The former head of Armenia’s National Security Service (NSS) Artur Vanetsyan has come under fire over allegations he coordinated a smear campaign against Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan’s family.
The allegations were published on Sunday on the website of the Armenian Times. Pashinyan’s wife, Anna Hakobyan, serves as the paper’s editor-in-chief.
The paper claimed to have obtained evidence that Vanetsyan worked with several media outlets, including Politik, widely considered to be hostile to Pashinyan, to spread untrue stories about the Pashinyan family. Those allegedly targeted were Hakobyan and their eldest daughter, 20-year-old Mariam Pashinyan.
‘The only question that has remained unanswered is if Vanetsyan started this campaign while he was still head of the NSS’, the article states, concluding that: ‘Most probably, yes he did’.
Vanetsyan was forced to step down as head of the NSS in September 2019 following a public falling out with the PM.
According to the Armenian Times, Vanetsyan colluded with Politik through Aram Vardanyan, who has been connected with organised crime in Armenia. Vardanyan is also known by the nickname 'Vstrechi Aper'.
Vardanyan left Armenia after news emerged that he had kidnapped a man and kept him hostage in 2017. He was arrested in Dubai and extradited to Armenia in July 2018. He was later granted amnesty in January 2019 and set free by the court.
The Armenian Times claims that through Vardanyan, Politik also started publishing pieces that would indirectly endorse Vanetsyan.
‘Of course, they did not forget to sometimes write “bad things” about Vanetsyan in order to divert attention from their scheme’, the article says.
The article claims that the mastermind behind the campaign was Ara Saghatelyan, former chief of staff of the Armenian Parliament. It claims that Saghatelyan is former president Serzh Sargsyan’s number one propagandist and a trusted confidant of Mikayel Minasyan, the former Ambassador of Armenia to the Vatican and Sargsyan’s son-in-law.
Saghatelyan is also a childhood friend of Vanetsyan, the article claims, and helped him further his career within the NSS.
According to the article, Saghatelyan assured Vanetsyan that he could come to power and prepared a strategy with him and Minasyan to discredit Pashinyan and his family, stating that the latter was one of the most important components of Pashinyan’s positive public image.
The article also stated that the trio started rumours that Pashinyan was mentally ill. The aim, it said, was to make that ‘news’ such common knowledge that removing Pashinyan from office would become a matter of national security.
Reactions and recriminations
Commenting on the article on Facebook soon after it was published, Mariam Pashinyan said she felt betrayed by Vanetsyan. In her lengthy post, she said that when Vanetsyan was appointed head of the NSS, their families became close in a short period of time, even spending evenings together.
‘I was almost convinced that their family’s desire to be close to us was honest’, she wrote. ‘It’s unfortunate that their kindness was not honest and such conspiracies were organised by Vanetsyan against our family. It turns out that the media campaign against our family was coordinated by him.’
Vanetsyan soon responded to the accusations in a post on Instagram stating that everything written in the article was a lie. ‘I would never stoop so low, my dignity as a man [...] would not allow it.’
‘For me, family is sacred and using someone’s family to discredit them is unacceptable.’
Vanetsyan wrote that it was not the first time that the author and those who requested the article be written had tried to discredit him.
‘I do have the honour’, Vanetsyan concluded.
In a post scriptum to the post, he directly addressed Mariam Pashinyan, ‘Mariam, my girl, please don’t meddle in the incomprehensible games of adults’.
After Vanetsyan’s statement, Mariam Pashinyan once again posted on Facebook, this time addressing Vanetsyan directly. ‘Artur dear, I am surprised you say that your dignity as a man won’t allow you to say anything.’
‘For the past four months, you’ve been threatening to speak without mentioning your manly dignity or the concept of family that you consider so sacred. Well, speak.’
She added that Vanetsyan’s threats were empty as he had nothing to say. ‘Give my regards to Nona, Artyom and Davit [Vanetsyan’s wife and children],’ she concluded.
After the article was published, the editor of Politik, Boris Murazi, claimed that his Facebook account had been hacked. On 12 January, he posted on Facebook that the previous night there were attempts to hack into his account.
‘[At first] I didn’t respond. Afterward, a well-known colleague of a non-commercial government organisation [Public Relations and Information Centre] wrote me in a “friendly” way about the article [...] and let me understand that it would be better to respond', wrote Murazi.
‘I am now convinced my account was actually hacked and I’m also convinced that they were not able to find any evidence there to the claims made in the article. However, they did read my personal messages. I consider this pressure from the current ruling authorities against me connected to my work as a journalist.’
Murazi also claimed that a close friend of his was previously offered a high-paying position within the Public Relations and Information Centre by the organisation’s head in exchange for information that could discredit Murazi.
‘The allegations in the article prove that this whole process was carried out under the "high" patronage of Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan and his wife Anna Hakobyan’, wrote Murazi in his Facebook post.
In a subsequent interview with Tert.am, Murazi accused the government of dismissing any truths published about them that they did not like as ‘fake news’.
‘Reporters have many sources including within the authorities’, Murazi said. ‘Pashinyan and his family members should know our sources are also from their close circles. We’re not condemning our sources, they are doing the right thing.’
According to Murazi, it was Politik that first discovered and published news of Anna Hakobyan’s secret visit to Switzerland during the World Economic Forum summit in Davos, having her hairdresser appointed as a government employee, as well the purchase of a government car for Mariam Pashinyan. ‘All of these were confirmed by the state to be true’, said Murazi.
In an interview with TV 5, Murazi said that they had not targeted the Pashinayn family on purpose. ‘They are the ones that are making themselves public’, he said.
‘Nikol Pashinyan is pushing his family forward and using them to influence the public. We’re just reporting the facts of what they are doing and what they’re trying to hide.’
Hrachya Hakobyan, an MP from the ruling My Step faction and Hakobyan’s brother, told Factor.am that Vanetsyan was removed from office not only for organising a smear campaign but also for attempting to carry out a coup.
In an interview with Azatutyun, My Step MP Arman Boshyan said that there might not be enough physical evidence to launch a criminal investigation, but that law enforcement agencies should look into the claims made in the article. ‘I do believe there is merit to these claims’, said Boshyan.
After a visit to the Tsitsernakaberd Genocide memorial complex on 13 January to mark the 30th anniversary of the Baku pogrom, Nikol Pashinyan was asked about the article but declined to respond.
In a Facebook post, Bright Armenia MP Ani Samsonyan said: ‘I sincerely hope that the next head of the NSS will not be a trusted, loved, family or devoted friend of the prime minister’s family but a professional who will be dedicated only to the state and their work. That is all.’