Saturday, April 26, 2008

Nikol Pashinian: While drinking Courvoisier

In this article published in Paykar! a couple of days ago, on April 25th, 2008, Pashinian takes up Serzh Sargsyan's recent efforts to try to look like a crusader against corruption through news stories--read, commercials--on Armenian state TV. Pashinian blows the story wide open by relating the history of Sargsyan's relationship with Armen Avetisyan, who is at the heart of the charade as the head of Customs whom Sargsyan recently fired. He fired Avetisyan ostensibly because of corruption, but the real story behind it is much, much different.

[Note: The picture below is of Armen Avetisyan, and it's from

Nikol Pashinian: While drinking Courvoisier

Gevorkovian theater's worthy actor, Serge Sargsyan, commenced his post-election guest performances [Russian: гастрол?] from the Armenian Customs Service (ACS), which is close to the government. The dismissal of Armen Avetisyan, the chairman of the ACS for the last 8 years, served as the occasion for Sargsyan's meeting with the customs officials. During the meeting he unleashed invectives upon them and said that the ACS is ruled by wretched habits--bribery and corruption. There was but one purpose for his visit: to show the public that an unprecedented formidable struggle against corruption has begun. And yet, if Serzh Sargsyan's "custom's performace" was a drama to the viewers who are uninformed, to the viewers who are informed it was nothing if not a comedy.

On first glance, [the Sargsyan-at-Customs] story can make a favorable impression: Here is Serzh firing Armen Avetisyan who has turned Customs into a criminal establishment. In reality, however, Armen Avetisyan was not fired because of any wrong-doing, but because of ill health. Armen Avetisyan has spent most of the last year undergoing different treatments in various countries; keeping him in his post would have amounted to sadism. And, generally speaking, in order to understand this event, it is necessary to know who Armen Avetisyan is. Serzh Sargsyan has often said to the people in his circle that he, Sargsyan, who does not have a son, sees Armen Avetisyan as his own. And Armen, for his part, has naturally not refused such "high-level fathering"; his entire career is tied to just Serzh Sargsyan, himself.

The public first became aware of Avetisyan during the change in government that took place in 1998. During that time, Serzh Sargsyan was the head of the State Security Department and Minister of Internal Affairs [National Security], and Avetisyan was the head of the State Security Department's branch dealing with economic crimes. The Gharabagh clan, who had taken the first steps toward the seizure of the government, had huge financial ambitions. The clan's leaders needed to gain independence, be given business markets. And it is difficult to imagine a better tool for achieving this than the State Security's department for investigating economic crimes. Under Armen Avetisyan's "benign" hand, representatives from the business world would turn up in State Security detention rooms and leave only after paying the price of surrendering a part of their business interests and conceding the interests of this Gharabaghtsi [1] or that individual enjoying Serzh's sponsorship. And this is how the Gharabagh clan's economic network was established. Armen Avetisyan became the clan's and Serzh Sargsyan's darling: he directed rivers of money toward his chiefs. After October 27, 1999 [2], Serzh Sargsyan was forced to resign from his post as head of the State Security Department. And, despite the fact that Armen Avetissyan continued in his post at the SSD, in reality he did not answer to its new head, Carlos Petrossian, but to his spiritual father, Serzh Sargsyan. Naturally, this situation did not appeal to Carlos Petrossian, and he did everything he could to make Avetisyan's life unbearable. But then came May 2000: Aram Sarkissian [3] was dismissed from his post as Prime Minister, Serzh Sargsyan was appointed Minister of Defense, and although Carlos Petrossian was able to defended his [own] post, Armen Avetisyan was appointed Chairman of the Armenian Customs Service.

When Vazgen Sarkissian became Prime Minister [June 1999], he dealt serious financial blows to the Gharabagh clan, eliminating, specifically, a series of monopolistic positions that the clan held in several market sectors. And, here, Armen Avetisyan as head of Customs had a job to do: to make it impossible [4] for [businessmen] to be able to import into Armenia those types of goods the monopolies on which Serzh had gifted to the representatives of the brotherhood. Naturally, the man at Customs solved this brilliantly. In effect, for a few bags of sugar for preserves from Sadakhlo [river between Georgia and Armenia], the occupants of Bagratashen would be subjected to criminal treatment and be charged with customs fraud, while cars worth several hundreds of thousands of dollars would become tax-exempt through ridiculous prices, if, of course, they belonged to the people you know all too well. Perhaps many readers have been confronted with the situation where, in the course of bringing 2-3 cellphones from other countries for their families, they have been accused of customs fraud and forced to hand over the "contraband" to customs in order to avoid paying illogical sums in taxes. And this is how Avetisyan would protect the untouchability of Kocharian's business [his son now has the cellphone monopoly in Armenia]. Naturally, under these conditions, Avetisyan himself became untouchable. He quickly became one of Armenia's richest individuals. He wears suits worth 10-30 thousand dollars, lives an immoral life, and drinks the world's most expensive spirits. A few years ago he "lit up" with Putin's people on two bottles of "Courvoisier" cognac worth $7000, and for the penultimate New Year he bought for his family's New Year's table 20 bottles of $800 and 20 bottles of $1000 cognac. And the interesting thing is that he purchased these items from "Duty Free," meaning from the tax-free network.

But it is possible that the Armenian people will not be able to put him on trial. It is said that he is sick, not with hepatitis, a belief whose supposition is accepted, but with another sickness, one which people don't talk about out-loud. God's punishment is far more severe than man's punishment could possibly be.

P.S. First President of the R.A. Levon Ter-Petrossian has counted Armen Avetisyan among the columns holding up the criminal government.

1. "Gharabaghtsi" means person from Gharabagh.
2. October 27, 1999, is the day gunmen entered parliament and killed 8 parliamentarians. See very graphic video here.
3. Aram Sarkissian is unrelated to Serzh Sargsyan, but Aram Sarkissian is the younger brother of Vazgen Sarkissian who was killed in the parliamentary massacre of 10/27, mentioned above; he was the Prime Minister, in fact. It is rumored that Kocharian and company were behind the massacre. Note that they killed one brother and forced the other brother out of parliament within the span of one year. Both were Prime Ministers.
4. Pashinian uses an expression here: "the hen with its wing and the snake with its bellybutton." Since hens can't fly and snakes don't have bellybuttons, I've translated this as "to make it impossible."


Ani said...

Thanks for translating Pashinian's articles and making them more widely available--they're real journalism and they're important to disseminate. I have to say though, what an unfortunate last paragraph. I hope he can curb his puritan tendencies, since they exclude rather than include those whose sympathies the democracy movement needs.

Anyway, as a companion piece, I recommend Chapter 11 of Gogol's "Dead Souls," which outlines our "hero" Chichikov's career as a customs officer. When Armenians no longer want to be customs officers when they grow up, the movement will be a true success.

Armen Filadelfiatsi said...

Gogol is an excellent suggestion. It's quite amazing how he was able to thoroughly grasp modern bureaucratic psychology and its peculiar style of brutal violence just when it was arriving in Russia. Perhaps he was aided by it's being new and standing out; today, it so thoroughly pervades our lives, most of us don't even notice it and think it's normal.

I was a little surprised by the last paragraph, too.

On the one hand, if Pashinian is a believer of sorts, it wouldn't surprise me very much. Religion is, of course, a part of Armenian culture. It comes up on a regular basis in writings and in the videos that are shot. In his Analytical essay (pt. 5), for example, Pashinian recounts that on March 1st, there was a priest accompanying the protesters besieged by the military near the French embassy who recited "Our Father," causing many of the people to cry when on previous recitations of the prayer they hadn't. And Lilit, the widowed wife of an a-political jeweler who made crosses and who happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time, describes her husband's death in this way: "he fell victim to the irrepressible conflicts between mankind's filthy idols." The implications of such a sentiment are, of course, profound. So the evidence suggests that there is strong religious undercurrent in Armenia today. It helps them survive.

On the other hand, since Pashinian doesn't say what it is that Avetisyan is suffering from, I'm willing to give Pashinian the benefit of the doubt. It might be that Avetisyan is a heroin addict, which would fit with the idea that he has hepatitis; or he might be a pederast, in which case Pashinian's comments would be in line with general opinion. Another thing about the last paragraph is that, as suggestive of a judgment and a condemnation as it is in context, it, nevertheless, does not contain a direct judgment. This is important because it is not a accident. Having read his works closely (and translating entails about as close a reading that one can undertake), having witnessed how expertly Pashinian uses language and just how much thought and consideration there is behind his seemingly simple essays, I know that it is no accident that he doesn't literally condemn Avetisyan.

Besides being Ter-Petrossian's right hand man, Pashinian is a poet, too, after all, and an intellectual (in one of his essays, for example, he says of Kocharian and Sargsyan that they have a tendency toward fixed ideas, a mainstream psychoanalytical concept). I've translated one of his poems, "To Spring," on this blog. I've picked his works and the works of Levon Ter-Petrossian to translate because they don't get old. Anyone interested in the topic can learn just as much from the older translation posts as they can from the newer ones.