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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

This Armenian Offers a Potato in Every Pot

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These are high times for the man they call Dodi Gago. He's rumored to be the richest person in Armenia, his political party is riding high in the opinion polls ahead of parliamentary elections later this year, and he's been voted the most popular man in Armenia in two separate opinion polls.

His real name is Gagik Tsarukyan, although many Armenians know him better by his nickname. He's a former arm-wrestling champion, the winner of the world title in 1998; a hunk of beef and muscle who, despite the fact that he's now over 50, can still get away with flaunting it in a skin-tight T-shirt. He got his start in what's known as animal husbandry, then set up a string of businesses in Armenia that have brought him fabulous wealth and the kind of palatial hilltop villa that are the dream of wannabe post-Soviet oligarchs.

His business empire has continued to expand rapidly, and it probably seemed logical to set up a political party to consolidate his position. Prosperous Armenia, it's called, although its main support comes from those who are far from prosperous. Tsarukyan came up with a winning strategy to get the public on his side: hand out free potatoes in poor rural villages.

OK, so it's not exactly high-level political discourse, but it seemed to work, if the party's own claims are to be believed. Although it was only founded last year, Prosperous Armenia says it now has more members than any other political group in the country. A recent poll asked people which prominent Armenian, current or historical, would be the most suitable national hero or leader today. A dead man topped the poll, but Tsurukyan led the pack of the living.

Uncharitable critics, of course, have denigrated Dodi Gago's philanthropic benevolence, saying that the millions he's spent on potatoes, wheat and free medical care for the poor amount to nothing more than vote buying on a massive scale -- even describing it as "potato democracy." As Tsurukyan himself put it: "They are just condemning a person who is getting things done." There have also been accusations that his pro-government party is just a lightly disguised vehicle to boost the power of his ally, President Robert Kocharyan, and to help Kocharyan maintain his influence after he leaves office in 2008.

Others have suggested that the fact that Armenians can't seem to resist the charm of a super-rich strongman carrying a sack full of free potatoes says something about the state of Armenian democracy. How many of them would dare say it to the musclebound tycoon's face, however, is a different matter.

Matthew Collin is a journalist in Tbilisi.