Armenia’s ruling party has given more indications that it is keen to see embattled opposition leader Gagik Tsarukian quit politics despite his apparent retreat following a showdown with President Serzh Sarkisian.
After a meeting of the Republican Party of Armenia (HHK) executive body late on Thursday David Harutiunian, a senior member of the party and minister-chief of government staff, confirmed to RFE/RL’s Armenian Service (Azatutyun) that Sarkisian and Tsarukian did meet earlier this week. He declined to give any details of the meeting, though.
The meeting first reported on Tuesday followed several days of a tense standoff between the head of state, who also leads the HHK, and Tsarukian, who is the millionaire leader of the second largest parliamentary party, Prosperous Armenia (BHK), and is known to own a number of large businesses in Armenia.
The two had apparently fallen out over the need to carry out constitutional reforms in Armenia, with Sarkisian advocating a transition to a parliamentary form of government that many of his critics, including Tsarukian, have said is a means to stay in power even after he leaves his presidential post in 2018.
At a meeting of senior HHK members on February 12 Sarkisian described the BHK leader as “evil” for Armenia and called for his ouster from the political process. In response, Tsarukian and two other opposition leaders agreed to hold a joint rally in Yerevan to demand Sarkisian’s resignation.
On Wednesday, however, Tsarukian appeared to have bowed to government pressure that allegedly included detentions of some of his loyalists and inspections of their businesses. In a statement released that day he publicly called for a “peaceful way” of settling disputes. His party, meanwhile, called off the rally as a further indication of “truce” between the HHK and the BHK.
Despite all these developments, the HHK still appears to be firm in its opinion that “business should be separated from politics.” (Still, leading opposition groups in Armenia have accused the HHK of having members, including those occupying key government positions, who are themselves involved in business activities.)
Deputy Parliament Speaker Hermine Naghdalian, who is also a senior member of the HHK, said that the conciliatory remarks by Tsarukian in his statement would not affect the decision to verify reports alleging that the tycoon may have hidden large sums from the state budget in back taxes “under the guise of charity”.
Naghdalian also sounded skeptical about Tsarukian’s statements that he intended to stay in active politics.
“I think that in the coming days the events will show what actions are taken, because I’m not going to present Gagik Tsarukian’s steps instead of him,” she said.
In the meantime, according to the deputy parliament speaker, the process of stripping the BHK leader of his parliamentary mandate over “chronic absenteeism” will also continue in the National Assembly. In his speech last week President Sarkisian emphasized that Tsarukian attended only four of the 145 meetings of the legislative body in 2013-2014 – a rate sufficient for being deprived of the seat.
Harutiunian, meanwhile, described as “wise” the BHK’s decision to call off the rally slated for Friday.
“I think that holding a rally at this time when passions in the political field are strained to the limit would be fraught with dangers,” he said.
Earlier, one of the BHK’s two key opposition allies, the Armenian National Congress, said it approached the Tsarukian-led party’s decision to withdraw its participation from the rally with “understanding”. For its part, it called its supporters to gather in Yerevan’s Liberty Square on March 1.
Raffi Hovannisian, the leader of the BHK’s other opposition ally, Heritage, rallied his supporters in the square today to tell them that the opposition trio, in fact, did not exist anymore. He said he was open to cooperation with all political parties and groups seeking regime change and again called on President Serzh Sarkisian to resign.