The Prosperous Armenia Party (BHK) on Wednesday accused the government of refusing to allow its wealthy leader, Gagik Tsarukian, to provide low-income students of state-run universities with financial assistance.
BHK representatives said Tsarukian offered scholarships as well as 100,000 drams ($250) in cash to “numerous” young Armenians studying at Yerevan State University and three other state colleges. They said the university administrations replied that they cannot accept such aid without a formal authorization of the Ministry of Science and Education.
Vahe Enfiajian, a BHK parliamentarian heading the party’s youth wing, told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am) that he asked Education Minister Armen Ashotian for such permission in a letter sent last month. He said Ashotian has still not replied to it.
“This is an artificial situation,” Enfiajian complained, accusing the government of blocking badly needed assistance to poor students struggling to pay their tuition fees. Another BHK figure, Vahan Babayan, suggested in a Facebook post that political motives may be at play.
The BHK, which boasts the second largest parliamentary faction, was part of President Serzh Sarkisian’s governing coalition until June 2012. Tsarukian pulled it out of the coalition after months of mounting tensions with Sarkisian and the ruling Republican Party of Armenia (HHK).
A charity belonging to Tsarukian had no trouble helping needy students meeting a number of academic criteria before that discord. Ashotian, who is a senior member of the HHK, announced in late 2011 that the universities will no longer be allowed to accept such assistance without his ministry’s approval.
The minister said earlier this week that Samvel Aleksanian, another tycoon who is close to President Sarkisian, has been allowed to pay 200,000 drams to 100 students from poor families selected by university administrations. The BHK representatives emphasized this fact in their criticism of the government stance.
Ashotian insisted on Wednesday that he replied to BHK lawmakers’ letters. He said he did not grant their request because it was effectively lodged by Tsarukian’s party, rather than his charity. “What keeps them from coming to the ministry and signing an agreement so that we can start doing this good work together with the universities?” he told reporters during a visit to the northern city of Vanadzor.
“Every time the Gagik Tsarukian Fund starts handing out aid before an election our BHK colleagues say that this is not vote buying, that the fund is a separate structure,” said Ashotian. “Two weeks ago I received a letter with a BHK logo saying that the Gagik Tsarukian Fund wants to hand out cash to students. I trust in my BHK colleagues’ pre-election claims that the fund and the BHK are separate structures.”
The Ministry of Science and Education issued a separate statement on the issue, saying that it is ready to consider Tsarukian’s aid offer.
Tsarukian’s charitable activities have long sparked controversy. The BHK leader launched his and his 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 Armenian opposition and some pro-government figures. The BHK denied those allegations.