fbpx

Armenian parliament clears way for arrest of opposition oligarch

16 June 2020
Gagik Tsarukyan speaking in his defence in parliament.

The Armenian parliament has voted to lift the parliamentary immunity of opposition leader Gagik Tsarukyan, leading the way for his prosecution. Supporters of Tsarukyan, who leads the Prosperous Armenia Party have taken to blocking the streets of Yerevan.

Tsarukyan, one of the richest men in Armenia, is under investigation for vote-buying, illegal business practices, and organising a fraudulent land transfer scheme. 

Speaking in parliament on Tuesday, the prosecutor general of Armenia appealed for MPs to ‘end Gagik Tsarukyan’s immunity, so there can be a full and objective investigation’.

In two votes on Tuesday, parliament approved motions to strip him of his parliamentary immunity leading the way for his arrest. Both opposition parties with seats in the Armenian parliament, Tsarukyan’s Prosperous Armenia and the liberal opposition Bright Armenia Party, boycotted the votes.

Bright Armenia stated that despite their misgivings about Prosperous Armenia, they believed the decision was politically motivated, a charge the authorities have denied.

Before the motion was voted on, Tsarukyan insisted that he was innocent of the charges levied against him and that, as a politician, he only had the interests of Armenia at heart. 

‘Let no one say I’m doing this for personal gain or personal dividends’, he said.

Advertisements

Outside of parliament, scores of Tsarukyan supporters were arrested for protesting the move. In other parts of Yerevan, several lorries belonging to Multi Group, a company owned by Tsarukyan, were turned into impromptu roadblocks. Bystanders were seen on camera pushing the lorries out of the streets shortly thereafter. 

Lorries owned by Tsarukyan blocking a road in Yerevan. Image via the Bagramyan 26 Telegram channel.

According to Armenia’s Prosecutor General, Tsarukyan organised vote bribing ahead of the 2017 parliamentary elections paying out ֏170 million ($360,000) to over 17,000 voters in Gegharkunik Province.

Prosecutors have also accused him of engaging in $62 million worth of illegal business practices through his casinos and orchestrating a fraudulent land transfer scheme costing the state $800,000.

Escalating tension

Tsarukyan’s house was raided by the National Security Service (NSS) on the morning of 14 June and he was taken in for questioning for over 10 hours.

The houses of several other MPs from Tsarukyan’s Prosperous Armenia party were also searched.

The search came a week after Tsarukyan made a speech at the party’s Political Council in which he stated that the government had failed on all fronts — from domestic affairs to the economy, from negotiations around the status of Nagorno-Karabakh to its fight against the spread of COVID-19 in the country. Tsarukyan claimed the government should resign. 

Mane Gevorgyan, spokesperson to Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, shot back with a statement accusing Tsarukyan of trying to turn attention away from his criminal activity.

Soon after, court papers from a 1979 criminal case against Tsarukyan were leaked to the media.

They appear to show that Tsarukyan, along with several others, was convicted for the rape and robbery of two tourists. The verdict was overturned in 2001 following an appeal by Tsarukyan. 

After the leak, Tsarukyan’s lawyers filed a case with the General Prosecutor’s office claiming that by leaking the 41-year-old case, Tsarukyan’s right to privacy was violated.

Who is Gagik Tsarukyan?

Tsarukyan is one of the wealthiest men in Armenian politics. Having begun his business career in food processing during the 1990s, over three decades he has amassed a stake in a wide variety of industries throughout Armenia, including alcohol and food production, casinos, hotels, mineral extraction, pharmaceuticals, and most recently, bitcoin mining.

He has also had a large influence over sporting in Armenia, financially supporting a large number of athletes, sports centres, and serving as the head of the Armenian Olympic Committee since 2005. 

Tsarukyan has also had a successful if tumultuous career in politics.

In their first major electoral outing, his Prosperous Armenia party gathered 15% of the vote in the 2007 parliamentary elections, entering parliament as a junior coalition partner of the ruling Republican Party. In 2012, the party doubled its vote share to 30%. 

Tsarukyan’s political career suffered a hiccup when he publicly split with then-President Serzh Sargsyan in the aftermath of the 2012 election and left the ruling coalition. 

In 2015, he called for Sargsyan’s resignation and threatened to bring his supporters into the streets. Sargsyan, in turn, accused the oligarch of ‘stealing millions’ and removed him from the National Security Council. 

Before the conflict could escalate, Tsarukyan and Sargsyan reconciled in a meeting supposedly mediated by then-Prime Minister Hovik Abrahamyan, who is Tsarukyan’s son-in-law, as well as Russian-Armenian billionaire Samvel Karapetyan.

Following the meeting, Tsarukyan announced that he was leaving politics, and resigning from his position as an MP and head of his own party. In the autumn of 2015,  he was awarded a medal by Sargsyan for ‘services done for his country.’

Tsarukyan returned to politics in February 2017. His return also coincided with a push towards making international connections, as he feted a number of prominent eurosceptic politicians from abroad such the British former MEP Daniel Hannan, and former MP James Wharton. 

He was one of the few oligarchs and major politicians with ties to the pre-revolutionary government who had previously remained untouched by the 2018 Velvet Revolution.

 For ease of reading, we choose not to use qualifiers such as ‘de facto’, ‘unrecognised’, or ‘partially recognised’ when discussing institutions or political positions within Abkhazia, Nagorno-Karabakh, and South Ossetia. This does not imply a position on their status.