RFE/RL Armenian Report – 05/21/2020

                                        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
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