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Armenian TV Owner Escalates Dispute With Government

WATCH: An estimated 7,000 supporters turned up in the Armenian capital on January 19, one day before TV station ALM's forced closure, to hear Tigran Karapetian issue his list of demands of the government.

By Emil Danielyan and Hovannes Shoghikian

The owner of a TV station facing closure has threatened to campaign for the ouster of Armenia's political leadership if it fails to meet his far-reaching political and economic demands.

At his second major demonstration in as many weeks, Tigran Karapetian was rallying supporters in Yerevan one day before his ALM channel was due to end broadcasts in line with a controversial decision made by the National Commission on Television and Radio (HRAH) last month.

Karapetian, who leads a small political party, made little direct mention of ALM's dilemma as he addressed the crowd of several thousand, mostly middle-aged and elderly people. Instead, he issued a long list of mainly socioeconomic demands to Armenian authorities.

Those include the release of all "political prisoners," the doubling of the national minimum wage, pensions and poverty benefits, sharp tax cuts, and a 7 percent cap on commercial bank lending rates. Karapetian also insisted that Armenian small businesses should pay a single fixed tax of no more than 10,000 drams ($27) a month.

"If there is no agreement with us [over these demands,] if they don't show that they are taking steps by February 28, we will gather here on February 28 and will say 'no' to these authorities in pre-term elections," he declared.

It was unclear whether the selection of that cutoff date was in any way connected with the third anniversary on March 1 of deadly postelection violence in Yerevan. Armenia's largest opposition force led by Levon Ter-Petrosian will likely mark it with a rally in the same location in central Yerevan.

"I am in a resolute mood because I have your go-ahead," the ALM chief told the crowd.

In his strongest attack yet on the government, Karapetian accused unnamed individuals of "making money day and night at the expense of working people."

"Their activities cannot continue indefinitely," he said. "They will run away from this country."

Despite his political ambitions -- he told RFE/RL's Armenian Service after his speech that "I'm going for presidential elections and will become president of the republic," prompting shouts of encouragement from ALM supporters within earshot -- Karapetian had previously refrained from threatening or calling for a change in national leadership. He had also been careful not to attack personally Armenia's current or previous presidents in his daily talk shows and televised monologues aired by ALM on virtually a daily basis.

Karapetian also denied rumors that he has been offered a 50 percent stake in Yerevan TV, a small pro-government broadcaster that defeated ALM in a controversial tender for a new broadcast license that was administered by the radio and TV commission. "God forbid," he said, crossing himself. "Believe me, I'm not going to take anything from the authorities."

This and other tenders held late last year stemmed from Armenia's ongoing transition to mandatory broadcasting.

Armenian media associations and opposition groups say that the administration of President Serzh Sarkisian is using the nationwide transformation to digital broadcasting to maintain or tighten its grip on political news coverage. The broadcast commission denies any such motives.

Also in December, the regulatory body refused to grant a digital frequency to A1+, the country's leading independent TV station that was forced off the air in 2002. It also refused to renew the license of GALA, another independent broadcaster based in Gyumri, which expires in 2015.

Karapetian set up ALM about a decade ago, after making a fortune in Russia. His populist appeal and folksy demeanor quickly earned the TV channel, accessible to the vast majority of Armenians, a large viewership among mostly working-class people and rural residents.

Thousands of supporters turned out for Karapetian's last protest, on January 7, to express disagreement with the decision to take ALM off the air.