A key witness in the criminal case against opposition Prosperous Armenia Party (BHK) leader Gagik Tsarukian has denied that the money he received from the tycoon ahead of the 2017 parliamentary elections was meant for vote buying.
Earlier this year the National Security Service (NSS) said that when it searched the office of a construction company owned by Vazgen Poghosian as part of a different criminal case it found evidence incriminating Tsarukian in organizing vote buying for his bloc during the elections.
In June, Tsarukian was stripped of his parliamentary immunity from prosecution and indicted on vote buying charges that he rejected as politically motivated.
A lower court in Yerevan later refused to issue an arrest warrant sought by investigators for Tsarukian, confining the wealthy businessman to country limits pending the investigation of the case. Prosecutors have appealed the decision.
In an interview with RFE/RL’s Armenian Service (Azatutyun) this week Poghosian, who is considered to be the main witness in the case, acknowledged that he had received a hefty amount of money from Tsarukian ahead of the 2017 vote, but insisted that it was intended to cover the costs of the general BHK election campaign rather than buy votes.
“[As a witness] I went through confrontation with Tsarukian at the NSS investigation committee and you can find out all these secrets in the investigation committee. I have no problems with Tsarukian, all this is a lie, it is just to arouse interest among people. Tsarukian and I have known each other since 1990. I built his business premises, his casino, I laid the foundations of the church he built. I built all that, and I was paid very generously,” said Poghosian, director of the Yerevanshin construction company.
Poghosian is accused of giving a bribe to a former chairman of the Urban Development Committee. It was within the framework of this criminal case that in February law-enforcement officers conducted a search at Yerevanshin and found documents related to alleged vote buying. The NSS also reported that Poghosian, who was a candidate on the slate of the bloc led by Tsarukian in the 2017 elections to the National Assembly, had informed law-enforcement officials about electoral bribes.
Poghosian, however, insists that the 90 million drams (about $185,000) mentioned in the NSS statement were spent only for campaign purposes. “Every election requires expenses, doesn’t it? Why do you consider it to be vote buying? Don’t you need money for organizational work? All these expenses were for organizational work – to rent offices, to pay people for two months, to buy fuel, pay for electricity, water and sewage, pay for other costs. Who should be paying for all that if not the party? Participation in general elections requires serious expenses, and it should not be considered a bribe,” the 68-year-old businessman said.
Poghosian polled 8,151 votes as a candidate on the Tsarukian bloc list in the 2017 parliamentary elections, but later he gave up his parliamentary mandate. According to prosecutors, Poghosian testified that in 2017 Tsarukian invited him and offered him to run in the elections on condition that he secure at least 9,000 votes in the Gegharkunik province. It was as part of that agreement that Poghosian received money from two other associates of Tsarukian – Sedrak Arustamian, the director of the Multi Group Company owned by the Tsarukian family, and Abraham Manukian, a former BHK lawmaker – for vote buying purposes, prosecutors allege.
Poghosian confirmed that he had met with Arustamian and Manukian, but said those meetings were aimed at securing financing for the campaign and not for vote buying. “I didn’t discuss it with Tsarukian. Tsarukian instructed me to ‘go to the guys.’ The guys were Abraham Manukian and Sedrak Arustamian,” he said.
Manukian and another former BHK lawmaker Vanik Asatrian are also charged in the same case. Only Asatrian is under arrest. As part of the investigation Poghosian has also been confronted with Manukian.