In a dramatic riposte to mounting pressure from Gagik Tsarukian, President Serzh Sarkisian moved to kick the Prosperous Armenia Party (BHK) leader out of parliament, ordered tax audits of his businesses and warned of the possibility of his prosecution late on Thursday.
Sarkisian lashed out at his former coalition partner in a speech full of derogatory descriptions of Tsarukian, including his infamous “Dodi Gago” nickname, delivered before senior members of the ruling Republican Party of Armenia (HHK).
The unusually harsh attack marked a further escalation of tensions between the Sarkisian administration and the BHK that began after a gathering of opposition forces organized by Tsarukian last week. The tycoon used the gathering to step up his criticism of the government’s track record and, more importantly, warn Sarkisian against amending the Armenian constitution.
Sarkisian again defended his desire to turn Armenia into a parliamentary republic, dismissing allegations by the BHK and other opposition groups that the reform is aimed at enabling him to stay in power after the end of his second and final presidential term in 2018. But he stopped short of explicitly announcing the next stage of the reform process that would pave the way for a national referendum on constitutional amendments.
Instead, a furious Sarkisian made clear his intention to drive Tsarukian, who controls the second largest faction in the Armenian parliament, out of politics. He said the former arm-wrestler, who became one of the country’s richest men during his predecessor Robert Kocharian’s rule, lacks the intelligence, skills and education to govern Armenia.
“The political actor Gagik Tsarukian has become a scourge for our country,” he declared. “And that is natural. An individual who controls mechanisms necessary for participating in political processes but has low mental ability automatically becomes an obstacle to any development.”
“It is tragic and, in a sense, ridiculous that Gagik Tsarukian has big political ambitions,” he went on. “Surely intelligent people in his entourage understand deep down that such an individual’s being part of the political elite of a country at war poses a real danger.
“Can you imagine Gagik Tsarukian reading a speech at the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly, which is followed by questions from deputies, including Azerbaijani and Turkish ones? It’s difficult and terrible to imagine that.”
Sarkisian claimed that he now feels sorry for having for years ordered his loyalists to tone down their reactions to “nonsense” coming from Tsarukian. “My mistake must be corrected,” he said. “Quickly, thoroughly and clearly. Nobody has the right to stop or hesitate anymore.”
The president stated in that regard that Tsarukian has attended only 4 of the 145 parliament sittings held in 2013 and 2014. The absenteeism seems to be sufficient grounds for stripping him of his parliament seat, he said, adding: “Our deputies tomorrow will start taking steps necessary for ending this ludicrous situation.”
Sarkisian went on to cite long-running “unverified reports” implicating Tsarukian in large-scale tax evasion. “I am calling on the prime minister of Armenia to instruct corresponding bodies to thoroughly and meticulously check the veracity of those reports and publicize their findings,” he said.
Sarkisian said the BHK leader is also rumored to have set up a “mechanism for a professional cover-up of many crimes.” He did not specify those crimes, saying only that senior law-enforcement officials and other members of the presidential National Security Council will meet on Friday to decide “what to do about those rumors.”
Tsarukian has also been a member of the council mainly comprising top state officials. Sarkisian ousted him from the body in a decree that was made public immediately after the HHK meeting.
Senior HHK figures who attended the meeting voiced strong support for the president’s open confrontation with Tsarukian that may also lead to a showdown with Kocharian as well. Eduard Sharmazanov, the HHK spokesman, said that the tycoon has “crossed the line.” “Ignorance, populism and demagoguery have no place in politics,” Sharmazanov told a late-night news conference.
“Gagik Tsarukian is a political disease which must be cured as soon as possible,” charged Karen Avagian, an HHK lawmaker.
Both Avagian and other presidential allies insisted that the crackdown ordered by Sarkisian does not amount to political persecution. They were also careful not to attack Kocharian.
The ex-president too has been increasingly critical of the Sarkisian administration. The Armenian media has for years speculated about his imminent political comeback.
Education Minister Armen Ashotian, who is also the HHK’s deputy chairman, said that unlike Tsarukian, Kocharian is a true “political figure.” But Ashotian also pointedly echoed a widely held belief that Kocharian was behind the establishment of Tsarukian’s party in 2006.
The BHK did not immediately and officially react to Sarkisian’s declaration of war. Expressing his “personal view,” the party spokesman, Tigran Urikhanian, said only that Sarkisian has mismanaged the country and does not care about the well-being of Armenians.
The pro-BHK website Zham.am reported shortly after midnight that the members of the BHK’s governing body will meet on Friday to discuss the situation. It said Tsarukian will address the body and respond to Sarkisian’s statements.