Thursday, Government Wants New Judges For Arrests, Corruption Cases Armenia -- A court building in Yerevan, June 9, 2020. The Armenian government formally approved on Thursday a proposal to hire new judges who would deal only with corruption cases or pre-trial arrests of criminal suspects sought by law-enforcement authorities. A relevant bill drafted by the Ministry of Justice calls for the selection of up to 21 such judges for Armenian courts of first instance. Three other new judges specializing in arrests or corruption-related offenses would be appointed to the Court of Appeals. “The increase in the number of judges would shorten criminal and judicial proceedings,” Justice Minister Rustam Badasian said during a cabinet meeting chaired by Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian. Badasian said it would also result in “more objective” court rulings on arrest warrants demanded by investigators. In recent months Armenian judges have refused to allow law-enforcement bodies to arrest dozens of opposition leaders and members as well as other anti-government activists. Virtually all of those individuals are prosecuted in connection with angry protests sparked by the Pashinian administration’s handling of the autumn war in Nagorno-Karabakh. Pashinian charged last month that Armenia’s judicial system has become part of a “pseudo-elite” which is trying to topple him after the disastrous war. Badasian likewise accused judges of routinely acting in a “non-objective” manner. Ruben Vartazarian, the chairman of the Supreme Judicial Council overseeing the Armenian judiciary, rejected the criticism. Some critics of the Armenian government have already expressed concern over its plans to install magistrates tasked with allowing or blocking pre-trial arrests. They claim that the government wants to make sure that courts stop hampering politically motivated investigations ordered by it. Pashinian insisted on Thursday that the bill is part of his administration’s stated efforts to make the judiciary more independent and effective. He said that the new judges would undergo thorough “integrity checks” during the selection and appointment process. Moscow Denies Pashinian’s Claims On Karabakh Peace Plan Armenia -- Igor Popov, the new Russian co-chair of the OSCE Minsk Group, visits Yerevan, 28Apr2010. Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian has misrepresented proposals to resolve the Nagorno-Karabakh jointly made by Russia, the United States and France, according to a senior Russian diplomat. Igor Popov, the Russian co-chair of the OSCE Minsk Group, has specifically denied Pashinian’s claims that the three mediating powers pressured the Armenian side to give seven districts around Karabakh back to Azerbaijan and offered it nothing in return. Pashinian repeatedly criticized their peace proposals during and after the recent war with Azerbaijan. He dismissed critics’ arguments that he could have prevented the disastrous war by accepting the proposals based on the so-called Madrid Principles of a Karabakh settlement, which were first put forward by the U.S., Russian and French mediators in 2007. In a January 4 article, Pashinian claimed that the most recent version of the peace plan drafted by Russia and backed by the two other co-chairs of the OSCE Minsk Group amounted to a proposed “surrender of lands” to Azerbaijan “in return for nothing.” He said it left open the key question of Karabakh’s status. Popov bluntly denied that in written comments posted on the Russian Foreign Ministry’s website on Wednesday. He argued that under the Minsk Group plan Karabakh’s population would be able to determine the disputed territory’s internationally recognized status in a future legally binding referendum. Popov also stressed that the plan tied Armenian withdrawal from two of the seven districts, Lachin and Kelbajar, to the determination of Karabakh’s status. “Therefore, the claims that Russia proposed [the Armenians] to return the seven districts ‘for nothing,’ forget about the status and calm down do not correspond to reality,” he said. “Neither the Armenian nor the Azerbaijani side rejected these proposals, even though a full agreement [between the two sides] was never reached. But the bottom line is that negotiations were held on a regular basis up until 2018 when Yerevan came up with new approaches,” Popov added in another jibe at Armenia’s current leadership. Austria -- Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian greets the U.S., Russian and French co-chairs of the OSCE Minsk Group before talks with Azerbaijan's President Ilham Aliyev, Vienna March 29, 2019. Pashinian and his office declined on Thursday to comment on Popov’s extraordinary remarks. Foreign Minister Ara Ayvazian acknowledged in that regard that Moscow has never neglected the issue of Karabakh’s status. “I definitely agree with Mr. Popov in that Artsakh’s status has been and remains the most important aspect of the conflict’s resolution,” he told reporters. Asked about the clear contradiction between Pashinian’s and Popov’s statements, Ayvazian said: “I don’t comment on the prime minister’s statements and other comments which are often taken out of context.” Meanwhile, Armenian opposition figures -- and former President Serzh Sarkisian’s political allies in particular -- seized upon Popov's statement to again denounce Pashinian's policies on the Karabakh conflict. Armen Ashotian, the deputy chairman of Sarkisian’s Republican Party (HHK), said Popov branded the Armenian prime minister a liar. In Ashotian’s words, the Russian mediator also effectively accused Pashinian of torpedoing the Karabakh peace process and paving the way for the autumn war won by Azerbaijan. The Azerbaijani army recaptured four of the seven districts which had been occupied by Karabakh Armenian forces in the early 1990s. Baku agreed to stop its military operations on November 10 in return for an Armenian pledge to withdraw from the three other districts. The Armenian opposition blames Pashinian for the defeat and demands his resignation. The latter rejects these demands. Armenian Minister Reports 8.5% GDP Drop In 2020 • Sargis Harutyunyan Armenia -- Workers rebuild a road in Gegharkunik province, Juy 4, 2020. Armenia’s economy shrunk by 8.5 percent in 2020 after three consecutive years of robust growth, Economy Minister Vahan Kerobian said on Thursday. Kerobian estimated that the country’s exports and imports as well as domestic consumption were down by a combined 20 percent. He gave no further macroeconomic data. The Armenian government’s Statistical Committee reported last month that the volume of trade and services plunged by more than 13 percent in January-November 2020. The committee has not yet released a full-year GDP growth figure. It reported earlier that the Armenian economy contracted by 14 percent in the second quarter and by over 9 percent in the third quarter of 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic. The Central Bank of Armenia forecast in mid-September a full-year GDP decline 6.2 percent. The economic situation in the country worsened further following the ensuing outbreak of the war in Nagorno-Karabakh stopped by a Russian-brokered ceasefire on November 10. Armenia -- Armenian Economy Minister Vahan Kerobian attends a cabinet meeting in Yerevan, . “My optimism regarding the economy hasn’t changed,” Kerobian told reporters after a cabinet meeting in Yerevan. “Double-digit economic growth remains my target.” Kerobian, who was appointed as minister in late November, did not specify when he thinks Armenia can achieve such growth. Speaking during the cabinet meeting, Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian said: “I want to wish us success so that we can properly fulfill our duties in this difficult period and get the country out of the crisis. To this end we need to make special efforts.” In its 2021 state budget approved by the Armenian parliament, Pashinian’s government projected a GDP growth rate of 3.2 percent for this year. The International Monetary Fund expects the Armenian economy to expand by only 1 percent in 2021. The IMF said last month that the country’s growth prospects are “contingent upon the anticipated global recovery and domestic reform implementation.” Reprinted on ANN/Armenian News with permission from RFE/RL Copyright (c) 2021 Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty, Inc. 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.