Friday, Armenian Parliament Approves Community Enlargement • Karine Simonian Armenia - Deputies from the ruling Civil Contract party preside over parliamentary hearings on a controversial enlargement of Armenia's communities sought by the government, Yerevan, September 22, 2021. In a move strongly condemned by its opposition minority, the National Assembly approved on Friday a controversial government proposal to merge the vast majority of Armenian cities and villages into much bigger communities. A government bill passed by lawmakers will turn 441 existing communities into 38 administrative units that will resemble districts. Armenia will have a total of 79 communities, including the capital Yerevan, as a result. Most of the current communities already consist of multiple villages and/or small towns consolidated by the former Armenian government. The current government has opted for a further community consolidation, saying that it will make local self-government and budgetary spending on communities more efficient. Minister of Territorial Administration and Infrastructures Gnel Sanosian defended the measure during a parliament debate. He said government experts have concluded that good governance and socioeconomic development is highly problematic in rural communities with fewer than 3,000 residents. Sanosian assured their residents that every small Armenian village will retain its administration subordinate to the wider community leadership. “No settlement in Armenia will be liquidated or renamed,” he said. Many elected community heads are strongly opposed to the consolidation. The country’s two main opposition groups have also denounced it as arbitrary and unfounded. Lawmakers representing them walked out of the parliament at the start of Friday’s debate in protest against what they called an unconstitutional bill. Hayk Mamijanian of the opposition Pativ Unem bloc claimed that the government is pushing through the bill to get rid of elected local officials affiliated with or sympathetic to opposition parties. Government officials have denied any political reasons for the community enlargement. Armenian Speaker’s Brother Wins Government Contracts • Naira Nalbandian Armenia- Speaker Alen Simonian chairs a session o f the National Assembly, Yerevan, September 13, 2021 A road construction company run by parliament speaker Alen Simonian’s brother has won in the last few months two government contracts worth $1.4 million, raising suspicions of a conflict of interest and even corruption. The investigative publication Hetq.am revealed this week that the relatively small firm called EuroAsphalt won a recent government tender for paving rural roads around Aparan, a small town in Armenia’s central Aragatsotn province. It signed a relevant contract with the local government on September 19 after pledging to carry out the road works for 287 million drams ($595,000). In June, EuroAsphalt was contracted by the Armenian Ministry of Territorial Administration and Infrastructures to repair country roads in northwestern Shirak province. The repairs were supposed to cost the state 386 million drams. EuroAsphalt had an authorized capital of just over $100 when it was founded by two little-known individuals in 2018. Simonian’s brother Karlen became its executive director early this year. Karlen Simonian also manages another construction company called EuroAsphalt-1. It was registered in February 2021 and was worth 140 million drams at the time. Deputy Prime Minister Suren Papikian, who served as minister of territorial administration until recently, insisted on Thursday that EuroAsphalt won the two contracts as a result of transparent and fair tenders, rather than its chief executive’s government connection. “If people have information about corruption schemes, let them make it public, for God’s sake,” said Papikian. Civic activists see a cause for concern, however. Varuzhan Hoktanian of the Armenian affiliate of the anti-corruption watchdog Transparency International said that the integrity of tenders won by individuals linked to state officials has long been in serious doubt in Armenia. He said an Armenian Finance Ministry division in charge of state procurements must therefore scrutinize the contracts granted to EuroAsphalt. “When such tenders are won with amazing consistency by relatives or cronies of state officials there are corruption risks involved,” agreed Artur Sakunts, a veteran human rights campaigner. “This must definitely become a subject of investigation.” Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian for years alleged corrupt practices in the administration of tenders won by such individuals when he was in opposition to Armenia’s former governments. He claimed to have eliminated “systemic corruption” in the country after coming to power in 2018. Alen Simonian is a close associate of Pashinian. A spokeswoman for the parliament speaker told RFE/RL’s Armenian Service on Friday that he will not comment on his brother’s business activities for now. She said at the same time that he is ready to answer questions submitted in writing. Simonian also raised eyebrows when he appointed a businessman and friend of his as chief of the Armenian parliament staff days after becoming its speaker in August. The businessman, Vahan Naribekian, owns a company supplying furniture to the National Assembly and various government and law-enforcement agencies. According to Hetq.am, the company has won 148 supply contracts since the 2018 regime change. Karabakh Conflict Unresolved, Insists Armenia • Astghik Bedevian Nagorno Karabakh -- Pedestrians walk past a poster bearing a flag of Nagorno-Karabakh in Stepanakert on November 24, 2020, Official Yerevan dismissed on Friday Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev’s fresh claim that Azerbaijan ended the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict with its victory in the six-week war stopped by a Russian-brokered ceasefire last November. “The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is a thing of the past,” Aliyev declared on late on Thursday, addressing a session of the UN General Assembly. “Azerbaijan no longer has an administrative-territorial unit called Nagorno-Karabakh,” he said, adding that the international community should stop using the Armenian-populated territory’s name. “The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict remains unresolved,” countered Armen Grigorian, the secretary of Armenia’s Security Council. “The issue of Nagorno-Karabakh’s status still awaits a solution and we see that solution within the framework of the OSCE Minsk Group.” The U.S. ambassador to Armenia, Lynne Tracy, has repeatedly made similar statements in recent weeks. “We do not see the status of Nagorno-Karabakh as having been resolved,” Tracy insisted on September 13 in remarks condemned by the Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry. Aliyev ruled out on July 22 any negotiations on Karabakh’s status, saying that Yerevan must instead recognize Azerbaijani sovereignty over the disputed territory. Later in July, the U.S., Russian and French diplomats co-chairing the Minsk Group issued a joint statement calling for a “negotiated, comprehensive, and sustainable settlement of all remaining core substantive issues of the conflict.” They said the conflicting parties should resume talks “as soon as possible.” The Karabakh issue was on the agenda of Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s talks with his French counterpart Jean-Yves Le Drian held on Thursday on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly. According to the Russian Foreign Ministry, the two men reaffirmed their governments’ intention to continue to strive for “stabilizing the situation in Nagorno-Karabakh, first and foremost in the OSCE Minsk Group format.” Le Drian also met separately in New York with Armenian Foreign Minister Ararat Mirzoyan. Yerevan Still Hopeful About Turkish-Armenian Rapprochement • Sargis Harutyunyan Armenia -- Armen Grigorian, the secretary of the Security Council, at a news conference in Yerevan, . The Armenian government still hopes to normalize Armenia’s relations with Turkey despite apparent preconditions set by Ankara, a senior official in Yerevan said on Friday. Armen Grigorian, the secretary of Armenia’s Security Council, said Yerevan is ready to start a Turkish-Armenian “dialogue without preconditions” and discuss all thorny issues during a “gradual” normalization process. Grigorian did not explicitly deny that Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian offered earlier this month to meet with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. “We believe that a dialogue at a high and the highest levels is one of the ways of normalizing those relations,” he told reporters. Erdogan claimed last week to have received the offer from Pashinian through Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili. He appeared to make such a meeting conditional on Armenia agreeing to open a transport corridor that would connect Azerbaijan to its Nakhichevan exclave. In his earlier comments on Yerevan’s overtures to Ankara, Erdogan cited Azerbaijan’s demands for a formal Armenian recognition of Azerbaijani sovereignty over Nagorno-Karabakh. Asked about the apparent Turkish preconditions, Grigorian said: “The Armenian side has stated on numerous occasions … that relations with Turkey should be normalized without preconditions because whenever there are preconditions it’s hard to make progress on any issue. So we hope that the normalization of relations will be without preconditions.” Armenian opposition leaders have denounced what they see as Pashinian’s secret overtures to Erdogan. They say that Ankara continues to make the establishment of diplomatic relations with Yerevan and the opening of the Turkish-Armenian border conditional on a Nagorno-Karabakh settlement favorable to Baku. Turkey provided decisive military assistance to Azerbaijan during the six-week war in Karabakh stopped by a Russian-brokered ceasefire last November. 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.