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Armenia: Political Sparks Fly

Government party in trouble after one of its members linked to fight at electricity supply office.
By Karine Asatrian
The resignation of Armenian culture and youth minister Hovik Hoveian following a violent incident has put strain on his party’s position within the governing coalition.



The incident took place on January 4, when the lights went out in an apartment building in the centre of the capital Yerevan. Residents including Hoveian, who belongs to the Orinats Yerkir (Country of Law) party, and his son went round to the offices of the local electricity department to complain about the blackout.



An altercation ensued, after which several staff members at the office checked into hospital with head injuries.



The outgoing minister says he was present during the fracas but intervened only after things turned nasty. He has not offered an explanation of what happened, but insists he merely tried to protect his son, “both as a father and as a citizen”.



Staff at the office, whom IWPR contacted by telephone, refused to comment on the incident although they confirmed it had taken place.



A criminal investigation has been launched into the case.



A day after the incident, Hoveian offered his resignation – which was swiftly accepted by President Robert Kocharian.



“Not wishing to cause speculation about my party and my colleagues in government, and bearing in mind that such speculation has already begun, I am announcing my resignation,” Hoveian announced after a party meeting.



Hoveian’s party, the Republican Party and the nationalist Dashnaktsutiun party are the three partners in Armenia’s governing coalition. Orinats Yerkir was awarded the culture ministry as part of an agreement struck in 2003, and Hoveian became minister the following year.



The party has sought to distance itself from the incident. Deputy party leader Mher Shahgeldian told Radio Liberty, “Mr Hoveian is a member of the party and, understandable as his action is from a human point of view since it concerned his son, from a political standpoint the position of Orinats Yerkir is clear - an incident of this kind is unacceptable.”



There has been speculation in the Armenian press that the case could lead to a split in the governing coalition.



According to opposition deputy Suren Sureniats, the ex-minister has been made a scapegoat because of continuing tensions among the coalition’s member parties.



“I think his resignation is meant to be a signal to Orinats Yerkir,” he said. “[The other coalition members] would have turned a blind eye to it if they hadn’t been seeking to address their own internal problems.”



But Vostanik Marukian of Dashnaktsutiun told IWPR that while he was pleased Hoveian had resigned, the coalition would stay together.



Strains in the coalition have been evident since last year’s discussion of the 2006 budget highlighted disagreements over the extent to which people should be compensated for the loss of savings invested in Soviet-era banks. Orinats Yerkir argued for high levels of compensation, a stance its coalition partners regarded as populist.



The former culture minister is not the first public official to be embroiled in a damaging episode. In April 2004, the then minister of urban construction, Ara Aramian – also an Orinats Yerkir member - resigned when his son Haik was arrested after firing off a gun in a Yerevan café, wounding five people. The younger Aramian was later given a suspended jail sentence.



Last August, the son of Foreign Minister Vardan Oskanian ran over and injured a 25-year-old man in central Yerevan while driving a new armour-plated car belonging to the ministry. Oskanian was severely reprimanded by President Kocharian, but did not resign. The injured man did not press criminal charges.



After a meeting with the president, Orinats Yerkir was given the right to nominate another of its members to be culture minister. A new minister will be appointed in late January or early February.



According to Hranush Hakopian, a Republican Party deputy who chairs parliament’s commission on science, education, culture and youth, “I think this incident will be a lesson to everyone, not just ministers.”



Karine Asatrian is a journalist with the A1+ television company in Yerevan.