Media Mogul Threatens Yerevan Coup

An influential businessman is throwing down the gauntlet to Robert Kocharian's government

Media Mogul Threatens Yerevan Coup

An influential businessman is throwing down the gauntlet to Robert Kocharian's government

Arkady Vardanian is calling on the Armenian people to rise up and overthrow the government. He's even set a date for his revolution: October 30 this year. It's a bold political debut for the former journalist who built himself a business empire in Moscow and a media empire in Yerevan.

But Vardanian is full of fighting talk. "On October 30," he says, "we'll gather together in the capital and deal with the criminal regime in Armenia." He goes on to explain that the existing authorities "don't have the brains to run the country" and have systematically robbed its people. The time for a reckoning, says Vardanian, has come.

Now a Russian citizen, Vardanian started his journalistic career as a reporter for the state news agency, Armenpress. In the early 1980s, he was jailed by the Soviet regime, reportedly for articles he had written denouncing corruption in official circles.

In the early days of perestroika, Vardanian moved to Moscow where he founded a string of commercial enterprises as well as the Centre for Armenian-Russian initiatives, which acts as a political lobbying body.

When the businessman returned to Armenia in 1998, he immediately declared his support for President Robert Kocharian, although sources close to Vardanian believe he hoped to be made prime-minister in return for his loyalty.

In recent months, however, the new political heavyweight has become one of Kocharian's most vocal critics.

"I really don't see any difference between Levon Ter-Petrosian [Armenia's first president] and Robert Kocharian," he says. "In 1998, people believed that the president would change life for the better but they were very soon disappointed."

Vardanian makes no secret of his own political ambitions. "I don't see anything shameful in a man who has experience and resources attempting to seize power. Power for me, first and foremost, is a means of improving the lives of the Armenian people."

However, his revolutionary outbursts have got some of his own supporters worried. On October 14, staff at the Novoe Vremya Russian-language paper, which is owned by Vardanian, voted to suspend publication. Senior editors told IWPR that they could no longer support the political line taken by their boss.

Vardanian, however, has announced publicly that the paper was forced to close "under pressure from the authorities" although he admitted, "The journalists don't share the same views on political struggle as their owner." He added that, without pressure from the ruling regime, the editorial staff might have agreed to "the idea of a joint struggle further down the line".

In fact, Vardanian's small media empire is in a state of disarray. In June, he closed down his Noratert daily, claiming that it had ceased to be financially viable. Last year, plans for the Nazareth TV channel were shelved indefinitely.

Following the closure of Novoe Vremya, Vardanian is left with his 107FM radio station which he acquired earlier this year. Observers point out that the lack of media support could seriously hamper his political career.

However, Vardanian remains committed to his revolutionary goals and is reportedly plotting a series of demonstrations and protest marches in Yerevan in a bid to force Kocharian to resign.

The businessman is apparently undaunted by the failure of Vasgen Manukian's attempted coup in the autumn of 1996. On that occasion, the leader of the National Democratic Union announced that he had beaten Ter-Petrosian in the first round of presidential elections and could not allow the authorities to ignore that victory. Following an unsuccessful storming of the Armenian National Assembly, Manukian was forced to go into hiding.

So far, President Kocharian has made no official response to Vardanian's stinging criticisms of his government. However, the state-controlled media have been swift to point out that Vardanian enjoys open support from the Armenian National Movement (ANM), the former ruling party which was toppled by Ter-Petrosian's resignation in 1998.

Some newspapers have described Vardanian as a puppet who will be used to clear the field for members of the ANM - claims that Vardanian himself has strenuously denied.

In fact, he blames the leadership of the ANM for the "moral and spiritual degradation of Armenian society. We should bring the full force of the law to bear when passing judgment on those who have committed crimes against Armenia and the Armenian people over the past 10 years."

Vardanian also denies rumours that his political campaign is being financed by the Russian media mogul, Boris Berezovsky. "That's total nonsense," he says. "I don't know Berezovsky and I've been running my own business independently since 1986."

However, Vardanian's virulent anti-government outbursts don't appear to strike a chord with people on the streets of Yerevan.

One woman told IWPR, "We don't believe anyone, especially those who promise us mountains of gold. Let things stay the way they are."

Pensioner Zaven Arevshatian believes Robert Kocharian will win another term as president. "But they'll keep fighting for power at the top whatever happens - saying they're doing so in the name of the people. Nothing's changed for the better in the last 10 years and the same will be true for the next 10 years."

Ara Tadevosian is the director of the Mediamax independent news agency whilst Karine Ter-Saakyan is an independent Armenian journalist

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