The opposition Prosperous Armenia Party (BHK) accused the authorities on Tuesday of launching a smear campaign against its leader Gagik Tsarukian in response to his calls for Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian’s resignation.
Tsarukian said on Friday that Pashinian and his cabinet must step down because they have failed to contain the coronavirus epidemic and mitigate its socioeconomic consequences. Meeting with senior BHK members, the tycoon also announced that he will try to rally “healthy” political groups and individuals “concerned about country’s future.”
Pashinian and his political allies reacted furiously to the unusually harsh criticism. The prime minister’s spokeswoman, Mane Gevorgian, claimed that Tsarukian attacked the government because he fears being prosecuted on corruption, tax evasion and other grave charges. She said the BHK leader should also be worried about the recent entry into force of a law allowing authorities to confiscate private assets deemed to have been acquired illegally.
The BHK, which has the second largest group in the Armenian parliament, rejected the “political blackmail.”
On Monday, a newspaper controlled by Pashinian’s family published a purported copy of a Soviet Armenian court’s decision to convict Tsarukian of involvement in a 1979 gang rape of two women outside Yerevan and to sentence him to 7 years in prison.
While not denying such a prison sentence, Tsarukian’s representatives accused the authorities of manipulating facts and resorting to dirty tricks. They publicized on Tuesday another document which shows that Armenia’s Court of Cassation overturned the 1979 verdict and acquitted Tsarukian in the mid-1990s.
“Sadly, instead of tackling all these problems [facing Armenia] the entire ruling team is now busy fighting against us,” said Arman Abovian, a senior BHK lawmaker.
“There is an ethical red line which must not be crossed,” he said. “They can’t mix politics with personal issues … Let them sort out the socioeconomic situation in the country as vigorously as they are fighting the BHK and Mr. Tsarukian.”
Abovian stressed that Tsarukian stands by his Friday statement and has already started meeting with other political figures also seeking regime change. He did not name any of them.
The Bright Armenia Party (LHK), the second opposition force represented in the parliament, said it has not been approached by Tsarukian yet. A senior LHK figure, Ani Samsonian, questioned the wisdom of demanding Pashinian’s and his cabinet’s resignation at this juncture.
“Let’s assume that there is a [parliamentary] vote of no confidence in the prime minister,” reasoned Samsonian. “Who will be the next prime minister? Is there any candidate for the job who is ready to work with this kind of a [parliamentary] majority?”
The authorities’ handling of the coronavirus crisis is increasingly criticized by not only the BHK and the LHK but also other opposition groups that are not represented in the current National Assembly. Pashinian’s My Step bloc responds by accusing them of trying to capitalize on the deadly epidemic.
“Those [opposition] forces and individuals are doing everything to get the people infected [with coronavirus,]” Hrachya Hakobian, a My Step lawmaker and Pashinian’s brother-in-law, alleged on Tuesday.“That means stabbing the people in the back. In the current situation demanding the resignation of a government enjoying strong popular support is also a stab in the back.”
The BHK used to be allied to Pashinian, having joined his first cabinet formed in May 2018 in the wake of the “Velvet Revolution.” Pashinian fired his ministers affiliated with BHK in October 2018, accusing Tsarukian’s party of secretly collaborating with the country’s former leadership.
The BHK finished second in the December 2018 parliamentary elections and won 26 seats in Armenia’s 132-member parliament.