Armenia: Confrontation in parliament over the challenges of business & politics

Richard Giragosian, Regional Studies Center (Yerevan, Armenia)

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Government continues to investigate cases of corruption among high ranking officials, while the clashes in parliament go on as well.

Domestic Policy

Government official decries corruption charges

Davit Sanasaryan, the head of a state agency empowered to investigate and prosecute corruption, claimed his innocence on 29 April after facing his own criminal charges of corruption. Sanasaryan argued that “counterrevolutionary” forces were behind the case and were intent on discrediting him. Sanasaryan also dismissed media reports detailing the evidence against him, including the reported surveillance video by the National Security Service (NSS) allegedly showing him accepting large amounts of cash from other officials.  As the charges were first brought earlier in April, Sanasaryan was suspended from his duties as the head of the State Oversight Service (SOS). The case deepened after the arrest of two other senior SOS officials in late February after an investigation into bribes over state-funded supplies of medical equipment to hospitals.

Challenges of business & politics

A long simmering clash between the ruling “My Step” faction and the second-largest party, “Prosperous Armenia,” deepened after a heated exchange in parliament on 18 April over the adoption of modified legislation that directly benefits “Prosperous Armenia”’s leader, Gagik Tsarukyan, a wealthy businessman. Later in April the clash escalated to include a possible move to strip Tsarukyan of his parliamentary mandate over his clear violation of laws against engaging in business while holding office. It got a new legal dimension after a formal petition was filed with law-enforcement authorities demanding a criminal investigation and calling for the formation of an ad hoc parliamentary commission. Such commission would be empowered to investigate and possibly appeal to the Constitutional Court to impose punitive measures against the “oligarch,” including his possible removal from parliament. This tension has only heightened since a raid on the oligarch’s business interests by tax police in the wake of his party’s attacks against the government’s economic policies earlier this month.

Parliament defeats presidential candidate

In a rare setback for Armenian President Armen Sarkisyan, the parliament rejected the president’s nominee for a vacancy in the Constitutional Court on 16 April. The ruling “My Step” faction refused to support the candidacy of Gor Hovannisyan, a legal scholar based in Germany, from among three candidates for the vacant position in the country’s highest court. As Parliamentary Speaker Ararat Mirzoyan explained this move was due to “discrepancies” over the nominee’s required fifteen years of professional experience in order to hold a seat in the Constitutional Court. This was a significant setback for the largely symbolic president, especially as his two previous nominees were rejected by the former parliament last year.

Prime Minister in angry outburst

In a rare public display of his temper, Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan ordered the firing of customs officials during a visit to a customs terminal on 9 April. Premier erupted in anger over a dirty Armenian flag in the unkempt office and after present customs officials failed to show “respect” for the premier by not standing when he entered the room. After criticism of his behavior by human rights activists, the prime minister defended his actions on 15 April, explaining that the behavior of the customs officers was unprofessional and only revealed their “lack of respect” for ordinary citizens dealing with the customs service, a state body long derided as being notoriously corrupt.


Positive trends

Hailing some positive signs in the Armenian economy, the National Statistical Committee announced on 5 April that foreign direct investment in the country increased, reaching $254 million. Although the increase was rather slight, Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan added that some 13 investment projects worth $146 million have been approved in the first quarter of 2019, although admitting that the projects would result in a mere 912 new jobs. The announcement followed a controversial decision by the government to nearly triple salary bonuses for tax and customs officials in 2019, a move that was opposed by Finance Minister Atom Janjughazyan.  The move, defended as a measure to prevent corruption and as a reward to improved tax collection, sparked a rare public confrontation between the finance minister and Davit Ananyan, the head of the State Revenue Committee (SRC), which was exacerbated by the disclosure in January that Ananyan himself received $29,000 in bonuses during his eight-month tenure.

Foreign Policy

New U.S. Ambassador pledges support

Recently arrived U.S. Ambassador to Armenia Lynne Tracy pledged on 15 April American support for reforms and the Armenian government’s “democracy agenda,” as well as promising to continue to help efforts to combat corruption and strengthen the rule of law.  The ambassador also responded to previous criticism of the U.S. by Prime Minister Pashinyan by strongly defending the “very good track record” of U.S. activities in Armenia and stressing the shared agenda of promoting democracy in order to strengthen “the sovereignty of the country.”  She further highlighted American backing for the government in its efforts to bolster the “institutions responsible for law-enforcement and the judiciary” while making them more “accountable to people (and) transparent in their activities.” Despite the prime minister’s criticism of what he termed Washington’s “zero reaction” to democratic change and his charge that there has been no significant increase in U.S. economic assistance in an address to parliament last month, the U.S. ambassador pointed to the fact that the U.S. has provided over $2 billion in assistance to Armenia since 1992.

Armenian officials eager to deepen ties to China

On 4 April Prime Minister of Armenia Nikol Pashinyan met with a visiting Chinese delegation led by Mrs. Shen Yueyue, the Vice-Chairwoman of the National People’s Congress Standing Committee of China. During the meeting, Pashinyan noted that the development and deepening of bilateral Armenian-Chinese relations remain one of the government’s foreign policy priorities, and noted that Armenia is particularly interested in cooperation in the political, economic, and technological areas. The premier also reiterated Armenia’s commitment to the “One-China policy”, and hailed progress in tourism, road construction, energy, organic agriculture and civil aviation.

Armenia holds joint military exercise with Russia

Armenian and Russian troops started a ten-day large-scale battalion tactical military exercise on 1 April at the Baghramyan training grounds in Armenia.  Heading the exercise, Armenian Major General Tigran Parvanyan, the commander of a special joint Armenian-Russian force, explained that the live-fire exercise seeks to “harmonize the joint actions of different types of troops and test the combat readiness of the personnel during the joint implementation of training objectives,” with an emphasis on defensive, offensive, and counter-offensive tactics.