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Businessman Gagik Tsarukian avoided calling for regime change on Friday as he again became the leader of the Prosperous Armenia Party (BHK) two years after being forced to retire from politics.

The BHK, the second most important parliamentary force founded by Tsarukian, unanimously elected him as its chairman at a party congress held less than two months before Armenia’s parliamentary elections.

In a 40-minute speech delivered at the congress, the tycoon again complained about lingering socioeconomic hardship in the country, singling out the plight of impoverished farmers struggling to repay their debts to commercial banks. He also advocated a number of economic policy changes such as higher taxes on mining and a temporary exemption of small and medium-sized businesses from taxes.

Still, Tsarukian stopped short of openly blaming President Serzh Sarkisian for the socioeconomic situation. Nor did he declare that the BHK should use the April 2 elections to change the country’s political leadership.

Tsarukian said instead that BHK members should be “restrained” and “respectful” towards other parties during the unfolding election campaign. “It’s wrong to offend anyone,” he said.

“But if someone tries to offend you … we will show them their place,” he added.

Armenia - President Serzh Sarkisian (L) attends the inauguration of a new fitness center in Yerevan owned by businessman Gagik Tsarukian (R), 31Oct2016.
Armenia - President Serzh Sarkisian (L) attends the inauguration of a new fitness center in Yerevan owned by businessman Gagik Tsarukian (R), 31Oct2016.

Tsarukian traded insults with Sarkisian and urged Armenians to “get rid of the government of evil” during a bitter February 2015 dispute that followed his attempts to thwart the president’s controversial constitutional reform. He resigned as BHK leader and quit politics altogether shortly afterwards.

Tsarukian announced his decision to return to the political arena last month following a visible improvement of his rapport with Sarkisian. Over the past year the president has attended the inauguration of several new businesses launched by him.

Some Armenian commentators and opposition politicians have claimed in recent weeks that Tsarukian’s comeback is part of a secret deal with Sarkisian aimed at diverting votes from opposition forces. Senior BHK members have dismissed these claims, saying that their party remains in opposition to the government.

Representatives of Sarkisian’s Republican Party of Armenia (HHK) have also denied cutting deals with one of the country’s richest men. “What is happening now and [Tsarukian’s] political activities are the result of his decision,” the HHK’s parliamentary leader, Vahram Baghdasarian, insisted on Friday.

Armenia -- Parliament majority leader Vahram Baghdasarian speaks to RFE/RL's Armenian service, Yerevan, 12Oct2016
Armenia -- Parliament majority leader Vahram Baghdasarian speaks to RFE/RL's Armenian service, Yerevan, 12Oct2016

“I don’t want to speculate or presume,” said Levon Zurabian, the deputy chairman of the opposition Armenian National Congress (HAK) that closely collaborated with the BHK until Tsarukian’s 2015 exit. “Our people have a very good hunch and only they can answer this question.”

Zurabian also predicted that “money will be at war with justice” in the upcoming elections.

Announcing his comeback on January 17, Tsarukian said he will run for parliament at the head of a new alliance that will comprise the BHK and several other political groups. His spokeswoman, Iveta Tonoyan, said earlier this week that the BHK congress will be followed by the signing of a multi-party declaration on the creation of the bloc.

However, no such documents were adopted after the one-day gathering. BHK figures declined to clarify who will join the bloc.

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