Thursday, Yerevan Rejects Criticism From European Center-Right Umbrella Group • Sargis Harutyunyan Armenia-- Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian and European Council President Donald Tusk walk in downtown Yerevan after their meeting on July 10, 2019. Armenia’s political leadership hit back on Thursday at the head of a coalition of Europe’s center-right parties who accused it of suppressing political opponents and rolling back democracy. Donald Tusk, the president of the European People’s Party (EPP), tweeted on Wednesday that the pan-European umbrella group is “concerned by numerous instances of backsliding of democracy in Armenia.” “We call on Armenian authorities to refrain from pressuring the opposition,” he wrote without specifying any of those instances. In a separate tweet, Tusk also said that the EPP will support the implementation of Armenia’s Comprehensive and Enhanced Partnership Agreement (CEPA) with the European Union signed in 2017. Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian clearly responded to Tusk when he chaired a weekly session of his cabinet the following day. “There are bodies that told Armenia to fight against corruption, vote buying and electoral fraud for 30 years,” said Pashinian. “Now that a real fight is underway they are saying, ‘Why are you suppressing the opposition?’ Because corrupt individuals [who were in power] for 30 years are now in opposition.” “I have the impression that they are trying to tie our feet and hands and telling us not to do anything,” he said. A close Pashinian associate, deputy parliament speaker Alen Simonian, went further, accusing Tusk of meddling in Armenia’s internal affairs and siding with former President Serzh Sarkisian. “I think that Mr. Tusk sees Armenia through the eyes of Serzh Sarkisian,” charged Simonian. “Eyes that are detached from reality.” Sarkisian’s Republican Party of Armenia (HHK) is affiliated with the EPP, as are most of Europe’s major conservative and centrist parties, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats. The EPP has had the biggest representation in the European Parliament for the past 20 years. Belgium -- Former European Council President Donald Tusk (R) and former Armenian President Serzh Sarkisian meet in Brussels, March 5, 2020. Tusk, who headed the EU’s top decision-making body from 2014-2019, voiced the criticism after a video conference with leaders of the EPP parties, including Sarkisian. Sarkisian strongly criticized the current Armenian authorities when he addressed the conference from Yerevan. He accused them of populism, “inept” governance and undemocratic practices. The former Armenian president also slammed the Pashinian administration when he spoke at an EPP congress in Croatia last November. He was charged with corruption two weeks later. Sarkisian continued to reject the charges as politically motivated when he went on trial in late February. Despite the trial, he was allowed to visit Brussels and meet with Tusk and other European politicians in early March. Sarkisian, 65, faced opposition allegations of vote rigging and corruption when ruled Armenia from 2008-2018. He resigned amid Pashinian-led mass protests sparked by his attempt to extend his decade-long rule. Tusk criticized Yerevan one day after the Armenian parliament allowed law-enforcement authorities to arrest and prosecute Gagik Tsarukian, the leader of its largest opposition faction, on vote buying charges. Tsarukian rejects the charges as government retribution for his recent calls for Pashinian’s resignation. Pashinian insisted on Wednesday that the criminal proceedings against the wealthy leader of the Prosperous Armenia Party are not politically motivated. Former Armenian President Granted Bail • Naira Bulghadarian Armenia -- Former President Robert Kocharian greets supporters during his trial, Yerevan, February 25, 2020. Armenia’s Court of Appeals ordered on Thursday that Robert Kocharian be released from prison on bail pending the outcome of the ongoing trial of the former president facing coup and corruption charges denied by him. Anna Danibekian, a district court judge presiding over the trial, again refused to grant Kocharian bail or free him on health grounds on May 13. His lawyers appealed against both decisions. The Court of Appeals overturned one of those decisions over prosecutors’ objections. It set a 2 billion-dram ($4.2 million) bail for the release of the man who ruled Armenia from 1998-2008. Kocharian personally assured the court on Wednesday that he will not go into hiding or obstruct justice if set free. “Had I been a fleeing person, I would not have had such a biography in the first place,” he said. The prosecution insisted, however, that Kocharian could obstruct justice and should therefore remain under arrest. They said they will challenge in the Court of Appeals ruling in the higher Court of Cassation. Kocharian’s lawyers welcomed the ruling. But one of them, Aram Vartevanian, questioned the “unprecedented” amount of the bail set by a Court of Appeals judge, Arsen Nikoghosian. Vartevanian would not say whether his client can pay the hefty sum. Kocharian said in the courtroom on Wednesday that his assets remain frozen and that he can only use his children’s properties as bail collateral. His lawyers told the court afterwards that 700 million drams worth of such assets belonging to his younger son Levon and daughter Gayane could be used for this purpose. The 65-year-old ex-president has been kept in a Yerevan hospital since undergoing another surgery there in late April. Last month another court allowed him to stay there until the end of the coronavirus pandemic. Armenia’s Penitentiary Service appealed against that decision. Kocharian was held in Yerevan’s Kentron jail prior to his hospitalization. His lawyers have insisted in recent months that the COVID-19 pandemic is another reason why he should be freed. Law-enforcement authorities have dismissed those demands, saying that his chances of catching the disease at Kentron are minimal. Kocharian, his former chief of staff and two retired army generals went on trial more than a year ago on charges mostly stemming from the 2008 post-election unrest in Yerevan. The ex-president also stands accused of bribery. He rejects all accusations leveled against him as politically motivated. COVID-19 Continues To Spread In Armenia • Marine Khachatrian Armenia -- A medical worker wearing protective gear is seen outside the Grigor Lusavorich Medical Center in Yerevan on June 9, 2020. The new coronavirus is continuing to spread in Armenia despite its government’s intensifying efforts to make people practice social distancing and wear face masks, Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian said on Thursday. “We are not succeeding in lowering [infection] numbers and we know the reason for that,” he said. “The reason is that the anti-epidemic rules are not widely followed, and we have to use increasingly tougher administrative methods for the purpose of [greater] compliance with the anti-epidemic rules.” The Armenian Ministry of Health reported earlier in the day that the number of confirmed coronavirus cases rose by 665 to almost 18,700 in the past 24 hours. It is sharply up from about 9,500 cases that were recorded as of June 1. The ministry also reported the deaths of 9 more people infected with COVID-19. It said the virus was the primary cause of seven of those deaths. The official death toll from the epidemic thus rose to 309. According to the health authorities, 101 other infected citizens have died from other, pre-existing diseases. Speaking at a cabinet meeting in Yerevan, Health Minister Arsen Torosian warned that the authorities are struggling to keep up with the continuing spread of the disease. Torosian argued that the number of new coronavirus infections is growing faster than that of new hospital beds made available for COVID-19 patients. In particular, he said, although the total number of intensive-care beds has risen by over 30 percent in the last two weeks virtually all of them are occupied now. Armenia -- A medical worker drinks water at the yard of the Grigor Lusavorich Medical Center in Yerevan, June 9, 2020 According to Pashinian, the authorities believe that there are also “tens of thousands of asymptomatic cases” in the country of about 3 million. All Armenians should therefore treat each other as potential carriers of the virus, said the premier. Pashinian said that unprotected people gathering in neighborhood courtyards or visiting each other’s homes in Yerevan and other large communities are “the main source of infections.”“Here too we should step up our administrative enforcement measures even if our resources are limited,” he told ministers. Pashinian already announced on Tuesday that the authorities will double the number of special teams tasked with ensuring that citizens wear face masks in public and observe social distancing when queuing up outside various offices. In a related move, the government decided to require Armenians to carry passports or other IDs when leaving their homes. Torosian suggested that a tougher enforcement of those rules alone would not remedy the situation. “No matter how much we beef up police forces I can’t imagine a [more effective] tool than relying on people’s consciousness,” said the minister. Critics of the Armenian government are skeptical about the effectiveness of the strategy advocated by Torosian. They argue that the spread of the virus accelerated significantly after the government began easing lockdown restrictions in mid-April. Pashinian and other senior government officials have repeatedly spoken out against a renewed nationwide lockdown. The premier insisted earlier this week that even such a drastic measure would not end the coronavirus crisis in the absence of greater public awareness of the health risks. 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.