasanian, who has extensive business interests in Gyumri, a clear election favorite. Balasanian will be challenged by a candidate of the opposition Armenian Revolutionary Federation as well as three non-partisan hopefuls. Those include a Soviet-era local Communist Party boss, a 34-year-old businessman and an unemployed man.
Gyumri voters will also be electing on September 9 a new municipal council. Seventy-two candidates have applied for registration as candidates for the 21 council seats.
HHK officials have acknowledged that the ruling party’s decision to turn its back on Ghukasian resulted, in part, from the HHK’s worse-than-expected showing in Gyumri in the May 6 parliamentary elections. The city’s three electoral districts were swept by the BHK, even though the HHK prevailed in the nationwide vote tally.
The party led by President Serzh Sarkisian endorsed Balasanian despite the BHK’s post-election withdrawal from his coalition government, a move that came after months of strained relations between the two parties. Some observers have suggested that Sarkisian is using the Gyumri election to try to mend fences with the BHK.
“At this point, I don’t want to talk about any political things,” Aghekian said. “The mayor himself will do that when the time is right.”
Ghukasian’s 13-year tenure has been marred by scandals and controversies. Critics, including independent media outlets, have accused him of leading a clan that controls much of the local economy and tolerates no competition.
In 2007, Ghukasian narrowly survived an apparent assassination attempt when unknown gunmen opened fire on his motorcade outside Yerevan, seriously wounding him and killing three of his bodyguards.
Ghukasian has also been embarrassed by his notoriously unruly elder son Spartak. The latter was sentenced to 18 months in prison in 2007 for provoking a street gunfight between two groups of young men in Gyumri. He was granted parole six months later.