Bowing to strong pressure from President Serzh Sarkisian, Gagik Tsarukian resigned as chairman of Armenia’s largest opposition party and announced his retirement from “active politics” on Thursday.
Tsarukian defended his decision to steer clear of a potentially violent confrontation with the Sarkisian administration as he addressed an emergency congress of the Prosperous Armenia Party (BHK) held behind the closed doors. One of his top aides, Naira Zohrabian, was elected as the party’s new chairperson.
“I am leaving active politics,” Tsarukian said in a speech. “I am not the party chairman anymore. But I will continue to be of use to my country and my people in other areas.”
“Please do not appeal to me with political questions from now on,” he added. “I am not going to interfere in any of your decisions. I have nothing to do with the BHK anymore.”
Tsarukian, who became one of the country’s richest men during former President Robert Kocharian’s rule, gave no clear reasons for his resignation, which is certain to reshape the Armenian political landscape. He said only that his decision was “not easy” and resulted from “long deliberations.”
Tsarukian called for anti-government demonstrations and declared Sarkisian’s ouster “the greatest cause of my life” immediately after the president warned him on January 12 to end his political activities or face a government crackdown on his businesses. However, the tycoon went on to call off a rally which the BHK and its opposition allies were due to hold in Yerevan on February 20. He cited the need to avoid bloodshed.
Tsarukian reiterated this justification at the BHK congress. “I could not have forgiven myself if the blood of a single person had been spilled,” he said. “This is the line I cannot cross. Accept me as I am.”
Observers believe that the former arm wrestler reputedly close to Kocharian feared losing much of his fortune and being prosecuted for alleged “crimes” mentioned by Sarkisian. Some of them claim that he also feared for his life.
The party congress promptly approved Tsarukian choice of the new BHK leader: Naira Zohrabian. As well as advising Tsarukian on political affairs, Zohrabian has been a senior member of the BHK’s parliamentary faction, the second largest in the National Assembly.
Zohrabian declined to comment on the reasons for Tsarukian’s resignation in her acceptance speech and ensuing meeting with reporters. The former journalist was also vague on the BHK’s new political orientation and objectives. “We need time to plan our tactic and further steps,” she said.
Zohrabian clarified only that the party is now officially in opposition to the Armenian government. It remained unclear, though, whether it will campaign for snap national elections or seek to scuttle a controversial constitutional reform planned by Sarkisian.