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Archive for the ‘South Caucasus’ Category

Poverty-stricken Armenians pin hopes on opposition

May 03, 2018

LUSAGYUGH, Armenia (AP) — The local tax inspector would visit Alik Stepanyan’s small fishery in an Armenian mountain village every month to collect a bribe. Each time, Stepanyan would hand over 15 to 20 fish as a payoff to try to keep his business afloat. Last year, the 56-year-old farmer gave up.

“I just got angry and shut it down. I got tired of having to pay bribes,” Stepanyan said. “I hope the new government will tackle corruption and poverty which are hurting us and making our lives difficult.”

Corruption and poverty is what fed mass opposition protests in this landlocked Caucasus Mountains nation, ultimately forcing Prime Minister Serzh Sargsyan to resign. He had ruled Armenia for a decade as president. But when term limits made it impossible for him to run again, Sargsyan pushed through an amendment to the constitution making the prime minister the most powerful position in Armenia. Parliament voted for Sargsyan as prime minister last month, which was largely viewed as his attempt to stay in power indefinitely.

Tens of thousands of indignant Armenians, led by former journalist and lawmaker Nikol Pashinian, took to the streets. Sargsyan resigned on April 23 after two weeks of protest rallies in the capital, Yerevan. Pashinian, whom the opposition has nominated to become prime minister, hasn’t put forward any concrete political demands or agenda other than to topple the ruling elite, viewed by ordinary Armenians as encouraging nepotism and corruption.

But the protest leader’s slogans resonated with Armenia’s impoverished rural areas which are struggling for survival. Armenia is one of the poorest former Soviet nations. Nearly 12 percent of its population lives below the poverty line, eking out a living on as little as 1,530 drams ($3.20) a day or less.

Armenia, sandwiched between Georgia, Iran, Turkey and Azerbaijan, has relied on Russia for energy supplies and loans since the fall of the Soviet Union. Strained ties with Turkey and Azerbaijan have crippled the country’s development, making energy imports, among other things, costly.

Poverty and unemployment in Armenia are particularly visible in rural areas like the village of Lusagyugh, about 60 kilometers (35 miles) north of the capital, where farmer Stepanyan lives. Work Is scarce in this picturesque village of 900 people which is nestled at the foot of Mount Aragats, Armenia’s highest mountain. Local residents grow vegetables and raise cattle for food.

Stepanyan’s family of six gets by thanks to two cows, a vegetable patch and Stepanyan’s mother’s monthly pension of 60,000 drams ($125). Stepanyan, whose eldest daughter regularly goes to Russia for odd jobs such as cleaning or babysitting, used to travel to Russia too for upholstery work. But several years ago he got homesick and returned to the village and tried to start a business.

He was immediately approached by tax inspectors who demanded that he pay amounts that were higher than anything he could hope to make from the small fish pond that he dug out on his plot of land. Stepanyan had agreed to give the local tax inspector fish instead of cash bribes, but after several months when fish were scarce and he still had to pay the tax inspector, he decided to shut down his business.

Armenians working abroad often support several family members back home, by sending them their paychecks: remittances account for about 14 percent of Armenia’s gross domestic product. About a quarter of houses in Lusagyugh stand abandoned because villagers have left for Russia in search of work.

Samvel Zakaryan, a 20-year-old culinary student at a school in Yerevan, was in Lusagyugh recently on a break to help his family with some chores. He said five of his friends and his elder brother had gone to work in Russia because there are no job prospects in Armenia.

Zakaryan has taken part in the opposition protests in Yerevan, and supports Pashinian’s nomination. “Several generations of Armenians have been going abroad for a better life,” Zakaryan said as he poured out fodder to the rabbits and two cows, which feed the whole family. “Now we have finally begun to find confidence that we can build a better life in our country, a new Armenia that people aren’t going to flee.”

About 900,000 people who were born in Armenia, a country of 3 million, currently live abroad, according to the U.N. Population Fund. More than 10 percent of the population left the country during the decade that Sargsyan was in power.

“Emigration has served as a relief valve of sorts, providing an outlet for people’s discontent while widespread poverty has allowed Sargsyan’s clan to consolidate power,” said Ruben Megrabyan, of the Armenian Center for International Studies.

Pashinian and his supporters have focused on toppling Sargsyan and proclaimed the fight against corruption as one of their main goals, but so far haven’t offered any specific agenda to fix rampant corruption or widespread poverty.

Back in Lusagyugh, Stepanyan pins his hopes on the opposition to deliver change. “We will feel different when corruption is eradicated,” he said, sitting by a campfire. “This is what the opposition wants, and these are fair demands.”

Nataliya Vasilyeva in Moscow contributed to this report.

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Armenian protest leader urges halt in demonstrations

May 02, 2018

YEREVAN, Armenia (AP) — The opposition lawmaker who has led weeks of mass demonstrations in Armenia called Wednesday for the protests to take a break after a surprising move by the ruling party appeared to clear the way for him to become prime minister.

On a fast-moving day of turmoil that began with crowds blocking roads, railways and the airport in the capital of Yerevan, the head of the ruling Republican Party’s faction in parliament said it would vote May 8 for any prime minister candidate nominated by a third of the body’s 105 members.

That effectively promised the job to protest leader Nikol Pashinian, just one day after parliament rejected him. Pashinian told a Wednesday evening rally that his Elk party and the two other opposition factions would nominate him on Thursday. Together, those parties hold 47 seats — well over the one-third mark set by the Republicans, who will not nominate a candidate of their own.

“Armenia will have a prime minister on May 8,” Republican faction leader Vagram Bagdasarian said. In turn, Pashinian called for supporters not to protest on Thursday, saying: “Tomorrow, we will work in parliament.”

Pashinian was the only candidate nominated in Tuesday’s parliament vote for prime minister, but lost 45-55. The protests began April 13, plunging Armenia into political turmoil and leading to the resignation of Prime Minister Serzh Sargsyan just days after his appointment.

Sargsyan had led the country as president for 10 years, but stepped down because of term limits. Soon thereafter, parliament named him prime minister under a new government structure that gave the post greater powers. Protesters said the move effectively allowed him to remain as leader indefinitely.

After he lost the vote in parliament, Pashinian called for Wednesday’s nationwide strike. Earlier in the day, Pashinian warned the government not to bring troops to the capital to quell the demonstrations.

“Police and security services are neutral, and if they (government) will bring for example the army to Yerevan, all soldiers will come to us and they will join us. And there is no way for any solution by force,” he said in an interview with The Associated Press.

Acts of civil disobedience took place elsewhere in the small former Soviet republic. Protesters occupied the city hall in Gyumri, Armenia’s second-largest city, and some significant highways in the countryside became impassable. The highways are key conduits to Iran and Georgia; Armenia’s two other borders, with Azerbaijan and Turkey, are closed.

The State Revenue Committee warned that the blockages could “present a serious blow to Armenia’s food security” and urged protesters not to interfere with food deliveries. The national railway said it was suspending passenger service for Yerevan’s suburban area because of protesters blocking the tracks.

About 300 demonstrators used cars to block the road to Armenia’s main international airport, forcing many travelers to make long walks with their luggage to catch flights. In the AP interview, Pashinian said that by rejecting him as prime minister, the ruling party had dealt itself a fatal blow.

“I think that the Republican Party yesterday have made a suicide pact, as a party, as a whole,” he said.

Associated Press writers Yuras Karmanau and Mstyslav Chernov in Yerevan, and Jim Heintz in Moscow contributed.

Armenian ruling party won’t nominate own candidate for PM

April 28, 2018

VANADZOR, Armenia (AP) — Armenia’s ruling party said Saturday it will not put forward a candidate for prime minister to keep from exacerbating the political crisis sparked by the naming of the country’s termed-out president as premier this month.

Armenian lawmakers are scheduled to meet Tuesday to vote on a replacement for Serzh Sargsyan, who resigned Monday amid massive street demonstrations over his selection as prime minister. But so far, the only candidate put forward is opposition lawmaker Nikola Pashinian, who spearheaded the anti-government protests that prompted Sargsyan to step down.

Sargsyan’s Republican party holds a majority in parliament. Party spokesman Eduard Sharmazanov said the decision not to nominate a Republican candidate was made “to avoid confrontation and destabilization of the country.”

Republican lawmakers instead plan to consider all other candidates, then vote as a bloc, Sharmazanov said. Although the party won’t nominate a candidate, individual members apparently could enter the race. Former Prime Minister Karen Karapetian, who was appointed as acting premier after Sargsyan stepped down, is a party member.

Pashinian told an evening rally in Vanadzor, Armenia’s third-largest city, that having Karapetian remain in the position would be unacceptable. “Citizens, the people, must explain to Karen Karapetian that he may not be prime minister of Armenia because the country no longer exists where a Republican can be prime premier or president,” he said. “This is another Armenia.”

Sargsyan was president for 10 years before stepping down this month because of term limits. He was then appointed prime minister, a position whose powers were bolstered under a change in government structure. Opponents viewed the move as effectively allowing him to be leader for life.

It also galvanized long-standing resentment over the former Soviet republic’s widespread poverty and corruption. Huge demonstrations in Yerevan, the capital, brought downtown traffic to a standstill and filled the sprawling Republic Square that faces main government buildings.

“Pashinian gave us hope for the future, that our children won’t leave the country but will find their place in a new Armenia,” said Alina Mkrtchyan, 37, at the Vanadzor rally.

Talks between Armenian opposition, acting PM called off

April 27, 2018

GYUMRI, Armenia (AP) — The lawmaker behind the protests that forced Armenia’s longtime leader to resign took his campaign to the country’s second-largest city Friday, aiming to marshal nationwide support ahead of a crucial vote in parliament.

More than 10,000 people gathered in Gyumri for an evening rally with opposition leader Nikol Pashinian held hours after his planned talks with Armenia’s acting prime minister were called off. Pashinian, a newspaper editor and member of the Armenian National Assembly, and Acting Prime Minister Karen Karapetian were to have met at noon to discuss the political crisis that has gripped the landlocked former Soviet nation. Karapetian’s office announced Friday morning that it canceled the talks because Pashinian was “dictating the agenda.”

In Gyumri, Pashinian remained firm in his demand that he be named head of government when the parliament meets Tuesday. “There is one road: choose me as the premier of Armenia, as the candidate of you, of the people,” he said at the rally. “Our de-facto victory should be settled de-jure on May 1 in the walls of parliament.”

Pashinian’s protest movement holds just a fraction of seats in parliament, while Karapetian’s party has a majority. Karapetian was Armenia’s prime minister until his ally, President Serzh Sargsyan, had to step down because of term limits and parliament voted him in as prime minister.

Sargsyan stepped down Monday after six days in his new post following more than a week of anti-government protests triggered by what the ex-president’s critics saw as a brazen move to extend his rule.

The opposition wants a transfer of power that would ensure that Sargsyan’s allies would not be part of the new government so he could not pull the strings behind the scenes. Pashinian reacted to the breakdown Friday’s talks by telling reporters that his protest movement has “the key mandate — that of the Armenian people. The parliament has to accept people’s will.”

Despite winning two landslide presidential victories before becoming prime minister, Sargsyan was unpopular because of the perceived nepotism and corruption of his inner circle. The protests over his stepping into the prime minister’s seat after the government was rearranged to reduce the power of the presidency represent the deep frustration with his rule.

Several hundred people rallied in the center of the capital, Yerevan, on Friday morning to show their support for the opposition. “We’re not going to go and we’ll continue to protest until this government goes,” school teacher Armen Zarubyan, 42, said. “Authorities couldn’t care less for people’s opinion, but we have already showed our strength.”

Yerevan-based political analyst Agaron Adibekyan told The Associated Press that Karapetian’s refusal to negotiate shows that the current regime is confident of its ability to stay in power. “Authorities decided to drag their feet so the opposition will get tired and the protests die down,” he said. “It’s the opposition that needs these talks. Authorities are controlling the country and have a majority in the parliament.”

Nataliya Vasilyeva and Jim Heintz in Moscow contributed to this report.

Armenia to Elect New Prime Minister on May 1

Thursday, 26 April, 2018

Armenia will elect a new prime minister next week to succeed Serzh Sarkisian, who quit on Monday after days of opposition protests.

Opposition leader Nikol Pashinyan, who led the rallies, appears to be the favorite to win the vote, which will take place at an extraordinary parliament session on May 1.

The demonstrations, driven by public anger over perceived political cronyism and corruption, looked to have peaked on Monday when Sarkisian stepped down.

But demonstrators have made clear they view the whole system tainted by his drive to shift power to the premier from the president. They want a sweeping political reconfiguration before ending their protests, which continued on Thursday.

“Protests will grow throughout Armenia until authorities can hear us,” Pashinyan said.

Pashinyan, a former journalist turned lawmaker who has been instrumental in organizing the protests, has said he is ready to become prime minister. Tens of thousands rallied in the capital Yerevan on Wednesday in support for his bid for the premiership.

If elected, he wants to reform the electoral system to ensure it is fair before holding new parliamentary elections.

Sarkisian’s party still holds a majority in the parliament, however.

“We will have a people’s prime minister and after the election a people’s government and parliament,” said Anna Agababyan, a 38-year-old teacher who was protesting in Yerevan on Thursday, holding a small national flag.

Although the demonstrations have been peaceful, the upheaval has threatened to destabilize Armenia, an ally of Russia, in a volatile region riven by its decades-long, low-level conflict with neighboring Azerbaijan.

Moscow has two military bases in the ex-Soviet republic, and Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke to Armenian President Armen Sarkissian by phone on Wednesday.

They agreed that political forces must show restraint and solve the crisis through dialogue, the Kremlin said.

Pashinyan said on Wednesday he had received assurances from Russian officials that Moscow would not intervene in the crisis, and Armenian Foreign Minister Edward Nalbandian was in Moscow on Thursday for talks.

Armen Sarkissian, the president, on Thursday hailed what he called “a new page” in Armenia’s history and called on lawmakers to help forge a new country while respecting the existing constitution.

Pashinyan and his allies have been busy trying to build support for him with the ruling Republican Party and other parties and Pashinyan is expected to hold talks with Gagik Tsarukyan, the leader of the second-biggest party in parliament, later on Thursday.

Source: Asharq al-Awsat.

Link: https://aawsat.com/english/home/article/1250061/armenia-elect-new-prime-minister-may-1.

Thousands protest in Armenia as political talks called off

April 25, 2018

YEREVAN, Armenia (AP) — Several thousand protesters took to the streets of the Armenian capital on Wednesday morning after talks between the opposition and the acting prime minister were called off. Protest leader Nikol Pashinian had been expected to sit down for talks with acting Prime Minister Karen Karapetian to discuss political transition after Prime Minister Serzh Sargsyan abruptly stepped down on Monday amid massive anti-government protests.

Karapetian is an ally of Sargsyan, who ruled Armenia for 10 years. The opposition insists that he step down soon to make way for a new premier appointed by a new parliament. The talks on Wednesday were supposed to discuss that transition.

Karapetian said in a statement on Wednesday that the talks with Pashinian were canceled after the opposition made unspecified “unilateral demands.” Pashinian called on his supporters to take to the streets in protest.

About 5,000 people marched in the center of the capital, Yerevan, blocking traffic and chanting “Join us!” “Authorities won’t step down, they are just dragging their feet,” said 24-year-old protester Garik Migranyan. “But we will make them do that. We are the power.”

Police troops supported government buildings and the headquarters of the ruling Republican Party. An armored vehicle was spotted nearby. “We will not allow authorities to steal our victory,” Pashinian told supporters Wednesday. “There will be more of us here with every day until we take power.”

Pashinian said he and his allies would boycott the snap parliamentary election if a member of the ruling Republican Party remains prime minister. Pashinian earlier said “a people’s candidate” should replace Karapetian and said he would be willing to become premier if people support him.

Former Prime Minister and President Sargsyan said in a statement he is concerned about the tensions in the country and would launch talks with pro-government and ruling parties in search of compromise.

Nataliya Vasilyeva contributed to this report from Moscow.

Armenia’s political transition unclear after PM’s ouster

April 24, 2018

YEREVAN, Armenia (AP) — The abrupt resignation of Armenian Prime Minister Serzh Sargsyan after two weeks of protests against his rule has caught the opposition off guard: The protesters had focused on driving out what they consider a corrupt elite, and seem to lack the structure or the political platform to replace it.

Waving the Armenian tricolor and chanting their leader’s name, some 10,000 opposition supporters marched on Tuesday with protest leader Nikol Pashinian to a hilltop memorial complex in Yerevan, the capital of this Caucasus Mountains country, to mark the massacre of 1.5 million Armenians a century ago by Ottoman Turks.

Armenians across the country are commemorating the massacre that began 103 years ago. Armenians and many historians consider it to be genocide, but Turkey, successor of the Ottoman Empire, vehemently denies the claim.

The protests, which lasted ten days, culminated on Monday when Prime Minister Serzh Sargsyan, who has ruled Armenia since 2008, announced his resignation, saying that he was “wrong” to reject the opposition’s demands for him to step down.

The opposition insists that Sargsyan’s resignation is just the first step in the political transition they were pushing for. They want acting Prime Minister Karen Karapetian, an ally of Sargsyan, to also step down after he and the opposition agree on the date of a snap election.

With a red rose in his hand, protest leader Pashinian led the procession to the memorial complex on Tuesday afternoon. His supporters were jubilant and anxious for the political transition. “We need a change of government,” said 43-year-old businessman Gregor Adamyan. “We’re tired of pressure and corruption of one clan.”

But the opposition appears far from ready to form a united political force. The coalition of the three parties leading the protest currently holds just 7 percent of the parliamentary seats and has not taken any stand on relations with Russia, Armenia’s key ally and economic donor, or any other major political issue.

Pashinian, a 42-year-old former journalist who was elected into parliament in 2012 on an anti-corruption platform, garnered less than a quarter of the vote at last year’s mayoral election in Yerevan. Pashinian has been mildly critical of Russia’s presence in Armenia, but otherwise his political views are obscure.

“The opposition lacks a clear program of reforms, constructive agenda or clear demands,” said Alexander Iskanderian, director of the Caucasus Institute in Yerevan. “It’s not that people took to the streets to support the opposition which has no clear structure or organization — they (did so to) protest against the corrupt government which became totally shameless.”

Pashinian has so far not offered any plan or vision for Armenia other than calling for the snap parliamentary election and making sure that none of Sargsyan’s allies remains in office, preventing the former prime minister from pulling the strings from behind the scenes.

The opposition will continue to rally until “a full transfer of power” happens and a “people’s candidate” is elected prime minister, Pashinian said. The protest leader, dressed in a camouflage T-shirt and a baseball cap, also told a news conference Tuesday evening that he expects the snap parliamentary election to be held in one or two months.

“We will ask people on the square about the prime minister and they will vote with their own voices,” Pashinian said, adding that Armenia’s electoral system needs to be cleansed to ensure a free election. He didn’t elaborate on the nature of the reform.

The Armenian opposition will be naive to crack open the champagne unless Sargsyan’s allies, Karapetian in particular, are out, analysts warned. “We have not seen a change of a political elite yet,” said Ruben Megrabyan of the Armenian Center for Global Studies. “Karen Karapetian represents the same corrupt ruling class, so the opposition’s victory was symbolic.”

Several hours before the opposition supporters marched to the memorial of the 1915 massacre, Karapetian and other officials also honored the memory of those killed. Karapetian said in an address to the nation that Tuesday’s march to the genocide memorial shows that “we are together and we are united in spite of the difficulties and unresolved issues at home.”

Since the Soviet Union’s collapse, Armenia, a landlocked country sandwiched between Georgia, Iran, Turkey and Azerbaijan, has relied on Russia for energy supplies and loans. Strained ties with Turkey and Azerbaijan have crippled the country’s development, making energy imports, among other things, costly.

Ties with Russia did not appear to be at the forefront for most protesters, and many of those marching in Yerevan on Tuesday spoke favorably of Russia. Ruben Ter-Martirosyan, a 37-year-old unemployed man, wants to see a more balanced relationship between the two former Soviet nations.

“Armenia needs to be a bridge between Russia and Europe, not a vassal of the Kremlin,” he said. Uncharacteristically for Russian authorities who in the past decried anti-government rallies and so-called “color revolutions” in neighboring post-Soviet states as examples of hostile Western interference, Moscow this week has displayed a wait-and-see attitude.

Russia has refrained from applauding or condemning the government’s ouster, in an apparent effort to better position itself for building ties with the new authorities. Earlier on Tuesday, a deputy Russian foreign minister met with the Armenian ambassador in Moscow. The ministry said Russia is following developments in Armenia closely and wishes the country a smooth and peaceful political transition. Separately, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters that the political transition is “our Armenian friends’ business” and said the Kremlin is “pleased that the situation is not moving toward a destabilization.”

Moscow keeps an important military base in Armenia and needs Yerevan as an unwavering ally in the post-Soviet space, so the caution is only to be expected. “Moscow is being neutral and leaves room for maneuver in order to be able to bargain with the eventual winner later on,” political analyst Megrabyan said.

Avet Demourian in Yerevan, Nataliya Vasilyeva in Moscow and Zeynep Bilginsoy in Istanbul contributed to this report.

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