As statistics related to the coronavirus pandemic in Armenia improved in August, the Armenian government resolved to reopen schools and universities, but under a regime of restrictions and precautionary measures. Defense and national security issues continued to dominate public concern, however, in response to the previous month’s border clashes. Within that context, Armenian officials expressed concern over heightened “threat perception” from Turkey while Armenia’s Defense Minister concluded an important military cooperation agreement with Russia that includes specific measures to upgrade and modernize the Armenian Air Force.
Opposition “Oligarch” Reiterates Criticism of Government
One of Armenia’s wealthiest men, oligarch Gagik Tsarukyan, leader of the Prosperous Armenia party renewed his criticism of the government on August 28 for its handling of the COVID-19 crisis. The MP vowed that he will organize public rallies and meetings throughout the country in preparation for the upcoming parliament legislative session in September. His criticism also focused on attacking the government’s education reforms, which he decried as undermining “Armenian traditional values.”
Currently free on bail, the oligarch still faces the pending criminal charge. His opposition Prosperous Armenia Party is the second largest party holding 24 seats in the 132-seat parliament.
Armenia Decides to Reopen Schools
In a statement released following a meeting of senior government officials on August 17, Armenian Education Minister Arayik Harutiunyan announced the reopening of schools on September 15. While first-year university classes are set to resume sooner, on September 1, the decision for a September 15 reopening applies to all secondary and primary schools. However, a new strict regime of precautionary sanitary and social distancing measures, along with mandatory mask wearing rules, will be in effect to prevent or diminish the threat of coronavirus infection. All schools in Armenia have been closed since March 2020. According to the Minister, the universities will, nevertheless, have the power to decide their own educational format, deciding the proportion of online classes and the size and schedule of classes accordingly.
The decision stems from a related consideration of the pandemic by the government, with the current “state of emergency” set to expire on September 11 and widely expected to not be renewed. The rates of COVID-19 infection and fatalities have steadily and consistently declined in recent weeks. The decision was controversial, however, as a number of parent groups and several education specialists criticized the plans as “irresponsible and hasty,” with insufficient or weak safeguards. Against that backdrop, calls for Education Minister Harutiunyan’s resignation, first initiated by the political opposition and more nationalist groups, escalated, mainly driven by vehement criticism over planned changes to educational curriculum related to history and the Armenian Church.
New Anti-Corruption Court Planned
On August 14 senior officials of the Armenian Ministry of Justice announced plans to form a new special anti-corruption court. Although the plan must be approved as part of a broader set of proposed changes to the constitution, the proposal calls for the establishment of a new 25-member court, with five judges specifically assigned to rule on cases related to the country’s new laws governing the confiscation of property of illegal origin.
Armenian Minister Details Pandemic Spending
In a press conference on August 14, Armenian Economy Minister Tigran Khachatryan reported that since March 2020, the government has distributed over $300 million in special financing and stimulus packages for businesses and citizens affected by the coronavirus pandemic. Of that total amount, the minister noted that over $190 million in financing has been allocated in bank-provided preferential loans and credits.
A related announcement on August 12 also reported that the government has specifically directed funds for “targeted solutions” for specific sectors, such as tourism and agriculture, which the government determined was hit by the pandemic the hardest. For the tourism sector, which the minster noted was impacted by a reduction of over 50% of turnover, the government’s support is focused on job retention, with monthly support to companies in the tourism sector who retain “at least 70% of their personnel” through the pandemic. Under the aid program, farmers also receive special interest-free loans.
Armenian and Russian Defense Ministers Meet
On August 23 in Moscow, Armenian Defense Minister Davit Tonoyan met with his Russian counterpart, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, on the sidelines of a security forum coinciding with Russia’s hosting of an annual “International Army Games” organized by the Russian military as a largely symbolic exercise with several other partner countries. During the meeting, the Armenian Defense Minister focused on the clashes with Azerbaijan the previous month, and while avoiding any direct reference to Turkey, complained to Russian officials of “the aggressive rhetoric of some countries” that he criticized for adopting military measures “aimed at destabilizing and militarizing the regional situation”. Following the meeting in Moscow, the Armenian Defense Ministry released a statement which detailed an agreement between Defense Ministers Shoigu and Tonoyan regarding bilateral ties and “upcoming steps towards military cooperation” between their countries.
In line with that statement, officials from Russia’s United Aircraft Corporation (UAC) also formalized a new contract on August 24 for the modernization, upgrade and servicing of Armenia’s inventory of approximately 15 Sukhoi Su-25 aircraft. The new contract follows an earlier Armenian procurement of four more modern and sophisticated Su-30SM fighter jets from Russia last year. Defense Minister Tonoyan announced back in January 2020 that Armenia expects to receive more such combat aircraft and plans to acquire as many as a dozen Su-30SMs over “the coming years.”
Armenian Prime Minister Criticized for “Congratulating” Leader of Belarus
After leading a non-violent movement to force the resignation of the former Armenian government, Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan sparked strong negative reaction to his message on August 10 congratulating the authoritarian leader of Belarus, Aleksandr Lukashenka, for “winning” reelection in a vote on August 9 widely seen as fraudulent. Faced with the unexpected criticism, the Armenian government sought to defend the move by noting the significance of the country’s relations with Belarus, which is a fellow member of the Eurasian Economic Union and Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO).
“Armenian government is seriously concerned over the increased threat Turkey is posing to Armenian national security”
Armenian Vows to Counter “Turkish Threat”
The head of the Armenian National Security Council, Armen Grigoryan, asserted on August 1-2 that the Armenian government was seriously concerned over the increased threat Turkey is posing to Armenian national security. Pointing to Turkey’s strong support for Azerbaijan during several days of border clashes triggered by an Azerbaijani attack on Armenia on July 12, the security official added that Turkey now poses “a serious threat to the region” and “a challenge to the regional security architecture,” which “Turkey is now trying to change through its intervention.” The statement follows several months of escalating tension between Armenia and Turkey and has culminated in a move by Armenia that, according to Grigoryan involves taking “steps to minimize” the threat by working closely “with our strategic ally Russia in order to prevent such changes in the region.”
Photo: Military exercises of Turkey and Azerbaijan
Credits: Vestnik Kavkaza