Over in Stepanakert, response was largely muted. Many in Nagorno- Karabakh view the territory as the legitimate power base of its most famous sons, Robert Kocharyan and Serzh Sargsyan. A small protest in Renaissance Square was not allowed to gain any traction, a group of conscript soldiers deployed to move a huddle of ‘My Step’ protesters, comprising mainly of young people.724
Hardly a hotbed of anarchy at the best of times. More a home of lethargy. Along Mkhitar Gosh Street, outside Artsakh State University, students organised a march in support of the impending Velvet Revolution. These few dozen students were disbursed. The organisers of the effort were suspended from attending lectures at Artsakh University.
The town’s small army of babushkas, older women who add to their modest pensions as town cleaners, were kept busy cleaning up ‘My Step’-supporting graffiti that popped up around Stepanakert overnight.
While the administration in Nagorno-Karabakh remained quiet, and the territory’s people were leaned upon to do the same, across the Lower Caucasus Mountains something new was afoot.
Peaceful mass protests have brought a watershed moment to Armenia, a small landlocked, post-Soviet nation. An opposition politician who harnessed a revolution has lost a vote in parliament to become prime minister, but his movement has ousted Armenia’s leader and raised hopes of free and fair elections. When Nikol Pashinyan, 42, set off on his ‘My Step’ protest march on March 31 from Armenia’s second city Gyumri, sporting his trademark khaki T-shirt, only a couple of dozen people joined him, and they were mainly journalists.
By the time the MP and ex-journalist had reached the capital Yerevan on April 13, thousands more had joined his movement. For many Armenians this is the first time since independence from the Soviet Union in 1991 that they are able to believe in a better future.
On May 1st, 2018, the BBC reported on a somewhat astonishing turn of events in Armenia: At the end of his second presidential term Serzh Sargsyan was about to become prime minister – a new and enhanced role, after changes to the constitution were passed by a 2015 referendum marred by widespread irregularities.
It was a miscalculation, because many Armenians regarded his move essentially as a third presidential term by the backdoor.
Tens of thousands, mainly students and high-school children, poured on to the streets chanting “Make the step to reject Serzh”.725
On May 8th, 2018, the man who spearheaded weeks of protests in Armenia was chosen to be the country’s new prime minister.726 He carried a weight of expectation for a turnaround in the impoverished former Soviet Republic. Pashinyan faces an array of challenges, not least how to overcome the political and economic omnipresence of the long-established ruling elite.
“Serzh enjoyed the war,” says a Western diplomat currently serving in Yerevan who, having spent considerable time with then-President Sargsyan during the course of his duties, reveals. “In unguarded moments he speaks of the war warmly, tells anecdotes that betray his fondness of what he considers the good old days.”
Noting that the President always appeared wearing shoes that were built up to the point of being Cuban heels in order to compensate for his limited stature, the same embassy official, who asked not to be named, tells of a widely held belief among Yerevan’s diplomatic community that Serzh’s impish stature leaves him with a ‘Napoleon complex’, an overly aggressive and domineering social personality carried to compensate.727
Like any politician, Sargsyan is also quite capable of being somewhat economical with the truth. Yet his sheer cojones in discombobulating reality has made the third President of Armenia stand out.
Bonaparte himself said that “History is a set of lies agreed upon”.
However the version of history that Serzh peddles puts him well ahead of the curve, even in a Donald Trump post-truth era.
In January 2018, he visited the Strasbourg-based Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. On January 24th, Armenia-based NEWS.am published an article that perhaps even understated the situation: ‘Serzh Sargsyan: Unfortunately our efforts eradicating corruption have not borne too great results’.728
The article read: The efforts that we have made in Armenia towards eradicating corruption, and I ought to say that unfortunately our efforts have not borne too great results, President of Armenia Serzh Sargsyan said while answering the questions of PACE delegates.
This despicable phenomenon exists in Armenia, as in other countries. As I said, last year we enacted a law to create a corruption prevention commission. This legislation is fully in line with European best standards. Members of the commission are to be elected by the Armenian Parliament after April 9, once the amended constitution provisions come into full force.
As I said, we adopted a law on whistle-blowing and the protection of whistle- blowers. We have criminalised illicit enrichment, and, if my memory is correct, nearly 500 Armenian officials will be required to submit declarations of their assets and income. For a country as small as Armenia, that is a huge number. Armenia’s vibrant civil society is making a contribution to exposing, solving and preventing such crimes.729
Fast forward six months from Strasbourg and OC Media – which receives funding from the likes of the British Government’s Conflict, Stability and Security Fund, the European Endowment for Democracy and Open Democracy Russia – on July 2nd, 2018, reported: Armenia’s authorities are investigating Levon Sargsyan, the brother of Armenia’s former President Serzh Sargsyan, along with his son Narek and daughter Ani, for possible tax evasion and illicit enrichment.730 By now in Yerevan, after people power had unseated Sargsyan during an attempted bait-and-switch between the Presidency and Prime Minister’s post, in order to hold on to power, Armen Sarkissian was now President and Nikol Pashinyan was Prime Minister.
The brothers Sargsyan were facing a challenge. The same OC Media article, and a myriad of others across the Armenian media spectrum, have detailed the unravelling in a gargantuan spider’s web of illicit dealings.
“The surest way to remain poor is to be an honest man,” said Bonaparte, a belief that the Lilliputian now ex-President of Armenia seemed to have taken to heart.
In a summary of assets presented to Armenia’s Central Electoral Commission in 2013, The Armenian Observer Blog noted that he listed his car, a 1992 Mitsubishi Montero, a 92 square metre building in Stepanakert, a collection of 32 paintings by top Armenian artists, statuettes and sculptures from the 18th to 20th centuries, his Presidential salary paid into ‘Araratbank’, and a further $267,000 in different items.731
Serzh had not remained poor. Perhaps he has, relatively speaking, to his $8 billion predecessor, Robert Kocharyan. But relative to everyone else, though, he is a gilded prince of Armenia.
Neither has his family remained impoverished. His lookalike brother Levon. Their wives. Their children. Their associates.
All were born, it seemed, with a remarkable business acumen.
Everyone became a millionaire: Businesses they were associated with quickly won government contracts. If not imbibed with a private sector Midas touch, many were appointed to public positions that far exceeded their qualifications, or indeed their intellect.
Levon, described by one Italian diplomat serving in the Armenian capital as “having as much substance as Lavash”, referring to the Caucasus regions’ famous plain unleavened flatbread, has overcome a startling lack of intelligence to become a successful captain of industry.
In July 2018, an arrest warrant was issued by Armenia’s Special Investigative Service for Levon on charges of illegal enrichment and other financial irregularities.732 Some may compare the ex-President’s brother with a meal accompaniment best dipped in Qrchik soup, but the Special Investigative Service had uncovered some well-construed fraud.
Levon was on the board of the Pyunik Charitable Foundation, which owns two fifths of JLJ Project Company, that had been engaged in rampant financial chicanery. Levon and his son and daughter, Narek and Ani, had been connected with a secret $6.8 million slush fund, siphoned off from JLJ.733
Tattooed and unpleasantly arrogant, considering himself an untouchable prince of the Sargsyan dynasty, Narek (on the photo, right) is a particularly nasty offshoot of the family, who has also been charged with kidnapping and assault.734 Among the general population he is widely derided as having used his notoriety to remain above the law, not least to prey on young female students attending Yerevan State University. He would be arrested in the Czech Republic by INTERPOL in December 2018.
As for Levon, he had been tipped off by a Special Investigative Service insider that an arrest warrant was coming, and skipped the country.
When the patriarch of the family, Serzh, failed in his attempt to cling on to power, the unravelling of the Sargsyan family business began. All feared what was going to happen next. How far their fortunes would fall.
Yet for all the difficulties that the clan were set to face, nearly everyone feared most for, arguably, the least known of the brothers. For there is a third. If the Sargsyan family represent Armenia’s family of black sheep, then the blackest member of the clan is Alexander ‘Sashik’ Sargsyan.735
Alexander has been to his family what Fredo represented to the Corleones in The Godfather. Less intelligent than his brothers – which says a lot for a sibling of Levon – Alexander enjoyed little power or status, even when Serzh was at his zenith.
In The Godfather, Fredo moves to Las Vegas and is delegated as a nominal Corleone family representative to deal with the gangster-types who own the casinos business. Like Fredo, Alexander attracted trouble for himself and his family.
First he went into what appeared to be a self-imposed exile following a 2002 murder in Yerevan of a Russian crime figure. Then he brought unwanted attention to the family empire when attracting questions from America’s Federal Bureau of Investigation for buying property in the United States with telltale briefcases stuffed with cash.736 Also for leaving a trail of unexplained cash purchases reaching in the millions of pounds in Britain, on property and luxury goods, Alexander was later recalled to Yerevan.
Of course, hailing from the ruling family, there was his ‘legitimate’ share of the empire. He was partnered in one of the country’s main fuel station businesses, acquired through Robert Kocharyan.
The company that he keeps also draws further comparison with the wimpish Fredo. Alexander was appointed as something of a family liaison with one Armen ‘Pzo’ Kazarian. The latter would become a player in the Nagorno-Karabakh story. Crime Russia, an investigative organisation that set its roots in Hong Kong in order to remain beyond the reach of the Kremlin, stated of the relationship that there are: ...ties between Sashik Sargsyan and the criminal world – in particular, with Armen Kazarian (Pzo) serving as an intermediary between the President’s brother on the one hand and ‘Armenian mafia’ and Russian thieves-in-law on the other hand.737
Pzo’s criminality in the United States is highlighted elsewhere in this book, not least a scam that skimmed millions from the country’s Medicare programme. He was sentenced to 37 months in jail, incurred a large fine and saw the confiscation of property, including a $600,000 house in California.738
On his post-incarceration return to Armenia, the distinctive mono-browed Alexander, and Pzo, with his beaked face and awkward round paunch, forged an alliance that cannot be considered unlikely.
Alexander had the connections. Pzo was a man-about-town. Pzo would be to Alexander what Moe Greene was to Fredo Corleone.
Yet instead of desert casinos in a new town called Las Vegas, it would be the green pastures of Nagorno-Karabakh that the duo cast their many business ventures. The Armenian President’s little brother became Karabakh’s ‘Mr. 50%’.739 Any significant business operating in the territory were touched. They also dabbled in less legitimate enterprises, including arms deals, illicit drugs and mining ventures.
The unravelling of the Sargsyan web would also hit him hard.
On July 4th, 2018, United States-based newspaper, Asbarez, reported that: Former President Serzh Sarkisian’s younger brother Aleksander and his son, Hayk, were detained Wednesday by Armenia’s National Security Service. According to the report Aleksander Sarkisian and his son were escorted from the former’s Yerevan residence by the head of Special Investigation Service of the National Security Service, Mikael Hambardzumyan, and were taken into custody.
The National Security Service agents confiscated several bags from the residence containing firearms.
Last week, Aleksander Sarkisian, who is known as “Sashik” and Serzh Sarkisian’s bodyguard, Vachakan Ghazaryan were taken into custody on weapons possession charges. Sarkisian was released shortly. Last Wednesday, Ghazaryan was formally charged with illegally enriching himself, and investigation into $2 million cash seized from him is still pending.740
These have been difficult times for the family, not least its erstwhile boss. Napoleon’s complex web has begun to come apart.
Can corruption be controlled by reform or is it so much the essential fuel sustaining political elites that it will only be ended – if it ends at all – by revolutionary change?
The answer varies according to which nation one is talking about. However, particularly for those who have descended into kleptocracy, it is surely too late to expect incremental change for the better.
A question remained over what Pashinyan could actually do, facing a hostile pro-status quo parliament, and served by an administration dominated by two decades of Kocharyan and Sargsyan appointees. In December 2018, snap Parliamentary elections offered some respite when Pashinyan’s electoral bloc won a landslide victory, providing him with political authority in the post-Soviet country.741
Efforts by the country’s legal authorities to unpick the Sargsyan family business will be a litmus test. Success or failure to discombobulate their web of quasi-legal and outright-criminal enterprises will perhaps define the rise of a new Armenia. Or simply a continuation of business-as-usual.
Across two decades Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh have been subject to a hierarchical system of norms. Will that long-settled governing system accept an efficacious new order?
Looking on at this unfolding process, and themselves pondering this question, would be those other beneficiaries of the long-standing status quo. The nation’s freely-operating criminal elite. They have been responsible for turning not only their nation, but also Nagorno-Karabakh, into mafia territories, the nexus of a supply chain providing prostitutes and drugs to the West, and the illegal arms that fuel trouble spots across the world.
Also looking on would be Christina and Alia. They are just two of tens of thousands of the victims of human trafficking and the sex industry, a booming business that has decimated towns and villages of Nagorno-Karabakh as their young girls and women have been systematically rounded up.
Allied in their hopes for a seamless and unchanging field of play are surely a rogues gallery of foreign operators: Major General Mohammad Ali Jafari, Brigadier General Hossein Salami and Major General Qasem Soleimani of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah will count among them, as will the likes of Afghan drug lords like Haji Adam and gun runners Moosa Bin Shamsher.
Serzh, Levon and Aleksander Sargsyan have woven an extraordinary web of crime and corruption. The success, or not, of efforts to unpick this kleptocratic nightmare will, perhaps, prove an early indicator if the new administration in Yerevan has the means, or indeed the intention, to restore the lost promise of the nation.
This will also provide evidence as to the future of Nagorno-Karabakh.
Visiting the territory, early one morning, as I peered over a ridge, I witnessed uniformed men passing volumes of heroin across the remote Khodaafarin Bridge, one of many such crossing points over the river. This would travel through Nagorno-Karabakh, now a back door channel into Europe for an increasing volume of opiates.
While this enriches criminals and crime organisations, helps fund the Revolutionary Guard’s corrosive global activities, and supports Afghanistan’s egregious drugs trade – along with the Taliban – there can be no suggestion that the men that Nagorno-Karabakh effectively belongs to, can be in ignorance of this practice.
Based upon everything we know about their activities, translating political power into business opportunities, and with it generating personal fortunes, then only one assumption can be made.
While Serzh Sargsyan and his brothers have been in focus during the post- Velvet Revolution summer of 2018, Robert Kocharyan, too, has enjoyed his share of collateral damage due to the ruling elite’s loss of authority.
In July 2018, three months after mass protests against corruption and cronyism had forced a power change in the ex-Soviet country, investigators charged Kocharyan.742 He was arrested and spent some time behind bars. In December 2018 an Armenian court of appeal ordered him detained again, on charges of attempting to overthrow the constitutional order.743 This related to unrest across Armenia in February and March 2008 when the opposition staged demonstrations against Presidential Election results. The protests were dispersed and ten people were killed in clashes with police.744
For Kocharyan personally, this would seem the beginning of his gradual undoing.
Having accrued a reported $8 billion fortune from his time ‘leading’ the impoverished peoples of Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia – perhaps even inspiring more ire among ordinary people than Sargsyan – Kocharyan told Yerkir Media Television that the charges against him were politically motivated. He added that he was ready to spend time in prison. “These charges are fiction, fabricated, unjustified and have a political implication,” he commented to reporters.745
While Washington has ploughed $2 billion in aid into Armenia in search of a partner,746 Moscow has an even bigger stake. Russia has a military base and patrols the border with Turkey.747 Armenia is a member of President Vladimir Putin’s Eurasian Economic Union748 and is part of Russia’s regional military alliance.749
The Kremlin considers Armenia a satellite state. Part of its informal empire. The instability provided by Nagorno-Karabakh has kept Russia’s southern border with the Caucasus region helpfully unstable, and provided a ready market for its arms and munitions.
One may remember the movie Mississippi Burning, based upon real events in the United States. During the trial of Medgar Evers’ murderer, Byron de la Beckwith, Mississippi Governor Ross Barnett interrupted the testimony of Evers’ widow to shake Beckwith’s hand in solidarity.
This not so subtle act eliminated whatever slim chance there might have been that jurors would have convicted Beckwith.
On August 31st, 2018, President Putin very publicly telephoned Kocharyan, to congratulate the latter on celebrating his birthday.750 If this had happened before, it certainly had not been publicised.
“President Vladimir Putin and Armenia’s former leader Robert Kocharyan have long had good relations, which are unaffected by the current developments in Armenia,” Kremlin Spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters.751
From Putin it was a Mississippi Burning moment. No matter what the crimes of Kocharyan and the political elite in Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh, his embrace was an unambiguous statement.
The implication is absolutely clear.
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