Gagik Tsarukian, the leader of the opposition Prosperous Armenia Party (BHK), accused the Armenian government of persecuting him for political reasons after security forces raided and searched his home early on Sunday.
Tsarukian was summoned to the National Security Service (NSS) and questioned there for more than eight hours following the search. It was not immediately clear if law-enforcement authorities will move to indict him.
Senior BHK representatives claimed that scores of party activists in the country’s eastern Gegharkunik province were rounded up early in the morning. They said the authorities linked the security sweep to financial activities of a former BHK candidate who ran for the Armenian parliament in 2017.
In a statement issued shortly afterwards, the NSS said that “a group of BHK members” handed out vote bribes during the 2017 parliamentary election campaign. It said it has conducted “about four dozen searches” as part of the investigation into the alleged vote buying which it said had been organized by the party’s “leading members.” The security service did not mention Tsarukian by name.
In another statement, the NSS accused two gambling firms controlled by Tsarukian of serious financial irregularities that cost the state more than 29 billion drams ($60 million) in damage.
The NSS went on to announce the opening of a third criminal case relating to Tsarukian. It claimed that the Arinj village administration had illegally sold 7.5 hectares of community land to another Tsarukian-owned firm.
Tsarukian, who is one of Armenia’s richest men and leads the country’s largest parliamentary opposition force, struck a defiant note as he spoke to reporters at the entrance to his vast villa in Arinj, a village just north of Yerevan.
He vowed to continue to fight for the resignation of Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian and his entire cabinet, again accusing them of mishandling the coronavirus crisis and mismanaging the economy.
“This is fabricated and political,” said Tsarukian. “They want put pressure on me, blackmail me.”
The BHK leader arrived at the NSS headquarters in Yerevan early in the afternoon. Hundreds of his supporters rallied nearby, chanting “Tsarukian!” and “Nikol resign!”
Riot police pushed the small crowd away from the NSS building, detaining at least 100 protesters in the process. Senior police officers at the scene said the gathering is illegal because of the coronavirus-related state of emergency in Armenia.
Dozens of supporters greeted Tsarukian as he emerged from the NSS headquarters late in the evening. The BHK leader gave no details of his lengthy interrogation when he briefly spoke to journalists. He claimed instead that the criminal cases were “fabricated” in response to his recent harsh criticism of the Armenian government.
The NSS did not immediately clarify whether it will try to arrest or indict the prominent politician and tycoon. Like all other members of the National Assembly, Tsarukian cannot be prosecuted without the parliament’s permission.
Addressing his senior loyalists on June 5, the tycoon said Pashinian and his cabinet must step down because they have failed to contain the coronavirus epidemic and mitigate its socioeconomic consequences. He also announced that he will try to rally “healthy” political groups and individuals “concerned about country’s future.”
Pashinian and his political allies reacted furiously to the unusually harsh criticism. The prime minister’s spokeswoman, Mane Gevorgian, claimed that Tsarukian attacked the government because he fears being prosecuted on corruption, tax evasion and other grave charges. She said the BHK leader should also be worried about the recent entry into force of a law allowing authorities to confiscate private assets deemed to have been acquired illegally.
The BHK, which has the second largest group in the Armenian parliament, rejected the “political blackmail.”
Gevorgian insisted on Sunday that the criminal proceedings launched against Tsarukian are not politically motivated. Speaking to RFE/RL’s Armenian service, Pashinian’s spokeswoman also criticized BHK parliamentarians for joining the protest staged outside the NSS building.
In the 2017 parliamentary race Tsarukian’s party was officially in opposition to then President Serzh Sarkisian. The latter was toppled in the Pashinian-led “Velvet Revolution” a year later. The BHK voiced support for the revolution during its final stage, helped Pashinian become prime minister and joined his first cabinet formed in May 2018.
Pashinian fired his ministers affiliated with BHK in October 2018, accusing Tsarukian of secretly collaborating with the former regime.
The BHK came in a distant second in the December 2018 parliamentary elections and won 26 seats in Armenia’s 132-member parliament. Pashinian’s My Step bloc controls 88 parliament seats.