Tuesday, Privileged Healthcare Sought For Armenian PM, Family • Gayane Saribekian Armenia - Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian inspects new medical equipment installed at the Surb Grigor Lusavorich Medical Center in Yerevan, July 26, 2021. Armenia’s National Security Service (NSS) has drafted legislation that would require the government to provide “personal doctors” to Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian, parliament speaker Alen Simonian and members of their families. An Armenian law on “individuals subject to special state protection” has until now guaranteed such privileged healthcare only for the president of the republic and his family. The NSS wants to extend the government-funded privilege to the two other officials. The security agency circulated a relevant bill on Monday days after Pashinian’s government reportedly stopped paying for medical services provided to ordinary citizens by public and private hospitals. According to news reports, the Armenian Ministry of Health attributed the drastic measure to a lack of public funds resulting from an increased number of people seeking free surgeries and other essential treatment. Opposition politicians and other government critics denounced the NSS bill, saying that it makes mockery of Pashinian’s past promises to establish social justice and equality in the country. “Three years ago Nikol Pashinian was saying that there are three million prime ministers in Armenia,” said Anna Grigorian, a parliament deputy from the opposition Hayastan bloc. “But that is still not manifested in any way. The prime minister has extensive powers now, and you can see how just big his security detail is.” Grigorian told RFE/RL’s Armenian on Tuesday that the extra privilege sought for him is all the more unethical now that Armenia is continuing to grapple with serious national security challenges after last year’s war in Nagorno-Karabakh. Hayk Mamijanian, another opposition lawmaker representing the opposition Pativ Unem bloc, speculated that the NSS bill may be aimed at deflecting public attention from those challenges. He said Pashinian and Simonian “must have the morality and the will to renounce that privilege” and redirect government funding required for it to low-income Armenians in urgent need of medical aid. Yerevan residents randomly interviewed by RFE/RL’s Armenian Service echoed the opposition criticism. “If ordinary people cannot be treated at the state’s expense why should they have such privileges?” said one woman. “Are they better than ordinary people?” “This was done covertly in the past. Now they want to legalize that,” complained a man. Hrachya Hakobian, a pro-government parliamentarian and Pashinian’s brother-in-law, defended the proposed measure which appears to enjoy government backing. Hakobian argued that Armenia’s presidents and their families have never been criticized for having personal doctors paid by the state. The prime minister and the parliament speaker must not be denied the same right, he said. Gazprom Chief Visits Armenia Armenia - Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian (R) meets with Gazrprom Chairman Alexei Miller, Yerevan, . Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian described Gazprom as Armenia’s “strategic energy partner” as he met with the visiting chairman of the Russian natural gas giant, Alexei Miller, on Tuesday. The Armenian government’s press office gave few details of their talks held in Yerevan. In a statement, it cited Pashinian as saying that the government is committed to deepening its “mutually beneficial cooperation” with Gazprom, Armenia’s principal supplier of natural gas. The statement said Miller briefed Pashinian on his company’s “investment and social programs” in the country. “The interlocutors discussed the state of Russian-Armenian cooperation in the area of energy and prospects for its development,” it added without elaborating. Gazprom issued an even shorter statement on the meeting. It said the two men discussed “key issues” of that cooperation. It was not clear if the price of Russian gas supplied to Armenia was on the agenda of the talks. Gazprom raised it by 10 percent, to $165 per thousand cubic meters, in January 2019 and has kept it unchanged since then. Yerevan urged the Russians last year to cut the wholesale price, arguing that that global energy prices have collapsed because of the coronavirus pandemic. Pashinian raised the matter with Russian President Vladimir Putin. But they failed to reach any agreements. International energy prices have rallied strongly this year amid renewed economic growth around the world. In June, Gazprom raised its average gas export price for European countries to $240 per thousand cubic meters. The Reuters news agency reported that spot prices in the Dutch TTF gas hub reached as much as $800 per thousand cubic meters on Tuesday amid low levels of underground gas storage in Europe. Head Of Armenian Judicial Watchdog Denies Illicit Enrichment • Naira Nalbandian Armenia - Gagik Jahangirian, the acting head of the Supreme Judicial Council, speaks in the National Assembly, . A former prosecutor heading Armenia’s judicial watchdog insisted on Tuesday that expensive properties belonging to him and his relatives are not the result of their illicit enrichment or other corrupt practices. Also, Gagik Jahangirian again denied allegations that he is pressuring courts to allow arrests of opposition members and make other decisions sought by the Armenian government. Jahangirian, who is widely regarded as a figure loyal to the government, was installed by Armenia’s former parliament as a member of the Supreme Judicial Council (SJC) in January. The supposedly independent body nominates judges, monitors their integrity and can also dismiss judges. In April, the SJC chairman, Ruben Vartazarian, was controversially suspended and charged with obstruction of justice after Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian’s political allies accused him of encouraging courts to free arrested government critics. Vartazarian denies the accusations. He has said the authorities ordered the criminal proceedings to replace him with Jahangirian. The latter was named as acting head of the SJC pending the outcome of the criminal investigation. In recent months Armenian courts have approved virtually all arrest warrants issued by law-enforcement authorities for opposition figures prosecuted on various charges rejected by them as politically motivated. Three of those oppositionists were arrested after being elected to the current parliament in June. Jahangirian faced tough questions opposition lawmakers on Tuesday as he appeared before the National Assembly to present the SJC’s candidates for a vacant seat in Armenia’s Court of Cassation. They accused him of pressuring and intimidating judges. He denied that. Armenia - Aregnaz Manukian of the opposition Hayastan alliance speaks during a session of the National Assembly, Yerevan, . Aregnaz Manukian, a deputy from the main opposition Hayastan bloc, also grilled Jahangirian about the origin of his family’s expensive properties. She specifically challenged him to explain how he had managed to build a villa in one of Yerevan’s richest neighborhoods while working as a senior prosecutor earning a relatively modest salary. Jahangirian said the villa currently rented by the Iraqi Embassy in Armenia is “very modest” compared to surrounding mansions. “May the Iraqi Embassy staff forgive me for working in such bad conditions,” he said. Jahangirian claimed that he built the villa with proceeds from the sale of another house where he and his family lived until 2003. He said he had built that three-story house in the center of Yerevan after selling in 1989 the family’s 3-bedroom apartment located in a city suburb. Manukian was unconvinced. “You are one of the lucky few to have managed to sell a 3-bedroom apartment and build a huge house in the famous Yerevan neighborhood,” she said with sarcasm. Jahangirian also appeared to confirm the opposition lawmaker’s claim that his son acquired a luxury apartment in downtown Yerevan, worth over $600,000, after he took over the SJC in April. But he linked the acquisition to the fact that that the latter is married to a daughter of Khachatur Sukiasian, a wealthy businessman and parliamentarian representing Pashinian’s Civil Contract party. “That apartment block was built by a brother of my in-law Khachatur Sukiasian,” he said. “So they [the Sukiasian brothers] either gave or did not give that money. I have no idea. Ask them.” Jahangirian announced in early August that the judicial watchdog has drafted legislation aimed at “purging” courts of “people who have committed crimes against justice.” The 66-year-old official himself was accused by civic groups of covering up crimes and committing human rights abuses when he served as Armenia’s chief military prosecutor from 1997-2006. France Starts COVID-19 Vaccine Shipments To Armenia Armenia - Armenian and French officials stand next to the first shipment of coronavirus vaccines donated to Armenia by France, Yerevan, . Armenia received on Tuesday the first batch of coronavirus vaccines donated to it by France. The 25,000 doses of the Oxford/AstraZeneca jab were delivered to Yerevan’s Zvartnots airport and handed over to the Armenian Ministry of Health in the presence of French diplomats. French President Emmanuel Macron touted the shipment on his Twitter and Facebook pages. Macron cited his August 3 pledge to provide 200,000 doses of vaccines to Armenia. “The rest of the deliveries will continue tomorrow and in the weeks to come in coordination with the Armenian authorities,” read a statement released by the French Embassy in Yerevan. “France stands with Armenia in dealing with the pandemic.” Armenia received earlier this month 187,000 and 27,500 doses of the same vaccine from Belgium and Lithuania respectively. The donations are significant for the country of about 3 million where only about 336,000 vaccine shots were administered as of September 12. Fewer than 122,000 of its residents have been fully vaccinated since the launch of the Armenian government’s immunization campaign in April, according to the Ministry of Health. The campaign has been seriously hampered by widespread vaccine hesitancy. In a bid to accelerate it, Health Minister Anahit Avanesian decided late last month to require virtually all public and private sector employees refusing vaccination to take coronavirus tests twice a month at their own expense. Avanesian defended last week the unpopular measure effective from October 1. She said Armenians not complying with it should not only face heavy fines but also risk losing their jobs. The daily number of officially confirmed coronavirus cases in Armenia has been slowly but steadily rising since June. The Ministry of Health reported on Tuesday morning 657 new cases and 21 coronavirus-related deaths. 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.