Political fighting is escalating as Armenia’s presidential election approaches. A long-time, former Armenian foreign minister, Vartan Oskanian, is facing controversial criminal charges in what is widely regarded as an effort by President Serzh Sargsyan to neutralize Robert Kocharian, his predecessor and potentially most dangerous rival.
Oskanian was formally charged on October 8 with financial impropriety and has been stripped of his immunity from prosecution. Political analysts view the development as a government warning to the Prosperous Armenia Party (PAP) headed by Gagik Tsarukian, a millionaire businessman close to Kocharian. The PAP, which boasts the second largest parliamentary faction, has been under pressure to throw its support behind Sargsyan’s reelection, especially since Kocharian started hinting a year ago about a political comeback. Sargsyan is seeking a second term in the upcoming presidential vote in February.
Oskanian is a Syrian-born former US citizen who served as foreign minister throughout Kocharian’s 1998-2008 tenure as president. After leaving office, he set up a Yerevan think-tank, the Civilitas Foundation, and increasingly criticized the Sargsyan administration. He stepped up that criticism after joining the PAP to run in Armenia’s May parliamentary elections.
Like Armenia’s leading opposition groups, the PAP challenged the legitimacy of the official parliamentary election results that gave a landslide victory to Sargsyan’s Republican Party of Armenia (RPA). Tsarukian, the PAP chief, later announced his party’s withdrawal from the governing coalition.
The case against Oskanian was opened the following day, on May 25. It stems from a $1.4-million donation that was made to Civilitas by US philanthropist Jon Huntsman, Sr. in late 2010. The sum was transferred to one of Oskanian’s bank accounts in January 2011. Armenia’s National Security Service (NSS) claims that Oskanian failed to deposit the sum into a separate Civilitas account and misappropriated some of the money.
Oskanian has denied the accusations, charging that they are politically motivated. “Armenia is preparing for presidential elections and this case is an attempt to exert strong pressure on the PAP ahead of those elections,” he told parliament on October 1 before its pro-government majority voted to allow the NSS to prosecute him.
Following an emergency meeting on September 28, the PAP’s executive board alleged that both Oskanian and the party were being subjected to “political persecution.” In a statement issued a few days later, Kocharian likewise called the accusations “nonsense.”
Representatives of the Sargsyan-affiliated Republican Party of Armenia, the dominant partner in the governing coalition, disavow any political motive in the criminal case against Oskanian.
If the case was meant to intimidate the PAP into falling in line behind Sargsyan’s reelection bid, it doesn’t seem to be having the desired effect. After the filing of charges against him, Oskanian told Civilitas’s online TV channel Civilnet that he is ready to run for president “if Mr. Tsarukian does not want to nominate himself as a candidate.”
The PAP has declined to comment on the election-related implications of Oskanian’s prosecution. “For tactical considerations, we don’t want to say now anything in connection with the presidential elections,” its spokesperson, Tigran Urikhanian, told EurasiaNet.org.
Republican Party representatives, meanwhile, have downplayed the significance of the PAP’s stance, insisting that Sargsyan will secure reelection with or without Tsarukian’s backing.
Still despite their feigned indifference, Sargsyan’s supporters have clearly been anxious to have Tsarukian’s support -- mindful of the beefy tycoon’s vast financial resources and populist appeal. Some members of Team Sargsyan also worry about possible covert support that Kocharian is thought to enjoy among some government elements.
“The Oskanian case is becoming a litmus test. It will show whether the PAP has the will not to bow to the government pressure and to remain an independent party,” said Hmayak Hovannisian, a veteran politician and pundit who was elected to parliament on the PAP ticket, but later relinquished his seat.
Speaking to EurasiaNet.org, Hovannisian suggested that the PAP may well endorse Oskanian’s presidential bid. He went on to say that Oskanian is now building a public image of an unjustly persecuted politician -- one who might be able to attract support from established opposition parties. During the May parliamentary election campaign, the PAP already cooperated with two of the country’s leading opposition forces: the Armenian Revolutionary and the Armenian National Congress of Levon Ter-Petrosian, another ex-president who was Sargsyan’s main challenger in the 2008 presidential election.
Over the past year, Ter-Petrosian has tried to capitalize on the deepening rift between Sargsyan and Tsarukian by making repeated overtures to the PAP. This strategy is resented by some Ter-Petrosian loyalists, as well as by rival opposition groups such as the Free Democrats and Heritage Parties. “We can’t trust a political force that fully defended this kleptocratic regime as recently as a few months ago, but is now more critical of the authorities than even the most radical oppositionists,” said Alexander Arzumanian, a Free Democrats leader, referring to the PAP.