Tuesday, Armenian Tech Sector Keeps Up Rapid Growth Armenia - Workers at a tech company based in the Engineering City in Yerevan, August 22, 2018. Armenia’s technology sector is continuing to grow rapidly despite the coronavirus pandemic that has plunged the country into recession, Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian said on Tuesday. Pashinian cited government data which shows the sector’s combined turnover increasing by 24 percent year on year, to $176 million, in the first half of this year. He said the number of officially registered tech workers rose to 16,442 from 14,533 in the year-earlier period. Many of them work for local subsidiaries of U.S. tech giants like Synopsys, National Instruments, Mentor Graphics and VMware. A growing number of other information technology (IT) engineers are employed by Armenian startups and other homegrown firms. “The number of companies active in the sector rose by 11 percent, from 1,007 to 1,118,” Pashinian added in a Facebook post. Armenia -- Young people at the annual Digitec Expo exhibition in Yerevan, October 6, 2018. The official figures contrast sharply with Armenia’s overall macroeconomic performance in 2020. Its economy contracted by about 14 percent in the second quarter of the year after growing by almost 4 percent in the first quarter. The decline followed a nationwide lockdown imposed by the Armenian government in March. Citing the continuing coronavirus crisis, the country’s Central Bank forecast last week a full-year GDP fall of 6.2 percent. The Armenian tech industry dominated by software firms has been growing at double-digit annual rates for more than a decade, making it the fastest-growing sector of the national economy. It expanded by about 30 percent in 2019. Industry executives say a shortage of skilled personnel is what prevents its even faster growth. They have long complained about the inadequate quality of education at information departments of Armenian universities. Many of their students require additional training after graduation. Tsarukian Denies Secret Ties To Russia • Astghik Bedevian Armenia -- Prosperous Armenia Party leader Gagik Tsarukian attends a parliament session, Yerevan, March 24, 2020. Prosperous Armenia Party (BHK) leader Gagik Tsarukian denied through a spokeswoman on Tuesday secret collaboration with Russian implicitly alleged by a Russian opposition group. The Moscow-based Dossier Center, which is financed by exiled former Russian oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, listed Tsarukian last week among possible Russian “agents of influence” who it said are overseen by a senior Kremlin official. The official, Vladimir Chernov, is a retired intelligence general who heads a department on “interregional and cultural ties with foreign countries” in Russian President Vladimir Putin’s administration. In an article posted on its website at the weekend, the Dossier Center revealed what it described as details of the department’s shadowy operations in Armenia. In particular, it claimed that Chernov’s office promotes Russian propaganda and sponsors local pro-Russian opposition figures and pundits hostile to Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian. The website published relevant documents allegedly leaked to the opposition group. They include purported confidential correspondence between Chernov’s subordinates and their Armenian contacts striving for regime change in Armenia. Dossier also posted a photocopy of Tsarukian’s passport which it claimed to have obtained from the Kremlin division. The copy fuelled media speculation in Yerevan about Tsarukian’s unpublicized ties to Russia. Hrachya Hakobian, a pro-government lawmaker and Pashinian’s brother-in-law, bluntly suggested on Tuesday that the BHK leader might be a Russian agent. “In terms of his activities, I wouldn’t say that I noticed any fishy things,” said Hakobian. “But the very fact that [a copy of] his passport ended up, according to the Dossier Center, in a Kremlin drawer is quite suspicious and nothing should be ruled out.” Tsarukian’s spokeswoman, Iveta Tonoyan, categorically ruled out such a possibility. “I would urge Mr. Hakobian to keep his internal fears and concerns to himself,” she told RFE/RL’s Armenian service. Tonoyan insisted that she does not know how the Kremlin could have gotten hold of the copy of Tsarukian’s passport. Armenia’s National Security Service (NSS) should find that out instead of “looking for enemies inside the country,” she said, referring to controversial criminal proceedings launched against the BHK leader in June. NSS Director Argishti Kyaramian told reporters on Monday that his agency is already looking into the Dossier article. He said vaguely that the inquiry might expose Armenian “names and surnames along with their passports and signatures.” Tsarukian is known as a strong supporter of Armenia’s close ties with Russia. The BHK, which is Armenia’s largest parliamentary opposition force, signed a memorandum of cooperation with the ruling United Russia party last year. Armenian Opposition Parties Schedule First Joint Rally • Ruzanna Stepanian Armenia -- The Armenian Revolutionary Federation party holds a rally in Yerevan's Liberty Square, May 23, 2019. The Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutyun) and two other opposition parties led by embattled businessman Gagik Tsarukian and former National Security Service Director Artur Vanetsian announced on Tuesday that they will hold a joint anti-government rally on October 8. In a joint statement, Dashnaktsutyun, Tsarukian’s Prosperous Armenia Party (BHK) and Vanetsian’s Hayrenik (Fatherland) party accused the government of having “failed everywhere” and endangering the country’s “development prospects.” They cited “the need for the formation of a new kind of national government.” The statement did not clarify whether they will demand the immediate resignation of Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian and his government. BHK spokeswoman Iveta Tonoyan said the three parties will soon shed more light on the purpose of their first rally that will be held in Yerevan’s Liberty Square. “For the moment we are noting the fact that there is a great deal of public discontent [with the government] and that these three political forces are providing an opportunity to make that voice heard,” she said. Vanetsian has repeatedly called for regime change in recent months. Tsarukian, whose party has the second largest group in Armenia’s parliament, likewise demanded Pashinian’s resignation in June. He accused the government of mishandling the coronavirus crisis and its socioeconomic consequences. Armenia - Gagik Tsarukian arrives for a court hearing on his pre-trial arrest sought by prosecutors, Yerevan, June 17, 2020 The three parties agreed to work together in challenging the government shortly after Tsarukian was stripped of his parliamentary immunity from prosecution and charged with buying votes later in June. The tycoon rejects the accusations as politically motivated. Representatives of Pashinian’s My Step bloc seemed undaunted by what could be the biggest opposition rally in Armenia since the 2018 “Velvet Revolution” that brought Pashinian to power. One of them, Ruben Rubinian, insisted that most Armenians continue to trust the ruling political team that won over 70 percent of the vote in parliamentary elections held less than two years ago. “I believe that these three political forces will never manage to mobilize serious [popular] support,” Rubinian told reporters. “They can look for reasons for that in their past, present and elsewhere.” The BHK, Dashnaktsutyun and Hayrenik will not be joined by Bright Armenia (LHK), the second opposition party represented in the National Assembly. LHK leader Edmon Marukian made clear that his party has no intention to campaign for snap general elections. He said it hopes to topple the current government as a result of regular polls due in 2023. “In order for there to be pre-term parliamentary elections, 200,000 to 300,000 people have to take to the streets and occupy this [parliament] building,” said Marukian. “There is no other way of dissolving this parliament.” Armenia - Artur Vanetsian speaks to RFE/RL, Yerevan, September 1, 2020. Tsarukian’s BHK and Marukian’s LHK won 8.3 percent and 6.4 percent of the vote respectively in the last elections held in December 2018. Dashnaktsutyun got only 3.9 percent, failing to win any parliament seats. Dashnaktsutyun and the BHK had for years been represented in Armenia’s former government toppled during the 2018 uprising. They joined Pashinian’s first cabinet formed in May 2018 but were ousted from it five months later when Pashinian accused them of secretly collaborating with the former ruling Republican Party. As for Hayrenik, Vanetsian set up the party early this year several months after falling out with the prime minister and resigning as National Security Service director. Vanetsian told his loyalists last week that Hayrenik will be playing a key role in “very serious political developments” which he said will unfold in Armenia very soon. Arrest Warrant Issued For Serzh Sarkisian’s Son-In-Law • Robert Zargarian Armenia-Former Armenian Ambassador to the Vatican Mikael Minasian. A court in Yerevan approved on Tuesday an arrest warrant against Mikael Minasian, former President Serzh Sarkisian’s fugitive son-in-law facing corruption charges strongly denied by him. Armenia’s State Revenue Committee (SRC) moved to arrest Minasian in late April one month after charging him with illegal enrichment, false asset disclosure and money laundering. A Yerevan court of first instance allowed the arrest in early May. The decision was overturned by the Court of Appeals a month later, however. The SRC responded by broadening the criminal charges leveled against Minasian. It said that he had also failed to declare his “de facto” ownership from 2012-2018 of a 49 percent stake in Armenia’s largest food-exporting company. Nevertheless, investigators were rebuffed by a lower court in early July. The SRC is understood to have further expanded the case against Minasian before making yet another attempt to secure permission to arrest him. A court judge agreed to the demand this time around. A spokesman for the Office of the Prosecutor-General, Gor Abrahamian, welcomed the ruling. He said it allows Armenian law-enforcement authorities’ to seek Minasian’s extradition. Minasian’s lawyers did not immediately react to the ruling. They said earlier that their client is a victim of “political persecution” overseen by the Armenian government. Armenia - President Serzh Sarkisian (L) and his son-in-law Mikael Minasian during a joint public appearance in Yerevan, 07Nov2009. Minasian enjoyed considerable political and economic influence in Armenia when it was ruled by Sarkisian from 2008-2018. He is also thought to have developed extensive business interests in various sectors of the Armenian economy. A vocal critic of Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian, Minasian left Armenia shortly after he was dismissed as ambassador to the Vatican in late 2018. He has so far declined to reveal his place of residence. According to some media reports, the 42-year-old currently lives in Russia. Earlier this year, Minasian posted on Facebook a series of lengthy video addresses to Armenians accusing Pashinian of corruption and misrule. For his part, Pashinian has repeatedly accused the ex-president’s son-in-law of illegally making a huge fortune during Sarkisian’s rule. Another law-enforcement body, the Special Investigative Service (SIS), is conducting a separate corruption inquiry relating to Minasian. The probe stems from the 2010 privatization of a hydroelectric plant in northern Armenia. The DzoraHEK plant was sold to a company reportedly controlled by Minasian for 3.6 billion drams ($7.5 million). Prosecutors say that the 26-megawatt facility was in fact worth 8 billion drams ($16.8 million). 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.