House Cleaning in Armenia

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By Edmond Y. Azadian

Only a few years ago, the Turkish parliament presented a treasure trove of bad behavior for scandal lovers, as members of the parliament would get in fistfights, in plain view of a worldwide television audience.

It seems that the Turks have put their house in order by devising other methods of settling scores in the parliament; they either dissolve political parties, as it happened recently to a pro-Kurdish party, or strip immunity of the parliamentarians and send them to jail. And at times, they commission mysterious assassination squads.

Thus they are able to project a sophisticated image in the parliament, always mindful that the European Union is watching Turkey in its march towards democratization and civilization.

It seems that the old-fashioned scandalous behavior has moved further East, particularly to Armenia, where the political elite is engaged in a Caucasian-style violence.

The recent resignation of Yerevan’s mayor, Gagik Beglarian, touched off a barrage of other resignations or reprehensible behavior, necessitating corrective action.

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During the last mayoral election, Mr. Beglarian (popularly called Chorny [Black] Gago) enjoyed the active support of the ruling coalition to defeat Levon Ter-Petrosian in his bid to win the mayoral post.

It seems that as Mr. Beglarian does not enjoy classical music, he sent his wife with a woman friend to attend Placido Domingo’s concert in Yerevan last week. Contrary to protocol, Mrs. Beglarian decided to sit next to the president in the front row. Instead, she was ushered to her proper seat by Aram Kantayan, a staff member of the presidential protocol team. After the performance she complained to her husband about the indignity, who in turn invited Mr. Kantayan to have a “little discussion,” a severe beating, allegedly, at an isolated location.

The incident naturally led to the mayor’s resignation and there is further talk of possibly filing kidnapping and assault charges against him.

This bizarre chain of events does not seem to be an isolated case and the veneer of polish of the political leaders seems to be wearing very thin at the moment.

Corruption and violence are part of the political culture there. It is said that when the martyred Prime Minister Vazgen Sargisian visited Washington, he was confronted with cases of rampant corruption by the State Department officials, and he had vowed to eradicate corruption upon his return. But he did not have time to make good on his intentions, and almost certainly he was the victim of that decision.

Beglarian’s violent behavior has its antecedents. Indeed, a few years ago, Minister of Culture Hovig Hoveyan, also a poet in his own right, was so angered by a power blackout that he threatened the chief of power grid with a gun, asking him to restore electricity to his house immediately.

Another ongoing story is also being covered by the news media in Armenia about the son of Gen. Manuel Grigoryan, Karen Grigoryan, who was elected mayor of the city of Echmiadzin, by terrorizing the voters. While an investigation was in progress about an incident in late July, in which Karen Grigoryan and a friend had reportedly beaten up an inspector of the State Rescue Service of Armenia, at the VIP lounge of the Zvartnots Airport, the young mayor has recently beaten another citizen of Echmiadzin over a dispute of displaying a poster in the city.

The airport beating was caused because Karen Grigoryan had not liked the way the inspector, Carlen Galstyan, had looked at his wife. Before going on to other cases of government corruption and resignations, it is worthy to analyze the General Manuel phenomenon. He has been given the rank of general and currently he is serving as the deputy minister of defense, because of his combat achievements in the Karabagh war, with no or little military training or education. He has turned his war exploits into political capital and together with his son and family members, they run a virtual mafia operation with impunity.

The Karabagh war has produced many heroes, who upon return to Armenia have become troublemakers, placing themselves above the law. Some have joined the opposition and have had run- ins with the law, yet they claim to be absolved of blame for their behavior because of their otherwise laudable role in the war.

Those who have built the Karabagh army or have played a positive combat role in Karabagh are cashing in, in Yerevan. One of those figures is Samuel Babayan, former defense minister of Karabagh and one-time car wash attendant, who began to act as a warlord after the ceasefire, and tried to assassinate the Karabagh President Arkady Ghugassian. And after a brief period of incarceration, he was released through the good offices of the former President Robert Kocharian. Currently he has set up shop in Yerevan; he has formed his own political party and is engaged in several very lucrative businesses. Among the Karabagh profiteers one could name President Kocharian himself, who for his role in the war, was rewarded by former President Ter-Petrosian, by being nominated the prime minister, before pushing his way to the presidency. All these cases remind us the characters in a satirical book by Yervant Odian called, The Parasites of the Revolution.

The current minister of defense, Seyran Ohanian, was brought from Karabagh for his military prowess. President Serge Sargisian had his early beginnings in Karabagh.

Of course, it is obscene and discriminatory to label people according to their origins. Some people in Armenia resent the presence of Karabaghtzis’ role in Armenia. For that matter they also resent Diaspora Armenians. Yet, as a matter of principle, we claim that those sentiments are divisive; there is one united Armenian people extending from Karabagh to Yerevan and from there to the diaspora.

Yet the Karabagh people move to Armenia with their cronies to monopolize businesses and to peddle power, much to the chagrin of the local people. And yet we deplore the demographic deficit in Karabagh.

I have a real-life story to illustrate the situation, which sounds like an anecdote: a Yerevan friend of mine was a successful businessman, yet whatever venture he undertook, he failed. Last time I met him, he was unemployed and despondent. To my question as to what would be his next business venture, he replied: “I have decided to move the graves of my parents and grandparents to Karabagh to be able to claim Karabaghtzi ancestry. That’s how I can succeed in a Yerevan business.” It’s ironic but it’s the reality of life.

All these problems seem to be side issues but they complicate the development of Armenia as a civil society.

It looks like a major house cleaning has begun in Armenia. Following the resignation of the Yerevan mayor, Minister of Justice Gevorg Danielyan was dismissed by Prime Minister Tigran Sargisian, for “improper performance of his official duties.” The prime minister has further stated that “we must attach great importance to the maintenance of ethics and officials’ behavior in all departments. The head of the compulsory enforcement service has violated the ethics rules!”

On the heels of the resignation of the justice minister comes another resignation — that of the chief accountant of Serge Sargisian’s administration, Anahit Zakaryan, for misappropriation of funds. According to press reports, she is the mother of five daughters and she has given each of them an apartment as a wedding dowry, at the public’s expense.

All these incidents and resignations indicate one sad phenomenon, that corruption and political violence are rampant on all levels of the government. On the other hand they also confirm that there is the will to face the challenge and take the remedial action. Upon the dismissal of the mayor, the press secretary of the president, Armen Arzoumanyan, stated: “Armenia’s president has expressed his position many times on similar behavior. Such a conduct is unacceptable and intolerable. And even more so for high government officials.”

We have to be mindful that all these people have their own power bases. Only a strong government can enforce the law over powerful people. It seems that the Sargisian administration feels comfortable and confident enough to take such strong actions.

While taking necessary action in house cleaning, the government and the people of Armenia should also be watching the borders, because the enemy is still at the gate.

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