By Mark Dovich
On June 16, Armenia’s National Assembly voted 87-0 to strip lawmaker Gagik Tsarukyan of his parliamentary immunity and issue a permit for his arrest after Prosecutor General Artur Davtyan brought the issue before the legislature. Of the 87 members of the 132-seat parliament who took part in the ballot, all but one were members of the ruling My Step alliance. In contrast, representatives of the opposition parties Prosperous Armenia and Bright Armenia boycotted the vote. The National Assembly’s decision paves the way for Tsarukyan’s formal indictment and arrest on criminal charges recently brought against him by Armenia’s National Security Service (NSS).
The irony that Davtyan brought the issue of lifting Tsarukyan’s immunity before the legislature has not been lost on many observers, who recall that Davtyan himself, then as a lawmaker representing the Yelk alliance, put forward the issue of stripping Nikol Pashinyan, now Prime Minister, of his immunity in early 2018. Davtyan later withdrew that request.
Tsarukyan is one of Armenia’s richest men and the longtime leader of Prosperous Armenia, currently the largest opposition party in the National Assembly. Though Tsarukyan ran several small businesses in the 1980s and 1990s, he began to expand his business holdings considerably only after the 1998 presidential election, which brought Robert Kocharyan to power. A close friend and business partner of Kocharyan’s brother Valery, Tsarukyan was able to leverage his connections with the government to pick up major state contracts and acquire numerous state assets that were up for privatization. Today, Tsarukyan is especially well-known for his entrepreneurial activities in the construction sector and the hospitality industry, particularly hotels and casinos.
Following the National Assembly’s vote, Tsarukyan was taken in for questioning by the NSS, which later confirmed that it had submitted an arrest warrant for Tsarukyan to the Shengavit branch of the Yerevan Court of General Jurisdiction. Meanwhile, Tsarukyan has repeatedly railed against what he has termed a politically-motivated “fabricated case.”
The decision to lift Tsarukyan’s immunity and issue a permit for his arrest follows a June 14 announcement by the NSS that the government had initiated three criminal cases against Tsarukyan on charges of “inflicting damage to property by deception or abuse of confidence” and conducting “illegal entrepreneurial activity.” The first criminal case alleges that Tsarukyan evaded more than $60 million in taxes on revenues earned from two large casinos he owns. The second case concerns Tsarukyan’s role in a purported vote-buying scheme organized by Prosperous Armenia in the region of Gegharkunik during the 2017 parliamentary elections. The third and final case implicates Tsarukyan in an illegal purchase of state land in his hometown of Arinj.
The same day, NSS officers raided Tsarukyan’s home outside of Yerevan and confiscated numerous documents. Following the search, Tsarukyan was taken to the NSS building and questioned for nearly nine hours, after which he was released. During that time, his supporters rallied in front of the NSS building, calling for Tsarukyan to be released and Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan to resign. By day’s end, more than 250 demonstrators had been detained, as the ongoing state of emergency over the coronavirus pandemic bans large gatherings.
Aside from the ongoing criminal cases initiated by the NSS, Tsarukyan has long been the subject of controversy over a 1979 decision by the Supreme Court of Soviet Armenia that found Tsarukyan and several other individuals guilty of sexual assault. In that case, Tsarukyan was sentenced to seven years in prison, though it remains unclear if Tsarukyan actually served that sentence. During Kocharyan’s presidency, the Armenian Court of Cassation overturned the 1979 verdict and acquitted Tsarukyan on the grounds that his “participation in the crimes committed had not been proven.”
The initiation of criminal cases against Tsarukyan now, the vote to strip him of his parliamentary immunity, and the issuance of arrest warrants for him all represent significant escalations in the growing tensions between the opposition leader and the current administration. In recent weeks, Tsarukyan has been increasingly vocal in his criticism of the government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic and the economic crisis caused by efforts to curb the disease’s spread, going so far as to call for Pashinyan’s government to resign, in a heated speech on June 5.
Even before the National Assembly’s vote to strip him of immunity and issue a permit for his arrest, Tsarukyan had repeatedly lashed out at the government over the initiation of criminal cases against him, claiming that the developments were politically motivated. In one particularly combative speech, Tsarukyan said of the allegations, “it’s an escalation, it’s political, they want to put pressure on me and blackmail me.”
Several observers have expressed similar concerns, suggesting that the timeline of events—the opening of criminal cases against Tsarukyan following his speaking out against the government—supports a political motive. For instance, Armen Vardanyan, an analyst at the Armenian Institute of International Affairs and Security, pointed out in an interview with the Caucasian Knot that “when criminal cases are opened after calling for the government to resign, this speaks of a political motive.” Other observers who spoke with Caucasian Knot, including Naira Hayrumyan, an editor at the Armenian news site Lragir.am, and Boris Navasardyan, the head of the Yerevan Press Club, echoed Vardanyan’s thoughts.
It is a striking turn of events for Tsarukyan, one of several oligarchs in Armenia to have successfully navigated the country’s post-Velvet Revolution political scene—at least until recently. Despite his position as the leader of the largest opposition party in the National Assembly, Tsarukyan had long been on fairly good terms with Pashinyan personally. In 2018, Tsarukyan supported many of the demands put forward by protesters during the Velvet Revolution and even played a key role in pushing for the early parliamentary elections later that year that brought Pashinyan to power.
Pashinyan, on June 16, commented publicly for the first time on the recent developments surrounding Tsarukyan, writing on his official Facebook page that, “all cases of obstructing the free will of the people…should be considered in accordance with the procedure established by the legislation of Armenia…There is no alternative to freedom, democracy, and the rule of law in Armenia. Everyone is equal before the law.”
Speculation is now swirling that the NSS may soon initiate a criminal case against Naira Zohrabyan, the General Secretary of Prosperous Armenia, for her alleged role in the aforementioned vote-buying scheme. Zohrabyan herself has confirmed she received notification that a search had been conducted in her office.
In an interview with Kommersant, Alexander Iskandaryan, the director of the Yerevan-based Caucasus Institute, described the decision to lift Tsarukyan’s immunity and issue a permit for his arrest as a “continuation of the replacement of the elite” that began in Armenia following the Velvet Revolution. Speculating on the country’s political future, Iskandaryan suggested that “the next stage will be the emergence of opposition figures from within the new elite,” that is, from within Pashinyan’s circle.