Thursday, September 16, 2021 Azeri Roadblock No Big Deal, Says Armenian Minister September 16, 2021 • Gayane Saribekian Armenia -- Armenian Economy Minister Vahan Kerobian attends a cabinet meeting in Yerevan, January 14, 2021. Economy Minister Vahan Kerobian downplayed on Thursday the significance of a roadblock which Azerbaijan has set up on the main highway connecting Armenia with Iran to check and tax Iranian vehicles. A 21-section of the highway passes through Armenian-Azerbaijani border areas along Armenia’s southeastern Syunik province also bordering Iran. The Armenian government controversially ceded it to Azerbaijan following last year’s war in Nagorno-Karabakh. Azerbaijani officers manning a checkpoint set up there on Sunday continued to demand hefty payments from Iranian truck drivers stopped by them. Many of those drivers remained reluctant to pay what Baku calls road taxes. More than a hundred Iranian trucks transporting cargos to and from Armenia were reportedly stranded at the road section on Thursday. Analysts in Yerevan regard the Azerbaijani roadblock as a serious blow to Armenia’s trade and wider transport links with Iran. They also point out that roughly one-third of Armenia’s foreign trade is carried out through the Islamic Republic. Kerobian dismissed these concerns and accused the Armenian media of needlessly “dramatizing” the situation. “I know the composition of trade with Iran very well and don’t think that there is a big problem,” he told reporters. “Of course there has emerged an obstacle. But I am confident that this obstacle will be overcome in the very near future.” Speaking after attending a weekly session of Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian’s government, the minister pointed to the ongoing reconstruction of an alternative Syunik road bypassing the Armenian-Azerbaijani border zone. Deputy Prime Minister Suren Papikian told other journalists on Thursday that the roadwork will not be complete before next spring. It remained unclear what other solutions, if any, the government might try to find until then. Pashinian suggested on Wednesday that Baku’s actions are aimed at pressuring Yerevan to open a transport corridor that would connect Azerbaijan to its Nakhichevan exclave through Syunik. But he stopped short of condemning the road checks or demanding an end to them. Meanwhile, it emerged that Iran’s ambassador to Azerbaijan met with a senior aide to Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev on Wednesday for the second time in three days. Azerbaijani news agencies reported that the meeting focused on the road crisis. The Iranian ambassador in Yerevan, Abbas Badakhshan Zohouri, met with Armenian parliament speaker Alen Simonian on Thursday. A statement by the parliament’s press office said the two men discussed, among other things, “efforts to resolve the situation” on the Armenia-Iran highway. It did not elaborate. Head Of New Armenian Anti-Corruption Body Appointed September 16, 2021 • Sargis Harutyunyan Armenia -- The head of the Special Investigation Service, Sasun Khachatrian, holds a press conference in Yerevan, September 11, 2018. The Armenian government on Thursday appointed a long-serving senior law-enforcement official as head of a newly established agency tasked with investigating corruption cases. The Anti-Corruption Committee (ACC) will inherit most of its powers from divisions of four Armenian law-enforcement bodies that have long prosecuted corruption-related crimes. One of them, the Special Investigative Service (SIS), will be dissolved after the ACC starts operating in full next year. The ACC will be headed by Sasun Khachatrian, the SIS chief until now. He was nominated for the post by a government commission that declared him the winner of a job contest organized by it. Speaking during a cabinet meeting in Yerevan immediately after his appointment, Khachatrian expressed confidence that the new agency will increase the efficiency of the government’s fight against corruption. He said the ACC will start operating by the end of October and will finally take shape “in the course of next year.” Khachatrian, 44, worked as a senior prosecutor under Armenia’s former governments and was appointed as SIS chief shortly after Nikol Pashinian came to power in 2018. Pashinian has repeatedly claimed to have eliminated “systemic corruption” in Armenia since then. The SIS and other law-enforcement agencies have launched dozens of high-profile corruption investigations mainly targeting former senior state officials, including ex-Presidents Robert Kocharian and Serzh Sarkisian. Supporters of Kocharian and Sarkisian, who now lead major opposition alliances, as well as other critics of Pashinian say that most of those corruption cases are based on dubious charges and aimed at boosting the prime minister’s popularity, rather than the rule of law. They have accused Khachatrian of acting on Pashinian’s orders. The outgoing SIS chief again denied executing such orders earlier this week. Cash-Strapped Government Limits Free Healthcare In Armenia September 16, 2021 • Narine Ghalechian Armenia - A newly built hospital in Vanadzor, November 10, 2018. Citing a lack of public funds, the Armenian government has largely stopped paying for major medical services provided by hospitals to a large part of the country’s population. Armenia does not have a national system of health insurance and its citizens have to pay for surgeries and other treatment at not only private but also state-run hospitals. The current and previous governments have paid medical bills of various categories of the population, notably young children and socially vulnerable patients, through funds allocated to the hospitals. Some 1.3 million Armenians are eligible for such assistance. Armenian media outlets have reported in recent weeks, that they are now increasingly denied free treatment on the grounds that hospitals have already run out of government money allocated for this year. The Ministry of Health has effectively confirmed that, citing a major increase in the number of people seeking free surgeries and other essential treatment. Health Minister Anahit Avanesian said on Wednesday that the hospitals must now draw up waiting lists of patients that need to be operated on or undergo expensive medical examinations. One woman, who did not want to be identified, claimed to have been told by a hospital that it can no longer treat her underage child suffering from a serious chronic disease for free until December 2022. “What if my child’s health condition deteriorates during that time?” she told RFE/RL’s Armenian Service. She said she cannot afford to pay around 100,000 drams ($200) for every visit to hospital doctors. An opposition lawmaker, Aregnaz Manukian, said she has received similar complaints from many other citizens. She raised the matter with Avanesian during the government’s question-and-answer in the parliament on Wednesday. “You must find budgetary funds to fully solve the problem,” Manukian told the health minister before asking: “Is the government taking steps to rectify this disgraceful situation?” Avanesian replied that people in need of urgent medical aid will continue to enjoy free healthcare. She said the government is also continuing to cover the cost of cancer surgeries and other procedures and has allocated 550 million drams ($1.1 million) for that purpose. “Also, an additional 2 billion drams has been allocated for medical aid provided to military personnel and members of their families,” added the minister. One woman suffering from cancer said, however, that a Yerevan hospital has told her that she will have to pay for her next course of chemotherapy. “That should be followed by surgery, but I don’t know whether or not it will be free,” said the woman, who also spoke with RFE/RL’s Armenian Service on the condition of anonymity for fear of upsetting the hospital management. 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.