In a move that could shape upcoming political developments in the country, the Armenian authorities on Thursday moved to prosecute Vartan Oskanian, a former foreign minister highly critical of President Serzh Sarkisian, on money laundering charges which he considers politically motivated.
Prosecutor-General Aghvan Hovsepian asked the Armenian parliament to allow the National Security Service (NSS) to formally charge Oskanian, one of its members, in the controversial criminal investigation.
Sona Truzian, a spokeswoman for Hovsepian, said this would enable the NSS to conduct an “objective and thorough investigation” of the case. Truzian stressed that investigators do not intend to arrest Oskanian yet and are only seeking lawmakers’ mandatory permission to prosecute him.
The case stems from a nearly $2 million donation which Oskanian and the Civilitas Foundation, a Yerevan think-tank founded by him in 2008, received from two U.S. companies last year. The NSS claims that Civilitas failed to declare the donation to tax authorities. Oskanian has strongly denied these allegations and linked them with his political activities.
Oskanian, who served as foreign minister in former President Robert Kocharian’s administration from 1998-2008, resigned as Civilitas head in February, shortly after announcing his return to the political arena and joining the Prosperous Armenia Party (BHK), then a junior partner in the governing coalition. He repeatedly criticized the Sarkisian government’s economic and other policies in the following weeks, provoking angry reactions from some senior members of Sarkisian’s Republican Party of Armenia (HHK).
A Syrian-born former U.S. citizen, Oskanian was particularly critical of the government in the run-up to the May 6 parliamentary elections. He was instrumental in having the BHK denounce the Armenian authorities’ handling of the vote jointly with two major opposition forces.
The NSS opened the criminal case on May 25, the day after the BHK announced its decision to pull out of Sarkisian’s coalition government. Both the feared security agency and the government deny any political motives behind the criminal proceedings.
Oskanian and Salpi Ghazarian, the Civilitas director, were repeatedly summoned to the NSS for questioning this summer. They both refused to answer investigators’ questions.
In a related development, tax authorities launched a financial inspection of Civilitas’s activities in June. The tax audit was suspended the following month for unknown reasons. The Civilitas leadership believes that that the authorities failed to find any evidence of tax evasion.
Oskanian did not immediately react to the authorities’ decision to press charges against him and thus raise the stakes in the affair.
Ghazarian denounced the move as “absurd.” “This is a desperate political process where politicians unwilling to enter [honest] political struggle are trying to exploit and abuse their power and state institutions for wrong purposes,” she told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am).
Some Armenian commentators have suggested that the money laundering case is not only government retribution for Oskanian’s criticism but also a warning to BHK leader Gagik Tsarukian and Kocharian, who is widely regarded as the latter’s political patron. Over the past year Tsarukian and his party, which is now the second largest parliamentary force, have been reluctant to pledge support for Sarkisian’s plans to win a second term in a presidential election due in February.
There have also been growing indications that Kocharian would like to return to the political arena. The Armenian media has been rife with speculation that he, Tsarukian or even Oskanian could challenge the incumbent president in the election.
Asked whether she sees a connection between the prosecutor-general’s move and the upcoming ballot, Ghazarian said, “This is an attempt to prevent many processes, including the work of Civilitas and Vartan Oskanian’s various political activities.”
The BHK spokesman, Tigran Urikhanian, was far more cautious in reacting to the development. “When the legal process starts [in the parliament] we will discuss and inform the public,” he told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am). “Tomorrow we will likely have a meeting of the parliamentary faction that will discuss that issue.”
Prosecutor-General Hovsepian petitioned the National Assembly just hours after Armenia’s Court of Appeals rejected Oskanian’s and Civilitas’s demands to order the NSS to close the case for lack of evidence. It thereby upheld a ruling handed down by a lower court in July.
Civilitas lawyers have argued in both courts that the NSS cannot allege money laundering because it has said nothing about the criminal origin of the lavish donations made to Civilitas by the U.S. companies. Both firms are owned by John Huntsman, a U.S. businessman who has spent an estimated $18 million on the reconstruction of Armenia’s northern regions devastated by a 1988 earthquake.
One of the lawyers, Artur Grigorian, said that Civilitas will now appeal to the higher Court of Cassation.