Wikileaks: Yerevan embassy cables on Armenian politics

by Emil Sanamyan

Published: Monday August 29, 2011

U.S. Embassy building in Yerevan. Photolure

Washington - Thousands of additional cables from dozens of embassies were released last week by Wikileaks web site, hundreds of them from the U.S. Embassy in Yerevan.

As of now more than 140,000 of the 250,000 cable Wikileaks cache are publicly available at its web site.

Most cables are unclassified and deal with day-to-day exchanges with the Armenian government, others offer commentary on Armenia's politics and economy and Armenia's relations with Turkey, Iran and Azerbaijan.

This article summarizes the cables dealing with Armenia's domestic politics.

Few good men (and women)

Cables paint a generally unflattering picture of Armenia's political scene and most government and opposition figures with several cables identifying the nexus between political and economic power in Armenia.

President Serge Sargsyan "is the classmate, best friend and business partner" to Mikhail Baghdasarov, best known as the owner of the national carrier Armavia, reported the December 9 2003 cable entitled "Tycoons Reloaded: Who controls what in Armenia" and signed by then U.S. Ambassador John Ordway.

In the same cable, ex-President Robert Kocharian's family members are tied to business interests of Gagik Tsarukian, who has since established the parliament's second largest political party, the Prosperous Armenia. In a May 21 2004 cable the embassy gave Kocharian the following characteristic: "an avid reader, he speaks fairly good English" and "a well-informed interlocutor with strong opinions."

Ex-President Levon Ter-Petrossian is described as "wily" and his anti-government speeches as "vitriol" in a May 11 2009 cable but he is also credited for possessing "stature and credibility that other opposition leaders lacked."

"Vano Siradeghian, the notoriously corrupt and powerful former Minister of Internal Affairs (currently in hiding outside Armenia)... is widely believed [to be] one of the major shareholders of SIL Group" led by a key pro-Ter-Petrossian supporter Khachatur Sukiasian, one of the tycoons profiled in the 2003 cable.

Another prominent businessman, Samvel Aleksanian, is described as "semi-criminal [with] little formal education (maybe the least among oligarchs)" and who is "close to the President's office." Aleksanian "tries to resemble [Tsarukian] in everything:  his house has the same architecture, he drives the same make of cars, etc."

As far as cars go, the embassy's April 1 2004 cable identifies the owners of Yerevan's first four Hummer SUVs as Tsaroukian, Aleksanian, another major tycoon (and currently also president of Armenia's football federation) Ruben Hayrapetian, and President Kocharian's son.

Hrant Vardanian, president of the Grand Holding, is the only "oligarch" to be described in a positive light. "Vardanian enjoys strong popularity within the general public as a successful industrialist," the 2003 cable reported. He is said to be "under President's protection" and is also connected to the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF).

While the embassy is predictably irate over ARF's foreign policy agenda and in particular its opposition to U.S.-backed normalization with Turkey, the party leaders are said to have "slightly more nuanced views" than those expressed publicly. Prior to 2008 election ARF-connected Yerkir Media TV is praised as the only channel to offer balanced pre-election coverage.

Another 2007 cable notes that ARF is "probably good for about eight to fifteen percent of the [national] vote, as usual" that makes it a potential deal-maker in Armenian politics.

References to another traditional party, Ramkavar Azatakan (Democratic Liberals), are more dismissive. An August 30 2007 cable describes its merger with two little-known political groups as "mating of minnows."

A May 2008 cable presents Raffi Hovhanissian's Heritage in the most sympathetic light as a "true oppositional force in parliament" and a party with a "moderate, reformist agenda."

But commenting on Hovhanissian's abrupt resignation from parliament (since withdrawn), U.S. Charge in Armenia Joseph Pennington judges in a September 2009 cable that "Hovhanissian is taking a step toward political irrelevance."

A key Hovhannisian ally in parliament Larisa Alaverdian is described as "an excellent choice" when she was appointed human rights ombudsman by Kocharian. A February 6 2004 cable notes her "reputation of a dedicated but pragmatic defender of human rights, using her political connections and knowledge of the bureaucracy to work within the system to effect change."

Bad elections, political violence and economic progress

The authorities and the ruling Republican Party are identified as the main culprits behind irregularities in the February 2008 presidential and May 2009 mayoral elections.

Handling of the 2008 vote for president is considered "significantly worse" than the 2007 parliamentary election that was also won by Republicans but was seen as a "modest step forward" compared to earlier votes.

Public outrage over the outcome of 2008 presidential elections and government's heavy-handedness are identified as main causes for the post-election violence that left ten people dead. Two of the fatalities were security personnel and a bulk of the civilians "were not opposition protesters but passersby who happened upon the wrong place at the wrong time," the embassy reported in April 2008.

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