Thursday, Armenian Health Minister Warns Of Jump In COVID-19 Deaths • Astghik Bedevian Armenia -- A COVID-19 patient and a medic at the intensive care unit of Surp Grigor Lusavorich hospital, Yerevan, May 10, 2020. (A photo by the Armenian Mnistry of Health) The number of people dying from coronavirus could rise sharply if the highly infectious disease continues to spread rapidly in Armenia, Health Minister Arsen Torosian warned on Thursday. Torosian’s ministry reported 335 new COVID-19 infections in the morning, raising the total number of cases to 5,606. It also said that three more people died from the virus in the past day. The official death toll from the epidemic thus reached 70. It does not include the deaths of 27 other people infected with the virus. The health authorities claim that those fatalities were primarily caused by other, pre-existing diseases. “There have been 70 deaths in the country,” Torosian told a news conference. “Imagine if there were 120, 150 or 200 deaths every day. Such a scenario cannot be ruled out if we fail to contain the spread of the virus.” “If we have 5,600 cases today, at this rate [of new infections] we will have 11,200 cases within 15 days,” he said. “So our challenge is to break this tempo.” Torosian was particularly worried about a possible shortage of intensive care beds at the Armenian hospitals treating COVID-19 patients. There are a total of 203 such beds available at the moment and 131 of them are already occupied by patients in serious or critical condition, he said. The minister further announced that starting from Friday the authorities will have to stop hospitalizing or isolating infected people who show mild symptoms of the virus or none at all. Such individuals, who account for more than 70 percent of all cases, will be told to self-isolate at home. Asymptomatic patients currently kept in hospitals or hotels turned into temporary medical care centers will also be sent home. Armenia -- Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian chairs a cabinet meeting, Yerevan, May 21, 2020. “Regarding the coronavirus pandemic, our situation is not good,” Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian grimly stated during a cabinet meeting held earlier in the day. While not ruling out renewed lockdown restrictions in Armenia, Pashinian said that his government should continue for now to put the emphasis on the “individual responsibility” of every citizen. Pashinian has repeatedly said that the success of the fight against the virus primarily hinges on the extent to which Armenians will practice social distancing and take other precautions recommended by the health authorities. Critics have responded by accusing him of trying to dodge responsibility for the authorities’ lax enforcement of stay-at-home orders and failure to contain the epidemic. As part of a nationwide lockdown imposed in late March, the Armenian government seriously restricted people’s movements and ordered the closure of most nonessential businesses. It began relaxing these restrictions already in mid-April. The daily numbers of confirmed COVID-19 infections in the country have steadily increased since then. For the first time since the outbreak of the coronavirus crisis Pashinian and members of his government wore face masks during a cabinet meeting. As the prime minister explained: “Citizens have correctly noted, including on social media, that if wearing masks inside buildings is mandatory, then why is this rule not respected during government meetings?” New Karabakh Leader Inaugurated • Sargis Harutyunyan Nagorno-Karabakh -- Ara Hatutuinian is sworn in as new president, Shushi, May 21, 2020 Businessman Ara Harutiunian was sworn in as Nagorno-Karabakh’s new president on Thursday more than one month after winning a presidential election condemned by Azerbaijan. Harutiunian described Karabakh and Armenia as “inseparable parts of a united national homeland” when he spoke during the inauguration ceremony held in the town of Shushi and attended by Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian. “Artsakh (Karabakh) is Armenia. Period!” he declared, echoing a controversial statement made by Pashinian in Stepanakert last August. Harutiunian served as Karabakh’s prime minister from 2007-2017. He has extensive business interests in the region which had broken away from Azerbaijan in 1991. The 46-year-old cruised to a comfortable victory in the second round of the presidential ballot held on April 14 amid concerns about the spread of coronavirus in Karabakh. His main challenger, outgoing Foreign Minister Masis Mayilian, had urged supporters to boycott it because of those concerns. Mayilian said after the runoff that the official vote results “have no significance whatsoever” for his political team. Nevertheless, he chose to attend Harutiunian’s inauguration. Nagorno-Karabakh -- A voter casts ballots at a polling station in Stepanakert, March 31, 2020. The first round of voting was held on March 31. Karabakh Armenians also elected their new parliament on that day. Harutiunian’s Free Fatherland bloc won 16 of the 33 parliament seats, falling just short of a parliamentary majority. Four other political groups will also be represented in the new Karabakh legislature. A Harutiunian ally, Artur Tovmasian, was elected its speaker earlier on Thursday. Azerbaijan strongly condemned the Karabakh polls, saying that they run counter to Azerbaijani and international law. It also said that that Karabakh is governed by an “illegal regime installed by Armenia.” U.S., Russian and French diplomats co-heading the OSCE Minsk Group stressed, for their part, that Karabakh is not recognized as an independent state by the international community and that “the so-called general elections” cannot predetermine the outcome of Armenian-Azerbaijani peace talks mediated by them. By contrast, Armenia defended the holding of the elections. It cited a 1992 OSCE document saying that “elected representatives of Nagorno-Karabakh” should also participate in the peace process. Nagorno-Karabakh -- A football pitch for children and an Armenian church in Shushi (Shusha), September 6, 2018. The Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry also condemned the inauguration ceremony and Pashinian’s participation in it. “The war is not yet over, and Azerbaijan reserves the right to restore its territorial integrity within its internationally recognized borders by all necessary means,” it said in a statement released on Wednesday. Anna Naghdalian, the Armenian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, rejected Baku’s “war threats,” saying that they cannot influence the Armenian position on the unresolved conflict and “democratic processes taking place in Artsakh.” On Monday, the Azerbaijani military began five-day exercises which it said will involve around 10,000 soldiers, hundreds of tanks and artillery systems, and dozens of warplanes and helicopters. The Armenian Defense Ministry warned it against trying to “move military hardware and personnel close to the Armenian border or the Line of Contact with Nagorno-Karabakh.” Yerevan Insists On Lower Russian Gas Price • Sargis Harutyunyan Armenia -- Deputy Prime Minister Mher Grigorian speaks at at the TUMO Center for Creative Technologies, Yerevan, January 21, 2020. The Armenian government will keep pressing the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) to create a single energy market which would lower the cost of Russian natural gas imported by Armenia, Deputy Prime Minister Mher Grigorian said on Thursday. Grigorian insisted that “the issue is not closed” despite objections publicly voiced by Russian President Vladimir Putin earlier this week. “I think that we will continue our attempts to solve that issue in the EEU framework through a joint legal act,” he told RFE/RL’s Armenian service in an interview. Grigorian said Moscow has signaled its readiness for a compromise deal on the issue. He did not elaborate. The gas price is currently significantly lower for consumers in Russia than other members of the Russian-led trade bloc. Two of them, Armenia and Belarus, say this puts their manufactures reliant on gas in a disadvantaged position vis-à-vis their Russian competitors. Hence, their demands for uniform EEU energy tariffs. Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian insisted on this idea during a video conference with the presidents of Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan held on Tuesday. Putin rejected it, however, implying that Yerevan and Minsk should agree to even deeper economic integration with Moscow before pushing it. Grigorian made clear that neither the Armenian side nor the EEU as a whole is prepared for such integration which would lead what Putin described as a “single budget and system of taxation” for all EEU member states. He said it would also raise questions about Armenia’s “sovereignty.” The Armenian and Belarusian governments say that Moscow should cut the prices of gas delivered to their countries also because of the recent coronavirus-related collapse in global energy prices. For the same reason, Yerevan urged Russia’s Gazprom giant in late March to cut its wholesale gas price for Armenia. It hopes that such a discount would at least prevent a sizable increase in internal Armenian gas prices sought by Armenia’s Gazprom-owned gas distribution network. The Gazprom Armenia network argues that they have remained unchanged since Gazprom raised its wholesale tariff by 10 percent in January 2019. The gas operator has incurred major losses as a result. Armenian utility regulators are due to decide by June 17 whether to allow the price hike. “I have the impression that there are many possibilities of ensuring that gas does not become more expensive for the population [of Armenia] at this point,” Grigorian said in this regard. “You should consider this a mere impression or opinion because it would be inappropriate if I spoke [definitively] of solutions now.” Armenian Government Softens Stance On Constitutional Court • Karlen Aslanian Armenia -- Constitutional Court Chairman Hrayr Tovmasian reads out a court ruling, Yerevan, March 17, 2020. Armenia’s political leadership no longer insists on replacing most members of the Constitutional Court and is ready to settle for a less radical change in the court’s composition, a senior lawmaker said on Thursday. For almost a year, Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian’s administration has pressured seven of the court’s nine judges to step down. Pashinian has accused them -- and chief justice Hrayr Tovmasian in particular -- of maintaining close ties to the country’s former government and impeding judicial reforms. Tovmasian and opposition figures have dismissed these claims, saying that Pashinian is simply seeking to gain control over the court. With all seven judges refusing to quit, the ruling political team decided in February to hold a referendum on its bid to oust them. The referendum slated for April 5 was subsequently postponed because of the coronavirus pandemic. Pashinian indicated last week that it will not be held anytime soon. Meanwhile, his justice minister, Rustam Badasian, asked the Venice Commission of the Council of Europe to help the Armenian government end its standoff with the high court. Armenia -- Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian (L) and Constitutional Court Chairman Hrayr Tvomasian at a meeting in Yerevan, May 25, 2018. According to Ruben Rubinian, the pro-government chairman of the Armenian parliament committee on foreign relations, the government is specifically seeking Venice Commission advice on an alternative solution to the “constitutional crisis.” It essentially boils down to ensuring that no Constitutional Court judge can serve for more than 12 years. Such term limits were set by amendments to the Armenian constitution which took effect in April 2018. However, the former authorities made sure that they do not apply to those judges who were installed prior to that. The latter can therefore retain their positions until reaching retirement age. The solution suggested by the government would eliminate this transitional provision through constitutional changes that would be passed by the Armenian parliament. It would lead to the immediate resignation of only two judges who had taken the bench in the mid-1990s. Two other Constitutional Court members would have to resign in 2022. Under the proposed scenario revealed by Rubinian, Tovmasian would have to resign only as head of the country’s highest court and would remain one of its nine judges. The next chairman would be chosen by the majority of those judges for a six-year term. “This is basically what the solution is all about,” Rubinian told RFE/RL’s Armenian service. “Naturally, it also presupposes our cooperation with our international partners and the Venice Commission in the first instance. It is in this context that the justice minister sent questions to the Venice Commission.” The government expects to receive the commission’s response already next month. Rubinian implied that in case of a positive reaction from Strasbourg the government will move to enact relevant constitutional amendments through the parliament controlled by Pashinian’s My Step bloc. Reprinted on ANN/Armenian News with permission from RFE/RL Copyright (c) 2020 Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty, Inc. 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.