Commenting on Ruben Vardanyan

Commenting on Ruben Vardanyan

Commenting on Ruben Vardanyan

RSC Director Richard Giragosian offered comments for Nadia Beard’s analytical article, “The Rise and Fall of Ruben Vardanian,” published on 11 March by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL).

Politician, entrepreneur, philanthropist, a billionaire whose bank was implicated in a mass money-laundering scheme, Ruben Vardanian has worn many hats in the 54 years of his life. His most recent, that of prime minister of the de facto government in the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh, will likely count as one of the most short-lived.

After taking Armenian citizenship in June 2021, Vardanian, who is of Armenian descent, renounced his Russian citizenship a year later and announced plans to move to Nagorno-Karabakh, where he became prime minister based in the de facto capital, Stepanakert, in November 2022.

But in February, less than three months into his new role and more than two months after the start of an Azerbaijani blockade of Nagorno-Karabakh, Vardanian was dismissed from his position by the region's ethnic Armenian leader and de facto president, Arayik Harutiunian, with reports suggesting that he was seen by Azerbaijan as being too close to the Kremlin.

That Vardanian was considered by Azerbaijani officials to be such an important figure -- and one worth removing -- was likely due to their perceptions about the billionaire's Moscow ties. "Azerbaijan's overreaction to Vardanian was mistakenly perceiving him as a man on a mission directed by Putin," said Richard Giragosian, director of the Regional Studies Center, a Yerevan-based think tank.

Concerns about Vardanian, however, didn't just come from Baku, but from Yerevan as well, where some politicians saw him as an Armenian Bidzina Ivanishvili, a reference to the oligarch who has dominated Georgian politics since 2012 and who many believe to be beholden to Russia.

With some Armenian and Azerbaijani criticism of Vardanian often sounding very much the same, analyst Giragosian said it was "an accidental agreement that both Pashinian and Aliyev wanted Vardanian gone."

Armenia is a member of the CSTO -- a Russian-led Eurasian military alliance loosely similar to NATO with its principle that an attack on one is an attack on all. In September 2022, when heavy border clashes included Azerbaijan bombarding southern Armenia with artillery, the Armenian government's appeals for military backup from the CSTO were refused. "The failure in Nagorno-Karabakh of the peacekeepers and the CSTO has tainted Vardanian with a kind of skepticism," said Giragosian.

Since his dismissal, Vardanian has publicly vowed to remain working in Nagorno-Karabakh. "He is rather smart…in terms of investing in public relations and philanthropy," said Giragosian. "He is sincere. I think he genuinely believed in his mission in Nagorno-Karabakh. Whether it's patriotism or nationalism, there was a degree of sincerity."