Europe’s Armenian policy: the cost of indulgence

The story of a powerful and ambitious Armenian oligarch is also a case-study in the flaws of European Union policy in the small Caucasian republic, says Armen Haykyan.

While the European Union plans the next steps with its eastern neighbours, the post-Soviet states are comfortably adjusting their own rhetoric and facade to cope with the new doctrines emanating from Brussels. The story of one leading business-political figure illustrates the mismatch between foreign ambitions and domestic realities.

A few years ago a well-known oligarch, one of the five richest people in Armenia, the beer-vodka-liqueur “tsar” Gagik Tsarukyan was chosen - along with France’s then ambassador - the country’s “best European of the year”. The winners appeared together at the award ceremony, smiling and shaking hands. It as a piquant combination, for Mr Tsarukyan - as well as being Armenia’s best European - is an oligarch, a good friend of Belarus, Russia, and Iran, and the leader of a major political party which is a constituent of Armenia’s ruling coalition.  

A prominent feature of his alcohol factory is a new high tower topped by a helicopter landing-pad, the first in Yerevan. This will enable him to fly directly from his mansion, situated on a hill outside the capital. Perhaps after feeding his pet lions, whose diet is rumoured to include his critics (a reason why this article is published under an assumed name).

It is not a joke. Some years ago Mr Tsarukyan's cronies would maim, if not kill, even those who in public used his nickname. The new generation of prominent Armenian businessmen-politicians is fond of nicknames, which denote the aura of power and control; it is something Mr Tsarukyan shares with his friend, former head of state and prime minister Robert Kocharian (whose own lion-killing is conducted in Tanzania’s savannah).

There is a rumour that inside the presidential palace where the current incumbent Serzh Sargsyan is based, a group of young reformers has proposed a slogan: “No nicknames in the next parliament”. So far, no such policy applies to Gagik Tsarukyan - in great part thanks to the backing (or to the total indifference) of European elites, the only positions of these elites towards Armenia.

The benefactor

Tsarukyan’s connections range far and wide. He is also the chair of Armenia’s Olympic committee. In late 2010 he announced that he has written a book entitled Armenia and Unesco (though it soon turned out he had only “inspired” it). The book is published by a global network which claims 600 branches worldwide, whose wide activities include conferring scientific degrees. Its website’s frontpage proudly shows Mr Tsarukyan with Charles Aznavour, the famous French singer of Armenian parentage; another page features a standard letter from Kofi Annan, former United Nations secretary-general. This organisation, as far as I can gather, was created by an Armenian from a Russian province who emigrated to Canada in the early 1990s.  

Mr Tsarukyan is a major benefactor. The recipients of his largesse include scientists published in peer-reviewed journals. His summer camps for kids from poor families are shown on his TV channel for hours during the entire season. His new project is a Russian-Armenian NGO Union, to whose inaugural event he brought forty Russian NGOs and 200 Armenian ones; naturally, he became its chair. Still, this activism is not enough, for there are political and electoral ambitions to be met.

This is where Europe plays an important part in keeping Mr Tsarukyan’s ego afloat. He is promising to convene a major conference of the European Movement in Yerevan in October 2011, attended by Catherine Ashton (the European Union’s foreign-policy high representative), Armenia's president and other dignitaries. Since Europe is not Russia, he does not hope to become the chair of this respectable network. But vice-chair, why not - particularly since the EU delegation in Armenia, the Belgian minister of state Charles-Ferdinand Nothomb, and other Eurocrats support the idea?

Europe should beware. By endorsing this proposal, the European Movement will undermine all the anti-corruption work that the EU has tried to accomplish, and tarnish even further its already battered image in Armenia. 

The partnership test

The fusion of money and politics still has its limits. Gagik Tsarukyan is far from being another Silvio Berlusconi. Even if he were to become a vice-chair of the European Movement, and provoke the ire of the reformist “young Armenians” in the presidential palace, he may yet lose all his power and holdings in Armenia.

A similar thing happened in December 2010, when Yerevan’s then mayor - another “nicknamed” figure with similarities to Mr Tsarukyan, though of a lesser calibre - was dismissed by the president, allegedly for beating up a member of the presidential staff. The mayor had been fond of traveling all over Europe and making sister-city agreements with his fellow-mayors. The new, unelected, if somewhat less odious mayor is left to pick up the pieces with Yerevan’s rather shamefaced European partners.

The representatives of the European Neighbourhood Policy - which includes Armenia - have had to apologise profusely for their association with the former authoritarian leaders of north African countries, in several cases (Tunisia, Egypt, Libya) now overthrown by their people. But it seems that Eurocrats never learn. What about civil society? It will be strange, to put it mildly, if a body such as the European Movement becomes associated with a figure such as Gagik Tsarukyan.

The prospect echoes a similar event in 2010, when - at the height of human-rights violations in Armenia - a major international civil-society network of human-rights practitioners decided to hold its annual conference in Armenia, and invite the country’s president to open the event. Between the idea and the reality, fell the shadow: the organisers (having being fooled into something dodgy by their local NGO partner) realised their mistake after they arrived, and had to attend an opposition rally to salvage the complete ruin of their image as human-rights defenders. The president, it need hardly be said, did not come to the conference.

The lesson drawn by many would be: beware of your local partners! After all, being a member of international (and Europe-linked) NGO networks seems to have become a lucrative business for many in poverty-stricken Armenia, even oligarchs - particularly in a no-nickname pre-election year.

For European citizens less tied into the networks of power and influence of their masters but genuinely concerned with making an honest and productive connection with Armenia (as elsewhere), their lesson might be: do your homework, and carefully study the dossier of those with whom you associate yourself. The cost of neglect here is that the population of an entire nation, poor but essentially European, will become disillusioned with European democracy, civil society, and values.