Armenia: Anti-corruption probe widens amid court crisis

Richard Giragosian, Regional Studies Center (Yerevan, Armenia)

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Armenia moves on with its anti-corruption probe, uncovering more and more high ranking officials of the previous regime.

Domestic Policy

Constitutional Court crisis escalates 

In a statement from  September 27, Armenian Justice Minister Rustam Badasian extended his support for a plan by the parliament to urge the Constitutional Court to replace its own chairman, Hrayr Tovmasian. The move, backed by the pro-government majority of deputies, is seeking to remove the court chair for his alleged “mishandling” of appeals and for committing “serious procedural violations” in the criminal case against former President Robert Kocharian, including his own ties to one of Kocharian’s defense lawyers and his membership in the former ruling Republican Party prior to his appointment as Constitutional Court chairman in March 2017.  

The legal grounds are further complicated by the political battle over the court’s legitimacy, as Vahe Grigorian, the newest Constitutional Court judge elected by parliament in June, claims that he and his fellow judge, Arman Dilanian, are the only judges empowered to rule on cases due to their appointment to the court after the amended Armenian constitution came into effect in April 2018.

Meanwhile, Ambassador Andrea Wiktorin, the head of the European Union Delegation to Armenia, reaffirmed on  September 27 the EU’s readiness to assist in reforming the judicial system and restoring “confidence in the judicial system and judges.” Both the EU and the Council of Europe are supporting efforts to “expand legal mechanisms for disciplinary proceedings” against judicial misconduct and to enforce their anti-corruption asset declarations.

More former officials charged in anti-corruption probe

On September 25 law enforcement officials announced that more former government officials had been charged under the government’s widening probe of corruption and abuse of power allegations.  Former defense minister and a senior figure in the former ruling Republican Party, Vigen Sargsyan, was charged with two counts of “abuse of power,” involving his reported violation of state rules and procedures governing the allocation of state-funded housing units to army officers and their families during his tenure as defense minister. The case, which is still under investigation, carries the possible sentence of heavy fines and four years in prison.  Sargsyan is out of the country, however, and is currently studying in the United States.  

Another former official, one-time police chief Alik Sargsyan (no relation to Vigen), was also charged on September 25 with his alleged complicity in covering up “illegal activities” by the police in the March 2008 post-election fatal crackdown on opposition demonstrators and with destroying the evidence of the “overthrow of the constitutional order” by then President Robert Kocharian.   The charges against the notorious Sargsian, who headed the police until 2011, came days after the purported suicide of his predecessor as police chief, Hayk Harutiunian, who was repeatedly interrogated by investigators as a witness in the case. The trial for the 2008 unrest of former President Kocharian, currently held in detention, and three other top officials, charged with “usurping the constitution”, is currently ongoing. 

Governor resigns amid scandal

In a rare case of political accountability after years of ruling officials resisting liability for their actions, regional governor Trdat Sargsian resigned on September 24 amid an investigation into a violent dispute between one of his senior aides and an army officer who was critically injured in the attack.  Although not directly implicated in the attack, the 30-year-old governor, a member of Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan’s “Civil Contract” party, explained his move as a requirement for “political ethics and political responsibility in the New Armenia.” 

Shakeup in the security sector 

After a clash with Armenian Prime Minster Nikol Pashinyan that later escalated into a public exchange, Artur Vanetsian, the head of Armenia’s National Security Service (NSS), was dismissed from his post on September 16.  The 39-year-old Vanetsian, as the most senior security official in the Pashinyan government, was appointed to the post a mere two days after the parliament elected Pashinyan as prime minister in May 2018, and was leading the government’s sweeping anti-corruption campaign.  The dismissal was followed by the firing of national Police Chief Valeri Osipian on September 18, a controversial and deeply unpopular holdover from the previous government, who was reassigned as an “adviser” to the prime minister. On September 19, Prime Minister Pashinyan appointed Eduard Martirosian as the “acting director” of the National Security Service and Arman Sargsian as the interim police chief, pending parliamentary approval of both.


Government cites job growth & tax collection

On September 13 the government hailed a set of positive statistics showing a 12% increase in employment, with some 65,000 new jobs largely in the private sector, created from May 2018 through the beginning of this month.  For the same period, tax collection also improved, with an increase of over 14% in 2018, to 1.3 trillion drams ($2.7 billion), followed by a further 25% improvement for the first half of this year.

Armenian Premier issues call to reopen closed gold mine

In a controversial move, on 9 September Prime Minister Pashinyan called for environmental protesters to unblock roads leading to the Amulsar gold mine in southeastern Armenia, saying that his government has no “legal grounds to prohibit the exploitation” of the Amulsar mine.  With activists protesting the mine as a threat to the environment forcibly disrupting the mine’s operations since June 2018, the prime minister has been reluctant to order police to remove the demonstrators and waited for the completion of an external independent environmental impact study which determined that the mine would pose only “manageable” risks to the environment.  

Foreign Policy

Azerbaijani drones downed over Nagorno Karabakh amid major military exercise

On September 25 Senior Nagorno Karabakh (Artsakh) army officials claimed to have shot down an Azerbaijani military reconnaissance drone, and released photographs purportedly showing the wreckage an Israeli-produced Orbiter 2 unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV). The reported downing of the UAV by an air-defense unit over the Armenian-Azerbaijani “line of contact” east of Karabakh coincided with the start of a major 12-day “strategic military exercise” in Karabakh and Armenia involving the largest ever call-up of army reservists.

Armenian & Azerbaijani Foreign Ministers meet 

In the latest round of the Nagorno Karabakh (Artsakh) peace process, the foreign ministers of Armenia and Azerbaijan, Zohrab Mnatsakanyan and Elmar Mammadyarov, met on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York on September 23. Brought together by mediators from the OSCE Minsk Group Co-Chairs, the ministers reviewed efforts aimed at “strengthening the ceasefire and reducing tension” and the “need for consistent steps to build an atmosphere of mutual trust….including implementation of the previously achieved arrangements.”