Multi-millionaire businessman Gagik Tsarukian is using populist appeal and vast financial resources to make his political party, Prosperous Armenia, a strong potential contender in next spring's parliamentary elections.
The 50-year-old businessman, who arguably boasts Armenia's largest fortune, has already spent millions of dollars on providing relief aid, free medical treatment and other ordinarily public services to tens of thousands of low-income people. The aid, heavily advertised by Tsarukian-funded television stations, is prompting growing concern among the country's mainstream political groups that view it as a massive vote-buying operation.
Prosperous Armenia, set up a year ago, now claims to be by far Armenia's largest political party. In a country with a population of 3 million, the party claims to have some 240,000 members and over 400 offices. "Everyone is surprised that we have managed to create such a strong party within a short period of time," Tsarukian told thousands of supporters in Yerevan on December 15. "I am not doing this to gain something for myself," he said. "I have everything. I just want us to live in a strong and prosperous country."
Tsarukian, better known to most Armenians as Dodi Gago, is thought to be the wealthiest and most influential of Armenia's top government-connected entrepreneurs, owning over a dozen big businesses and living in a huge villa perched on a hilltop overlooking the northern outskirts of Yerevan. Like other "oligarchs," Tsarukian moves around in a motorcade of luxury cars with virtually identical license plates, surrounded by intimidating bodyguards.
The unusually muscular tycoon, who reportedly served a prison sentence for rape in Soviet times, rose to prominence in the late 1990s as a minority shareholder in a French-owned brewery in Abovian, a town 15 kilometers north of the Armenian capital. His business empire has since expanded dramatically, not least because of his close ties with President Kocharian.
The dominant view among Armenian politicians and observers is that Prosperous Armenia is the brainchild of Kocharian, who seems keen to retain an influential role in government after completing his second and final term in 2008. Opinion is only divided on whether the party is meant to serve as a counterweight to the ruling Republican Party of Armenia or as a powerful addition to the government camp.
Either way, Tsarukian's party appears to be winning over many impoverished voters disillusioned with both the government and the opposition. Over the past few months these voters have been bombarded with television pictures of truckloads of wheat and potato seeds sent by Tsarukian to villages across the country, most of them hard hit by last summer's severe drought.
Defending Tsarukian, Kocharian insisted on December 15 that Prosperous Armenia's success should not be attributed to its "benevolent actions." "There is demand in our society for a new political force that comes up with a very understandable slogan,
Emil Danielyan is a Yerevan-based journalist and political analyst.