October appears to be a difficult month for the Armenian government with a set of personnel issues and decline in business ratings. At the same time some new opportunities arose in the international arena.
Deputy police chief fired for “political” comments
Colonel Hovannes Kocharyan, the Armenian deputy police chief, was dismissed on October 25 after publicly criticizing the Armenian government’s planned introduction of a new system of political appointments for the heads of law enforcement and the powerful National Security Service (NSS). Under previous law, both heads of the police and the NSS were required to be high-ranking career officers. But under new amendments considered by the parliament, the requirement for such government appointments in the security sector would only be limited to any Armenian citizen above the age of 25 and who has lived in the country for the last four years. According to Vladimir Karapetian, the spokesmen of Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, the second highest police official was dismissed for making an inappropriate “political statement.” The dismissal comes in the wake of the firing of both the previous police chief, Valeri Osipyan, and the National Security Service (NSS) head, Artur Vanetsian, last month, as each was replaced by interim heads serving on a temporary basis.
Prime minister faces scrutiny over “secret” salary raises for officials
After sparking a flurry of fresh criticism, on October 23, Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan strongly defended the decision to effectively double the salaries of ministers and other senior government officials and despite the absence of any formal announcement, insisted that it should not be made secretly. The salary increases, which took effect some four months earlier, were further defended by the government as part of a broader attempt to prevent corruption and institute higher standards for merit and reward. However, the lack of public disclosure and the fact that the raises were financed by using special “bonus funds”, which the 2019 state budget set aside for all government ministries, weakened the government’s defenders. The record of the prime minister’s vocal criticism of similar salary increase for the previous government, which in 2013 he opposed as a manifestation of government “cynicism,” only fueled criticism further. Critics also highlighted the fact that the head of the State Revenue Committee (SRC), one of the most corrupt state bodies in recent years, admitted that he alone received 14 million drams ($29,000) in bonuses over his eight-month tenure as SRC chief.
Surprise resignation triggers internal clash
In a surprise announcement on October 18, Sarhat Petrosian, the head of the state Cadastre Committee, resigned from his position, which oversees, regulates and registers property and real estate transactions. Petrosian, a widely respected architect and prominent support of Prime Minister Pashinyan, cited incompetence and entrenched resistance to reforms by officials of the government’s Urban Development Committee, adding that he “can no longer tolerate dilettantism and sectarianism bordering on corruption.” In a heated response to the resignation on October 21, Deputy Prime Minister Tigran Avinian criticized Petrosian, and accused him of seeking to overstep his powers and attempt “to operate in the area of urban development.”
Clash over Constitutional Court continues
In a heated and drawn out clash between Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan’s government and the country’s Constitutional Court, an attempt by the parliament to urge the court to remove its chairman, Hrayr Tovmasian, failed after the other Constitutional Court judges rejected the move on October 14. The parliament adopted a non-binding resolution that urges the forcible removal of the Chief Justice over what it termed “serious procedural violations” in handling the appeal process related to the ongoing criminal case of former President Robert Kocharian, and stemming from the parliament’s allegation that the judge is displaying a lack of impartiality due to Tovmasian’s membership in the former ruling Republican Party prior to his appointment as Constitutional Court chairman in March 2017. Despite the parliamentary attempt by the dominant pro-government “My Step” bloc, the second largest party in parliament, the Prosperous Armenia Party (BHK), publicly criticized the move and threatened to block further attempts by the parliament to remove Tovmasian.
After several months of a mounting crisis between the government and the court chairman, a criminal law enforcement body initiated a series of interrogations of Tovmasian on October 16, including the questioning of the judge’s elderly father and daughters. Through the end of October, the targeting of the judge continued to focus on allegations of financial impropriety and possible corruption. As part of that investigation, Arsen Babayan, a former senior parliament staff member was arrested. At the same time, the government also raised direct charges contending that Tovmasian was illegally elected as court chairman by the former Republican Party-dominated parliament. The crisis is further complicated by competing legal interpretations, whereby the terms of the previous Armenian constitution stipulated that a Constitutional Court judge cannot be arrested without the consent of at least five of the eight other members of the country’s highest court. Under constitutional amendments that took effect in April 2018, such permission is needed only in cases where the judge faces prosecution in connection with the performance of their duties. For his part, Tovmasian is arguing that he is protected by the previous version of the constitution and enjoys “full immunity” from prosecution because he was appointed to the court before the constitutional amendments came into force in April 2018.
Armenia declines in business ranking
In a report issued on October 24, Armenia suffered a decline in its ranking in a key World Bank annual ranking that assesses the ease of doing business in some 190 countries. Although the survey also cited an improvement in the country’s investment climate, Armenia ranked 47th, on a par with Moldova, a decline from its 2018 ranking that placed it 41st. The report cited a deterioration in two core areas related to entrepreneurial activity: “Protecting Minority Investors” and “Resolving Insolvency.” But there was some progress in other policy areas, including the Armenian government’s success in having “strengthened minority investor protections” over the past year, and improvements in taxation and construction quality control.
Armenia hosts Eurasian Economic Union Summit
Armenia hosted a summit of the Eurasian Economic Union (EES) onOctober 1, with leaders from fellow member states Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Russia, as well as delegations from Iran, Serbia and Singapore. Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan also held side meetings with various leaders, including separate discussions with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Iranian President Hassan Rohani. The Armenian premier also concluded a new trade deal with Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong during the summit, while Singapore also signed a free trade zone agreement with the Eurasian Economic Union. Armenia hosted the summit meeting of the Supreme Eurasian Economic Council due to its position holding the rotating chairmanship of the EES. Armenian media coverage of the summit was somewhat eclipsed by a brief but significant meeting between the Russian president and the wife of jailed former President Robert Kocharian at the Russian Embassy in Yerevan.
Armenia elected to UN Human Rights Council
In a vote on October 17, Armenia was elected as one of fourteen new members of the 47-member UN Human Rights Council, endorsed by 144 of 193 countries. With Armenian membership running through 2022, the country’s new position on the Geneva-based council is expected to foster a more active period of Armenian diplomacy focusing on human rights in terms of international law within the UN system. Armenia’s successful election is also widely seen as positive affirmation of Armenia’s 2018 “Velvet Revolution,” that resulted in peaceful, non-violent change of government hailed as a victory of “people power.”
Latest meeting of Armenian & Azerbaijani leaders
In the latest visit to the region, mediators from the OSCE Minsk Group met with leaders of Armenia, Azerbaijan and Nagorno Karabakh (Artsakh) on October 15-18. As a result of the meetings, the OSCE co-chairmen announced that Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev have each pledged to intensify efforts to “prepare the populations for peace,” adding that they “welcomed the prospect of implementing specific humanitarian and security measures to prepare the populations for peace and reduce tensions.” For their part, the mediators called on the conflicting parties to remove “obstacles potentially interfering with” the work of a small OSCE team empowered to monitor the ceasefire along the Karabakh “line of contact” and the Armenian-Azerbaijani border.
Although the Armenian and Azerbaijani leaders have already promised to take “a number of measures in the humanitarian field” and help create “an environment conducive to peace” during a Vienna meeting in March 2019, there has been little demonstrable progress to date. Reflecting the difficulty of the negotiations, the two leaders also engaged in a public “war of words” during an 11 October summit in Turkmenistan. Nevertheless, each side has held informal talks during an official dinner hosted by Turkmen President Gurbaguly Berdymuhamedov, and later agreed to a follow-up meeting by the Armenian and Azerbaijani foreign ministers “before the end of the year,” most likely in December 2019.