Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Armenian Political Upstart Arrested

An inglorious protest meeting in Yerevan could mark the end of Arkady Vardanian's brief political career
By Mark Grigorian

Businessman-turned-politician Arkady Vardanian has been jailed for 10 days for organising a demonstration in Yerevan aimed at toppling Armenia's "criminal regime".


Between 8,000 and 9,000 Vardanian supporters marched on the president's administrative headquarters on October 30, demanding President Robert Kocharian's resignation.


However, an hour before the rally was due to take place, dozens of plain-clothes police smashed through the door of Vardanian's office and took the chairman of the 21st Century Association to a nearby police station.


Here, the would-be politician was told that he could face a criminal prosecution for staging an "illegal procession" - a warning which he has since described as "blackmail". He was subsequently allowed to take part in the meeting.


That evening, police arrived at Vardinian's residence and took him into custody. His wife, Yelena, later complained that the house was ransacked by the Armenian security services.


The rally was followed by a brief media crackdown. A reporter for the private Yerevan-based TV channel A1+ was arrested whilst four other TV companies had videotapes confiscated by police. Channel A1+ and Noyan Tapan ("Noah's Ark") broadcasts were interrupted.


On the following day, President Kocharian told newspaper editors that a criminal case had been opened against Vardanian - a fact later confirmed by interior minister Hayk Harutiunian.


The crackdown has been condemned by political leaders across Armenia. MP Shavarsh Kocharian said, "It would appear that the authorities are doing everything in their power to turn Vardanian into a people's hero."


Arkady Vardanian's brief political career began this summer when the Moscow-based businessman announced his intention to force President Kocharian to resign.


A former Yerevan journalist, Vardanian was jailed by the Soviet regime in the 1980s, reportedly for probing corruption in the local bureaucracy. In the wake of perestroika, he moved to Moscow where he set up a number of commercial enterprises, including the well-known restaurant, Serebryanny Vek ("The Silver Age").


On returning to the Armenian capital in 1998, Vardanian publicly declared his support for Kocharian - allegedly on the understanding that he would later be appointed prime-minister.


In 1992, the entrepreneur founded the Yerevan-based newspaper, Novoe Vremya ("New Time"), which rapidly became the most respected Russian-language daily in Armenia. He continued to finance the paper until September this year when the editorial board suspended publishing in protest against their sponsor's political stance.


Up until this summer, Vardanian's media holdings comprised two newspapers and a radio station. Plans were even afoot to set up a TV company. These plans were shelved after his second newspaper, Noratert, was closed down in the midst of a financial scandal.


However, undeterred by the collapse of his media empire, Vardanian promptly launched his political career, travelling extensively through the country in a bid to whip up popular support.


Edik Hovsepian, a resident of Armenia's second city, Vanadzor, remembers, "He arrived in Vanadzor and called on us to overthrow the president whom we elected. How could he say that? His words really took us by surprise. Perhaps he was supported by subversive political forces in Yerevan."


Vardanian's speeches focused on Armenia's ailing economy and poor social conditions. Political analyst Hrach Tatevian commented, "He says things to please everyone. He gives hope to ordinary people."


MP Samvel Avetisian agrees. "The social situation in Armenia is so grave and there are so many unsolved political problems that it's easy to become the hero of the hour by exploiting these tensions and difficulties."


But, while slamming the authorities and demanding Kocharian's resignation, Vardanian offers the people few solutions of his own. Says Tatevian, "He doesn't attempt to show how he might be able to improve people's lives. It's not politics, it's populism."


This, perhaps, is not surprising, since Vardanian is technically a Russian citizen and cannot stand for parliamentary, let alone presidential office. Journalist Rouben Meloyan points out, "From the legal point of view, he has no political future. I think he understands that."


Hrach Tatevian believes Vardanian's political ambitions are nothing more than a flash in the pan. "The meeting and procession on October 30 may well mark the end of his political career," says Tatevian.


Mark Grigorian is a regular IWPR contributor


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