Monday, November 27, 2023 Russia Tightens Border Controls For Armenian Trucks November 27, 2023 • Narine Ghalechian • Shoghik Galstian RUSSIA - Cars and heavy trucks are lined up near the Upper Lars border crossing with Georgia, November 21, 2023. Hundreds of Armenian trucks were stuck at the main Russian-Georgian border crossing on Monday after Russia reportedly tightened import and export controls on them amid its unprecedented tensions with Armenia. Truck drivers said that the Russian customs service is subjecting them to stricter sanitary and other checks, causing long lines of the heavy vehicles on both sides of the Upper Lars crossing vital for the Armenian economy. “I’m stuck at Lars for a second day,” one driver told RFE/RL’s Armenian Service. “There is a problem with paperwork. It’s not just me but also other Armenian trucks.” “According to our information, several trucks have already returned [to Armenia] and about 200 others are waiting in line,” Garnik Danielian, an opposition parliamentarian, wrote on Facebook. Deputy Economy Minister Arman Khojoyan confirmed that Russian customs officers have turned away some of the Armenian trucks carrying goods for the Russian market. But he did not give any numbers. “As the head of the State Revenue Committee told me yesterday, it’s not that they are turning away all goods or entire categories of goods,” he told reporters. “We also have cargo crossing the border.” Khojoyan would not say whether he believes there is a political reason for the stricter border checks introduced by the Russians. RUSSIA -- An Armenian truck passes through the newly expanded Upper Lars border crossing with Georgia, June 21, 2023. Artur Khachatrian, another Armenian opposition lawmaker, suggested that Moscow is retaliating against Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian’s decision to boycott last week’s Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) summit in Minsk which highlighted a significant deterioration of Russian-Armenian relations. “I think that Russia is sending certain messages [to Yerevan],” said Khachatrian. “Let’s acknowledge that this is not accidental.” The truck driver, who did not want to be identified, also felt that he and his Armenian colleagues remain stuck at Upper Lars because of the tensions between Moscow and Yerevan. “The [Armenian] government picked a fight with the Russians and the Russians are now retaliating in this way,” he said. Russia is Armenia’s leading trading partner, accounting for more than one-third of the South Caucasus nation’s foreign trade. It has long been the main export market for Armenian agricultural products, prepared foodstuffs and alcoholic drinks. The total volume of Russian-Armenian trade, mainly carried out through Upper Lars, has skyrocketed since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the resulting barrage of Western sanctions against Moscow. Armenian entrepreneurs have taken advantage of those sanctions, re-exporting various goods manufactured in Western countries to Russia. This explains why Armenian exports to Russia nearly doubled to $2.6 billion in January-September this year. Yerevan Won’t Rule Out CSTO Exit November 27, 2023 • Shoghik Galstian Belarus - The presidents of Russia and other CSTO member states meet in Minsk, November 23, 2023. Armenia could leave the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) due to the Russian-led alliance’s reluctance to openly support it in the conflict with Azerbaijan, a leading member of the ruling Civil Contract party said on Monday. Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian also did not rule out such a possibility on Friday one day after boycotting a summit of the leaders of Russia and other CSTO member states held in Minsk. He again accused the CSTO of not honoring its security obligations to Armenia. “There is a defined situation in which we would definitely leave [the CSTO,]” Gevorg Papoyan, the deputy chairman of Civil Contract’s governing board, told journalists. “We don’t have that situation yet.” “But there is also a situation where we would definitely participate in those [CSTO] meetings. There is no such situation either,” he said, alluding to an effective freeze on Armenia’s participation in the alliance’s activities. Papoyan did not specify those “situations.” Nor did he say if Pashinian’s government wants to obtain security guarantees from Western powers before officially reorienting Armenia’s towards the United States and the European Union. The Russian Foreign Ministry accused Yerevan of planning such a reorientation in late September as tensions between the two longtime allies rose further following Azerbaijan’s military offensive in Nagorno-Karabakh which Moscow did not prevent, stop or even condemn. In recent months, Pashinian has repeatedly said that the alliance with Russia cannot guarantee Armenia’s national security. His refusal to attend the CSTO summit in Minsk stoked speculation about the South Caucasus state’s imminent exit from the alliance. Alen Simonian, the Armenian parliament speaker and another senior Civil Contract member, said last week that he will not attend an upcoming session of the CSTO’s Parliamentary Assembly. CSTO Head Downplays Armenian Boycott Of Summit November 27, 2023 Armenia - CSTO Secretary General Imangali Tasmagambetov at a meeting with Armenian Defense Minister Suren Papikian, Yerevan, March 16, 2023. The secretary general of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) on Monday downplayed Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian’s refusal to attend last week’s summit of the leaders of ex-Soviet states making up the Russian-led military alliance. Imangali Tasmagambetov, who is due to visit Yerevan soon, claimed that Pashinian did not fly to Minsk for the summit last Thursday for merely “technical” reasons. “In my view, it makes no sense to draw any categorical conclusions from this situation,” Tasmagambetov told the TASS news agency. “Armenia was and remains our ally.” Pashinian’s boycott of the summit highlighted his government’s mounting tensions with the other CSTO member states and Russia in particular. Pashinian on Friday again accused the CSTO of not honoring its security commitments to Armenia. What is more, he did not rule out the possibility of eventually pulling his country out of his alliance. Speaking on the eve of the Minsk summit, the Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, Maria Zakharova, said that Pashinian’s administration is planning a “radical change” of Armenia’s traditional geopolitical orientation at the behest of Western powers. The ministry had earlier accused it of “ruining” Russian-Armenian relations. For his part, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov dismissed over the weekend the criticism of the CSTO voiced by Pashinian as well as other Armenian leaders. Peskov expressed hope that Yerevan will soon resume its “full-fledged participation in the organization.” Earlier this year, Armenia also refused to participate in CSTO military exercises and boycotted a meeting of the defense ministers of the bloc’s member states. Armenian Authorities Seek To Dispossess Tsarukian November 27, 2023 • Naira Bulghadarian Armenia - Prosperous Armenia Party leader Gagik Tsarukian speaks at an election campaign rally in Aragatsotn province, June 15, 2021. The Armenian authorities have moved to confiscate hundreds of millions of dollars worth of assets belonging to Gagik Tsarukian, one of Armenia’s richest men leading a major opposition party. The assets include the largest of Tsarukian’s companies and about 90 properties owned by him or members of his family. The authorities are also seeking to seize over 86 billion drams ($213 million) in revenue generated by them. All this may well account for most of the vast fortune made by the tycoon since the early 1990s. The Office of the Prosecutor-General announced late last week that it has asked an Armenian court to approve the seizures in accordance with a controversial law that allows the authorities to confiscate assets deemed to have been acquired illegally. It said the court has already agreed to freeze them pending a verdict in the case. A statement released by the law-enforcement agency did not publicize any evidence in support of its claims that Tsarukian and his family have amassed their wealth illegally. The tycoon’s lawyers were quick to reject the claims and insist that “the origin of Gagik Tsarukian’s assets is illegal.” “There is weighty evidence of that, which will be presented to the court and the Office of the Prosecutor-General as soon as possible,” they said in a statement. The lawyers declined to comment further when contacted by RFE/RL’s Armenian Service at the weekend. It thus remained unclear whether they see any political motives behind the case. Armenia -- Prosperous Armenia Party leader Gagik Tsarukian arrives for a court hearing on his pre-trial arrest, September 25, 2020. Tsarukian is the founding leader of the opposition Prosperous Armenia Party (BHK) that had the second largest group in the country’s former parliament. It challenged Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian and demanded his resignation even before the 2020 war in Nagorno-Karabakh. Tsarukian was charged with vote buying and arrested in September 2020 just days before the outbreak of the war. The BHK leader, who rejected the accusations as politically motivated, was freed on bail one month later. Like other opposition groups, the BHK blamed Pashinian for Armenia’s defeat in the six-week war and tried to topple him. It failed to win any parliament seats in snap general elections held in June 2021. Tsarukian has kept a low profile since then. The law invoked by the prosecutors allows them to seek asset forfeiture in case of having “sufficient grounds to suspect” that the market value of an individual’s properties exceeds their “legal income” by at least 50 million drams ($100,000). Armenian courts can allow the nationalization of such assets even if their owners are not found guilty of corruption or other criminal offenses. Over the past two years the prosecutors have petitioned courts to dispossess dozens of former officials, including ex-Presidents Serzh Sarkisian and Robert Kocharian, and their relatives. So far there have been no court verdicts in any of those cases. Tsarukian is apparently the first person who risks losing his assets despite having never held any executive posts in government. Armenia - A screenshot from an Aravot.am report on expensive property acquisitions by current Armenian officials, March 15, 2023. Pashinian has repeatedly portrayed the law in question as a major anti-corruption measure that will help his administration recover “wealth stolen from the people.” Opposition figures counter, however, that Pashinian is simply keen to suppress dissent and cement his hold on power. In November 2021, opposition lawmakers appealed to the Constitutional Court to declare the law unconstitutional. They said that it contradicts articles of the Armenian constitution guaranteeing the presumption of innocence and property rights. The court, dominated by judges installed by the current government, has still not ruled on the appeal. Also, Pashinian is facing growing media allegations that members of his entourage themselves are enriching themselves or their cronies. In February this year, the prime minister publicly urged senior officials to sue publications “falsely” accusing them of illicit enrichment. In March, hackers hijacked the YouTube channel of an Armenian newspaper just as it was about to publish a video report detailing expensive property acquisitions by several senior government officials and pro-government lawmakers. Reposted on ANN/Armenian News with permission from RFE/RL Copyright (c) 2023 Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty, Inc. 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.