Commentary: A Witch-Hunt or Presidential Campaign?


By Edmond Y. Azadian

Last May, a global sex scandal broke out when the head of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) Dominique Straus-Kahn was arrested on charges of raping a hotel maid in New York. The charges were dropped later but Straus-Kahn, who had been considered the front-runner in the French presidential election, saw his career collapse. It is hard to prove collusion by his opponent, former French President Nicolas Sarkozy, but he was definitely the beneficiary of the scandal for a while when Straus-Kahn’s reputation was damaged. That was until another — the Socialist candidate Francois Hollande — caught up with Sarkozy and won the race.

A similar political scandal is brewing in Armenia, however, not within a sexual context, but rather regarding financial accountability. It has all the hallmarks of political motivation. Some even call it a witch-hunt, given the timing and the process the government has chosen.

The target once again is a prominent statesman, namely the former Foreign Minister of Armenia Vartan Oskanian, who has been accused of money laundering. After 10 years of service, when Oskanian retired from the position of the foreign minister, he continued to remain visible through his non-governmental organization, Civilitas Foundation. But last May’s parliamentary election propelled him into the limelight when Oskanian emerged as a leading figure when the Prosperous Armenia Party parted from the ruling coalition.

Finally, the other shoe was dropped and the party decided to continue its independent course. Of course, the political pundits see the shrewd political tactician, former President Robert Kocharian, behind all these maneuverings to set the stage for his comeback or to promote a surrogate.

As long as the party was symbolized by the opulent lifestyle of its founder Gagik Zaroukian it was not considered a serious political asset, but Oskanian’s emergence as the second man in command changed the political complexion of the party. Therefore, it became apparent that if not Kocharian then Oskanian would be facing Serge Sargisian as a contender during next year’s presidential election. That perception was enough to mark him as a target in the presidential race. Hence, the accusation of money laundering to tarnish his reputation by the election time. Some people believe the inspiration for the accusation comes from the Ukraine, where one-time presidential contender and Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko (nee Grigyan) was convicted to a seven-year prison term for abusing her office in brokering a gas deal with Russia in 2009.

Oskanian seems to be in the same kind of hot water and the state security office has been interrogating him and his assistant Salpi Ghazarian has also been invited for questioning. At issue are grants provided to Civilitas by some foreign governments and wealthy donors. Civilitas Foundation has issued a press release revealing the sources of its funding. Thus $1.5 million was received from the Norwegian government and $150,000 from Eduardo Eurnekian.

The press release is concluded with the following paragraph: “Civilitas expresses thanks to all current donors as well as those

with whom we have partnered in the past. They are the government of Germany, the government of Norway, the government of Poland, the government of Switzerland, the government of the Netherlands, the government of the UK (DFID), government of the US (USAID), Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), Eurasia Partnership Foundation and the German Marshall Fund of the US/Black Sea Trust. Special thanks go to Mr. Jon Huntsman.”

One may question why would so many governments and other agencies provide these funds, certainly not for charity but to buy influence, but not the type of influence that brought the Revolution of Roses in Georgia or the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, through a global policy of containing Russia. Those would require a more massive infusion of funds, and Armenia is not yet ripe for that kind of upheaval.

There are a few factors that lead political analysts to believe that the investigation is politically motivated. First there was no investigation whatsoever before Oskanian was elected to the parliament. The timing of the investigation could not be coincidental. In the Armenian parliamentary elections, sometimes the prominent leaders heading the list drop their mandate to let the second person in line to serve in the parliament.

There were some speculations that Oskanian would do the same, but on May 25 it became apparent that he would stay and he meant business; that triggered the investigation.

Also, tax evasion cases are not uncommon. Many oligarchs are caught in those cases and after a slap on the wrist they pay a fine on a portion of back taxes and they are relieved (especially when they are on the right side of the political spectrum). And such mat- ters are handled normally by tax authorities. But in this case, the prosecutor’s office and state security agency are involved to crim- inalize the case.

Oskanian himself has made a strong statement about the case: “In order to launder the money that money has to be dirty to begin with. In this case, the sources of money are known and the recipient is known, too. The contributions to me and to Civilitas have been transferred in a transparent manner, through the bank and through the wishes of the donors. The lawyers have not identified any violations of tax laws in these transactions. According to the contracts the funds transferred to the recipient are considered donations, and the recipient is entitled to use them to achieve the purposes conscribed in the by-laws of the organization. Only people with political motivation can reduce these donations, made by good people for good causes, to political money change.”

The opening salvo against Oskanian came from a hired gun in California in a caustic article, which was distributed online. This investigation seems to be a follow up process. Observers have been wondering where can this campaign lead. If Oskanian’s political profile is enhanced in Armenia, the campaign may intensify, otherwise it may fizzle out. Thus far, this investigation has boosted his popularity. Unless more incriminating facts emerge, the campaign can only improve Oskanian’s popularity.

The present administration has an effective political machine to mow any opposition. Ter-Petrosian’s powerful opposition and popular movement eventually was pulverized and reduced to a meager and tame opposition group in the parliament.

By all counts, the presidential campaign is in full gear and the political witch-hunt with it.