Oscanian case can backfire against Armenian authorities

Vartan Oscanian

After his political immunity was formally revoked in parliament at the beginning of October, former Foreign Minister and prominent opposition politician, Vartan Oskanian, was officially charged on 8 October with the misappropriation of $1.4 million donated by U.S. philanthropist, John Hunstman Sr. to the Civilitas Foundation, a think tank Oskanian founded in 2008.

Karina Gould followed reactions in Armenia and beyond for CEW.

The news was not well received by the international community. U.S. Ambassador John Heffern called the charges in a video statement he released last week “bad for justice and for democracy in Armenia.” He continued that the case “appears to represent the selective application of Armenian law.” The timing of which, he thought might have something to do with the upcoming “election schedule” in Armenia. A coincidence he found “troubling.” Heffern concluded by urging “the Government of Armenia to live up to its commitments to the systematic, fair, and transparent implementation of the rule of law.”

Ambassador Heffern’s concerns were echoed by Axel Fischer, Rapporteur for the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PAC E) to Armenia. “This is especially worrying in the light of the persistent allegations that political motives have played a role in the charges that are levied against him,” stressed the PAC E rapporteur. Furthermore, Fischer underscored that, “If substantiated, these allegations would mean a step backwards from the positive trend with regard to political normalisation that we have witnessed over the last year and a half.”

In response, spokesperson of the ruling Republican Party of Armenia (RPA) and Deputy Speaker of the National Assembly, Eduard Sharmazanov, stated that “this is a legal matter and it is impermissible to politicise this matter.” “I do not share the view in the Honourable Ambassador [Heffern’s] statement that this is a selective application of the law,” commented Sharmazanov. “I believe the ambassadors themselves likewise must refrain from politicising the legal matters in Armenia and linking them to elections. The Armenian authorities’ battle is not against individuals, but against bad phenomena,” explained the ruling party spokesperson.

Oskanian denies any wrong-doing and has refused to fight the legal battle in court, dismissing the entire endeavour as political persecution. The lawmaker and the Prosperous Armenian Party (PAP) have repeatedly called these charges an attempt to pressure the PAP, the second strongest party in the National Assembly into supporting the ruling party’s incumbent president, Serzh Sargsyan, in next February’s elections.

In an interview with the German newspaper, Die Welle, Oskanian labelled the charges as not only an attack against himself, but also against his party and democracy in general. “Armenia is preparing for presidential elections, and I am a member of a party that, if [it] participates, may prove to be a serious [challenge] to the ruling party,” elaborated the former Foreign Minister to Die Welle.

Rumours have also been circulating as to Oskanian’s intent to challenge Sargsyan in next year’s presidential elections. Shortly after the charges were announced, Oskanian revealed in an interview with CivilNet TV (the media branch of Civilitas Foundation) that he would be ready to take up the challenge if his party desired it. “It is natural that the first choice as candidate should be the party’s [the PAP] leader Gagik Tsarukyan. However, if Mr. Tsarukyan decides that he doesn’t want to be a candidate and the party decides on my candidacy, I am ready to assume this responsibility,” said Oskanian.

According to Hmayak Hovaninisian, the Oskanian case will test “whether the PAP has the will not to bow to the government pressure and to remain an independent party.” Hovannisian also added that the case against Oskanian, instead of intimidating the PAP is enabling Oskanian to build an image of himself as “an unjustly persecuted politician” and potentially attract a greater share of the vote.

Yervand Bozoyan, an independent political analyst in Armenia, agrees with Hovaninisian that the actions taken against Oskanian might actually serve to work in his favour. In an interview with armenianow.com, Bozoyan explained that by playing the victim card, “Oskanian, in fact, gets cleansed from his sin of justifying the actions of the authorities during the March 1, 2008 riots, and it also raises his rating to make him a plausible candidate to be nominated in the presidential elections.”

Oskanian is generally considered to be an honest and clean politician in Armenia.

In trying to eliminate Oscanian from the Presidential race before it started the Armenian government may have thought it had got rid of a problem. It may yet find out that it had created one.

Report prepared for CEW by Karina Gould with additional reporting from Armenian media sources.