Wednesday, March 31, 2021 Pashinian Installs New Senior Security Official March 31, 2021 • Sargis Harutyunyan Armenia -- The main entrance to the National Security Service headquarters in Yerevan. Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian has installed a 31-year-old judge as a deputy director of Armenia’s National Security Service (NSS). President Armen Sarkissian formalized Andranik Simonian’s appointment with a decree signed on Wednesday. Simonian has been a judge of the court of first instance of the country’s northern Lori province since June 2020. He previously worked as a prosecutor in Yerevan. Some Armenian media outlets said the presidential decree initiated by Pashinian is a prelude to Simonian’s appointment as director of the NSS. The prime minister’s office did not comment on the media speculation. Pashinian has replaced five heads of Armenia’s most powerful security service since coming to power less than three years ago. Two of them, Argishti Kyaramian and Mikael Hambardzumian, were fired during last fall’s war with Azerbaijan. Kyaramian, 29, was sacked after four months in office, while Hambardzumian served as acting head of the NSS for only one month. The latter was replaced by the current NSS director, Armen Abazian, in November. Hambardzumian and another former NSS director, Artur Vanetsian, are now outspoken critics of Pashinian. Vanetsian also leads a political party which is affiliated with an opposition alliance trying to oust Pashinian over his handling of the six-week war in Nagorno-Karabakh. Areg Kochinian, a political analyst, said the frequent changes of the NSS chiefs as well as their deputies reflect Pashinian’s “spontaneous and emotional” leadership style and “the current authorities’ terrible staffing policy.” He said they have a negative impact on the NSS’s activities. “That reflects [negatively] on the predictability of this agency for both its personnel and our partner countries,” Kochinian told RFE/RL’s Armenian Service. “It also definitely affects the effectiveness of the NSS.” Ruling Team Names Election Campaign Managers March 31, 2021 • Artak Khulian Armenia -- Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian and his political allies hold a rally in Yerevan, March 1, 2021. Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian and his political team have named four senior government officials to run their parliamentary election campaign. Deputy parliament speaker Alen Simonian, another leading Pashinian ally, said on Wednesday that Minister for Territorial Administration and Infrastructures Suren Papikian will be the ruling team’s chief campaign manager. Papikian oversees Armenia’s provincial governors and elected heads of local communities. Simonian said that Environment Minister Romanos Petrosian, the chief of Pashinian’s staff, Arsen Torosian, and a senior aide to the prime minister, Arayik Harutiunian, will also play a major role in the campaign for snap elections expected in June. All four officials are senior members of Pashinian’s Civil Contract party, the dominant component of the ruling My Step bloc that won 70 percent of the vote in the last general elections held in December 2018. Armenia -- Minister of Territorial Administration and Infrastructure Suren Papikian speaks at a news conference in Yerevan, February 26, 2020. Simonian told reporters that Pashinian and his party have not yet decided whether to preserve My Step, form a new electoral alliance or participate in the elections on their own. Asked whether new figures could join the ruling team ahead of the polls, he said: “I cannot name any names. But nor can I exclude that there will be new people on our list.” Pashinian announced on March 18 plans to dissolve the current Armenian parliament and hold the elections on June 20 amid continuing opposition protests against his rule. He has since toured two Armenian provinces to hold rallies in about a dozen local villages. Opposition leaders say Pashinian has effectively launched his election campaign in breach of Armenian law and is abusing his government levers in a bid to hold on to power. “It is clear that Pashinian has used and will use all [government] resources at his disposal to do well in the race,” said Gevorg Gorgisian of the opposition Bright Armenia Party. Simonian dismissed the opposition allegations of foul play. He insisted that Pashinian’s rallies in Armavir and Aragatsotn provinces did not amount to illegal campaigning. “The Armenian authorities are now in the most disadvantaged position because they have not only moral but also legal obligations,” he claimed. “They don’t have the kind of financial resources that the opposition has now. The Armenian opposition is now much wealthier and more competitive in terms of resources than the current authorities.” World Bank Expects Slow Economic Recovery In Armenia March 31, 2021 Armenia -- Workers rebuild a road in Gegharkunik province, Juy 4, 2020. Armenia’s economy will return to growth this year after contracting by 7.6 percent in 2020 mainly because of the coronavirus pandemic, according to the World Bank. “GDP growth is projected to recover partially in 2021 (to 3.4 percent) and more strongly in 2022 (4.3 percent). The recovery will be slow; the economy is unlikely to return to pre-COVID output levels until 2023,” the bank said in its latest Economic Update for Europe and Central Asia released late on Tuesday. “Private consumption and the services sector are expected to recover gradually. Private investment will likely remain subdued, reflecting weak investor confidence,” added the report. The Armenian government has forecast a similar growth rate for 2021. However, the country’s Central Bank said on March 17 that the domestic economy will likely expand by only 1.4 percent. Data from the government’s Statistical Committee shows that GDP continued to shrink in January and February 2021. The World Bank cautioned that its growth projections are a “baseline scenario” which assumes that Armenia will avoid coronavirus-related lockdowns and further political upheavals. “The risks to the outlook are weighted heavily to the downside,” it said, adding that they include a “slow pace of immunization” of the population and “elevated political uncertainty.” “Although the pace of vaccinations will gradually ramp up, the authorities do not expect to vaccinate a significant share of the population until 2022,” read the report. The bank also noted the pandemic’s “severe” impact on low-income Armenians, saying that poverty in the country increased considerably in 2020. “The unemployment rate rose by 1 percentage point year on year, reaching 18.1 percent at end-September 2020,” it said. Armenian Minister Resigns After Assault March 31, 2021 • Narine Ghalechian Armenia -- Minister of High-Tech Industry Hakob Arshakian speaks at a press conference in Yerevan, December 18, 2019. Armenia’s Minister of High-Tech Industry Hakob Arshakian announced his resignation on Wednesday almost two weeks after assaulting a journalist at a restaurant in Yerevan. “As a citizen of the Republic of Armenia, I find it unacceptable for an official to use violence against any citizen,” he wrote on his Facebook page. Arshakian referred to a violent incident at the restaurant where he dined with his wife on March 18. Footage from a security camera publicized afterwards showed him hitting Paylak Fahradian, the editor of the Irakanum.am news website, in the face and damaging his laptop computer. The assault reportedly occurred moments after Fahradian approached Arshakian and asked him to explain why he is not at work. The video sparked an uproar from Armenian journalists and media associations. Some of them demanded the minister’s resignation. Law-enforcement authorities pledged to investigate the assault. The Special Investigative Service told RFE/RL’s Armenian Service on Wednesday it has yet to decide whether to prosecute Arshakian. In his first reaction to the incident, Arshakian implicitly accused Fahradian of violating his privacy but said he is ready to bear responsibility for his actions. He later apologized to the journalist. Rumors about Arshakian’s resignation began circulating on Wednesday morning. A spokeswoman for Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian pointedly declined to refute them. Arshakian confirmed his resignation in the afternoon. “I am thereby expressing my intolerance towards both physical and psychological violence,” he said. “I hope that the incident will serve as a lesson for our society and that we will love each other and respect everyone’s right to privacy a bit more.” Arshakian is a senior member of Pashinian’s Civil Contract party. He has held the ministerial post since October 2018. The 35-year-old also found himself in hot water earlier this year after it emerged that his ministry, which oversees the domestic defense industry, failed to properly organize Armenia’s participation in an international arms exhibition held in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The Armenian government had allocated 23 million drams ($44,000) for that purpose. Armenian defense firms displayed no items at the Abu Dhabi exhibition for at least three days. Arshakian blamed that on “logistical problems.” The Ministry of High-Tech Industry said on Tuesday that three of its officials have been formally reprimanded as a result of an internal inquiry conducted after the scandal. 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.