With no signs of abating, the war for Nagorno-Karabakh continued unimpeded through the month. Since the launch of a massive military offensive by Azerbaijan in late September, Armenia struggled to support the defense of Karabakh with a series of diplomatic initiatives aimed at securing a ceasefire agreement, while Azerbaijan’s attacks and territorial gains continued. The country was also faced with a surge in new COVID-19 cases, threatening an already challenged public health system.
Court releases opposition oligarch
Notorious Armenian oligarch Gagik Tsarukyan, the leader of the opposition Prosperous Armenia party and one of the country’s wealthiest men, was released from pre-trial detention on October 22 on bail of $206,000. Since parliament removed his immunity from arrest or prosecution as a sitting member of parliament, 63-year-old Tsarukyan was detained for over a month due to a criminal investigation into his role in an alleged case of “vote buying” on behalf of his party’s candidates in the parliamentary election of 2017. As a leader of the Prosperous Armenia party, the second largest group in the parliament with 24 seats, Tsarukyan has emerged as an outspoken critic of the Pashinyan government and has publicly called for the resignation of the Prime Minister.
Armenian schools closed again
Amid a significant surge in new cases of COVID-19 infections, the Armenian government imposed a second closure of all schools and universities on October 15. The move follows a warning issued by the Armenian Ministry of Health that a record number of new cases of over 1000 infections each day is now threatening to overwhelm the country’s health care system and strain hospital capacity. The surge is directly attributed to the onset of wartime conditions in the wake of Azerbaijani attacks on Nagorno-Karabakh and a resulting breakdown of discipline for social distancing and mask wearing.
Prime Minister convenes crisis meeting with opposition
In an unprecedented crisis meeting on October 12, Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan met with senior members of several non-parliamentary opposition parties and groups, including the former ruling Republican Party, the nationalist Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF-Dashnaktsutyun) and the Armenian National Congress (ANC) of former President Levon Ter-Petrosian, to discuss the situation over Azerbaijan’s war for Nagorno-Karabakh. The closed meeting was also reportedly focused on the strategy of defending Karabakh and convened on the “need for national unity.” A similar meeting was held on October 11 with the three parties represented in the Armenian parliament, including senior lawmakers from the government’s ruling “My Step” bloc and the two parliamentary opposition parties, Bright Armenia and Prosperous Armenia. Armenian Foreign Minister Zohrab Mnatsakanyan also attended each of the meetings and presented an update on the diplomatic situation.
New Constitutional Court Chairman elected
In a vote on October 12, members of the recently reconstituted Armenian Constitutional Court elected Justice Arman Dilanyan as the new chairman of the court. The move follows the adoption of controversial constitutional amendments in June that forced the ouster of the previous Court Chairman, Hrayr Tovmasyan. Those amendments effectively reconstituted the Court by also removing seven judges from the legacy Constitutional Court, which was the sole remaining holdover institution from the previous Armenian government that was replaced in the 2018 “Velvet Revolution.”
Armenia tightens martial law
The Armenian parliament approved a government proposal on October 9 to introduce tighter restrictions on the freedom of expression in accordance with the current martial law declared in the wake of the 27 September offensive against Nagorno-Karabakh. According to the measure, new restrictions would be applied to reporting by both the press and social media users on the war for Karabakh and other “security-related matters,” limiting coverage to a reliance on official sources only, and includes a ban on any “public criticism” of war-related actions or statement by government officials. Any convictions for the violation of the measures would incur harsh punishment of heavy fines and imprisonment of up to two-year incarceration.
National Security Chief fired
In a decree issued on October 8 by Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, the director of the Armenian National Security Service (NSS), Argishti Kyaramyan, was fired after serving only four months. Although the announcement of the dismissal failed to provide any reasons, 29-year-old Kyaramyan was widely seen as incompetent and his lack of any previous experience in the security sector raised serious questions over his initial appointment. The move follows an embarrassing case earlier where the previous National Security chief, Artur Vanetsyan, was dismissed in 2019 and then formed a small political party in opposition to the Pashinyan government earlier this year.
Armenia imposes ban on imports of Turkish products
The Armenian government announced on October 16 plans to ban all products and goods imported from Turkey in response to Turkish military support for Azerbaijan’s military offensive against Nagorno-Karabakh. Once adopted, the ban on Turkish goods would enter into force on January 1, 2021 for a period of six months. The ban would curtail the roughly $268 million in Armenian imports of Turkish goods, which mainly consists of about $70 million worth of clothing and machinery and other equipment worth $35 million, based on figures for last year, that enters the Armenian market through Georgia.
Armenian parliament approves increased defense spending
Amid the war for Nagorno-Karabakh, on October 7 the Armenian parliament voted unanimously to approve a government request for an increase in defense spending through the remainder of 2020. The $82-million increase would expand the current $620-million defense budget for 2020 by roughly 13%. This increase follows a similar emergency request for additional funds to be added to the budget, when the parliament approved a $310-million increase in April to fund coronavirus-related relief measures and to offset a shortfall in tax revenue from the lockdown of the economy. Finance Minister Atom Janjughazyan reported that the impact from both the COVID-19 emergency and the war over Nagorno-Karabakh will result in a further contraction of GDP, which he said is now expected to decline by at least 6.8% for 2020, with a related widening of the budget deficit to an estimated $946 million, representing about 7.4% of GDP.
Armenia Formally Requests Russian Assistance
In a letter to Russian President Vladimir Putin, publicly released on October 31, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan formally requested Russian aid to Armenia, invoking the terms of a 1997 bilateral Armenian-Russian treaty. Citing the looming threat of an expansion of warfare from Azerbaijani military attacks against Nagorno-Karabakh, Pashinyan noted the danger from both “Azerbaijani-Turkish military aggression” and the deployment by Azerbaijan of “foreign terrorist fighters” recruited by Turkey from the Middle East. By invoking the 1997 treaty, Russia is obligated to hold immediate “consultations to define the type and amount of assistance” to Armenia “to ensure its security.” In response, the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs promised that “under the treaty, Russia will render all necessary assistance” to Armenia “if military operations take place directly on the territory of Armenia.”
In a shift in Armenian policy, Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan stated on October 30 that Armenia supports the possible deployment of Russian peacekeepers to Nagorno-Karabakh, which he defined as an “optimal solution” to the intense attacks and territorial gains by Azerbaijan. He also noted, however, that such a Russian deployment must be “acceptable to all sides.”
Renewed diplomatic mediation
In the latest round of mediation on October 30 Armenian Foreign Minister Zohrab Mnatsakanian met with the French, Russian and American OSCE Minsk Group mediation co-chairs in Geneva, while his Azerbaijani counterpart Jeyhun Bayramov met the mediators in separate talks. The Geneva meeting, originally scheduled for the previous day, sought to broker a temporary ceasefire or at least a basic agreement for a brief cessation of hostilities, which both Azerbaijan and Turkey have consistently rejected. Previous attempts to halt the fighting have notably failed, with three preliminary agreements to cease firing brokered by Russia, France and the United States, having collapsed within hours, if not minutes, after taking effect on 10, 17 and 26 October, respectively.
“Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan formally requested Russian aid to Armenia, invoking the terms of a 1997 bilateral Armenian-Russian treaty”
Iran engages diplomatically
On October 29 Armenian Foreign Minister Zohrab Mnatsakanian met in Yerevan with visiting Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi, who arrived after visiting Baku and Moscow. The Iranian official presented a rough mediation proposal seeking to suspend the fighting over Karabakh, although no details of the Iranian plan were released.
A woman stands outside a shelter in the city of Stepanakert
Photo: Aris Messinis/AFP