The popularity of the Armenian government under Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan exceeded expectations by sweeping the municipal election for the capital Yerevan on 23 September. The prime minister’s “My Step” bloc secured a landslide victory in the local election, winning an overwhelming 81% of the vote.
Domestic Policy. Former prime minister faces criminal charges
In an announcement on September 8 by the Special Investigation Service, former Armenian prime minister Hovik Abrahamian has been charged with “exceeding official authorities” and “illegally participating in entrepreneurial activity”. Criminal investigation found that the former premier, together with former police chief and parliamentarian Alik Sargsian, forcibly seized a mining company from a businessman in 2008. The 60-year-old former prime minister was already the target of a separate probe initiated in August 2018 examining his role in the deadly post-election violence of March 2008. That case has already led to the arrest of his brother and another man for the illegal possession of firearms.
A surprising wiretapping scandal that ensnared two senior security officials leaked to the media on September 11. Commenting on the situation, Prime Minister Pashinyan condemned the incident but argued that the conversation did not reveal any undue influence over the judiciary or any attempt to subvert the legal process. The wiretapping and posting of telephone conversations targeted the National Security Service (NSS) Director Artur Vanetsian and the Special Investigation Service (SIS) Head Sasun Khachatrian and, based on the leaked phone call from late July 2018, centered on the prosecution of former president Robert Kocharian and others as part of an investigation into the country’s 2008 post-election clashes. The technical capability to wiretap the most senior security officials raised serious questions over security, suggesting that only Russia could have such capability. Nevertheless, the prime minister instead termed the incident as “a conspiracy and crime against the statehood of Armenia”, and implied that the blame rested with “oligarchs and their so-called bodyguards” who he contended had “imported wiretapping equipment and set up their own special services within the state”. The incident was also used as a political instrument by the former ruling Republican party, however, and triggered their move in the parliament to launch a potentially embarrassing investigation into the case, which they alleged was a possible “obstruction of justice”.
Pro-government party sweeps local election
In an impressive landslide victory, the pro-government “My Step” bloc secured an overwhelming 81% of the 23 September vote in municipal elections in the Armenian capital Yerevan. Far behind, the second-place finisher, the Prosperous Armenia party, surprised many observers with a blatantly dismal performance, garnering a meager 7% of the vote. Although the voter turnout was low, at about 43% of eligible voters, it was still higher than during the last local election in Yerevan and was seen as affirmation of the sustained popularity of the Pashinyan government. The result only emboldened and empowered the government to seek extraordinary parliamentary elections, and negotiations are set to commence in the coming weeks. The snap election was triggered by the resignation of the widely unpopular and allegedly corrupt former Yerevan mayor, Taron Markarian, in July. The election for a 65-member Council of Elders, which will then elect a mayor, was also seen as a sweeping reaffirmation of the Armenian government, and is expected to result in a victory for mayoral candidate and actor Hayk Marutian.
Economy. Government Hails Sharp Surge in Foreign Investment
In a much needed positive economic report to reassure investor confidence, the Armenian government states that foreign direct investment (FDI) in Armenia more than doubled in the first half of the year, totaling some $81.3 million, a dramatic increase over the $32.6 million for the same period of last year. Commenting on the figures on September 1, government economists and officials noted, however, that most of this increase stemmed from a surge of foreign investment which came in the first quarter of the year, well before the forced resignation of the former Armenian government. Equally disturbing was the fact that about 53% of the first-half FDI inflow emanated from the British island of Jersey, a reputed tax haven that is home to Lydian International, which operates a significant gold mine in the country. Both factors tend to raise concerns over longer term sustainability of such increased FDI and do little to improve the overall Armenian investment climate or to reassure the confidence of investors who are already worried over the change in government.
Foreign Policy. Japanese foreign minister visits
Marking the start of a three-day regional visit, Japanese foreign minister Taro Kono arrived in Armenia on September 2, and met with Armenian prime minister Nikol Pashinyan, foreign minister Zohrab Mnatsakanian and president Armen Sarkissian the next day. The visit follows the signing of an important new bilateral investment treaty in February 2018 and is the latest move to deepen bilateral relations, spurred by last year’s decision by Armenia to unilaterally lift visa requirements for Japanese citizens visiting Armenia. The Pashinyan government has identified the development of innovation in the IT sector and related technology, as well as tourism, as key priority areas for Armenian-Japanese relations.
In the third meeting in three months, Armenian prime minister Nikol Pashinyan met Russian president Vladimir Putin in Moscow on September 8. According to the official Russian statements, the summit meeting focused on “key questions of developing allied Russian-Armenian relations as well as cooperation within the Eurasian Economic Union and the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO)”. On his part, the Armenian prime minister hailed Armenian-Russian relations as “brilliant” and asserted that “there are no problems in our relations in any direction”. The timing of the meeting was particularly significant, however, as it followed an unusually public display of criticism of the Armenian government by Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov. The criticism concerned investigations targeting former Armenian leaders and officials, which Lavrov referred to as efforts to “persecute its predecessors for political motives”. Following the meeting, Armenian officials also confirmed plans to participate in Russian-led efforts to rebuild Syria as the part of a “humanitarian mission”. Prior to the meeting, the Armenian premier pledged to develop “much more strategic and cooperative” relations with Russia, which he argued “should be at a much higher level, they should be much more strategic, much more cooperative and much more brotherly”.
Armenian Premier on State Visit to France
Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan met French President Emmanuel Macron in Paris on September 14. The meeting, which followed an earlier initial meeting at NATO headquarters in July 2018, was tied both to the traditionally close bilateral relationship between Armenia and France, but also stemmed from the planned Francophonie summit, which Armenia will host and French president will attend in October 2018.
Meetings at the UN General Assembly
Armenian prime minister Nikol Pashinyan and foreign minister Zohrab Mnatsakanian were able to demonstrate a new higher level of statesmanship during the annual UN General Assembly meeting in New York on September 25, holding meetings with senior officials, including Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and others. Also on the sidelines of the UN summit, the foreign ministers of Armenia and Azerbaijan met on September 26, for three hours of talks together with the U.S., Russian and French mediators co-chairing the OSCE Minsk Group. The Armenian Foreign Ministry called the talks a “useful exchange of thoughts” on the Karabakh conflict and reported that “the interlocutors agreed to continue the dialogue, including within the framework of the co-chairs’ upcoming visit to the region” through next month.