Commentary: Oligarchy on the Defensive


By Edmond Y. Azadian

While the Cold War is intensifying over the Syrian crisis, pitting again the old warriors against each other, an internal crisis is brewing in Armenia with broad ramifications; this time the oligarchy is on the defensive, mind you, not yet on the run.

In order to put the crisis in perspective a background flashback is warranted here.

Since Armenia emerged as an independent country, it claimed to have adopted the system of market economy, replacing the Soviet-style command economy. But it turned out that only the worst traits of capitalism were adopted and practiced giving rise to a sharp divide between the rich and the poor. A caste of oligarchs evolved, making its own rules of conduct and placing itself over the law and the constitution.

Each oligarch has a fleet of luxury cars driven by a band of bodyguards to follow the movements of their boss, always ready to take the law into their hands, at the nod of their bosses. Their cars have special license plates to intimidate and threaten traffic police, who remain mindful of job security and leave alone the oligarchs and their mafia-type bodyguards to violate all laws with impunity.

At times these oligarchs have killed or driven away foreign investors who inadvertently have violated their business turf. Therefore it is self-evident why Diaspora Armenians or other foreign investors stay away from meddling into the affairs of these oligarchs who have instituted a chokehold over Armenia’s economy. To buy impunity from any prosecution, these oligarchs are keen to be elected as parliament members.

A journalist once asked sarcastically why these oligarchs need so much protection. They must have hurt somebody that they are scared for their lives.

Indeed, the bodyguards of these oligarchs have beaten to death many citizens without any consequences. A much-highlighted case was the killing of a man named Vartan Vartanian by the then- President Robert Kocharian’s bodyguards at the Aragast Café.

The oligarchs practice the “Wild West” model of politics. Last year, the newly-elected mayor of Yerevan, Gagik Beglarian, beat one of President Serge Sargisian’s protocol staff members who had refused to bend the protocol rules to accommodate the whims of the mayor’s wife. Beglarian was asked to resign but before a year elapsed he was awarded with a ministerial office, rendering the government into a revolving door.

Of course the opposition media uses all these incidents to criticize the government to no avail. But a recent incident proved to be the straw that broke the camel’s back. On June 17, the body- guards of powerful oligarch Ruben Hairabetian (nicknamed Nemetz Rubo) decided “to teach a lesson” to a group of visitors to the Harsnakar hotel and resort in the suburbs of Yerevan. The resort is owned by Mr. Hairabetian. (Incidentally, all these oligarchs have nicknames like Nemetz Rubo, Lfik Samo, Dody Gago, etc. and they don’t resent the nomenclature; they rather carry

them as badges of honor.) The bodyguards, allegedly under orders from their boss, gave a beating to the visiting group, killing one, army surgeon Vahe Avedian.

The incident touched off intense public outrage which hit the political scene like an avalanche.

Last May, Mr. Hairabetian was elected a member of the parliament on the ruling Republican Party ticket. He is also the head of the Armenian Football Federation.

To calm public outrage, the president met with Hairabetian, who, upon leaving the presidential palace, issued an apology and resigned from the parliament. Despite those steps, vigils are continuing at the site of the crime and the public is demanding more retribution. Hairabetian is being asked to quit his position at the Football Federation while some maximalists are even asking the government to confiscate Mr. Hairabetian’s assets and throw him in jail.

This time around, the public has had enough of such unruly con- duct, which had been continuing over the years with impunity.

Of course, this incident also became a God-sent golden opportunity for the opposition to use against the ruling Republican Party. The incident became a cause celebre for the entire spectrum of the opposition parties. At this point, four political parties have rallied around the case, asking Hovik Abrahamian, the Speaker of the Parliament, to hold a special session to discuss the issue and take action.

Forty-four members of the parliament need to sign the petition, in order for the speaker to call a special session. At this writing the opposition had not garnered that number yet.

But a very important picture has evolved in the process: the opposition parties thus far had acted in disparate courses, but this time around, they have found a case which warrants their cooperation. Until recently, the Armenian National Congress and the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF) were mortal enemies. Gagik Zaroukian’s Prosperous Armenian Party was a coalition partner with the president’s Republican Party until the parlia- mentary elections of last May. At this time, they seem to have part- ed ways. All the above opposition parties plus the Heritage Party have signed the petition requesting the special session.

The news media is continuing to give extensive coverage to the issue indicating that public anger will not quiet down any time soon.

Meanwhile, some voices from the Republican quarters have been asking not to politicize the issue since the law enforcement authorities and the courts have taken up the issue. One such voice was the Republican member of the parliament Artashes Geghamian. But voices of defense are far and few since no one wishes to take the risk of countering public anger, which has become a cumulative force reflecting anger not just at this incident but the group’s modus operandi.

This time around it seems that public outrage has struck a balance in the legal system to tame a self-appointed caste and make it accountable to the court.

For the first time, the oligarchs are on the defensive but not yet on the run.