The Armenian government continued to face a lingering domestic political crisis, as the opposition maintained its demands for the resignation of Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan and his government and new elections. With tension rooted in Armenia’s unexpected military defeat in the war for Nagorno-Karabakh, the Armenian government finally seemed to accept the necessity of fresh elections, although Pashinyan remained defiant in refusing to resign. And despite continued tension since the forced Armenian acceptance of a Russian-imposed ceasefire, Armenia received valuable new financial assistance from the EU and the IMF to help manage the COVID-19 crisis and offset the serious economic downturn from both the pandemic and the war.
Armenian President and Prime Minister Meet to Discuss Domestic Political Crisis
In a meeting late on December 24, Armenian President Armen Sarkissian and Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan discussed the lingering political crisis in the country and focused on “the safety and defense of Armenia’s border communities” and “security challenges.” The rather rare meeting between the country’s two most senior leaders follows a recent effort by the president to broker a political compromise over his call for new elections within a year that included a series of meetings between Sarkissian and various political figures and parties. As part of his efforts to meet with leaders of the opposition, one of the president’s more controversial meetings, on December 10, was with former President Robert Kocharian, angering many observers. Seeking to surpass the inherent limits of the largely ceremonial and symbolic presidency, Sarkissian has emerged as an ambitious figure, going well beyond his advocacy for new elections by backing opposition demands for Pashinyan’s resignation, arguing that Armenia is hobbled by a “deep crisis.” In recent days, several government officials have publicly accepted the necessity for fresh elections, tending to confirm rumors of secret talks between the pro-Pashinyan “My Step” bloc and some opposition parties over the timing of an early election.
Prime Minister Clarifies Border Demarcation Issue
Speaking at a Cabinet meeting on December 24, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan stated that “there is no demarcation process on the borders of Armenia,” but rather, an adjustment to “certain border points” between Armenia and Azerbaijan. As part of the 9 November Russian-imposed agreement that halted the war over Nagorno-Karabakh, Azerbaijan regained control over several districts formerly held by Armenian forces, including parts of Karabakh itself. And after Azerbaijani forces moved into these areas, a new demarcation and delineation of the border areas between Armenia and Azerbaijan began on December 18, resulting in a dispute over two contested Armenian villages straddling the adjusted border in southern Armenia.
“Several government officials have publicly accepted the necessity for fresh elections, tending to confirm rumors of secret talks between the pro-Pashinyan “My Step” bloc and some opposition parties over the timing of an early election”
Armenia Received More EU Coronavirus Aid
On December 23, the European Union announced a fresh grant to Armenia of 24 million euros to finance Armenian efforts to combat the coronavirus pandemic. The additional aid is to specifically focus on supporting the Armenian government’s “healthcare and anti-crisis measures for vulnerable groups and businesses affected by COVID-19” and is part of a larger 92-million-euro aid package to Armenia that the EU approved in April 2020. The aid follows an earlier disbursement of roughly 60 million euros this year, which was also devoted to bolster “economic reforms, preserve jobs and small businesses and promote inclusive growth.”
IMF Approves New Loan to Armenia
In a statement released on December 12, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) announced the planned disbursement of a new $37 million loan tranche designated to help Armenia manage the coronavirus pandemic and deal with the resulting economic downturn. As part of a larger $443 million IMF Stand-By Arrangement approved in May 2020, this new loan installment brings the total amount of IMF aid to Armenia to about $332 million for this year alone. The Armenian government also plans to seek an additional $540 million in loans to offset a major decline in tax revenues and remittances and to help finance measures to overcome the pandemic. The IMF is projecting a steep economic decline of more than 7% in GDP for 2020, ending three years of consecutive growth, with meager growth of around 1% in GDP for next year.
Karabakh Official Reports on Missing Civilians
Reflecting both the urgency of the return of prisoners and the frustration over Azerbaijan’s delays in resolving the issue, Artak Beglaryan, the Human Rights Ombudsman of Karabakh, reported on December 23 that roughly 40 Karabakh civilians remain unaccounted for more than a month after the 9 November Russian-crafted ceasefire agreement halted the war over Karabakh. Beglaryan called on Azerbaijan to provide information on their fate and reiterated the pressing need for the return of all prisoners, both military and civilian. The issue was further enflamed by the recent disclosure by Azerbaijan that two elderly Karabakh civilians died in captivity after Western media outlets confirmed the authenticity of videos that documented Azerbaijani soldiers beheading the two elderly men. In a report from December 3, Human Rights Watch also names a number of similar videos of mistreatment and torture of Armenian prisoners of war, which, it argued, provided ample evidence of the “inhumane” treatment of Armenian soldiers andconfirmed that Azerbaijani soldiers “subjected these prisoners of war (POWs) to physical abuse and humiliation.”
Skirmish Erupts in Nagorno-Karabakh
Armenia criticized Azerbaijan for violating a Russian-imposed ceasefire agreement after Azerbaijani forces launched an assault on Karabakh Armenian positions in two remote villages in southern Nagorno-Karabakh on December 12. The skirmish, in which six Karabakh Armenian soldiers were wounded, triggered the deployment of Russian peacekeepers to the area, who later diffused the situation. The incident came as Armenian Defense Minister Vagharshak Harutiunyan was meeting in Moscow with his Russian counterpart Sergei Shoigu. In the days following the skirmish, a diplomatic delegation from two of the three OSCE Minsk Group mediators, France and the United States, returned to the region with meetings in Baku and Yerevan on December 14-15, seeking to begin preparations for a return to diplomatic negotiations in order to focus on stability and security in the new post-war environment.
Armenia Calls on Russia to End Travel Ban
In a statement on December 11, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan appealed to Russia to end its strict coronavirus-related entry ban on Armenian citizens. Pashinyan noted the discrepancy of the entry ban, which is not in effect for citizens of any other member state of the Russian-dominated Eurasian Economic Union (EaEU). With estimated tens of thousands of migrant workers forced to return to Armenia after Russia imposed tight lockdown restrictions in March, the travel ban has only added to the economic downturn in Armenia. The prime minister also reiterated Armenian demands calling for the creation of a single energy market that would lower the cost of Russian natural gas imported by Armenia and other EaEU members. Russia has refused the request for uniform energy tariffs for the EaEU, although Armenian consumers pay higher prices for gas than those in Russia and other EaEU states, and Russian President Vladimir Putin is demanding that Armenia and Belarus must first agree to even deeper economic integration through a “single budget and system of taxation” for all EaEU member states.
Armenia Rejects Azerbaijani Territorial Claims
In an official response to public claims by Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev on December 10 arguing that much of Armenia consists of “historical Azerbaijani lands,” Mane Gevorgyan, the spokeswoman for Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, denounced the statement as a move that only undermined regional peace and stability. The Azerbaijani president’s inflammatory claims, voiced at a military parade in Baku attended by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, were matched by equally bellicose rhetoric from Erdogan that praised Enver Pasha, one of the leading architects of the 1915 Armenian genocide. In addition to the Turkish president, nearly 3000 Turkish soldiers also marched in the Azerbaijani parade, which Erdogan hailed as “showing our unity” with Azerbaijan.
Opposition protests in Yerevan
Photo: RIA Novosti / Asatur Yesayants