YEREVAN—Gagik Tsarukyan, Armenia’s wealthiest businessman and leader of the opposition Prosperous Armenia Party, has been formally charged with corruption and bribery. According to his lawyer, Emin Khachatryan, late on Tuesday night, the National Security Service (NSS) filed a motion with the Yerevan Municipal Court to detain Tsarukyan under Article 154.2 of Armenia’s criminal code which deals with political bribery.
This development comes hours after the National Assembly voted to revoke Tsarukyan’s immunity from prosecution—which he was entitled to as a parliamentarian—upon the request of Prosecutor-General Artur Davtyan. In his speech to lawmakers, Davtyan accused Tsarukyan of creating and leading “an organized group that bought more than 17,000 votes for his Prosperous Armenia Party during parliamentary elections held in April 2017.” Alleged evidence of these claims was found in the businessman’s mansion in an early-morning raid on Sunday. Investigators purportedly uncovered piles of handwritten and signed letters from Tsarukyan’s known deputies formally pledging to provide him with a desired amount of votes by any means necessary for the 2017 parliamentary election. According to Davtyan, the documents even included voter names, passport numbers and the amount of bribes provided.
As Parliament debated the motion, employees of Tsarukyan’s various business interests attempted to block Yerevan’s Acharyan Street which leads to the tycoon’s mansion using buses and trucks registered to his Multi Group holding company. However, a video posted to Facebook depicted passersby removing those vehicles from the road. Another group of Tsarukyan supporters was detained by police in front of the National Assembly for violating the ban on mass gatherings under the State of Emergency.
Parliament passed the motion in a secret ballot on Tuesday with 87 of the 137 MPs voting in favor. Judging by the figures, Prosperous Armenia and Bright Armenia legislators abstained from voting.
Tsarukyan has dismissed the accusations as a politically motivated retaliation against his recent public calls for the government’s resignation over what he claims was poor handling of the ongoing pandemic. “Going against Tsarukyan marks the end of your Revolution,” Tsarukyan declared on the debate floor, addressing himself in the third person. Parliamentary Speaker Ararat Mirzoyan responded that he is guaranteed a fair trial under Armenia’s constitution.
Several extra-parliamentary opposition parties joined the two parliamentary opposition factions in condemning the charges on Tsarukyan as ‘politically motivated.’ In a written statement, the Bright Armenia Party claimed to “strongly condemn” the criminal prosecutions “resulting from political expediency and carried out through a selective enforcement of the law.” This statement was echoed by the now-ousted Republican Party communiqué which called for the “resignation of the impotent government of Nikol Pashinyan” for his alleged authoritarian behavior. Incidentally, the Republican Party itself successfully silenced a similar bout of public descent by Tsarukyan through threats of auditing and corruption charges a mere five years earlier.
The raid and ensuing charges have sparked vigorous debate among analysts and the public alike over the state of the country’s transitional justice and anti-corruption efforts. While there is widespread consensus that the charges are valid, some have questioned whether Pashinyan’s government was employing intimidation tactics against political opponents not unlike those used by the previous regime.
Tsarukyan, who is widely accused of using his close relationship with former president Robert Kocharyan (who is currently in pre-trial detention himself) to amass millions in assets and wrestle control over a vast business empire, became somewhat of an oddity as one of the few oligarchs to survive the Velvet Revolution as a political force. The oligarch-turned-politician had managed to cultivate an image of an uneasy, yet mutually beneficial alliance with the Pashinyan government, begging the question as to whether Pashinyan simply cracked down on him when he turned into a political liability.
While the timing for these charges may seem on the nose, Dr. Nerses Kopalyan, a political science professor at the University of Nevada postulates that such an argument “makes no chronological sense.” Tsarukyan and his various business dealings have been subject to a series of separate investigations long before this apparent public spat with the Pashinyan government. Tsarukyan’s holding company Multi Group has been audited by both tax and health and safety inspectors on several occasions. His personal bodyguard, Edward Babayan, was arrested on assault charges in July of 2018. Multi Group CEO Sedrak Arustamyan was arrested on multiple charges including bribery, tax evasion and money laundering relating to the construction of the North South Highway. Vahagn Gevorgyan, the mayor of the commuter-town of Abovyan (widely considered to be Tsarukyan’s seat of power) is also facing charges for allowing Multi Group to illegally privatize municipal property for condo development.
The charges do not coincide with the first time Tsarukyan publicly criticized the authorities either. While his party initially made overtures to the new government, they took part in an attempt to impede a motion for snap elections back in 2018, in which they eventually won just over eight percent of the popular vote. Since then, Tsarukyan has publicly derided the new government for its refusal to extend tariff protection to his failing businesses, accusing it of mismanaging the economy and fostering an unhealthy business climate. He also recently refused to pay his own employees’ wages when the government announced lockdowns at the start of the ongoing pandemic.
Tsarukyan is not the first public figure associated with the former government to paint himself as the victim of political repression for criticizing the new authorities. Other notable figures to make the same assertions include Mikayel Minasyan (former President Serge Sarkisian’s self-exiled son-in-law), Gagik Khachaturyan, Ruben Hayrapetyan and other oligarchs widely accused of using their ties to the previous government for self-enrichment.
Political analyst Richard Giragosian described Sunday’s raid on Tsarukyan’s compound and subsequent arrest as a strategic “determination to show an end to the previous culture of impunity that prevailed under the old government for many wealthy businessmen that entered politics.” The events of the previous week have also, in Giragosian’s view, exposed Tsarukyan as having “no real power base of his own” beyond those financially dependent on him. This view was echoed by CivilNet’s Tatul Hakobyan who characterized Tsarukyan as “playing the wrong hand and paying dearly for it.”
In Parliament on Wednesday, Prosperous Armenia MPs announced that they would call for a parliamentary inquiry into the government’s handling of the COVID-19 crisis, as well as a constitutional appeal to the ban on public demonstrations during the State of Emergency. The other parliamentary opposition party, Bright Armenia, signaled that it might join in this motion.