2019: The Dust Settles

year in review 2019

 

A new parliament and government were formed in Armenia this year following snap parliamentary elections in December 2018. With promises of deep sectoral reforms, cracking down on corruption, an economic revolution and establishing robust institutions of democracy, the headlines in 2019 were often dominated by high profile criminal cases and investigations. Charges and arrests were made that involved former presidents, ministers, regional governors and parliamentarians and current state officials. While Armenia improved its rankings in several global indices this past year, the administration continues to face challenges as the dust is settling following the Velvet Revolution.

 

High Profile Criminal Cases and Investigations

 

Investigation Into March 1, 2008

Robert Kocharyan, Seyran Ohanyan, Yuri Khachaturov, Armen Gevorgyan


The trial of Armenia's second President Robert Kocharyan and three other former high ranking officials is ongoing. Kocharyan was arrested in the summer of 2018, accused of overthrowing constitutional order in the aftermath of the controversial 2008 presidential election that brought Serzh Sargsyan to power and left ten people dead. Similar charges were brought against former Deputy Defense Minister Yuri Khachaturov and former Chief of General Staff of Armenia’s Armed Forces Seyran Ohanyan. The former Chief of Presidential Staff Armen Gevorgyan is accused of assisting to overthrow constitutional order. The Special Investigative Service (SIS) claims that the four men illegally used the armed forces against opposition supporters who were protesting the results of the 2008 presidential elections. All four deny the accusations levelled against them as politically motivated. Only Kocharyan has been placed under pre-trial detention. 

In February, the SIS brought new charges against Kocharyan and Gevorgyan; they are accused of receiving $3 million and $1 million bribes respectively from businesswoman Silva Hambardzumyan. As a reminder, Hambardzumyan had come forward in 2018 claiming that she had given a $14 million bribe to then Minister of Nature Protection to obtain a mining development license. 

In May, the current and former Presidents of Artsakh, Bako Sahakyan and Arkadi Ghukasyan respectively, came to Yerevan and appeared in court to offer guarantees for Kocharyan to be released from pre-trial detention. On May 18, based on Sahakyan’s and Ghukasyan’s personal guarantees, a Yerevan court released Kocharyan from pre-trial detention.

Blocking Courthouses: On May 19, as a response to Kocharyan’s release, PM Nikol Pashinyan announced on his Facebook page that people must block the entrances and exits of courthouses across Armenia the following day. He referred to it as the second phase of the Velvet Revolution. Both opposition parliamentary factions, political parties, and other groups rushed to condemn this call.
Addressing the nation the following day, Pashinyan stated that the judiciary does not enjoy the trust of the public and that the situation required a “surgical intervention.” He outlined five steps, including a thorough vetting of judges, and a call for "biased" judges to resign. Pashinyan also called for the creation of a parliamentary committee to investigate the circumstances behind the 2016 April War and emphasized the need for a complete and unconditional capitulation of the corrupt former system. 

Kocharyan's case was suspended in May, when presiding judge Davit Grigoryan applied to the Constitutional Court to determine the constitutionality of the article about overthrowing constitutional order that was being referred to in the proceedings. In June, the Court agreed to rule on the constitutionality of Article 300.1 of the Armenian Criminal Code. In a separate decision, the Chair of the Constitutional Court Hrayr Tovmasyan, decided to exclude Vahe Grigoryan, the newly elected member of the Court [more on Grigoryan's election below] from the case. Tovmasyan noted that Grigoryan represented the relatives of those who were killed in the March 1 events, and as such he would have a “biased” attitude in the case, thereby could not take part in the hearings.
In the meantime, Kocharyan was sent back to pre-trial detention on June 25, following a decision by the Court of Appeals. The Constitutional Court also applied to the Venice Commission and the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) to get an “advisory opinion” on the case. 
In July, the Special Investigative Service raided and sealed the office of Judge Davit Grigoryan, who had released Kocharyan from pre-trial detention in May. In August, Grigoryan was charged with forgery and his powers suspended. The Prosecutor General’s Office announced that the case against Grigoryan was based on evidence of forgery of documents of official hearings that he signed but was not physically present at. Grigoryan denied the charges, saying they are a retribution for his ruling regarding the case against Kocharyan. 

In September, the Constitutional Court delivered a judgement on the constitutionality of two articles of the Armenian Code of Procedural Justice, which were used to launch the criminal investigation against Kocharyan and keep him in pre-trial detention. The Constitutional Court ruled that Article 35, states that current and former senior officials (who have been granted immunity by the state) may not be prosecuted for actions taken while carrying out their responsibilities, thereby it is unconstitutional to prosecute the former president under that article. But the Court ruled against Kocharyan’s lawyers second motion, saying that Article 135(2) which lists the circumstances under which an arrest can be used against the suspect, is constitutional.
After Anna Danibekyan was appointed as the new judge presiding over the case, Kocharyan’s defense team filed several motions that included requesting their client be released from pre-trial detention, asking the judge and the prosecutors to recuse themselves from the case, all of which were rejected.
In September, a Facebook live showing Anna Danibekyan being followed and harrassed by two Kocharyan supporters went viral on social media. Danibekyan was followed for about 10 minutes as she walked towards a district court in Yerevan. Later, the police reported that the two men, Narek Mutafyan and Sargis Ohanjanyan were arrested and charged with interfering with the work of the court and obstructing the administration of justice. The Human Rights Defenders office as well as the Supreme Judicial Council condemned the two for insulting and psychologically pressuring the judge.

 

Table of Contents

 

1.   High Profile Criminal Cases and Investigations

2.   Government Highlights

3.   Parliament Highlights

4.   Foreign Relations

5.   High Profile Appointments and Resignations

6.   Yerevan Municipality

7.   Student Protests

8.   ECHR Rulings

9.   Armenia in Regional and International Organizations

10. State of the Media

11. Global Rankings

12. Major Conferences/Events of 2019

related articles

On the Use of the Army in Suppressing Protests in Armenia in March 2008

While Armenia’s second President Robert Kocharyan’s trial continues, Sossi Tatikyan writes about the need to amend relevant provisions of the Constitution to delineate the distinct responsibilities of the army and internal security forces, and to ensure checks and balances when declaring a state of emergency.

Blocking Courthouses: Tensions and Developments

A day after Armenia's second President Robert Kocharyan was released from pre-trial detention, PM Nikol Pashinyan called on the people of Armenia to block courthouses across the country in what turned out to be a bid to pressure judges to resign because of their alleged connections to the former regime and the people's mistrust towards the judiciary.

Armenia Gets Serious About Reforms: Making Sense Out of Vetting

As an instrument of transitional justice, vetting is designed to “cleanse” state institutions that are tainted by systemic corruption, nepotism, and incompetence. Vetting of personnel is the first step toward the broader goal of institutional reform, writes Dr. Nerses Kopalyan.

Serzh Sargsyan 

On December 4, 2019 Armenia’s former President Serzh Sargsyan was charged with embezzlement. According to the Special Investigative Service (SIS), Sargsyan embezzled about $1 million US in government funds between January 25 to February 7, 2013. The charges stem from a state assistance program providing farmers with cheap diesel fuel. According to the statement by the SIS, Sargsyan interfered by ensuring the government tender was won by Flash, one of Armenia’s main fuel importers. The Armenian government allocated 1.8 billion drams ($3.8 million) to the Ministry of Agriculture, which was later transferred to Flash to acquire about 17 million litres of diesel fuel. 

The statement also said that the government failed to choose another private company, Maxhur, which was ready to supply the same quantity of diesel fuel at a lower price, saving the government $1 million US. The owner of Flash, Barsegh Beglaryan, who is believed to have close relations with Sargsyan, was also charged. Sargsyan was not taken into custody, but is not allowed to leave the country. Later, the SIS announced that a lien had been placed on Sargsyan’s properties. The Republican Party of Armenia issued a statement characterizing the charges against Sargsyan as political persecution. The statement went on to say that the charges are meant to silence the opposition against the background of dangers threatening Armenia and Artsakh.

Narek Sargsyan 

Former President Serzh Sargsyan’s nephew Narek Sargsyan was extradited to Armenia on December 21. Sargsyan was arrested by Interpol and the Czech police in Prague at the end of December 2018, holding a fake Guatemalan passport under the name of Franklin Gonzalez. Sargsyan is accused of drug trafficking and illegal possession of arms. 

Sargsyan fled Armenia before the National Security Service (NSS) conducted a search in his family’s house in Yerevan in July 2018. He is charged with owning illegal guns, cocaine, and other drugs, as well as suspected of kidnapping a man. The NSS also reported that Narek Sargsyan swindled one of the descendants of Martiros Saryan back in 2013 and took 14 drawings of the artist (worth $280,000 US) and promised to pay $28,000 for them and establish a joint venture with the remaining funds. Sargsyan never paid the promised funds. During the search conducted in his residence, NSS officials found expensive watches and jewelry, gold coins, paintings by Martiros Saryan, as well as $115,000 US and €27,000 in cash. 

On December 23, the Prosecutor General’s office filed a court motion to keep Sargsyan in pre-trial detention.

Alexander Sargsyan

In February, former Prime Minister Serzh Sargsyan’s brother Alexander Sargsyan (known as Sashik Sargsyan) transferred $30 million to the country’s state budget. A criminal investigation against Sargsyan was launched in July 2018 and a lien placed on his assets. After Sargsyan transferred $30 million to the state budget, the National Security Service (NSS) allowed Sargsyan to temporarily leave the country. Then Head of the NSS Artur Vanetsyan did not comment on the reasons for the "donation" by Sargsyan. Reasons for his departure or for how long he would be out of the country were also not provided. Sargsyan returned to Armenia, however, in April at the request of the investigative body.
As a reminder, during the 2018 election campaign PM Nikol Pashinyan announced that Sargsyan had $30 million in one Armenian bank account alone and demanded that he  return the money to the state. In response, Sargsyan claimed that Pashinyan had no right to use his position and authority to threaten him and noted that Pashinyan had infringed upon his rights and obtained and then publicly disclosed information about his personal bank account, the funds in which he claimed were not obtained “illegally.”
Sargsyan is accused of fraud surrounding several drawings by the 20th century Armenian painter Martiros Saryan which were found in his Yerevan apartment in summer. The NSS confiscated the drawings, saying that his son Narek had fraudulently obtained them from Saryan’s descendant. 

Manvel Grigoryan

Retired Army General, Manvel Grigoryan who was arrested in June of 2018 on a number of criminal charges brought against him including embezzlement and illegal arms possession, remains in pre-trial detention. Charges were brought against Grigoryan and his wife Nazik Amiryan after a raid by security forces in 2018 revealed a cache of weapons and ammunition, medical equipment and food for soldiers that was donated by school children and other military hardware, including an ambulance, provided by the Ministry of Defense for the armed forces. Fresh charges were brought against him in February for tax evasion and extortion.
Grigoryan reportedly suffers from several serious illnesses. A Yerevan district court released him from pre-trial detention on health grounds in December, but he was remanded into custody again in January 2019 by the decision of the Court of Appeals.
Grigoryan’s lawyers appealed the decision claiming that their client cannot receive adequate treatment while in prison; they also applied to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) asking to order the Armenian government to allow Grigoryan to receive treatment in France. The ECHR required the Armenian authorities to submit detailed information about Grigoryan’s health conditions.
In October, a panel of medical experts, established to assess the alleged health issues that Grigoryan has, determined that Grigoryan’s health is not an obstacle for him to appear at his court hearings and that he can continue to be held in detention.  For the past several months, Grigoryan’s lawyers have been arguing that his health had deteriorated to such a degree that he should be released from pre-trial detention. The medical panel said that with appropriate treatment, life-threatening risks can be minimized.
During the past several months, Grigoryan’s lawyers kept talking about their client’s many illnesses and noted that keeping him in pre-trial detention under such circumstances is torture and that his health condition has deterioriated during the past year. Grigoryan missed most of the court hearings and when present in the courtroom, was accompanied by doctors.

Mihran Poghosyan

On April 15, 2019, corruption charges (embezzlement, fraud and abuse of power) were brought against Mihran Poghosyan, the former Head of the Service for the Mandatory Execution of Judicial Acts and a former Republican MP, who currently is in Moscow. According to the statement issued by the Special Investigative Service, while in office from 2008-2016, Poghosyan abused the power of his office for personal benefit. In particular, after becoming the head of the agency, Poghosyan appointed his driver and bodyguard to different positions within the Service, and despite the fact that the two never worked in those positions, they were paid a total of $91,000 US in salaries. The statement also mentioned that during his tenure, the Service purchased 32 cars from a dealership that is allegedly connected with Poghosyan, costing taxpayers an additional $41,000 US. According to the SIS, while in office, he embezzled a total of $132,000 US in public funds. Poghosyan is also accused of failing to remit $1.2 million US in taxes. He denies the corruption charges and characterized them as “political persecution.” 

Poghosyan’s name has also been associated with the Panama Papers back in 2016, when Hetq published an investigation claiming that Poghosyan owns three companies registered in Panama. Even though a criminal investigation was launched by the SIS at the time, the case was closed because of lack of sufficient evidence linking Poghosyan with illegal activities. Following the Velvet Revolution, the case was reopened. 

On April 19, Poghosyan was arrested in Russia at the request of Armenian law enforcement authorities. While in Russia, Poghosyan applied for political asylum but was granted temporary residence permit. Following his arrest, a local court allowed the Russian police to hold him in detention for up to 40 days, pending a decision on his extradition to Armenia demanded by Armenian prosecutors. Later, however, Russia refused to extradite him citing sovereignty and national security concerns. The Armenian side had requested clarification, which has not yet been provided. As of November 29, Poghosyan is no longer under house arrest in Russia.

Surik Khachatryan 

In November, the Special Investigative Service charged the former Governor of Syunik Surik Khachatryan (known as Liska) with abuse of power that caused “substantial damage to the state.” Khachatryan is accused of giving illegal orders to two mayors of Syunik region. From 2011-2012, Khachatryan ordered a village mayor to hand over the irrigation pipes that belonged to the community worth over 5 million AMD ($10,500 US) to his brother. In 2016, the former governor forced another mayor to illegally sell 0.43 hectares of land that belonged to the community to an associate.
A warrant for his arrest was issued and a court ordered that when apprehended, he will remain in pre-trial detention. Khachatryan, who is currently in France, denied the charges levelled against him and said that he is in hospital and will return to Armenia after he recovers.

Gagik Khachatryan 

Former head of the State Revenue Committee and former Minister of Finance Gagik Khachatryan (widely known as the “Super Minister”) was taken into custody in October following a corruption investigation conducted by the National Security Service (NSS). Khachatryan’s apartment, mansion as well as the properties of people related to him were searched by the security service. Khachatryan is charged with large-scale embezzlement of public funds (purportedly in the tens of millions of dollars) and abuse of power. The NSS also arrested Khachatryan’s nephew Karen Khachatryan, who used to head one of the divisions of the State Revenue Committee.
Since the beginning of the year another case with the involvement of Kahchatryan was being investigated by the Special Investigative Service. Even though the details of the case are still not known, hours after Khachatryan’s properties were searched by the NSS, the SIS announced that it had already recovered $1.7 million US within that case.
Khachatryan’s lawyer said that one of the accusations has to do with payment to a number of employees of the State Revenue Committee, who under the leadership of Khachatryan, systematically did not show up for work. “This raises the question as to what extent Khachatryan was responsible for that,” said the lawyer.
Khachatryan is among the richest people in Armenia and a very controversial figure. His two sons Gurgen and Artyom Khachatryan, and his nephew Aram Khachatryan, own nearly 50 percent of Ucom, one of the largest Internet providers in Armenia. Khachatryan, known for a vast empire of business dealings, denies owning any businesses or properties in Armenia and abroad. 

Both Karen Khachatryan and Gagik Khachatryan remain in pre-trial detention.

Hovik Abrahamyan

In June 2019, the Special Investigative Committee announced that it had uncovered evidence regarding the criminal case involving former Prime Minister Hovik Abrahamyan. According to the law enforcement agency, 15 parcels of land in Dilijan, and the communities of Mkhchyan and Narek were illegally sold to relatives and people close to Abrahamyan. Land auctions were in fact not held and the documents were forged. For some of the people involved in the process the recent amnesty law was applicable, for others the time limit for imposing punishments has expired. The investigation is ongoing.

Back in September 2018, Abrahamyan was also charged with “illegal participation in entrepreneurial activity” and abuse of power. Those charges came on the heels of testimony provided by the director of the Avazahitik Mining Company, who said that Abrahamyan and other officials obstructed the company’s operation, demanding 60 percent share in the company, otherwise the mine would be shut down.

Vladimir Gasparyan

Armenia’s former Chief of Police Vladimir Gasparyan was charged on September 18, 2019, for abuse of power that resulted in financial losses for the state. According to a statement by the Investigative Committee, when Gasparyan was the military chief of police in 2000, he created fictitious positions for Levon Sargsyan’s driver and Aleksandr Sargsyan’s two bodyguards (both are former President Serzh Sargsyan’s brothers). Even though the three men never worked in those positions, the three were paid a total of $46,000 US. Even though Gasparyan rejects the accusations against him, the spokesperson of the Committee said that he agreed to transfer the $46,000 to the law-enforcement body for the alleged financial damage to the state. Earlier, his property and bank accounts were frozen. Gasparyan is now in freedom but cannot leave the country. One of his lawyers filed a complaint to the Prosecutor General’s office demanding to end the prosecution against his client.

Yervand Zakharyan

Charges were brought against the former Mayor of Yerevan and former Energy Minister Yervand Zakharyan for abuse of power on September 28. The Special Investigative Service (SIS) launched an investigation against him on suspicion of illegally privatizing  municipal land. According to a statement by the SIS, in 2008 when Zakharyan was the Mayor, he illegally approved the sale of 10,000 square meters of land in Yerevan’s Victory Park. The area of the public park, which was not subject to privatization, was sold to Golden Palace Hotel for about $30 per square meter (for a total of $346,000). Years later, the hotel owners subsequently used the land as collateral to obtain a $2.8 million US commercial bank loan. The investigation is ongoing.

Vigen Sargsyan 

On September 25, charges were brought against former Defense Minister Vigen Sargsyan for abuse of official power. According to investigators, while serving as Defense Minister, Sargsyan violated government procedures for the distribution of government-funded housing to Armenian army officers. The statement noted that in January 2018, Sargsyan allocated 29 such apartments to Armenian officers, when the Defense Ministry’s Central Housing Commission is the body authorized to make such decisions. The investigation is still ongoing.
Sargsyan, who is currently living and studying in the U.S., responded to the charges brought against him in a Facebook post. He said that the process was conducted in accordance with the law and clearly set principles. Sargsyan also noted that the entire process was under the oversight of the responsible commission.

Alik Sargsyan 

Criminal charges were brought against the former head of police Alik Sargsyan as part of the ongoing March 1 case. Sargsyan, who was heading the police forces from 2008 to 2011, is charged with covering up the crackdown on opposition protesters that led to 10 people being killed. According to the statement by the Special Investigative Service, after taking office in 2008, Sargsyan, along with other police officers, was ordered by then President Serzh Sargsyan’s two assistants to destroy evidence on the overthrow of constitutional order led by former President Robert Kocharyan. The two aids mentioned in the statement are Gevorg Kostanyan (former Prosecutor General and former Republican MP) and Gevorg Mheryan (he was shot dead in 2009 and no one was ever held responsible for that murder).
The statement also says that under the leadership of Sargsyan, the police forces buried evidence regarding the alleged involvement of the army in the crackdown and fabricated documents justifying the use of force against protesters. Kostanyan denies the accusations. Sargsyan also denies the allegations and says that he has nothing to do with March 1 case. He is now in freedom but cannot leave the country.

Gevorg Kostanyan 

December 4, a Yerevan court approved investigators’ request to issue an arrest warrant against the former Republican member of parliament, former Prosecutor General, and Armenia’s former representative to ECHR Gevorg Kostanyan. The Special Investigative Service reported that they requested an arrest warrant for Kostanyan as a preventive measure. Before the international arrest warrant was issued, the Service charged Kostanyan as part of the ongoing investigation into the 2008 post-election unrest and gave him 48 hours to return to Armenia. Kostanyan, who failed the deadline, told Azatutyun that he is currently in Moscow, lecturing at Russia’s state prosecutor academy and cannot return until the semester finishes and that 48 hours is artificially imposed. On December 5, the Special Investigative Service reported that Kostanyan is charged with forgery and also charged with being an accomplice to abuse power, commit forgery, tamper with evidence and conceal serious crimes.

Arsen Davtyan 

Deputy Minister of Health Arsen Davtyan was accused of being involved in a large scale corruption scandal. He was arrested on March 30, 2019, on suspicion of receiving a large bribe by Razmik Abrahamyan, the director of the Institute of Perinatology, Obstetrics and Gynecology at the Republican Hospital to secure greater government funding and secure favorable working conditions for him. Abrahamyan is now also charged with child trafficking [see below].

According to a statement issued by the National Security Service, a criminal investigation has been launched and both men will be prosecuted on corruption charges. The director of the hospital was released on bail taking into consideration his age and poor health. The deputy minister who was being held in pre-trial detention, was also released on bail on July 8.
In a Facebook post, Minister of Health Arsen Torosyan wrote that if convicted Davtyan must be punished to the full extent of the law and that such practices are inadmissible and condemnable. “We voice our support for law-enforcement bodies in their fight against corruption,” the minister said. “We sincerely believe that disclosure of corruption and other illegal practices in the healthcare system will help to root them out and make the system healthy.” 

Davit Sanasaryan 

Following concerns raised by the Minister of Health Arsen Torosyan regarding the supply of expensive dialysis machines, two senior officials from the State Oversight Service (SOS) Samvel Adyan, the acting head of a division monitoring procurements, and his top aid, Gevorg Khachatryan were arrested in February on corruption charges. The National Security Service (NSS) claimed that the two colluded with a private firm (Zorashen) from 2018-2019 to personally benefit from government-funded supplies of medical equipment to three hospitals. They have been formally charged with forgery of documents and abuse of power resulting in “dire consequences.” 

In April, corruption charges were also brought against the head of the State Oversight Service Davit Sanasaryan (this is the government agency tasked with combating financial irregularities in the public sector).
In a statement, the NSS informed that they have sufficient evidence to charge Sanasaryan with abuse of power aimed at benefiting the “company effectively managed by his subordinates.” If convicted, Sanasaryan will face up to four years in prison. Earlier, Sanasaryan made assurances that his name could never be associated with a corruption scandal because he rejects any corrupt practices and there was no evidence linking him to the scandal. Sanasaryan also raised concerns about the NSS investigation and added that he does not believe that Prime Minister Pashinyan ordered the NSS to prosecute him for political reasons.
Sanasaryan has not been arrested but was suspended from his position pending the investigation.

Gevorg Loretsyan

Gevorg Loretsyan, the Deputy Minister of Education, Science, Culture and Sport was detained on December 4, 2019, on suspicion of taking a large bribe. Loretsyan’s driver and the president of one of Armenia’s football clubs were also detained. Earlier, the National Security Service issued a statement saying that Loretsyan helped an Armenian businessman win contracts for supplies of sportswear and sports equipment to agencies working as part of the ministry in return for a bribe. Loretsyan and his driver were detained immediately after his driver received part of the money from the businessman. All three are in pre-trial detention.

David Ghazaryan (Spayka)

The director of the freight and agribusiness company Spayka, David Ghazaryan was arrested in April. A Yerevan court ordered he be kept in pre-trial detention. Ghazaryan was released on May 4 with the decision of the Prosecutor General’s Office. According to the State Revenue Committee (SRC), Ghazaryan’s company failed to pay over $14 million dollars in owed taxes. The SRC said that in 2015 and 2016 Greenproduct (a company allegedly controlled by Spayka) imported cheese and agricultural products to Armenia from a number of European countries. The company then rigged customs documents to avoid paying customs duty and value added tax.

Back then, Ghazaryan denied the accusations and blamed the authorities for “paralyzing” his company’s operations. He also claimed that Spayka is not connected to Greenproduct and has only carried out cargo shipments for it. He noted that Spayka planned to invest an additional $100 million this year but because of the tax fraud case, that funding has been frozen. 
Following the decision, hundreds of Spayka employees protested in front of the court and later by the government building, demanding Ghazaryan’s release.

 

Usurpation of State Authority

In October, the Prosecutor General’s office launched an investigation into a possible “usurpation of state authority by a group of individuals.” According to testimony by independent MP, Arman Babajanyan, the Chair of the Constitutional Court (CC) Hrayr Tovmasyan colluded with former Republican Party of Armenia (RPA) officials to illegally secure his position at the Court. The investigation was launched only two days after the CC refused to terminate Tovmasyan’s powers.
Tovmasyan’s father and two daughters were invited to the National Security Service. NSS officers also visited and questioned Tovmasyan’s father Vardan Tovmasyan in his house in Ararat province. Investigators also went to the headquarters of the Republican Party of Armenia (RPA). Vice President of the party Armen Ashotyan said that the SIS was there to seize materials related to the suspension of Tovmasyan's RPA membership in early 2018. SIS officials also searched the Constitutional Court building. 
The family’s lawyer told reporters that Tovmasyan’s daughters were asked about their car and garage, which they received as a gift from a cousin who emigrated to the U.S. in 2016. The NSS also asked about another car which Tovmasyan’s elder daughter owned before she donated it to Artsakh’s Defense Army during the April War. Tovmasyan’s father was also questioned at the NSS headquarters. According to his lawyer, NSS officers wanted to know when and by what means he repaired the roof of his house, located in Ararat province. The 75-year-old told them that he fixed the roof at his own expense and with the help of his neighbors.
As part of the investigation, the former Deputy Chief of Staff of the National Assembly Arsen Babayan was arrested in October, accused of involvement that allegedly resulted in the 2018 appointment of Hrayr Tovmasyan as the Chair of the Constitutional Court.  

In early November, Babayan was released from pre-trial detention based on the personal guarantees of the President of the Helsinki Committee Avetik Ishkhanyan and a Member of Parliament from the My Step faction Sisak Gabrielyan. Both of them posted bail at 500,000 drams ($1,030).

Another former statesman involved in this case is former Speaker of Parliament Ara Babloyan. According to the Special Investigative Service, Babloyan illegally accepted and announced the resignation of the former Chair of the Constitutional Court Gagik Harutyunyan, before receiving the actual resignation letter from him. Investigators claim that Babayan backdated the letter, so that Tovmasyan could become the chairman before the 2015 amendments to the Constitution entered into force. With the Constitutional changes, Tovmasyan could head the court for six years only, while under the previous Constitution, he could hold the post until the age of 70.
Babloyan denied the accusations levelled against him saying that his actions as Speaker were in accordance with the Constitution and laws and that he could not explain why Harutyanyan resigned early. Babloyan went on to say that Harutyunyan’s letter of resignation was on his desk when he signed it on March 2, 2018. Later, both Babloyan and Harutyunyan were questioned at the Special Investigative Service. Harutyunyan denied that claims that he was forced to resign. Babloyan was not remanded into custody, but he is barred from leaving the country.
In late October, new charges were brought against Hrayr Tovmasyan, Chair of the Constitutional Court. The Investigative Committee announced that it had enough evidence to charge Tovmasyan for abuse of power. According to the statement, while Tovmasyan was heading the Justice Ministry (2010 - 2013) he acquired a property on Baghramyan 1 during an auction organized by the Yerevan Municipality. No further details were provided.
Hours after the announcement, the President of the Venice Commission, Gianni Buquicchio, issued a statement saying that he was very concerned about the open conflict that has been brewing between the government and parliament on one hand and the Constitutional Court on the other. He called on the three branches of Armenia’s government “to exercise restraint, mutual respect and constructive institutional cooperation” in order to ease the conflict relating to Tovmasyan. The statement went on to say that in a democratic country all state institutions must maintain due process as well as acknowledge and respect those of the other institutions. And if this is not done properly and there is a lack of democratic culture and maturity, the functioning of the state institutions will be compromised. Justice Minister Rustam Badasyan welcomed Buquicchio’s statement saying that the government will take these concerns into account. The Justice Minister noted that the government wants Tovmasyan to resign, however, that the situation is not a matter of respect, but rather the result of the “dubious election of the Constitutional Court chairman.”

Amulsar Gold Mine

Amid ongoing protests against the operation of the Amulsar gold mine, Armenia's government allocated $300,000 US in March of this year to hire a team of international experts to assess the environmental risks of the mine. PM Pashinyan had said that if the inspections show that the chemical compounds of the mine are polluting Lake Sevan and the mineral springs of Jermuk, its activities will be permanently terminated. However, if the impact can be mitigated, the mine will continue its operations, considering that Lydian International, the owner of the mine, had already made significant investments in the project.
In August, Armenia’s Investigative Committee publicized a 220-page-report by the Lebanese environmental consultancy (ELARD) regarding the potential environmental impact of the mine. The assessment found no connection between the underground waters of Amulsar and mineral waters of Jermuk or rivers flowing into Lake Sevan. Lydian Armenia also pledged to address 15 out of 16 mitigating measures proposed by ELARD. While the findings of the report were being discussed in the government, several dozen environmental activists and concerned citizens were protesting in front of the building, demanding a meeting with the PM.
After the report was published, PM Pashinyan announced his intention to allow Lydian International to resume operations and that the company will have to adhere to “unprecedentedly high environmental standards that have not been applied in Armenia until now.” Earlier, Pashinyan held a closed-door discussion with members of government, environmental activists as well as residents of the communities around Amulsar. According to the official statement, the PM introduced participants to the work carried out within the frames of the criminal case on operation of the Amulsar mine and spoke about the report by the international expert group.
In light of ongoing protests, Pashinyan tasked the Ministry of Environment to decide if there is a need for a new Environmental Impact Assessment before a decision on the operation of the controversial gold mine was made. Later in September, during a consultation with PM Pashinyan and relevant government agencies, Minister of Environment Erik Grigoryan said the ministry has found that Lydian presented inaccurate baseline data before being granted its mining license in 2016, however, they still need to look into the legal framework that would allow the government to demand a second assessment.
By the end of August, InfoCom reported that the former Minister of Environment Aramayis Grigoryan who approved the environmental impact assessment for the operation of Amulsar in 2016 and the head of the investigative group working on Amulsar case Yura Ivanyan are relatives. This raised many concerns about the objectivity of Ivanyan’s investigation, which was launched on the grounds that officials intentionally concealed information about the environmental impact assessment (meaning Ivanyan also investigated the activities of his uncle’s son). Grigoryan confirmed that Ivanyan is his cousin. He also said that the main environmental impact assessment was approved in 2014 and that he approved only the additions to the already existing assessment. The Investigative Committee issued a statement saying that their family ties should not be used to call into question the results of the investigation into the Amulsar criminal case.
An investigation was launched against Yura Ivanyan.
In July 2018, Pashinyan instructed the Investigative Committee to launch a criminal inquiry in order to establish whether a government body that issued Lydian’s operating license in April 2016 broke any laws or regulations. 
In September, PM Nikol Pashinyan said that the government does not have any legal basis to terminate operations of the gold mine. He urged the residents of Jermuk and environmental activists to open the roads leading to the mine. Pashinyan also raised concerns that if the Armenian government prohibits the operation of Amulsar, it can be easily viewed as a discriminatory approach. He said if they pull Lydian’s licence, they have to then explain why the Zangezur and Teghut mines have been allowed to operate and that it could lead to serious issues with foreign partners and investors. At the same time, he emphasized that the government cannot ignore public concerns. Pashinyan said that Lydian Armenia made assurances that the operation of the mine is safe, meaning that there will be no contamination of the country’s water and soil and biodiversity will not be impacted once the mine starts active excavation. According to the prime minister, if any of these commitments are not met, the government will demand the closure of the mine within 90 days.
Lydian will not be able to launch the mining operations before the beginning of 2021, because it will need several months of preparation before resuming the construction of its gold mine. In response to the PM’s announcement, activists from the SaveAmulsar environmental movement said that they do not plan to open the roads leading to the mine.
Lydian Armenia started its operations at Amulsar in 2014, after it was given the final permission by the Ministry of Environment (back then it was the Ministry of Nature Protection). The operations of the mine were stopped in June 2018, one month after the Pashinyan government was elected, and when local residents and environmental activists began a permanent blockade of all three roads leading to the mine, saying that the operations of the mine would contaminate the environment. Pashinyan said that he would issue a final decision regarding Amulsar after reviewing the findings of an independent environmental impact assessment report. The blockade continues to this day.

 

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Illegal Adoption Scandal

In November, the National Security Service reported that two citizens of Armenia, using their connections in one of the state hospitals, in a number of state agencies and orphanages, organized the adoption of more that 30 children by citizens of Italy. According to the statement, between 2016-2018, more than 10 women who wanted to terminate their pregnancies were pressured by some of the employees of the hospital (name not mentioned) to give up the child for adoption. After getting a written consent, newborns were transferred to orphanages. The officials of all involved institutions abused their official power and falsely claimed that the children had certain disabilities, when they didn’t. The NSS said that those involved in this illegal adoption ring made sure that Armenian citizens would not be able to adopt the babies, violating their rights, because according to Armenian law, citizens of Armenia must be given priority over foreigners.
As part of the investigation into illegal adoption cases, three suspects were arrested on December 18 and one in early December, among them the director of the Republican Maternity Hospital Razmik Abrahamyan, the deputy director of the same hospital Arshak Jerjeryan and the director of a Yerevan orphanage Liana Karapetyan (the name of the fourth suspect remains unclear; she is a 43-year-old woman based in Yerevan). After being arrested, Razmik Abrahamyan was taken to hospital, allegedly suffering from health issues. All four of them have been charged for illegally separating a child from parents.
According to the statement by the Investigative Committee, they are suspected of forcing young women to abandon their babies who were later adopted by foreign nationals (after paying bribes). It is estimated that 101 cases were reported to the police, all of which took place at the Republican Maternity Hospital. Investigators said that Abrahamyan would be kept under pretrial detention. Later, however, a Yerevan court delivered a judgement saying that the suspect cannot be kept under pre-trial detention. Karapetyan was also released from pre-trial detention on bail for 3 million AMD ($6200 US).

 

North-South Highway

In August, fraud and embezzlement charges were brought against the director of the Spanish construction company that in 2012 won a $280 million US contract to rebuild more than 90 kilometers of the North-South Highway. According to the Investigative Committee, a Spanish executive, who allegedly stole $1.8 million US, is one of the five people included in the ongoing criminal investigation. He is under international investigation and an arrest warrant has been issued for him.
As part of the ongoing investigation, criminal charges were also brought against the executive director of Multi Group Concern, Sedrak Arustamyan. He is accused of fraud and tax evasion. According to the Investigative Committee, he helped a Chinese Construction company (Sinohydro Corporation) building a 56-kilometer highway as part of the North-South highway, to evade $503,000 US in taxes. The company paid an Armenian firm owned by Arustamyan and run by two other men (one of whom was Gurgen Sargsyan, Transport Minister from 2008-2010) $2.2 million US in consulting fees as part of the scam. Arustamyan was released on bail for 20 million AMD, while Sargsyan remains in pre-trial detention. 

Criminal charges were also brought against the brother of former president Serzh Sargsyan, Levon Sargsyan for alleged abuse of power during the construction of the highway. Sargsyan is charged with money laundering and bribery. An arrest warrant has been issued against Sargsyan, who is currently under investigation. Armenia’s Investigative Committee said that Sargsyan illegally intervened in a $250 million US project to rebuild major Armenian highways for personal gain for himself and two business associates. Investigators said that the company who won the tender for the construction, did so through the intervention of Sargsyan, who was expected to receive 50 percent of the expected profits in kickbacks.
Levon Sargsyan was already charged with illegal enrichment, and he, along with his two children has been under investigation after law-enforcement agencies discovered that they hold about $7 million US in undeclared deposits in an Armenian bank (the name is not known).
Former Minister of Transport and Communication (2008-2010) Gurgen Sargsyan was arrested as part of the ongoing criminal investigation. Sargsyan, is accused of fraud and tax evasion. According to the Investigative Committee, in 2012 he was the project lead of a company that was a subcontractor in the construction of the highway.
The investigation into the alleged financial abuse and mismanagement of resources during the construction of the North-South Highway was launched in 2018 and the Prosecutor General’s Office estimates the losses between 2009 and 2018 amount to about $48.7 million US. So far, more than 1000 people have been questioned as part of the investigation, among them a number of former high ranking officials. More than 15 people are suspects in the case. Although it was expected that the construction of the highway would be completed in 2019, so far only 31 kilometers of the 550-kilometer-long road is complete.

Government - Highlights

Government Structure

In April, parliament voted in favor of a bill setting the new structure of PM Nikol Pashinyan’s cabinet. The bill, however, did not receive the support of parliamentarians from Prosperous Armenia and Bright Armenia factions. They accused the government of reducing the number of ministries from 17 to 12 without considering its efficiency and failing to limit the powers of the prime minister.

With the proposed structural changes:

  • the post of the first Deputy Prime Minister as well as the Diaspora Ministry were abolished; 

  • Ministries of Culture, and Sports and Youth merged with the Ministry of Education turning it into a single ministry; 

  • the Ministries of Energy and Natural Resources were turned into Ministry of Territorial Administration and Infrastructures. 

  • The Ministry of Agriculture merged with the Ministry of Economic Development and Investments;

  • The Ministry of Transport, Communication and Information Technologies became the Ministry of Communication and High Technologies

Armenia’s police, National Security Service (NSS) and the State Revenue Committee (SRC) remain under the purview and subordinate to the prime minister with no possibility of parliamentary oversight. These two posts became subordinate to the post of the prime minister after the 2015 Constitutional referendum.
Artak Zeynalyan, who was appointed Minister of Justice following the Velvet Revolution and reappointed after the 2018 parliamentary election, resigned on June 7.  Rustam Badasyan was appointed as Armenia’s new Justice Minister. The 28-year-old Badasyan worked as the Deputy Head of the State Revenue Committee. 

Civil Aviation

Starting from January 2020, Ryanair will launch flights between Armenia and Europe. The Chief Commercial Officer of the low-cost airline, David O’Brien, made the announcement during a press conference in Yerevan. To start, the airline will offer biweekly Yerevan-Milan and Yerevan-Rome flights, and then add the Berlin-Yerevan route; flights between the German city of Memmingen and Armenia’s second largest city Gyumri will also commence. O’Brien noted that the four new routes will help to promote tourism and bring 130,000 customers to and from European cities to Armenia. The average fair of Ryanair for all routes across the year is about 35 euros ($38.5 US).
The route from Gyumri will be that city’s first European link, which until now only hosted  flights to and from Russia. Armenia International Airports is planning to invest $20 million US to upgrade and renovate the Gyumri airport, in preparation for the new flights.

Starting April 2020, the second low-cost airline WizzAir will launch flights between Armenia and Europe. The airline will offer biweekly Yerevan-Vienna and Yerevan-Vilnyus flights. The ticket prices will start from 25 euros and will be sold only online. During a press conference held at Zvartnots airport, the Corporate Communications Manager of WizzAir Andras Rado said that they are glad to be in Armenia, and that this is only the beginning of their collaboration.
The government attracted both low-cost airlines with a pledge to exempt them from a fixed $21 US air tax, which is collected from every ticket sold. The tax cut would apply to any other airline launching flights to new destinations from Yerevan or Gyumri.

 

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Housing

According to 2019 data, there are 2589 refugee families living in Armenia that need housing (1070 are based in Yerevan and 1519 are in the regions). These are people who were displaced from Azerbaijan 30 years ago. This year, 112 of those families, who are in most urgent need, will be given permanent housing. The project, initiated by Armenia’s government, will cost about 1.5 billion AMD ($3.1 million US) and will be implemented by the Migration Service.
The government allocated 1.9 billion AMD ($3.9 million US) to the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs to provide housing to 300 orphans. Each of them has already received certificates valued at 6.3 million AMD ($13,000 US) in order to buy apartments. According to Minister Zaruhi Batoyan, beneficiaries are those individuals who left orphanages between 1991 and 2013 when they became age of majority. Within this program, assistance will also be provided to people with disabilities, who despite being 18 years old continue living in special orphanages because they have nowhere else to go. Batoyan also said that the state’s goal is to contribute to the development of people’s abilities, therefore as of 2020 the ministry will no longer provide housing certificates to age of majority orphans and instead will provide assistance to rent an apartment, get an education and acquire professional skills.
In 2020, the government will allocate 3 billion AMD ($6.3 million US) to address the housing problem of citizens affected by the 1988 Spitak earthquake. “Our current agenda is to clearly define the scale of the problem and the scope of work, find solutions and solve the problem so that Gyumri and other earthquake-affected settlements could come out of the current urban development-related deadlock,” said PM Pashinyan. Approximately 450 families will receive funding to cover their housing needs. 

 

Domestic Violence Database

In October, the government voted in favor of a draft proposal by the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs to create a comprehensive database of all domestic violence cases in Armenia. Currently, there is no centralized registry of domestic violence cases and the information is usually based on cases reported by law enforcement agencies and surveys conducted by various organizations, which is not sufficient to assess the situation and take preventive measures. It is expected that the database will provide a clear picture of domestic violence in the country and, if needed, initiate legislative changes based on that.
Also, starting from 2020, all the regions of Armenia will have centers providing assistance to victims of domestic violence. The Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs announced that the state policy envisions the creation of a comprehensive mechanism that would prevent cases of domestic violence in the first place as well as providing assistance to victims. Currently, there are six support centers in Armenia, three of which are located in Yerevan, while the rest are in Lori, Syunik and Shirak regions. The Ministry signed a memorandum of cooperation with the Women's Support Center and Hayastan All-Armenian Fund, and within this collaboration six more centers were set to open by the end of the year.
In September, the government approved the gender equality national strategy and action plan of 2019-2023. The goal of the strategy is to ensure equal rights and opportunities between men and women in all spheres and to counter gender-based discrimination.

 Ministry of Justice

The Ministry of Justice drafted a bill that would criminalize hate speech in Armenia, including public calls for violence, or publicly justifying/propagating violence. The Ministry will submit the proposed amendments to Armenia’s Criminal Code to the government, and if approved, such statements will be punished by fines or imprisonment for up to three years. Minister of Justice Rustam Badasyan said that hate speech became quite common in Armenia and that the proposed amendments will mitigate calls for violence, as well as discriminatory and intolerant rhetoric in the Armenian discourse. Badasyan said that while drafting the amendments to the code, international practices and standards on combating hate speech were studied.
The government approved the bill proposed by the Justice Ministry to confiscate illegally acquired properties and other assets. According to the law, a property is considered illegal, when its acquisition cannot be justified by legitimate income. The bill would allow prosecutors to investigate individuals in case of having sufficient grounds to suspect that the market value of their assets exceeds their legal incomes by more than 25 million AMD ($52,400 US). The property can be confiscated only if with a court decision.
 

Venice Commission About Judicial Reforms

The Venice Commission, which is an advisory institution to the Council of Europe, positively assessed the Armenian government’s proposals to change the country’s judicial code. In August of 2019, Justice Minister Rustam Badasyan applied to the commission for an expert opinion on the amendments to the Constitutional Code of the Judicial Code and related laws. The Commission noted that most of the recommendations of the judicial reform package are in line with the European standards and contribute to the accountability of judges and prevention of corrupt practices.
The Commission spoke about the early retirement scheme offered to Constitutional Court judges. According to the Commission, it is important to respect the stability of the judiciary, and that the composition of the Constitutional Court cannot change every time a new government comes to power. The experts concluded that as long as the proposed retirement remains voluntary and does not hinder the effective functioning of the Court, the proposed recommendation is not objectionable from the standpoint of international standards.

 

Ministry of Defense

The government also approved the legislative package tabled by the Defense Ministry that will affect all those who have not completed their mandatory military service. The current regulations allow citizens who are 27 or older and who have avoided military service by leaving the country, to pay a fine and return home. With the proposed changes, those who have turned 27 until March 1, 2019 and have not served in the military as of January 1, 2020, will face criminal prosecution. The proposed legislative package still needs to be approved by the parliament.

 

Law on Internet Providers

Armenia’s Public Service Regulatory Commission put a draft bill into circulation, which if adopted, would oblige all Internet service providers in Armenia to collect and store data on their subscribers. This would effectively give law enforcement agencies access to visited sites, operating systems, emails, etc. A number of media and civil society organizations have condemned this move saying that it contradicts several
domestic laws and constitutional provisions.

 

Istanbul Convention

The Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence against Women and Domestic Violence (known as the Istanbul Convention), prompted heated  debates in Armenia during the year. In May during a meeting with the head of the Council of Europe (CoE) office in Armenia, Minister of Labor and Social Affairs Zaruhi Batoyan said that Armenia is planning to draft a gender policy and that she wanted the input of the CoE on the matter. Batoyan also said that she is working to have Armenia quickly ratify the Istanbul Convention.
The Convention was signed in Istanbul in 2011. The goal of the Convention is to prevent and protect women from all forms of violence, eliminate discrimination, promote equality between men and women.


Bonuses

In January, it became known that a number of governors of Armenia paid themselves and their senior staff members bonuses, causing a wave of criticism. Among them were the governors of Syunik, Ararat, Armavir and Kotayk. PM Nikol Pashinyan and other senior government officials defended the payments, arguing that bonuses have been given for many years to public sector employees. In a Facebook live, Pashinyan noted that his administration is having trouble attracting skilled professionals, who work in the private sector, because public sector salaries are very low.
Similar bonuses were given to employees in the Municipality and Armenia’s State Revenue Committee (SRC). Mayor of Yerevan Hayk Marutyan said that ahead of the New Year the Municipality allocated $974,000 US for bonuses, because they had been able to reduce expenditures, leaving extra funds.


Salary Increase

The average salary of firefighters will increase from 85,000 to 130,000 ($180 - $275 US), while the average salaries of forest rangers will increase by 20 percent (approximately 20,000 AMD or $42 US).

 

International Republican Institute

In 2019, the International Republican Institute conducted two nationwide polls in Armenia. For each poll, interviews were conducted with 1200 permanent residents of Armenia who are eligible to vote.
The results of the poll released in July show high public confidence in government and optimism about the country’s future. According to the results, 72 percent of respondents are satisfied with the performance of the Prime Minister’s office, 60 percent think the country is headed in the right direction, and 59 percent of respondents believe that the government is making enough effort to fight corruption. Armenians, however, remain concerned about a number of issues facing the country. When asked about the government’s greatest failure, 22 percent of respondents cited bad management. Although 42 percent think that the economy as a whole has improved over the last six months, just 24 percent cited improvements in the economic situation of their own households over the same time period.

If new parliamentary elections were conducted in May, 59 percent of the respondents would vote in favor of My Step (during the 2018 parliamentary elections My Step received 70 percent of the votes), 12 percent in favor of Prosperous Armenia, and 5 percent for the Republican party.
The results of polls released in December show that 62 percent of Armenian society believes that the country is heading in the right direction, which is a two percent increase compared to the previous poll conducted in May 2019. But it is also a 9 percent decrease compared to 2018 poll results, where 73 percent of the respondents viewed the country as heading in the right direction. When asked about the biggest failures of the new government, the top three responses were: bad management; unfulfilled promises; and perceptions of political instability. Economic concerns were ranked fourth. Also, 75 percent of the respondents mentioned the need for much quicker implementation of economic reforms, while in May poll, 63 percent voiced such concerns. So, citizens are becoming observably more impatient with time and the demand for quicker implementation of reforms is increasing. 

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Negating the Honeymoon Discourse

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What to Expect in 2020

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Pensions and Salaries for Public Servants to Increase

Starting from January 1, 2020 pensions will increase by 10 percent. It is expected that the increase will impact over 560,000 people in the country. The changes are reflected in Armenia’s 2020 state budget. In November, the government also raised the minimum pension from 16,000 AMD to 25,000 ($33 - $52 US), which impacted about 7 percent of pensioners.
Also, starting from January 1, 2020, salaries of a number of state employees will increase. Salaries of 5000 employees of sport and cultural centers of Yerevan will increase. Salaries of employees in music and art schools will by up to 25 percent, while in sports schools by up to 56 percent. Employees will also be provided with health insurance. Starting from 2020, the government will set minimum of 108,000 AMD ($227 US) salary for teachers (after taxes).
The Military Insurance Fund will extend the assistance it provides to the families of soldiers killed while on military duty back to 1998. Initially, when the Fund was established, it extended assistance to the families of soldiers killed or injured on the Line of Contact.

 

Parliament - Highlights

The Economic Significance of the Minimum Monthly Wage

Armenia’s minimum wage is set to increase in 2020. When setting the minimum wage, governments need to take a balanced and evidence-based approach that considers the needs of workers and their families on the one hand and economic factors on the other.

On January 14, the National Assembly held its first session. The new parliament is composed of 132 members representing three political forces. This is the first time since the 1990s, that the former ruling Republican Party of Armenia and the Armenian Revolutionary Federation are not represented in parliament. Former First Deputy Prime Minister Ararat Mirzoyan from the My Step faction was elected as the President (Speaker) of the National Assembly. Mirzoyan pledged to strive for stronger “parliamentary oversight” of the government and said he would be “open to dialogue” with the opposition. Lena Nazaryan and Alen Simonyan of My Step were elected as Deputy Speakers.
The Armenian Constitution reserves the third post of deputy speaker for a representative of the parliamentary opposition. Following much heated discussions between two opposition parties (Prosperous Armenia and Bright Armenia), both of which had candidates for the position of the third deputy speaker, Vahe Enfiajyan from Prosperous Armenia was elected.
Of the 11 Parliamentary Standing Committees, eight are headed by MPs from the My Step faction, two by Prosperous Armenia, and one by Bright Armenia.
 

Passed Bills

Anti-corruption Committee

In November, the National Assembly elected the five members of the newly created anti-corruption committee (Commission on Preventing Corruption). They were nominated by the government, the Supreme Judicial Council and the three political forces represented in parliament (My Step, Prosperous Armenia and Bright Armenia). The anti-corruption body will replace the Ethics Committee for Senior Officials and will be tasked with overseeing income and asset declarations submitted by Armenia’s top state officials. Aside from processing asset declarations, the Commission can also ask law-enforcement bodies to investigate officials suspected of engaging in corrupt practices or submitting false documentation.
During the committee’s first session, Haykuhi Harutyunyan, who was nominated by Bright Armenia, was elected president of the commission. Harutyunyan is a human rights activist, and since 2013 heads the Protection of Rights Without Borders NGO. 

Constitutional Court Judge Election, Vahe Grigoryan

On June 18, parliament elected prominent lawyer Vahe Grigoryan to the post of Constitutional Court (CC) judge. This was Grigoryan’s second nomination, the first was under the previous parliament, when the Republican party was the ruling majority and failed to elect him to the country’s highest court. This time, Grigoryan, was backed by 99 parliamentarians and opposed by 22, and he was the third candidate nominated by President Armen Sarkissian (the previous two did not receive the required number of votes).
During his swearing in ceremony on June 20, Grigoryan declared that he could now act as the Chair of the Constitutional Court, challenging the legitimacy of the presiding Chair, Hrayr Tovmasyan. He explained that following the Constitutional referendum in 2015, the CC consists of judges rather than members, which was the case prior to 2015. And that it is only he and Arman Dilanyan, who was elected a member of the CC last year, who can serve as judges and make decisions (suggesting that the other six do not have that power). Since Dilanyan was currently absent from Armenia, Grigoryan said that he was single-handedly “taking over the powers (presuming the responsibilities) and duties of the Constitutional Court chairman.”
Grigoryan’s nomination was criticized by opposition lawmakers from Bright Armenia, who claim that the Constitution specifically mentions that a new candidate has to be nominated. They also questioned Grigoryan’s impartiality, noting his close relations with the country’s current leadership. 

The Bill on Terminating Hrayr Tovmasyan’s Powers

In September, after the Constitutional Court delivered a decision on the legality of charges brought against former President Robert Kocharyan, the Chair of the Court Hrayr Tomvasyan came under criticism by the ruling My Step faction. The ruling party said that Tovmasyan mishandled the appeal by Kocharyan’s lawyers. Head of the My Step faction Lilit Makunts announced that they will urge the court to replace Tovmasyan. Eventually, My Step tabled a 94-page bill on September 18, identifying the legal grounds for terminating Tovmasyan’s powers.
Some of the justifications at the core of the bill stipulated that before joining the Constitutional Court, Tovmasyan was a member of the Republican Party of Armenia (RPA) and held a number of key positions. Therefore, while making decisions he may be constrained by his ties to RPA. Tovmasyan is also the godfather of one of Kocharyan’s lawyers, Aram Orbelyan. According to MP Suren Grigoryan, who tabled the bill, Tovmasyan did not disclose his relations with Orbelyan and did not voluntarily recuse himself from the proceedings. Grigoryan also pointed out that Tovmasyan had previously made public statements regarding the crackdown on protesters on March 1, 2008, which should have been sufficient grounds for withdrawal from the proceedings. Before joining the RPA, Tovmasyan said that the post-election unrest was shameful for the country; after his appointment as justice minister, he described it as mass disorder.
On October 3, hours before parliament started debating the draft bill, Tovmasyan issued a statement saying he will not participate in the session because he believes that the process is driven by political and subjective considerations. He went on to list some recent events to prove his point. Tovmasyan mentioned PM Nikol Pashinyan’s call in May 2019 to blockade the entrance of court buildings as one example. He also mentioned CC judge Vahe Grigoryan’s announcement during his inauguration in parliament, when he said that after his oath he will take on the duties of the chair of the Constitutional Court.
On October 4, the National Assembly passed a bill terminating Tovmasyan’s powers. Prosperous Armenia announced that they will not participate in the vote, while Bright Armenia voted in favor of the bill. “Parliament is not the body to decide whether Hrayr Tovmasyan should stay or leave,” said the head of the faction Gagik Tsarukyan. The Standing Committee on State and Legal Affairs also endorsed the bill.
After the bill was voted on in the parliament, it was sent to the Constitutional Court, which duly rejected the motion on October 14. Tovmasyan himself did not participate in the vote.

Early Retirement of the Constitutional Court Members

Parliament voted in favor of an early retirement scheme offered to Constitutional Court judges (with 65 in favor and 33 against). According to the bill, judges who voluntarily step down before January 31, 2020, will receive monthly compensation equivalent to their current wage until their term was foreseen to end. Justice Minister Rustam Badasyan estimated that the possible early retirement of Tovmasyan and the six other justices will cost 630 million AMD ($1.3 million US) in taxpayers money.
Based on the request of the Justice Minister, the Venice Commission provided an expert opinion regarding the bill in August. It said that as long as the proposed retirement remains voluntary and does not hinder the effective functioning of the Court, the proposal is not objectionable from the standpoint of international standards. Prosperous Armenia and Bright Armenia voted against the bill saying that it is politically motivated and is an attempt to appoint judges more favorable to the government. The controversial bill has been criticized by some legal experts as well, who say that it amounts to a legal “bribe.”

Compensation to March 1st Victims

In June, the National Assembly unanimously passed a draft on providing compensation to the family of the victims of the March 1, 2008 post-election unrest. The bill was proposed by Deputy Speakers Alen Simonyan and Lena Nazaryan. The law stipulates that assistance will be provided to the families of those who died in the clashes, as well as those who suffered serious injuries. According to Nazaryan, there are approximately 63 such cases. Assistance will also be provided to police officers who were severely injured and were not prosecuted.
In July, the government adopted a decision on the type of compensation that will be provided to the victims. According to the decision, families of those people who died during the clashes will receive 30 million AMD ($63,000 US) in compensation, those who were severely injured will receive 15 million AMD ($31,500 US) and people who suffered minor injuries will receive 5 million AMD ($10,500 US). Eleven years have passed since those deadly events, which left 10 people dead and about 200 injured.

Amendments to the Tax Code

In June, parliament passed a government bill introducing changes to Armenia’s tax code. Both opposition parties, Prosperous Armenia and Bright Armenia voted against the bill.
According to the changes, Armenia will switch to a flat income tax rate of 23 percent starting from January 1, 2020. It is expected that by 2023, income tax will be further reduced to 20 percent, after which the contribution to the mandatory pension fund paid by citizens will increase to 5 percent (now citizens’ contribution is 2.5 percent, while the government compensates the remaining 7.5 percent). The bill also calls for significant increases in excise taxes on tobacco and alcohol, which is meant to compensate for a short-term loss of the government’s budgetary revenues, expected following the tax cuts. Taxes on gambling are also expected to rise to 20 percent.
According to the current tax code, those who earn up to 150,000 AMD ($309 US) pay 23 percent income tax; those who earn anywhere between $309 US and $4130 US pay 28 percent, while those earning more than 2 million AMD pay 36 percent income tax.
PM Nikol Pashinyan said that the tax cuts will discourage employers from underreporting their workers’ wages for tax evasion purposes. Opposition lawmakers who voted against the tax cuts, dismiss these arguments saying that the flat tax is unfair and would only widen the already serious income inequality in Armenia. 

Criminalizing Illegal Logging

In July, the National Assembly voted in favor of the draft bill introducing stricter forms of punishment for illegal logging. The package of amendments imposes 2 years of imprisonment for damage caused to the forest that is estimated to be more than 100,0000 AMD ($210 US). Previously only a fine was imposed on a similar offence. Causing less than $210 US damage to a forest for a second time will also be punishable by imprisonment. Minister of Nature protection Erik Grigoryan believes this will help halt the country’s deforestation and counter the organized underground wood business in Armenia with links to corrupt state officials of the previous regime. Also, with the new legislation, the fine for hunting Caucasian leopard increased from 3 to 100 million AMD ($210,000 US).
Following the adoption of the bill, residents of Tavush region started protests in the regional capital Ijevan. About 500 demonstrators blocked the highway passing through the city, demanding the government allow cutting and selling wood from forests, which they say is their primary source of income. At about midnight, protests led to clashes between security forces and demonstrators which left 14 people injured (mainly police officers, who were hit by stones).
A criminal case was launched for hooliganism and using violence against security forces. 

Lake Sevan

In October, despite government opposition, parliament voted in favor of a bill banning to take more than 170 million cubic meters of water from Lake Sevan. Bright Armenia abstained from the vote. The head of the faction Edmon Marukyan said he believed the bill was merely symbolic and that it would not prevent authorities from using water from the lake when and if necessary.
In July, Lake Sevan started changing its color because of the growth of blue-green algae. The Ministry of Nature Protection announced that similar algae was first noticed in Sevan back in the 1940s and several times since. According to experts, there are several reasons for this, among them is the lack of precipitation, high temperatures and climate change, wastewater from recreational and leisure centers surrounding the lake as well as phosphorus and nitrogen that enter the lake as a result of fish farming. The quality of the water at the lake also deteriorated due to the large amount of water released from the lake for irrigation.
After the amount of phosphorus started declining algie subsided. “Lake Sevan has begun a self-cleaning process,” the Deputy Minister of Environment Irina Ghaplanyan wrote on her Facebook page.

Criminalizing Cruelty Against Animals

Parliament passed a bill proposed by Prosperous Armenia criminalizing cruelty against animals. The bill will ensure that severe mistreatment of pets or homeless animals (including dismembering, poisoning, or conducting tests on them, organizing fights between them, etc.) will be punished with a fine, ranging from 100 to 300 times the minimum wage, detention between 1-3 months or imprisonment for a maximum of one year.

Ad Hoc Parliamentary Committee, April War

In June, a parliamentary ad hoc committee was formed to investigate the 2016 April War. The committee is headed by Andranik Kocharyan of the My Step alliance who is also the chair of the parliamentary Standing Committee on Defense and Security. The Committee is authorized to question senior officials and request classified military reports and documents. The mandate of the committee is broad, and includes issues related to combat readiness, compliance with the rules of combat duty, and intelligence activities. The committee will also investigate the decisions taken by the military command during the war, specifically the Armenian military command’s response to the Azerbaijani offensive that led to the most severe escalation of clashes since the 1994 ceasefire agreement.
On December 10, parliament unanimously voted in favor of extending the term of the Parliamentary Committee looking into the circumstances of the April War for four more months. 

Minimum Wage

Parliament approved the bill on increasing the minimum wage from 55,000 to 68,000 AMD ($115 - $142 US). Salaries of nearly 57,000 public servants and nearly 130,000 employees of the private sector will increase in 2020. Salaries of 950 ambulance workers will also increase by 10 percent (300 of those employees are doctors). 

Rating System for Drivers

The National Assembly passed a bill introducing a rating system for drivers. With the proposed legislation, each driver will have nine points and if within a year the driver loses all nine points, then their license will be suspended for six months. If repeated, the driving license will be suspended for one year. The goal of the legislation is to reduce the number of accidents. The law will come into force from January 2020.

2020 Budget

The 2020 state budget passed by a vote of 67 in favor, 37 against. Both of the opposition parties voted against the budget because they say it is not in line with the economic revolution that PM Pashinyan promised.

 

Bills Still in Progress

Criminalizing Criminal Subculture

During the first reading in November, parliament passed a bill, drafted by the Ministry of Justice, criminalizing the creation of and membership in or support for groups that are part of the criminal subculture in Armenia. According to the proposed changes in Armenia’s Criminal Code and Code of Procedural Justice, such acts will be punished with imprisonment from 5-10 years. Stricter punishments will be imposed if such groups involve minors, are created in the military forces or prison. Prosperous Armenia voted against the bill, while Bright Armenia abstained, saying that they are not against the proposed amendments but the wording needs to be changed.

Allowing Police to Wiretap Phones

During the first reading, parliament approved the draft bill that would allow police to wiretap telephone conversations with a court order. Since 2007, only the National Security Service (NSS) can wiretap phones. Under the current law, the police can wiretap phones but they must get a court order before seeking NSS approval. The amendment will authorize the police to go to the courts directly and conduct their own investigation without NSS supervision. The legislative package was tabled by two MPs from the My Step faction, who said that it is a necessary tool for police reform, which would provide the police the necessary independence to act as a government watchdog. The government viewed the proposed changes to the law with reservations and indeed, gave a negative assessment - their position was that there needs to be comprehensive police reform before such changes are made/introduced. The bill still needs to be approved during the second reading.

Smoking Bill

During the first reading, parliament voted in favor of the government proposal to ban smoking in public spaces across Armenia starting from March 2022 (with 83 in favor and 15 against). Minister of Health Arsen Torosyan justified the delay stating it would give businesses ample time to reconfigure/reorganize. The bill proposes to prohibit the use of tobacco products in cafes, restaurants, bars as well as municipal and government buildings. The legislation also bans the sale of cigarettes within 100 meters from schools and advertisements for tobacco products. The government also expects to raise taxes on tobacco by 15 percent by 2021. Indoor smoking will be punishable by fines ranging from 50,000 to 200,000 AMD ($105 - $419 US). Bright Armenia voted against the proposed legislation saying that it still requires some changes.

 

 

 

Parliamentary Hearings

Hearing on Transitional Justice

On May 24, on the initiative of the Speaker of the National Assembly Ararat Mirzoyan, a parliamentary hearing was held on “The Perspectives in the Application of Transitional Justice Instruments in Armenia.” In his opening remarks, Mirzoyan briefly spoke about the need for transitional justice in Armenia and presented some of its core mechanisms. Former Deputy Minister of Justice, Anna Vardapetyan presented transitional justice as a tool for reconciliation and not confrontation. She also explained that vetting is among the preferable mechanisms for evaluating Armenia’s judiciary and is recommended by the European Court of Human Rights. 

Ruben Carranza, a representative of the International Center for Transitional Justice, noted that in the design of transitional justice processes, Armenian policy makers should give voice to all those who have been silenced by the injustices of the previous administration, including families of all those who were killed during March 1 unrest, victims of torture, parents whose sons were killed in the military, etc. He also spoke about the importance of truth commissions, the implementation of which will send a message to the public that Armenia’s new government is serious about uncovering previous corrupt practices and human rights violations. 

The president of the Armenian Lawyers’ Association Karen Zadoyan mentioned that there are three main reasons that may contribute to a failure of transitional justice processes. The reasons include the lack of genuine willingness on the side of the government, lack of inclusion (when not all the affected stakeholders are involved in the processes), and finally lack of public awareness.

Hearing on Human Rights

On April 5, for the first time in the history of the Armenian parliament, Lilit Martirosyan, a transgender woman delivered a speech during a public hearing on human rights organized by the United Nations, the Ombudsman’s office and the National Assembly. This unprecedented event for a conservative country like Armenia, gave rise to much criticism and even hate speech against her and the LGBT community. In her speech, Martirosyan publicly declared that she is transgender and asked to be perceived as the collective figure of that community and the problems it faces in Armenia. She said that until 2018 there were 283 reported cases of violence against members of the LGBTIQ community and called upon parliament “to carry out reforms and policies to achieve gender equality, and to ensure human rights for everyone.”
Head of the Standing Committee on Human Rights and a member of parliament for the Prosperous Armenia faction, Naira Zohrabyan, who was chairing the session was quite vocal in expressing her dissatisfaction. Although Zohrabyan allowed Lilit Martirosyan to finish her speech, she then went on to reprimand her for discussing a topic that allegedly had nothing to do with the agenda of the session, which included three topics: judicial reforms, the protection of children and people with disabilities. Martirosyan and a number of others stormed out of parliament after Zohrabyan’s outburst. Zohrabyan kept insisting there was a prearranged agenda, but her claims were later refuted by other members of the committee, who said that an agenda was not included when the invitations were sent out.

Hearing on Violation of Property Rights

Speaker of Parliament Ararat Mirzoyan held a fact-finding parliamentary hearing on October 7 regarding the violation of property rights of people whose homes were deemed eminent domain during the urban development plan of Northern Avenue in the early 2000s. MPs, lawyers, representatives of NGOs and international organizations, as well as people affected by the construction took part in the hearings. MP Gayane Abrahamyan from My Step faction said that 3000 people have been homeless for 20 years now. Mirzoyan noted that he is going to send the recording of the hearing (with statements from the participants) to law enforcement authorities, who will decide whether the presented testimonies are evidence enough to pursue any actions to restore these people’s violated rights.

Foreign Relations

Armenian - Azerbaijani Relations

Meetings Between Nikol Pashinyan and Ilham Aliyev

The first official meeting between Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev was held in Vienna on March 29, 2019 and lasted about three hours. The meeting was organized by the OSCE Minsk Group Co-chairs, who had traveled to Yerevan and Baku to prepare for this summit. Prior to his trip, Pashinyan had said that the most important objective for the Armenian side is the clarification of the three principles and six elements that the negotiations have been based on so far. Pashinyan also said he will continue to insist on Artsakh’s direct involvement in the peace talks since he does not have a mandate to negotiate on behalf of the Artsakh Armenians. Previously, Aliyev denounced Armenia’s proposal, claiming that Artsakh’s return to the negotiation table will be “a change in the negotiations format,” which is unacceptable for the Azerbaijani side.

According to official statements, the two leaders “highlighted the steps aimed at strengthening the regime of the ceasefire and improving the mechanisms of direct communication.” They also stressed the importance of taking steps to find a peaceful solution to the Artsakh (Nagorno-Karabakh) conflict. 

Following the meeting, however, Aliyev’s statements in an interview with the Russian TASS news agency raised many eyebrows in Armenia. He claimed that the format of the negotiations has not changed following the Vienna summit, and that Armenia and Azerbaijan are the only two sides of the conflict. Aliyev also said that Baku welcomes the statement issued by the OSCE Minsk Group Co-Chairs, stating that any change in the negotiation format should be agreed on by both sides. He added that Azerbaijan prioritizes the immediate and unconditional withdrawal of Armenian forces from the “occupied territories.”

Pashinyan also commented on his meeting with Aliyev, saying that the Azerbaijani leadership has been making misleading statements. “When the Azerbaijani side says ‘that the negotiating format remains unchanged’ they imply that they emerged victorious from these discussions,” noted Pashinyan. “This is first and foremost incorrect within the framework of the logic which we agreed upon, namely, not to look for winners and losers.” The PM also clarified that Artsakh’s involvement in the negotiation process is not a demand or a precondition, but rather a step which will make the process more effective. 

Prior to their first official meeting, Pashinyan and Aliyev had three unofficial meetings in Saint Petersburg, Dushanbe, and Davos. Their last unofficial meeting was during the session of the CIS Council of Heads of State in Ashgabat, the capital of Turkmenistan. 

Meetings Between Armenian and Azerbaijani Foreign Ministers

Since the Velvet Revolution, Armenia’s Foreign Minister Zohrab Mnatsakanyan and his Azerbaijani counterpart Elmar Mammadyarov had a total eight meetings, five of which took place in 2019. All of these meetings happened with the participation of and mediation by the OSCE Minsk Group Co-Chairs. The first one was held in Paris, on January 16. It was during this meeting that both sides announced they should begin “preparing populations for peace.” The Ministers agreed to have more “results-oriented” negotiations on resolving the Artsakh (Nagorno-Karabakh) conflict. 

The second meeting between the two foreign ministers took place on April 15, in Moscow. The meeting was a starting point after the March 29 summit of the presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan in Vienna where they considered prospects for advancing the Artsakh peace process. The Ministers reaffirmed their intention to stabilize the situation in the conflict zone and continue working towards its settlement through political and diplomatic means. The sides agreed to allow families to contact their relatives who are held in custody in the respective detention centers of the parties. “The ministers also expressed their willingness to start concrete work on establishing contacts between people, including through mutual visits of media representatives,” read the joint statement. 

Following the meeting, Mammadyarov claimed that during the meeting the sides allegedly discussed the plan proposed by Russia shortly after the April 2016 fighting in Artsakh. The announcement was later confirmed by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov (who was also present during the meeting), who said that the details of the proposals are confidential and that he cannot provide more information. The spokesperson of Armenia’s Foreign Ministry Anna Naghdalyan denied those claims, saying that contradictory statements that are outside the scope of the already agreed upon joint statement do not contribute to strengthening of mutual trust between the conflicting parties, especially when those statements do not reflect the reality.
On June 20, Mnatsakanyan and Mammadyarov met for a third time in Washington DC. Since the foreign ministers’ last meeting in Moscow, the situation on the Line of Contact had escalated and there had been casualties on the Armenian side. The two men exchanged views on recent developments regarding the Artsakh (Nagorno-Karabakh) settlement process as well as clarified their position regarding the humanitarian and security measures proposed by the mediators. The Co-Chairs urged the sides “to take immediate measures to restore an atmosphere conducive to peace and favorable to substantive talks.” They also called on the sides “to reaffirm their commitment to observe the ceasefire strictly and to refrain from any provocative action, including the use of snipers and engineering works along the Line of Contact and the international border.” The ministers agreed to take full advantage of the existing direct communication line (that was agreed upon in 2018 between Aliyev and Pashinyan) in order to reduce the risk of escalation.

Mammadyarov, in a statement, noted, “It is not necessary to establish calm on the Line of Contact, and then negotiate.” Armenia’s Foreign Ministry was quick to respond, saying that ongoing violations of the ceasefire regime undermine the peace process.

Later during that week, President Ilham Aliyev announced that the war with Armenia is not over and that Azerbaijan must strengthen its military capacity. “....We have to be ready to liberate the occupied territories at any moment. I believe that day will come, and Azerbaijan will restore its territorial integrity.” Mnatsakanyan responded, “We do not believe it is possible to negotiate with one hand and shoot with the other.” 

On September 23, Mnatsakanyan and Mammadyarov met for the fourth time in New York. According to the official statement, the Armenian side prioritized the importance of strengthening the ceasefire regime, reducing tensions on the line of contact and also raised the issue of citizens of Armenia detained in Azerbaijan and the need for their repatriation.
A day before the meeting between the two ministers, the Armenian Ministry of Defense reported that an incursion attempt by Azerbaijani armed forces near one of the military positions on the Line of Contact had been thwarted. According to the official statement, one Azerbaijani soldier was killed and his body was left in a neutral zone. The Armenian side did not suffer any losses. The Azerbaijani military confirmed the death of its soldier, but denied launching a military operation against Armenian positions. According to the Azerbaijani Defense Ministry, the soldier lost his way and was shot dead in front of Artsakh Armenian positions. Through the efforts of the International Committee of the Red Cross, the body was recovered and was transferred to the Azerbaijani side on September 23.
The fifth and last meeting for 2019 between the foreign ministers was on December 4, in Bratislava. According to the official statement by Armenia’s MFA, the two discussed programs to strengthen the ceasefire regime, implement confidence-building measures, and continue joint work early next year. During the 3.5 hour meeting, Mnatsakanayan spoke about the exchange of Armenian and Azerbaijani journalists as a modest step towards preparing the populations for peace. He reiterated that Artsakh needs to be a side in the negotiations. 
One day before that meeting, Azerbaijan circulated a memorandum among OSCE member states outlining its position regarding the settlement of the conflict. The document once again emphasized that Azerbaijan demands the immediate withdrawal of Armenian forces from the territories of Artsakh and among other things, will only accept a step by step approach and does not see any status for Artsakh other than its autonomy within Azerbaijan (a position which is unacceptable for Armenia and Artsakh).
Also, before the Mnatsakanyan-Mammadyarov meeting, the Foreign Minister of Russia Sergey Lavrov was in Azerbaijan, where he had meetings with Mammadyarov and President Ilham Aliyev. During the meeting with Aliyev, Lavrov said that Russia wants all the agreements on confidence-building measures to be implemented. The Russian diplomat also said that he hopes his Armenian and Azerbaijani counterparts will make some progress during their meeting in Bratislava. He also talked about the possibility of achieving a compromise between the two sides. During a press conference with Mammadyarov, Lavrov said that he hopes for a five-party statement by the two ministers and three co-chairs. Following the meeting, however, it was only the OSCE Minsk Group Co-Chairs that issued a statement, which was in line with their previous statements and called on the sides of the conflict to engage in “substantive negotiations.”
While in Bratislava, Mnatsakanyan also participated in the 26th OSCE Ministerial Council, where he spoke about Armenia’s position regarding the settlement of Artsakh (Nagorno-Karabakh) conflict. Some of his key points were that there is no alternative to a peaceful settlement, that people’s right to self-determination is a fundamental principle for the settlement, and that all three parties of the conflict should be involved in the peace process.

Exchange of Armenian and Azerbaijani Journalists

For the first time in years, there was an exchange of Armenian and Azerbaijani journalists organized by the OSCE Minsk Group as part of confidence-building measures, and was coordinated by the respective state agencies of Armenia, Artsakh and Azerbaijan.

From November 17-21, three Armenian journalists visited Baku, Quba and Gandzak (Gyanja), while three Azerbaijani journalists visited Yerevan, Dilijan, Shushi and Stepanakert. The three journalists in the Armenian delegation were Artyom Yerkanyan (Shant TV), Davit Alaverdyan (Mediamax) and Edgar Elbekyan (Karabakh state TV commentator and an expert on Azerbaijan). They were the first Armenian journalists to travel to Azerbaijan in over a decade. The exchange was held in secrecy, apparently for security reasons. The Armenian Foreign Ministry issued a statement about the exchange only after the Armenian delegation was already back from Azerbaijan. Meetings with state officials were not part of the agenda, and journalists mostly met with civil society representatives, academics and other journalists.
The Foreign Ministry of Artsakh also issued a statement saying that from November 20-21 Azerbaijani delegation visited Shushi, Gandzasar monastery and the information technology center, as well as met with civil society representatives. PM Nikol Pashinyan also spoke about the mutual visits, saying that they are confidence building measures which can enhance mutual trust among the people and put an end to hate speech.

Armenian and Azerbaijani journalists had exchanged visits on a regular basis until the mid-2000s. The Azerbaijani government afterwards imposed a ban on not only Armenia’s citizens but also ethnic Armenians from other countries.

Border Crossings

In March 2019, Karen Ghazaryan, a resident from the village of Berdavan in the northeastern Tavush region of Armenia, who accidentally crossed the Azerbaijani border in July of 2018, was sentenced to 20 years imprisonment by an Azerbaijani court. Ghazaryan was accused of sabotage and planning terrorist attacks on Azerbaijani territory. His closed trial started in November of last year in the city of Gyanja. The Armenian Defense Ministry categorically denied the allegations against the Ghazaryan, insisting that he is a civilian who has not served in the Armenian armed forces (because he has a history of mental illness). 

The Armenian Foreign Ministry condemned the court decision, stating that it was made with gross violations of international humanitarian law.

Another case of a border crossing happened on August 12, 2019, when a 19-year-old Armenian soldier Arayik Ghazaryan was detained by Azerbaijani forces, after he allegedly left his military post in Artsakh (Nagorno-Karabakh) and crossed into Azerbaijani territory. After the incident, the Azerbaijani Ministry of Defense said that Ghazaryan left the unit after systematic mistreatment by his fellow soldiers. Armenia’s Minister of Defense Davit Tonoyan dismissed these statements at the time, saying that they were propaganda and told reporters that the incident is still being investigated and that the circumstances are not yet clear. He said that he personally thinks the soldier lost his way in the barren terrain and inadvertently ended up crossing the Line of Contact. The Minister also said that the Armenian side has asked for assistance from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). A week after his detention, representatives of the ICRC visited the Armenian soldier, but no details about the meeting were provided. He continues to remain under Azerbaijani detention.

In March, an Azerbaijani citizen crossed the Armenian-Azerbaijani state border and was captured by Armenian border guards. Two days later, the Azerbaijani border service reported that the captured citizen, Elvin Arif Oglu Ibrahimov suffers from mental issues. The spokesperson of Armenia’s Defense Ministry Artsrun Hovhannisyan wrote on his Facebook page that Ibrahimov crossed Armenia’s state border despite several warnings by Armenian border guards. After he failed to stop, border guards shot at his feet to stop his advance - he sustained a gunshot wound to the leg. He was given medical attention at the site and later transferred to hospital.
Armenia’s Human Rights Defender Arman Tatoyan visited Ibrahimov, he presented the Azerbaijani citizen his rights, including the right to receive information in a language understandable to him; communicate with the help of an interpreter; receive legal assistance; access to the outside world, including contacts with family. The Armenian side will provide Ibrahimov with a licensed interpreter of the Azerbaijani language and  is willing to organize a meeting between him and his family in Armenia and to guarantee their security while in the country.
On June 28, Ibraimov was transferred back to Azerbaijan with the help of the International Committee of the Red Cross in Armenia.

Armenian Genocide Commemoration and Recognition

On October 29, the US House of Representatives passed a resolution recognizing the Armenian Genocide of 1915 perpetrated by the Ottoman Empire. Both Republican and Democratic representatives spoke in favor of the resolution, which passed with an overwhelming majority of 405 to 11. Although this is not a legallly binding document, with this resolution, the United States government will commemorate the Armenian Genocide through official recognition and remembrance, and will “reject efforts to enlist, engage or otherwise associate the United States government with denial of the Armenian Genocide or any other genocide. It will also encourage education and public understanding of the facts of the Armenian Genocide, including the U.S. role in the humanitarian relief effort and the relevance of the Armenian Genocide to modern-day crimes against humanity.”
PM Nikol Pashinyan tweeted saying that “Resolution 296 is a bold step towards serving truth and historical justice that also offers comfort to millions of descendants of the Armenian Genocide survivors.” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan also commented saying that he would not recognize the nonbinding House resolution and that Turkey considers this accusation the biggest insult towards the Turkish nation. Erdoghan went on saying that the step to consider the events as genocide “does not count for anything,” and that the American lawmakers acted “opportunistically” to pass the bill at a time when Turkey is being widely criticized for its actions in northeastern Syria. Later, US ambassador was invited to Turkey’s foreign ministry to discuss the resolution.
A few weeks later, when Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in the U.S., he spoke critically about House Resolution 296, saying that Turkey was deeply hurt by the resolution and that it was a shameful step and had the potential to cast “deep shadow over our bilateral relations.” Erdogan also said that he hopes that the Senate will not make the same mistake.
But despite Erdogan’s hopes, on December 12, the U.S. Senate unanimously and officially recognized the Armenian Genocide. Senate Resolution 150 was brought to the floor by Senators Robert Menendez and Ted Cruz. The resolution does not require President Donald Trump's signature, because it is nonbinding. The text of the resolution is similar to the one passed by the House, and it pledges to commemorate the Armenian Genocide, to encourage public understanding of the facts of the Genocide.
Prior to its adoption, different Republican senators blocked the resolution on three occasions. Senator Cruz said in a statement that the Senate had tried for three consecutive weeks to pass the resolution and he was “grateful that today we have succeeded.” Armenia’s Foreign Minister Zohrab Mnatsakanyan responded saying that the resolution was an important step that will serve the truth, justice and the recognition of the Armenian Genocide.

A week later, the US State Department responded to the unanimous decision by the Senate recognizing the Armenian Genocide of 1915, saying that it does not reflect the policy of the Trump administration. It also says that the administration continues to view the events during the first half of the 20th century as “one of the worst mass atrocities.” “Our views are reflected in the President’s definitive statement on this issue from last April,” read the statement.

related

A Crime Against Humanity, History and Memory

After a decades-long struggle by the Armenian-American community, the U.S. House of Representatives officially recognized the Armenian Genocide of 1915. Maria Titizian writes about the significance of this resolution for her and all Armenians, despite the motivations behind the vote.

Turkey, the Kurds and the Generational Trauma of the Armenians

When Turkey launched its military offensive in northeastern Syria, it triggered something in the minds and hearts and memories of many Armenians.

This year, Alabama became the 49th U.S. state to recognize the Armenian Genocide. The only state that has not yet recognized the Genocide is Mississippi. Also, this year, the City Council of the U.S. District of Columbia passed a resolution recognizing the Armenian Genocide. As of 2019, governments and parliaments of 32 countries, including Brazil, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Russia have formally recognized the Armenian Genocide.
In September, French President Emmanuel Macron declared April 24 as “A National Day of Remembrance of the Armenian Genocide” during the annual dinner of the Coordination Council of Armenian Organizations in France. Macron promised this back in his 2017 election campaign. During his speech, Macron stressed that France was among the first to denounce the atrocities of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire. France in 2001 also became one of the first major European countries to call the mass killings a “genocide” and in 2016 passed a law criminalizing the denial of that status.
In April, Italy’s legislature passed a resolution calling on the government to officially recognize the Armenian Genocide. The Armenian Ministry of Foreign Fffairs issued a statement welcoming the decision, noting that it was “yet another important input to the efforts of the international community to respect and restore the rights of the Armenian people who suffered the Genocide.”
The Portugese Parliament also passed a resolution in April recognizing the Genocide. The Turkish Foreign Ministry condemned the resolution stating that “such approaches that politicize history, disregard international law and European law can absolutely never be accepted.’’

Genocide Denial

Official Turkey continues to deny the Genocide. This year, speaking at a symposium on Turkish archives, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan commented on the events of 1915 saying: “The relocation of the Armenian gangs and their supporters, who massacred the Muslim people, including women and children in eastern Anatolia was the most reasonable action that could be taken in such a period.” Erdogan also accused France of committing Genocide in Africa. “We see that those who attempt to lecture us on human rights over the Armenian issue themselves have a bloody past,” he said.
In June the Dutch House of Representatives adopted a resolution condemning Erdogan’s April 24 comments. The document adopted by the Dutch parliament obliges the government to inform Turkish authorities on the lawmakers stance. Turkey’s Foreign Ministry responded saying that they strongly reject the adopted resolution and all the slanderous allegations. “It should be known that these groundless efforts, which are devoid of sense of consideration and seriousness, will not go unanswered for those who resort to them,” read the statement.

US Weapons Sale to Azerbaijan

In July, U.S. Congressman Brad Sherman introduced a bill which would restrict the sale of U.S. weapons to Azerbaijan, especially weapons which could improve Azerbaijan’s offensive air capabilities and threaten civil aviation in Artsakh. The U.S. House of Representatives adopted the Sherman Amendment with a vote of 234 to 195. The reason behind the initiative is that Azerbaijan has not yet abandoned its threats to shoot down civilian aircrafts in Artsakh or to use force against the civilian population of Artsakh. The House also passed the Chu Amendment supporting the deployment of gunfire locators, the addition of observers, and the non-deployment of snipers, heavy arms, and new weaponry along the Artsakh Line of Contact.

 

Visa Free Regime

In May, Armenia’s government formally approved the agreement on having visa-free travel between Armenia and China. It will allow Armenian and Chinese citizens to stay in each other’s country visa-free for up to 90 days. Signing of the agreement is expected to lead to more active commercial, business and tourism contacts between the two countries. The agreement on having visa-free regime was reached during PM Pashinyan’s working trip to China.
The Serbian government decided to lift visa requirements for Armenian nationals. Thereby, citizens of Armenia can visit and stay in Serbia for up to 90 days visa-free. Serbia also plans to open a diplomatic mission in Yerevan.
In November, Qatar abolished visa requirements for Armenian nationals. President Armen Sarkissian, who was in Qatar on an official visit, said that the visa free regime would expand and strengthen relations between the two countries in various directions.
Also, the parliament of the Netherlands will be opening an embassy in Armenia in 2020. Previously, the German embassy in Yerevan accepted visa applications of Armenian citizens.

 

Foreign Assistance

In June, the U.S. House of Representatives adopted amendments to the appropriation bill that would allocate $40 million US to Armenia for democratic reforms and $1.5 million US for demining in Artsakh. The House version of the bill would also have to be agreed to by the Senate and signed by the president to become law.
In February, the EU Commissioner for European Neighborhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiations, Johannes Hahn, who was in Armenia announced that the European Union will provide additional financial assistance to Armenia this year. Hahn also held a joint press conference with Foreign Minister Zohrab Mnatsakanyan, where he stressed that Armenia will be rewarded for the “developments of last year.” He said that the December 9 parliamentary elections are regarded as free and fair by the international community. Hahn said that the support will be allocated from an EU fund designed to support countries which have registered progress in the areas of democratisation and the rule of law. EU will allocate 25 million euros to finance large-scale infrastructure projects proposed by the Armenian government.
Also, the European Union will implement a tourism development project in three of Armenia’s regions, including Shirak, Lori, and Tavush. The project is worth 13 million euros and the implementation was to kick off in September-October of 2019. The ambassador of the EU Piotr Switalski said that small businesses will get small grants to promote tourism in their local communities.

 

Armenian Humanitarian Mission in Syria

In February, an Armenian humanitarian mission consisting of 83 doctors, deminers and specialists ensuring their safety, arrived in Aleppo, Syria (as part of the Russian-led mission there) to provide professional humanitarian support to the Syrian people. Days later, the U.S. State Department issued a statement criticizing the deployment and noting that it does not support “any engagement with Syrian military forces” or “any cooperation between Armenia and Russia for this mission.” The statement went on to say that “Russia has partnered with the Assad regime to slaughter civilians and trigger a humanitarian catastrophe.”
The spokesperson of the Foreign Ministry Anna Naghdalyan reaffirmed that the Armenian mission is in Syria for humanitarian reasons only and that Armenia is keen to continue its contribution to the mission and help improve the lives of civilians in Aleppo. 
Russia transported the Armenian soldiers to Syria and will provide them with logistical support while there. Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu thanked his Armenian counterpart, Davit Tonoyan for the gesture saying: “You were the first to respond to our call to assistance to the people of Syria.”

High Profile Appointments and Resignations

Zareh Sinanyan

Former mayor of Glendale and a member of the Glendale city council Zareh Sinanyan was appointed Armenia’s High Commissioner for Diaspora Affairs in June (he reports directly to the Prime Minister). His appointment followed the structural changes in the government, which resulted in the closing of the Ministry of Diaspora. Sinanyan was elected mayor of Glendale in 2014. When amendments to the government structure were first introduced PM Pashinyan spoke about the closure of the ministry and stressed that the government aims to prioritize collaboration with the Diaspora.

Artur Vanetsyan

In September, Artur Vanetsyan, Head of the National Security Service resigned. Vanetsyan was appointed to the post two days after Nikol Pashinyan became prime minister in May 2018. In a controversial statement, Vanetsyan announced that he made the decision based on the interests of the people and Armenia. He also touched upon his disagreements with the current logic of state building, in which he said priorities are not properly differentiated. He issued a call saying that his resignation should serve as a sobering signal. 

In November, Vanetsyan, also resigned from the post of the president of Armenia’s Football Federation. His resignation came on the heels of an embarrassing defeat by Armenia’s national football team in the final qualifying match for UEFA Euro 2020 (they lost to Italy 9:1, which is the team’s worst defeat ever). While speaking to journalists, Vanetsyan said that someone had to take responsibility for the game. The executive board of the federation also announced that they will resign. On December 23, Armen Melikbekyan was elected as the new head of the federation. The federation will elect the members of the executive board later.

Valeri Osipyan

Following Vanetsyan’s resignation, Valeri Osipyan was dismissed from the post of Armenia’s Chief of Police. In a written statement Osipyan said that he has dedicated his life in the service of Armenia, its people, for law and justice, and that an officer’s honor and dignity were always guiding principles for him. Osipyan also said that he will elaborate the reasons for his dismissal at a later date. First Deputy Chief of Police Arman Sargsyan was appointed acting Chief of Police for now. Similar to Vanetsyan, Osipyan was appointed as the Chief of Police in May of 2018.
On the same day Osipyan was appointed as PM Pashinyan’s chief adviser but was dismissed from the post a few days later. 

Trdat Sargsyan

The Governor of Vayots Dzor region Trdat Sargsyan, a member of Pashinyan’s My Step Party, resigned on September 24 after his assistant, Harutyun Grigoryan, was arrested for assaulting an officer of the Armenian armed forces in an altercation. According to the statement by the Investigative Committee, Harutyunyan insists that he struck the officer only once. The officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Ara Mkhitaryan was transferred to hospital with severe head injuries and remained in a coma until recently. His condition continues to be extremely critical. His relatives believe that Mkhitaryan, who was with other officers, was attacked by a group of men that may have also included the governor. Sargsyan, however, denies those claims.

In a written statement, Sargsyan noted that he decided to resign because he prioritizes “political ethics and political responsibility in the New Armenia.” He also claimed that during the incident he was at home and has provided evidence to substantiate his claims. 

Sarhat Petrosyan

Head of Armenia’s Cadastre Committee Sarhat Petrosyan resigned in October. In a statement, Petrosyan said he does not share the government's policies on urban development and that he “can no longer tolerate dilettantism and sectarianism bordering on corruption.” Petrosyan also criticized the current and former heads of the Urban Development Committee (former head of the committee Avetiq Eloyan is currently an adviser to Deputy PM Tigran Avinyan). Avinyan dismissed Petrosyan’s claims saying that the head of the Cadastre Committee does not make decisions regarding the policies of urban development and that Petrosyan hardly has in-depth knowledge about the problems in the area of urban development. Suren Tovmasyan was appointed as the new Head of Armenia’s Cadastre Committee. Previously, Tovmasyan worked at the National University of Architecture and Construction as a lecturer.

Viktor Mantsakanyan

Head of the Kentron administrative district, Viktor Mnatsakanyan also resigned in October. In a Facebook post, Mnatsakanyan said that his resignation has no political motives and that he simply wants to be more involved in the study of urban issues. “I am convinced that this way I can be much more helpful to my beloved city and country,” he said … “And let no one try to manipulate it (my decision) for political reasons or to conceive conspiracy theories about it.” Avet Poghosyan was appointed as the new Head of the Kentron administrative district.

Gagik Harutyunyan

In May, the president of the Supreme Judicial Council, Gagik Harutyunyan, resigned. Harutyunyan had been the president of the Constitutional Court from 1996 to 2018 when he was appointed president of the Supreme Judicial Council. Throughout the week, protesters had been convening in front of the office of the Supreme Judicial Council calling for the resignation of its members.

Vazgen Manukyan

The Chairman of the Public Council Vazgen Manukyan resigned on November 13. In a written statement Mnaukyan criticized the current authorities, saying that they had an opportunity to lead the country towards development and democratization but they chose a different path. “Today, an atmosphere of mistrust and hatred has developed in our country,” he noted. Manukyan went on to say that instead of uniting people, the authorities continue taking steps that further divide the country, steps like using the justice system to solve political problems, introducing transitional justice, the law on property confiscation, or changes in the education sector. Political scientist, former politician Styopa Safaryan was appointed by the government as the new Chair of the Public Council, while Daniel Ioannisyan and Albert Stepanyan were appointed as members.
The Public Council has 45 members and receives financing from the state budget. The objectives of the Council include promoting the participation of civil society in the processes of governance, conducting public opinion polling on important issues, and promoting the consolidation of efforts of Armenians around common national problems.

Vernatun: After resigning from the post of Chair of the Public Council, Manukyan established a public-political club called Vernatun. Some of those who attended the club’s first meeting were former officials and members of the government, including members of the former ruling Republican Party of Armenia, the Armenian Revolutionary Federation, and others close to Armenia’s former President Robert Kocharyan.

Hovhannes Kocharyan

In October, the Deputy Chief of Police Hovhannes Kocharyan was let go. His sacking came after he spoke against the draft bill which proposes to make the posts of the Chief of Police and Head of the National Security Service political positions (which eventually did not pass in the National Assembly). PM Pashinyan’s spokesperson Vladimir Karapetyan said that Kocharyan’s statements had a political context and that Pashinyan said on several occasions that officers of police and armed forces should stay out of politics.

Yerevan Municipality

Protests

In March, Yerevan City Hall began to dismantle a number of cafes that had been built up around the capital’s Opera house to open it up to the public. The plan included removing the concrete and replacing the plaza with a grassy field. The contract with the cafe owners stipulated that city authorities have the right to ask the business to vacate the area after they are given one month’s notice. The municipality sent an official notice in December 2018. A follow up notice was officially sent again in February and in March the municipality began removing some of the cafes after they refused to move out.

Cafe employees blocked traffic on Mashtots Avenue saying that closing the cafes would leave 300 people out of a job. Viktor Mnatsakanyan, the former head of the Kentron administrative district, was at the protest. He told reporters that the cafes were leasing the space of around 100 sq2 for only 90,000 AMD ($189 US), which is well below the market value. He also said that there are only 12 registered employees at the cafes and not 300.

Sanitek Waste Management Company

In October, the Yerevan Municipality unilaterally terminated its contract with Sanitek waste management company. In a short video message, Mayor Hayk Marutyan pointed out that since 2017, Sanitek had failed to provide the necessary garbage disposal services in the capital; the situation continued to deteriorate and came to an impasse on August 29, 2019 when the company stopped providing cleaning services and garbage disposal in Yerevan. Marutyan said that the municipality looked into the company’s contractual obligations and identified a number of violations, including insufficient number of garbage trucks and containers, including the poor condition of their fleet.

Marutyan said that this was sufficient basis for the municipality to begin the process of terminating the contract with the company. Earlier, in a letter addressed to Marutyan, the director of Sanitek said that the municipality owes the company more than 330 million AMD ($693,000 US) and that the company cannot keep working under such financial constraints.
After the Municipality terminated its contract with Sanitek, the company issued another statement accusing the Municipality of fabricating contract violations. The statement noted that the municipality's decision came after a criminal case was launched by the Prosecutor General’s Office (based on the evidence provided by the municipality). Sanitek believes that the municipality violated the company’s right to presumption of innocence and terminated the contract based on a criminal case that is still in progress. Sanitek described the actions as “discriminatory and punitive” and designed to expropriate a foreign investor company by seizing its assets. Later, Sanitek announced that it is in the process of applying to the International Court of Arbitration.

Background: The garbage disposal issue in the capital started escalating in April, when after continuous concerns raised by residents of Yerevan as well as the Municipality, Sanitek (which was the only operator) was fined for 13 million AMD ($27,000 US). Up to this point, the Municipality had refrained from imposing fines and wanted to reach a systemic solution. Sanitek issued a statement clarifying that since October-November of 2018, the company warned the municipality that if they don’t collaborate, Yerevan would have serious garbage disposal issues. The statement also mentioned that the company had suffered irreversible losses and did not receive any form of compensation. At one point the situation was so bad that the Council of Elders adopted a decision on establishing “Yerevan municipal waste management and sanitary cleaning service,” which became the second operator.

The deadlock between the Yerevan Municipality and Sanitek further escalated in August when Sanitek called a press conference in Tbilisi. This move by Sanitek was largely criticized in Armenia, with officials and residents pointing out that talking about the issues of Yerevan in Tbilisi is counter constructive and sets a bad precedent. Sanitek eventually postponed the scheduled press conference and moved it to Yerevan. Still, Nikolas Tawil, the director of Sanitek joined the press conference online from Tbilisi saying the decision came after the severely harsh and unlawful administrative measures against the company. An example of the unlawful administrative treatment according to Tawil was the “unfounded” case launched against the company in February of 2018 for tax evasion. He called it a politically motivated attempt to expropriate the means of the company.

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Earlier, the Yerevan municipality transferred a total of 160 million AMD ($335,000 US) to Sanitek, noting that it no longer has any financial commitments to the company. The municipality urged Sanitek to use the transferred money to pay the salaries of its own employees who had been protesting in front of the Yerevan Municipality. Today, the waste removal of the capital city is administered solely by the municipality.

Transportation Reform

In the summer of 2019, the Municipality announced that the final design of a new public transportation route network was complete. It was developed with the help of the British WYG consulting firm, which was selected through an international competition announced by the Asian Development Bank. The implementation of the new system will take up to two years.
With the proposed changes, it is expected that instead of the current 109 routes, the transportation network will have only 42, which will consist of 11 main and 31 interim routes. The number of vehicles is also expected to decrease from the current 2039 to 939, which will include 18- and 12-meter-long buses and trolleybuses. Service will not decrease, instead routes will be streamlined and capacity of vehicles increased.

 

Student Protests

 Protests Against the Rector of the Yerevan State University

In February, a wave of student protests escalated at Yerevan State University (YSU), demanding the resignation of long-serving rector Aram Simonyan (since 2006), who is facing corruption allegations. Minister of Education, Science, Culture and Sport Arayik Harutyunyan also called for his resignation. The pressure on Simonyan grew in December after the State Oversight Service subordinate to PM Pashinyan implicated the YSU administration in financial irregularities which it said had cost the state at least 800 million AMD ($1.65 million US). Simonyan denied the allegations, linking them to his continuing membership in the Republican Party. The Armenian police claimed that an unnamed “managing official of the university” had embezzled YSU funds and engaged in other corrupt practices over the past decade. While talking to journalists, Simonyan said that he sees political motives behind the allegations.
After months of pressure from the Armenian government and a long string of protests calling him to step down, Simonyan resigned on May 23. Simonyan stated that he resigned because he was not going to allow the 100th anniversary of the founding of Yerevan State University to be overshadowed by this controversy, adding that the institution had not received official congratulations from government officials. The acting rector of YSU is Gegham Gevorgyan.

Protests Against the New Education Bill

In early November, students of Yerevan State University (mostly from the faculty of Armenian Philology) staged a protest against the Education Ministry’s legislative initiative to make the teaching of the Armenian language, literature and history optional in universities. The youth wing of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF), the Armenian Youth Federation (AYF), also joined the action against the ministry’s latest initiative and staged their own protest in front of the government building demanding Minister Arayik Harutyunyan’s resignation. Members of the AYF then staged a sit-in in front of the Ministry.

Talking to reporters, Harutyunyan urged the ARF to “look back at its failures and analyze why it was rejected by society.” Harutyunyan went on to say: “I am ready to resign only when I feel I have not fulfilled my duties. This is not the case.” The Minister called on ARF leaders outside Armenia to “take care of their party, because the undisciplined behavior displayed by Armenia’s Dashnaktsutyun does not give credit to one of our oldest political parties.”

The Ministry also issued a statement clarifying that the draft law allows universities to determine the content of educational programs, and that after the program is adopted, each university is free to decide what subjects must be taught in all faculties. Faculty members were mostly supporting the students’ initiative saying the Armenian language curriculum at universities is far more advanced than what students learn at schools.

The protests by the Youth Wing of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation continued up until early December. They were demanding a meeting with Minister Arayik Harutyunyan and chanting “Go away, Arayik!” Protestors also tried to storm the ministry but they were forcefully removed from the area by the police forces; 24 of the activists were detained (all of them were released a day later). Minister Harutyunyan told the protestors that if they want to have a meeting with him, then they will need to follow the official procedure and wait for their turn. During the Q/A session in Parliament in December, PM Pashinyan talked about the demands for Harutyunyan’s resignation and noted that a political force that has zero influence cannot demand a minister’s resignation.

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Making Sense of the ‘Controversy’ Behind Education Reforms

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European Court of Human Rights

Nikol Pashinyan Against Armenia

In February, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) sent two questions to the Armenian government regarding the case of Nikol Pashinyan vs. Armenia. Pashinyan, who took part in the 2008 protests in support of Levon Ter-Petrosyan following the controversial presidential elections, was arrested in 2009. In his complaint Pashinyan noted that his persecution was politically motivated. He also stressed that his conviction and detention were not based on any evidence and were just aimed to stop his political activities.

The ECHR asked the Armenian Government, which Pashinyan himself now leads, whether his arrest in 2009 was in accordance with the law and whether his rights were violated. In a Facebook post, Pashinyan’s lawyer, Vahe Grigoryan wrote that after his appointment as prime minister, Pashinyan informed the ECHR that he refuses to file any moral and material compensation demands against Armenia.

Vardanyan and Nunushyan Against Armenia

In one of the most remarkable rulings yet, the European Court of Human Rights, in the case of Vardanyan and Nunushyan against the Republic of Armenia, ordered Armenia to pay 1.6 million euros in compensation to Yuri Vardanyan (83) and his family. The Vardanyan’s property on Buzand Street in downtown Yerevan was expropriated in the early 2000s to make way for a new development project - Northern Avenue. The family was not compensated according to market value and their right to a fair trial was violated. This amount exceeded the total sum of all damages awarded by the ECHR in cases against the Republic of Armenia since 2007.
The case sparked debate with people pointing out that the heavy burden of material compensation for the illegal activities of the Kocharyan administration is now falling on the new government. With this ruling, specific cases of corruption in the Armenian judiciary and involving former government officials have resurfaced. In a 2012 interview with Hetq, Pavel Anderson, the owner of “Vizkon,” the construction company working on the development of the plot where Vardanyan’s property used to be, confessed to paying hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes to then Yerevan Mayor Yervand Zakharyan ($550,000 US), other officials, and members of the judiciary in return for favorable rulings and permits. 
Another judgement delivered by the ECHR in 2019 was about the expropriation of private property of residents for the operation of the Teghut mine in the Lori region of Armenia. After exhausting all possible legal options in Armenia, the six families took their cases to the ECtHR claiming that their rights were violated when their agricultural lands were expropriated to be exploited as  part of the Teghut mine without proper compensation. The government of Armenia is now obliged to pay 70,000 euros compensation to six families. 

Aghayan and Others against Armenia

The European Court of Human Rights issued a judgement in the case of Aghayan and Others against Armenia. Aghayan and 21 other applicants, who are Jehova’s Witnesses, were convicted in 2012 when they refused to perform mandatory military service. They hold that their freedom of thought, conscience and religion was violated (Article 9 of the Convention). Each of the applicants demanded 10,000 euros as a moral compensation and an additional 2000 euros as compensation for the spent legal fees. And the Court required the Armenian government to pay a total 242,000 euros.

Tadevosyan Against Armenia

In May the European Court of Human Rights issued a judgement on the case of Tadevosyan against Armenia. The applicant lost her property during the construction of Northern Avenue in Yerevan after the area was identified as eminent domain. Tadevosyan owned a building measuring 240 square metres and a lease on the plot of land on which it stood, which was about 438 square metres. At the time, she was compensated for her property based on its market value plus an additional 15 percent of the value as required by law. She was awarded about $355,000 US.

Later the Prosecutor General’s office launched criminal proceedings against Yerevan Construction and Investment Project Implementation Agency for deliberately overestimating the market value of the applicant’s property and overpaying her. At some point during the proceedings, the head of the agency demanded Tadevosyan return $180,000 US, otherwise she could be held criminally liable for appropriating state funds. Tadevosyan transferred the money back to the Agency, after which the investigation of the case was terminated. The ECHR decision holds that there has been a violation of Article 1 of Protocol 1 of the European Convention (Protection of Property), which stipulates that any interference by a public authority with the peaceful enjoyment of possessions should be lawful and which in this case was violated. The Armenian government was required to pay 140,000 euros to Tadevosyan.

Mirzoyan Against Armenia

In May, the Court issued another judgment against Armenia. The applicant was 65-year-old Robert Mirzoyan from Marmarashen village whose son was killed during his military service in 2007. The Court found that the Armenian government must pay 15,000 euros to Mirzoyan as moral compensation. Mirzoyan’s son was fired on by his commanding officer who found him watching television and not wearing his military uniform. The officer was sentenced to 15 years of imprisonment and is now serving his sentence. 

Hakobyan and Amirkhanyan Against Armenia

In November the European Court of Human Rights issued a judgement on the case of Hakobyan and Amirkhanyan against Armenia. The applicants lost their property during the construction of Northern Avenue in Yerevan after the area was declared eminent domain. Back then the applicants were offered a compensation for 55 million AMD ($116,000 US), although they acquired the property for 85 million AMD ($179,000 US).
The ECHR decision holds that there has been a violation of Article 1 of Protocol 1 of the European Convention (Protection of Property, which stipulates that any interference by a public authority with the peaceful enjoyment of possessions should be lawful and which in this case was violated) and the Armenian government is required to pay 259,000 euros to Hakobyan and Amirkhanyan within the next three months.

Samvel Mayrapetyan

In January, the European Court of Human Rights made a swift decision in favor of Samvel Mayrapetyan, a prominent Armenian businessman who was charged and arrested for “assisting in bribery” in October of 2018, although investigators have yet to release details of the charges. At the time, Mayrapetyan was remanded into custody but later released on bail on December 27 and hospitalized. Immediately upon his release from prison, Mayrapetyan requested permission to leave for Germany for treatment, which was denied.
Mayrapetyan’s lawyers applied to the ECHR on January 2 to order Armenian authorities to allow his treatment in a German clinic. As an interim measure, the ECHR instructed the Armenian government to ensure appropriate medical treatment for Mayrapetyan. And since his treatment is impossible in Armenia, he should be allowed to travel to Germany, where he was previously treated. The ECHR also warned the Armenian government that non-fulfillment of the decision will result in a violation of the European Convention on Human Rights.

Armenia in Regional and International Organizations

Eurasian Economic Union

Armenia assumed the presidency of the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) in January of 2019. In May, a session of the Eurasian Intergovernmental Council took place in Yerevan attended by heads of governments of EEU member states. Speaking at the meeting, PM Nikol Pashinyan stressed that the creation of a common EEU market for natural gas and oil is among the priorities of the union, noting that it would further deepen economic integration between the members.
According to PM Pashinyan, trade turnover between Armenia and EEU member states has grown considerably. The share of EEU countries in Armenia’s exports reached 28.5 percent in 2018, with Russia accounting for almost 97 percent of that trade ($2 billion US). By comparison, Armenia’s trade with the European Union was $1.83 billion US in 2018.
On October 1, the leaders of the Eurasian Economic Union member states (Presidents of Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan) were in Armenia to attend the session of the Supreme Eurasian Economic Council. Under the chairmanship of PM Nikol Pashinyan, the leaders of the EEU member states met in a closed session, and were later joined by the PM of Singapore and Presidents of Moldova and Iran, who were also invited to the meeting in Yerevan.
The session ended with the signing of a free-trade agreement between the EEU and Singapore. The agreement will expand trade relations, reduce transaction costs and foster efficient economic cooperation. Armenia, Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan signed a similar deal with Iran last year. Pashinyan also noted that a free trade agreement will soon be signed with Serbia as well and that negotiations with Egypt, Israel and India are ongoing.
Following the Council meeting, Pashinyan had a separate meeting with Russian president Vladimir Putin. Pashinyan reaffirmed that the strategic partnership between the two countries will only become stronger. According to the official statement, the two leaders discussed Armenian-Russian economic cooperation, military-political partnership as well as issues of regional importance.
PM Pashinyan also had a meeting with Iranian president Hassan Rouhani. “Our position is that the relations with Iran should be free of geopolitical influences as much as possible because we are neighbors and we have many common interests,” Pashinyan said during the meeting. Rouhani also pointed out that Iran prioritizes the expansion of bilateral relations with Armenia and reaffirmed Iran’s readiness to supply more natural gas to Armenia as well as collaborate on solar and wind energy projects. The first time Rouhani offered to increase Iranian gas supplies to Armenia was when he received Pashinyan in Tehran in February.
This was both Putin’s and Rouhani’s first visit to Armenia after the Velvet Revolution. While Putin was in Armenia he also met with Robert Kocharyan’s wife Bella Kocharyan in the Russian embassy. Details of their conversation were not made public.

UN Human Rights Council

Armenia was elected as one of the 14 new members of the UN Human Rights Council, receiving votes from 144 of 193 countries. PM Nikol Pashinyan said that “this is a testament to the great confidence of the international community in our country, especially in the field of human rights.” Foreign Minister Zohrab Mnatsakanyan also commented saying that Armenia is ready to work with international partners for the promotion of human rights.

The State of the Media

Armenia’s media landscape this past year became extremely polarized. While most media operate freely, independence and self-censorship continue to be a serious concern. With the proliferation of fake news, distortion and manipulation, trust in the media has plummeted. A majority of media is owned by those associated with the previous regime and independent editorial decision-making is impeded by ownership.

Fighting Fake News

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In April, PM Nikol Pashinyan ordered then Head of the National Security Service Artur Vanetsyan to crack down on those using social media platforms to spread fake news and manipulate public opinion. Although Pashinyan reaffirmed that freedom of speech and information is guaranteed in Armenia, he also said that it is a matter of national security when public opinion is being manipulated through social media. Vanetsyan noted that his agency will act “very carefully” on the issue and that law enforcement bodies will not take any action if the posted information, whether by a fake or an actual user, does not contain any criminal elements.
Pashinyan’s order was criticized by civil society representatives. Daniel Ioannisyan of the Union of Informed Citizens said that the NSS does not have the legal right to fight against misinformation or fake users, unless those who spread fake news also commit a crime. Ioannisyan told Azatutyun: “We have to bear in mind that in a democratic society the dissemination of fake news cannot be deemed a crime and prosecuted by the state.” When asked whether the crackdown could become a threat to the freedom of expression, Ioannisyan noted that it depends on what actions will be taken by law enforcement bodies.

 

Hayeli.am

In October, a group of people threw eggs at the office of the news publication Hayeli.am online. The four men in question also put up posters showing the Chair of the Constitutional Court Hrayr Tovmasyan and his sister Anjela Tovmasyan, the editor of Hayeli, alongside a picture of Azerbaijani president Ilham Aliyev. The attack came after an article titled “Aliyev’s belated but ‘strong’ response to Pashinyan,” was published by the news website (Aliyev’s response to Pashinyan’s statement in Artsakh during a rally).
The publication issued a statement saying that the attack was an act of “political persecution” and demanded law-enforcement authorities take immediate action to “punish the hooligans.” All three political forces in parliament (My Step, Prosperous Armenia and Bright Armenia) were quick to condemn the attack. Human rights defender Arman Tatoyan and Justice Minister Rustam Badasyan also condemned the attack, saying that freedom of speech must always be respected and that such incidents should be punished.
A Criminal investigation was launched. The four men involved in the incident have been released on bail pending their trial.

Post-Truth Armenia and the Media

The fake news phenomenon is not uniquely Armenian. It’s a global challenge, but when the stakes are so high following the Velvet Revolution, journalists need to rediscover their mission and have an honest discourse about their role in the state of the media landscape.

Zhoghovurd Daily

On December 19, unknown assailants broke into the editorial office of Zhoghovurd daily. The following morning, an employee of the publication discovered the break-in. The newspaper’s editor-in-chief Knar Manukyan described the incident as an act aimed at obstructing the media outlet’s work. She also said that the intruders did not steal computers, cameras or cash kept in the drawers. Days before the attack, Manukyan was questioned at the Special Investigative Service about leaked testimonies regarding the events of March 1, 2008, which the newspaper published several months ago (including the testimonies of Serzh Sargsyan and other high ranking officials). The Service said that publishing the testimonies was illegal (since this is still an ongoing investigation).
The founder of Zhoghovurd Taguhi Tovmasyan, who is currently a member of parliament from the My Step faction thinks that the break-in was a warning and that the attackers were looking for information. Tovmasyan also said that “The break-in constitutes a serious threat to press freedom in Armenia.” A number of media outlets/organizations and NGOs issued a statement condemning the attack.
 

TV 5

On December 24, Armen Tavadyan, the owner of the pro-Kocharyan TV 5 channel was arrested. He has been charged with bribing witnesses to give false testimony in former President Robert Kocharyan’s ongoing trial. The Special Investigative Service detained Tavadyan as part of an inquiry into police allegations that Kocharyan’s supporters are having meetings with March 1 victims and witnesses, offering them bribes, so that they renounce their testimonies. A week before Tavadyan’s arrest, the police released a video showing Varuzhan Mkrtchyan, a self-proclaimed Kocharyan supporter offering a victim of the March 1 unrest to not testify in court, offering monetary compensation and a good position after the political change. He was arrested on December 21, on the same charges as Tavadyan. If charged, both individuals will face from three to seven years in prison.

Global Rankings

United Nations

According to the Human Development Report 2019 published by the United Nations, Armenia ranks 81st among 189 countries and territories, which put the country in the high human development category. The report assesses the long-term progress in three basic dimensions of human development: a long and healthy life measured by life expectancy, access to knowledge and a decent standard of living. Between 1990 and 2018, Armenia’s HDI value increased by about 20 percent: life expectancy at birth increased by 7.1 years, expected years of schooling increased by 2.3 years, while the country’s Gross National Income per capita increased by about 157.7 percent.

The Economist Intelligence Unit

The Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index, which provides a snapshot of the state of democracy worldwide for 167 countries reported that notable improvements were registered in Armenia. The Democracy Index is based on five categories including electoral process and pluralism; civil liberties; the functioning of government; political participation; and political culture. Based on its scores on a range of indicators within these categories, Armenia saw the most improvement among all “hybrid regime” countries in eastern Europe in 2018, raising its score to 4.79, from 4.11 in 2017. This led to a jump in its ranking from 111 to 103. The report clarifies that the country’s scores for government transparency and accountability were improved primarily due to the Velvet Revolution as well as PM Nikol Pashinyan’s (he was still acting PM) ongoing anti-corruption campaign.

Human Rights Watch

The Human Rights Watch “World Report 2019,” which looks at human rights practices in more than 100 countries, criticized Armenia’s former ruling government for the grievances that PM Nikol Pashinyan’s government now has to deal with. Among positive developments, it says the new government made some progress in investigations into abuses that had been stalled for years. At the same time the report stresses that as the authorities deal with past grievances, they should fully respect due process, rights for all detainees and ensure the independence of the judiciary.

Freedom House

Freedom and the Media 2019 report, published by the Washington-based rights group Freedom House in June, states that Armenia is among the countries where press freedom and the media environment in general have improved significantly over the past two years. The report also notes that Armenia has made significant progress in its democratic transition in the past year, with protests leading to fresh elections and a new, reformist government. Journalists in Armenia have used Facebook Live and other live-streaming services to challenge the government’s claims on the size or goal of anti-government protests, which eventually led to the Velvet Revolution and the overthrow of the old regime.
Freedom in the World 2019 report published by Freedom House praised Armenia’s Velvet Revolution and characterized the recent parliamentary elections as “fairer and freer.” Armenia is among a handful of countries where surprising improvements have been registered in 2018. “They show that democracy has enduring appeal as a means of holding leaders accountable and creating the conditions for a better life,” the report says.
The report also talks about the events of April-May of 2018, when Armenians took to the streets in protest of an attempt by Serzh Sargsyan to extend his rule by shifting from the presidency to the prime minister’s office. “To widespread surprise, the protests culminated in Sargsyan’s resignation and the rise of opposition leader Nikol Pashinyan to the premiership. Pashinyan’s My Step alliance decisively won snap parliamentary elections in December, clearing the way for systemic reforms,” notes the report.  Armenia received better scores in various categories (freedom ratings, political rights and civil liberties) and was rated “partially free.” Armenia’s three other neighbors, Azerbaijan, Turkey and Iran, as well as Russia were rated “not free.”
In the “Freedom on the Net 2019: The Crisis on Social Media” report, Armenia ranks the 8th most free country, ahead of countries like France, Georgia, Japan, and Italy and is listed as the leader of freedom on the net among Eurasian countries. It is important to note that the list includes only 65 countries. According to the report, the positive changes that were brought about by the 2018 Velvet Revolution continue and since then “violence against online journalists declined, and the digital news media enjoyed greater freedom from economic and political pressures.”
The report also says that the Revolution itself shows how digital technology can help generate dramatic democratic change. The report goes on and explains that during the demonstrations citizens effectively used social media platforms, communications apps, and live streaming to advance the peaceful Revolution, which eventually brought the resignation of longtime leader Serzh Sargsyan and cleared the way for snap elections in December of 2018.

Transparency International

According to Corruption Perceptions Index 2018 released by Transparency International, Armenia ranks 105th out of 180 countries with a score of 35, with its level of corruption in the public sector. Compared to last year’s results (107th), Armenia improved its ranking with only two scores. The report, however, was prepared before the events of April-May 2018, and the high-level corruption scandals that were revealed after that are not reflected in the report. Among the neighboring countries, Azerbaijan is much further down at 152nd place with a score of 25, Turkey is 78th with 41 points, while Georgia is 41st with a score of 58.

Reporters Without Borders

 Armenia has improved its ranking by 19 places in the 2019 World Press Freedom Index published by Reporters Without Borders and is now 61st among 180 countries. The report stated the important role that new media played during the Velvet Revolution, bringing a former journalist to power. The media landscape is diverse but polarized and the editorial policies of the main TV channels coincide with the interests of their owners. It goes on to say that journalistic independence and transparent media ownership continue to be major challenges. The new government must must refrain from any excesses in its attempts to combat "fake news." Its use of the security services for this purpose, followed by a social network user’s arrest, prompted concern. Investigative journalism, which is flourishing online, is well placed to play a major role in a national offensive against corruption.

Global Peace Index

According to the Global Peace Index 2019, Armenia was ranked as more peaceful than in 2018. Armenia which ranked 120th among 163 countries in the 2018 index of Societal Safety and Security domain, this year ranked 118th. Neighboring Georgia is ranked as more peaceful than Armenia, taking 99th place. Other neighbouring countries face a lower ranking. Azerbaijan ranks at 130, Turkey takes 152nd place and Russia 154th. The index defines “peace” as the level of societal safety and security, the extent of ongoing domestic and international conflict and the degree of militarization of a country.

Moody’s Investor Service

Moody’s Investor Service upgraded Armenia’s ratings from B1 to Ba3. The Moody’s report states that macroeconomic stability, the government's institutional reform agenda, and structural changes in the economy served as a basis for the upgrade. Moody’s was particularly encouraged by the rapid expansion of the Armenian IT industry, saying that it is “providing a strong foundation for the development of a skills- and knowledge-based economy.” The agency predicts about 5.5 percent economic growth in the coming years, which will be largely driven by growth sectors such as tourism, IT, and light manufacturing. 

Major Conferences/Events of 2019

Summit of Minds

From June 7-9, the Summit of Minds, which is an annual event traditionally held in Chamonix, France, took place in Dilijan and Yerevan. The summit was hosted by President Armen Sarkissian and attended by 300 renowned politicians, scientists, entrepreneurs and investors, as well as leaders of large companies and media outlets. Armenia was the first country to host the event that has never taken place outside of Chamonix. Armenian Summit of Minds mainly focused on “Regional geopolitics, economy and investment.”

World Congress on Information Technology

From October 6-9, Armenia was hosting the World Congress on Information Technology. More than 2000 delegates from about 70 countries were in Armenia to discuss the impact of communication technologies on our lives. Participants included founder of Reddit Alexis Ohanyan, activist and entrepreneur Kim Kardashian, musician and singer Serj Tankian, Founders of Yandex, Picsart and Giphy. While here, Ohanyan and Tankian along with the producer of the film “Promise” Erik Israyelyan announced the launch of a pan-Armenian digital platform named Hayconnect, which will enable Armenians in every corner of the world to get together, build connections and collaborate. Tankian also announced that as part of System of a Down’s 2020 European tour, the band will also perform in Yerevan.
Kardashian also said that she would like to have the production of her recently launched Skims shapewear in Armenia and that she is already in discussions with local investors. Kardashian also spoke about possibly starting a perfume line in Armenia, inspired by the scent of Armenian flowers.

Upcoming Elections in Artsakh (Nagorno-Karabakh)

In 2020, presidential and parliamentary elections will be held in Artsakh. The politicians running for the 2020 presidential elections are the current Speaker of the National Assembly of Artsakh Ashot Ghulyan, Foreign Minister Masis Mayilyan, the Free Homeland party leader Arayik Harutyunyan, the former Secretary of the Artsakh Security Council Vitali Balasanyan, and Davit Ishkhanyan from the Armenian Revolutionary Federation.


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