The Civilitas Foundation has been operating in Armenia since 2008 due to foreign financial assistance.
Surprisingly, Civilitas has only garnered the attention of the National Security Service (NSS) after its founder, Vardan Oskanian, became a member of the Prosperous Armenia Party (BHK) and was elected to the parliament as an MP, adopting the stance of a serious oppositionist.
This fact alone leads one to believe that recent criminal charges regarding the laundering of American funds by Civilitas are primarily politically motivated.
The NSS says that Vardan Oskanian had a hand in the money laundering at Civilitas, but has so far only called him as a witness to the fact. Thus, the NSS is violated the principle of “innocent until proven guilty, in an attempt to paint Oskanian’s guilt as irrefutable from the start. This is not by accident.
In order to turn Oskanian from a witness to an accused party, the chief prosecutor must go to the National Assembly, proposing that he be stripped of his immunity as an MP.
Oskanian is now a member of the BHK, the second largest faction in parliament. Taking into account the probable assistance he’d receive from the opposition, the prosecutor might face difficulties in getting his immunity proposal accepted, even though it can’t be ruled out that the case might be frozen at any time.
This is what happened to Alexander Arzumanian, another former foreign minister similarly charged.
Oskanian isn’t that small of an individual to be bitten and swallowed, and there’s a good possibility that those who try will find him stuck in their throats.
Just a few days ago, U.S. Ambassador to Armenia John Heffern declared that Civilitas is an important partner and that they are closely following this case. This means that all the evidence presented by Armenia’s various government agencies must be so ironclad in order that the United States and the western partners of Civilitas are disabused of the notion that the case is politically motivated.
Perhaps the Armenian authorities were betting on the odds that the West would allow them to neutralize Oskanian who is regarded as the “man” of Robert Kocharian, given the West’s distaste for the latter, and thus hinder Kocharian’s plans to return to politics.
Meanwhile, independent of any Oskanian-Kocharian ties, Civilitas is essentially a proponent of western values. Civilitas has assumed such a status that any steps directed against it could be seen as the suppression of diversity of opinion and freedom of expression. The authorities and the president, especially in the run-up to next year’s election, don’t have the luxury of committing such a blunder. But it’s too late. After having launched their assault, the authorities must now dig themselves out of a hole that they themselves dug with their own hands.
So what were the political motivation spurring criminal charges against Oskanian? We must first look into Civilitas itself. The discussions and debates that the think-tank organized during the recent parliamentary campaign afforded a serious platform to reveal and publicize the mechanics of election fraud implemented in the parliamentary elections.
Besides Civilitas and CivilNet (its online TV program), no other social or news outlet proved to be as principled or persistent in this respect. And given that the same mechanisms used in the parliamentary ballot will be employed in the upcoming presidential election to reproduce power, the undesirable role of Civilitas becomes an extra headache. Civilitas couldn’t be dealt with like the A1+ TV station, both technically and from a legal aspect. However, by turning Civilitas into money launderer just leaves the technical aspects to deal with. From this angle, the process launched against Civilitas must be seen as a process against an independent new outlet and alternative news.
The main problem lies in the political activities of Oskanian. The criminal case was launched immediately after the BHK declared that it wouldn’t be joining the governing coalition and more importantly, that it left hanging in the air the issue whether the party would be backing Serzh Sargsyan’s 2013 presidential candidacy.
It’s hard to say to what extent Oskanian had a hand in this declaration. Nonetheless, the authorities suspect he did play a role. The authorities need the BHK, in order to maintain control of its potential opposition electorate, but it doesn’t need a BHK that could extricate itself from control at any moment. Oskanian is regarded as the master builder of such a line and his political neutralization is the only short-term way to return the party to its former self.
The neutralization of Oskanian also neutralizes the BHK from the possibility of becoming an independent party.
This also is a blow against two specific individuals – BHK President Gagik Tsarukyan and former President Robert Kocharian. They are trying to demarcate a line between the BHK leader and the party and undermine his authority and powerful image. By attacking Oskanian, the party’s second figure, the authorities want to make it clear to everyone else that they can do the same to them as well and that Tsarukyan can’t help them.
The authorities are putting Kocharian in a very inconvenient position. If the former president comes out in support of Oskanian it becomes immediately clear that he is sponsoring Oskanian and that he placed the former foreign minister into the BHK to keep tabs on him. It would also become clear that the BHK didn’t enter the governing coalition at the insistence of Kocharian.
The opinion is circulating that this is a game – to create an image of Oskanian as a political victim and to turn him into a unified, but weak, candidate of an artificial opposition; thus allowing Serzh Sargsyan’s smooth re-election.
But was it really necessary to launch a criminal case with such serious charges for this scenario? The repercussions, both to Oskanian and the authorities, can be unpredictable. They can create a scandal for the president and have the opposite effect in the run-up to next year’s election.
It also can't be ruled out that the authorities want to destroy Oskanian politically and thus free themselves from any potential authentic alternative.
Based on the balance of political forces resulting from the parliamentary elections, the opposition has little chance of fielding individual candidates in next year’s election. A divided opposition just doesn’t have the funds and resources to field their own candidates.
The only alternative would be to field a unified candidate.
HAK (Armenian National Congress) once regarded as the only force that could field a real alternative, seems content with its share of the political landscape. In any event, there have be no statement emanating from HAK that Levon Ter-Petrosyan is even contemplating running for president next year. If LTP doesn’t run, HAK will not be able to nominate anyone else from its ranks.
Given LTP’s pre-election warming up to the BHK, it can’t be ruled out that Armenia’s first president just might back the candidacy of Oskanian.
If this happens and Oskanian is given the nod as a unified opposition candidate, Serzh Sargsyan will not only be facing a strong opponent but will also be forced to deal with an unprecedented mobilization of the opposition.
By striking out at Oskanian now, the governing authorities want to head off the future consolidation of the political arena.
Serzh Sargsyan has shown on numerous occasions that he prefers to play when the opposition is weak and where he is the strongest on the field.
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