Armenia: Streets That Elevated Maverick Opposition Leader To Premiership Two Years Ago Are Now Challenging Him

Farid Hajili Analysis 16 June 2020
Armenia: Streets That Elevated Maverick Opposition Leader To Premiership Two Years Ago Are Now Challenging Him

Amid the raging coronavirus pandemic, supporters of the opposition Prosperous Armenia Party leader Gagik Tsarukyan took to the streets of Yerevan to challenge Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, who was swept into power two years ago in a bitter confrontation with then president Serzh Sargsyan.

Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, who came to power in the wake of street protests in 2018, first encountered a mass rally against his rule. After the Armenian National Security Service (NSS) called the leader of the largest opposition party, Gagik Tsarukyan, for questioning, who criticized the prime minister for “failure in all areas,” hundreds of protesters gathered under the ministry’s windows with the slogan “Nikol, leave!” This was the culmination of the prime minister’s verbal confrontation with the opposition, which he called "political bacilli". The conflict pushed the opposition to unity. 

From the early morning on Sunday, the National Security Service raided the offices of the Prosperous Armenia Party (PAP) and its leader Gagik Tsarukyan’s house outside Yerevan. The PAP is the second parliamentary party in the Armenian parliament, although the advantage of the My Step ruling bloc is such that it almost does not allow the PPA to influence the agenda: 25 seats versus 88.

Gagik Tsarukyan, in turn, is known as one of the richest entrepreneurs of Armenia and a generous philanthropist. As PPA MPs told reporters the search was related to an alleged attempt to bribe voters during the 2017 parliamentary elections in Martuni. Therefore, the NSS, according to party representatives, is also conducting searches in this city - at the scene of the alleged crime.

Ministers and deputies from the ruling bloc My Step confirmed this statement by posting on their pages on social networks a document that indicates which bribes were allegedly handed out to obtain the desired election result. True, skeptics point out that there are no signatures and seals on the document.

Another suspicion concerns Tsarukyan’s business. According to the NSS, the Shangri-La casino, owned by the politician’s family, violates tax laws and gambling laws, as a result of which the state has not received 29.75 billion drams (approximately $ 62 million). On June 13, the NSS investigative department opened a criminal case in this regard.

It is noteworthy that just a week ago, Nikol Pashinyan replaced the heads of all law enforcement agencies of Armenia, including the NSS. The new head of the NSS is 29-year-old Col Argishti Kiaramyan.

Opposition leader Gagik Tsarukyan categorically rejects all charges against him and attributed the charges to the “political persecution”.

“Of course, this is political persecution,” he told reporters. “I said that the government of Nikol Pashinyan cannot cope with the situation. Now the pandemic is raging in the country, in three months there will be hunger. But I will be the son of a fallen woman if I retreat,” he added

Parliamentary Vice-Speaker from the PPA Vahe Enfiajyan opined that the party is ready to “apply all measures provided by law to stop these lawlessness”.

Speaking to the party associates on June 5, Tsarukyan harshly criticized the government of Nikol Pashinyan, calling for his resignation. “Today, seeing all these failures and setbacks, I believe that the government needs to be completely changed for 100 per cent. It’s unpleasant for me to say this, but we see that all spheres have failed,” he said.

He added that “I am ready to meet and discuss the current situation and ways out of it with any healthy political force, the head of a public organization and people who are concerned about the future of the country.”

Meanwhile, the current actions of the Armenian authorities have led to the fact that for the first time since the coming to power of Nikol Pashinyan, people took to the streets demanding his resignation. When Gagik Tsarukyan arrived at the NSS headquarters to testify, about 500 protesters gathered and chanted: “Nikol, go away!” and “Tsarukyan - Premier”, clearly beating the chant “Nikol - Premier”, which was once popular at the anti-government rallies back in 2018.

The police detained around 300 people and were soon set free after drawing up the protocols. The government’s argument is that all public gatherings are banned under the state of emergency.

In addition, calls for the dismissal of the government and the prosecution of all officials who failed to fight the coronavirus as was acknowledged by the prime minister himself, were made by the former head of the NSS, Artur Vanetsyan, who, after his resignation in 2019, went into opposition against the prime minister and his call was backed by the ultra-nationalist Dashnaktsutyun party. Artur Vanetsyan said that he regularly meets Gagik Tsarukyan.

On the other hand, the government alleges that equality is the key principle and is similarly applied to each citizen of the country.

“If Mr. Tsarukyan believes that his political statements affect the normal course of the investigation, then this is a wrong calculation, because in Armenia everyone is equal before the law. Including the law on confiscation of illegally acquired property, which may also be a cause for concern for Mr. Tsarukyan,” Armenian Prime Minister’s press secretary Mane Gevorgyan said on her Facebook page.

Nikol Pashinyan himself has been making tough statements to his opponents over the past few days, calling them “political bacilli” and claiming that “they are building their own political tombstone,” and after the end of the coronavirus pandemic, “they will end up in the rubbish dump of Armenia’s political history”.

“I think that over the past two years the police, the NSS have applied too little power to some people, and soon they should use so much power that they can no longer hear their sound,” Pashinyan told a parliamentary session on June 12.

An unusually harsh statement addressed to the opposition was made by the head of the My Step faction Lilit Makunts.

“Calling for consolidation in the fight against the ruling party in an epidemic, relying on the PM’s disease, is the same as conspiring against the state during the war,” she told Facebook on June 6, when Nikol Pashinyan was still ill with the coronavirus.

“In Armenia, there is a tendency when representatives of the previous government and people who, with impunity, committed various crimes, including those related to the electoral process, having learned that cases are being prepared in the law-enforcement bodies and there is evidence related to their activities, begin He’s very active in imitating politics,” Alen Simonyan, deputy speaker of the parliament from the ruling bloc My Step, said.

According to Simonyan, Gagik Tsarukyan initially criticized the government only in order to exchange his refusal of opposition activity for protection from a criminal case. “But, as you know, the current government does not agree on such conditions and generally does not agree with people who are accused of crimes,” Alain Simonyan said.