Leaked phone calls scandal poses new challenge for Pashinyan

The calls suggest that the Armenian prime minister personally intervened in sensitive investigations, which he had previously denied doing.

Ani Mejlumyan Sep 11, 2018

Leaked phone calls between two senior Armenian officials suggest that Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan personally intervened in a controversial criminal case. The calls appear to support claims that the investigations -- into top officials for their role in a violent breakup of protests in 2008 -- are politicized, but the fact that they were recorded and released also suggests a no-hold-barred pushback by the implicated former officials.

The phone calls took place between Arthur Vanetsyan, the head of Armenia's National Security Service, and Sasun Kachatryan, the head of the Special Investigative Service, the body that is investigating the 2008 crackdown, known as the “March 1 events.”

A video compiling several of the calls was posted to YouTube on September 5 but only noticed by media on September 11. Both Vanetsyan and Kachatryan confirmed that the recording was genuine.

In the recorded calls, the two discussed the cases of Robert Kocharyan, the former president of Armenia, and Yuri Khachaturov, a former senior Armenian military official who is now the secretary-general of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, a Russia-led military bloc. They raise concerns about how the charges against Khachaturov, in particular, could spoil Yerevan's ties with the Kremlin.

Vanetsyan is heard telling Kachatryan: “My friend, I’m begging you to be very cautious with Khachaturov, even though the prime minister tells us to 'cage' him, but the Russians…”

Elsewhere, the two discuss Khachaturov again.

Kachatryan: “We are pressing charges against Khachaturov today.”

Vantesyan: “Don’t touch him, he is the chief of CSTO.

Kachatryan: “Doesn’t matter.”

Vanetsyan: “[Arresting] Khachaturov, that will be a total shame for us.”

In another call, Vanetsyan suggests that he pressured a judge to arrest Kocharyan. “The judge called me. He is a little scared,” Vanetsyan says. “I told him to have courage... 'whether you want it or not you will arrest him.'”

Amid claims that the investigations into the 2008 events are politicized, Pashinyan has consistently claimed that he played no role.

“Many judges in Armenia have been part of the corrupt system, and in this sense, there is strong distrust towards the judiciary,” he said during an August 17 speech marking his 100th day in office. “Indeed, this is a very delicate subject, but in any case we should not be tempted to interfere in the affairs of the judiciary. ... I declared that I would refrain from the vicious practice of giving orders to judicial authorities and I did so.”

The release of the recordings was a sensation in Armenia. Pashinyan's critics tended to focus on the apparent judicial meddling, while he and his defenders decried the bugging and leaking of sensitive conversations.

“The recording confirms the rumors which had been in the air about how the judicial process is politicized and is being managed personally by the prime minister,” said Armen Ashotyan, a member of parliament from the formerly ruling Republican Party of Armenia.

Kocharyan's office also issued a statement, saying that the recording proved that “The judge was under pressure and made an illegal decision.”

In a hastily arranged press conference only about an hour after the video went viral, Vanetsyan and Kachatryan denied talking to the prime minister or taking orders from him. Vanetsyan denied talking to the judge, as well. They also implied that Kocharyan was behind the leak.

“Technically only the National Security Service can record calls,” Vanetsyan said. “I don’t think there are traitors in our organization. I suppose because we are dealing with powerful people who have a lot of money, they could have gotten their hands to some kind of technology which allowed them to record us.” They said the leak was a means of “blackmailing” them to stop the investigation.

At the press conference, Kachatryan dropped his own bombshell, showing the cameras – in apparent disregard for the secrecy of the ongoing investigation – a book with names of military officers he claimed were paid by Kocharyan to carry out the March 1 crackdown. He said that soldiers from special units had shot and killed an internal affairs officer, Tigran Abgaryan, so as to justify calling a state of emergency. “We have clear proof of that.”

Later, Vanetsyan dropped a second bombshell, reaching into some papers and brandishing documents he said had proof of Kocharyan's “entire scheme of money laundering … billions of dollars were stolen from this country.”

At a campaign rally for the mayoral elections later in the evening, Pashinyan announced an aggressive hunt for the leakers. “I have instructed the National Security Service and the police to identify the perpetrators in the shortest possible time and bring them to justice,” he said. “I am announcing that those 'special services,' in the form of skinheads and bodyguards, will be exposed and destroyed. All the illegally armed groups will be disarmed. From here, I am instructing the police to carry out a raid, hold the oligarchs, high-ranking officials and bodyguards to the ground and disarm them.”

Ani Mejlumyan is a Yerevan-based journalist.