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Archive for the ‘Ancient Land of Armenia’ Category

Armenian trans woman gets threats after parliament speech

April 27, 2019

YEREVAN, Armenia (AP) — A transgender woman who broke boundaries with a speech in Armenia’s parliament says she has received death threats and is avoiding leaving her home in the backlash to her three-minute address.

Lilit Martirosian told members of parliament’s human rights committee on April 5 that the group she founded, Right Side, had recorded 283 cases of transgender rights violations. “For me, that means that there are 283 criminals in Armenia living next to me and you,” Martirosian said during her speech. “And who knows, maybe a 284th will commit a crime tomorrow.”

Some lawmakers immediately expressed their offense. The head of the human rights committee complained Martirosian disturbed a hearing agenda and disrespected parliament. The next day, hundreds of people protesting outside the parliament building demanded to have the podium Martirosian used fumigated.

One protester brandished a knife at cameras and said he would use it against transgender people. A priest from the dominant Armenian Apostolic Church said gay sex should be considered a crime punishable by prison.

Armenia decriminalized homosexuality in 2003, but many in the country resist recognizing LGBT rights. “I received many calls with threats directed against me personally. People would say I needed to be murdered, butchered,” Martirosian told The Associated Press on Friday.

Martirosian says she reported the threats to police. Some people in Armenia see her experience as a test of the government that came to power last year following widespread demonstrations calling for an end to corruption and respect for human rights.

“LGBT people face problems in every sphere of life — they can be violated physically, sexually, psychologically,” Mamikon Hovsepian, executive director of the LGBT rights group PINK Armenia, said. “They can be refused in police stations or they can face double discrimination, refused health care services.”

Since taking office, Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian has tried to keep a distance from the issue of LGBT rights, calling it “an unnecessary headache to deal with in 10, 20, 30 years.” But Pashinian has criticized the Republican Party that dominated Armenian politics before he came to power over Martirosian’s treatment. He noted that the previous government issued her a passport in 2015 with the first name Martirosian took as a woman but had the sex marked as male.

“The moment the (Republicans) gave this person a passport of an Armenian citizen, they included this person in the electoral lists and bestowed the person with all rights of an Armenian citizen,” he said.

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Armenia premier’s bloc winning vote, early returns show

December 09, 2018

YEREVAN, Armenia (AP) — Early returns from Armenia’s snap parliamentary election Sunday show the country’s new prime minister’s bloc with a commanding lead — an outcome that would help further consolidate his power.

The charismatic 43-year-old Nikol Pashinian took office in May after spearheading massive protests that forced his predecessor to step down. Pashinian has pushed for early vote to win control of a parliament that was dominated by his political foes.

An ex-journalist turned politician, Pashinian has won broad popularity, tapping into public anger over widespread poverty, high unemployment and rampant corruption in the landlocked former Soviet nation of 3 million that borders Georgia, Azerbaijan, Turkey and Iran.

With 185 out of the nation’s 2,010 precincts counted, Pashinian’s My Step was garnering 66 percent of the vote, while the Republican Party that controlled the old parliament was a distant fourth with just under 4 percent, struggling to overcome a 5-percent barrier to make it into parliament. The pro-business Prosperous Armenia party was coming second with about 11 percent of the ballot, and the nationalist Dashnaktsutyun party was winning about 8 percent.

By the time the polls closed at 8 p.m. (1600 GMT, 11 a.m. EST), 49 percent of the nation’s eligible voters cast ballots. Full preliminary results are expected Monday. Pashinian exuded confidence after casting his ballot in Yerevan, saying that he was sure that his bloc will win a majority in parliament.

During the monthlong campaign, Pashinian has blasted members of the old elite as corrupt and pledged to revive the economy, create new jobs and encourage more Armenians to return home. “An economic revolution is our top priority,” Pashinian told reporters Sunday.

Armenia has suffered from an economic blockade stemming from the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh, a region of Azerbaijan that has been under the control of ethnic Armenian forces backed by Armenia since the end of a six-year separatist war in 1994. Attempts to negotiate a peace settlement have stalled and fighting has occasionally flared up between ethnic Armenian forces and Azerbaijan’s soldiers.

Both Azerbaijan and Turkey have closed their borders with Armenia over the conflict, cutting trade and leaving Armenia in semi-isolation. The country has direct land access only to Georgia and Iran. About one-third of Armenia’s population has moved to live and work abroad and remittances from those who have left account for around 14 percent of the country’s annual GDP.

After seven months on the job, Pashinian has remained widely popular, particularly among the young. “Pashinian has put fresh blood in our veins. I believe in the future of Armenia,” said computer expert Grigor Meliksetian, 24.

Others weren’t so optimistic. Bella Nazarian, an entrepreneur, said Pashinian has skillfully manipulated public hopes. “He’s a populist and a liar,” she said. “I believe that people’s eyes will open as early as the coming spring.”

Saak Mkhitarian, 37, a video engineer, said he was worried about what he described as Pashinian’s divisive rhetoric. “He wants to create an internal enemy and hates those who don’t share his beliefs,” Mkhitarian said.

Pashinian was the driving force behind the protests that erupted in April when Serzh Sargsyan, who had served as Armenia’s president for a decade, moved into the prime minister’s seat, a move seen by critics as an attempt to hold on to power. Thousands of protesters led by Pashinian thronged the Armenian capital, and Sargsyan resigned after only six days on the job.

Sargsyan has stayed out of the public eye since stepping down and refused to answer reporters’ questions after voting Sunday. His Republican Party has largely remained on the defensive.

Armenians vote for parliament; PM looks to bolster support

December 09, 2018

YEREVAN, Armenia (AP) — Armenians cast ballots Sunday in an early parliamentary election that was expected to further consolidate the power of the nation’s new prime minister. The charismatic 43-year-old Nikol Pashinian took office in May after spearheading massive protests against his predecessor’s power grab which forced that politician to step down. Pashinian has pushed for early vote to win control of a parliament that was dominated by his political foes.

Pashinian, an ex-journalist turned politician, has won broad popularity, tapping into public anger over widespread poverty, high unemployment and rampant corruption in the landlocked former Soviet nation of 3 million that borders Georgia, Azerbaijan, Turkey and Iran.

Opinion polls indicate that Pashinian’s My Step alliance is set to sweep the vote, while the Republican Party that controlled the old parliament is trailing. Pashinian exuded confidence after casting his ballot in Yerevan, saying that he was sure that his bloc will win a majority in parliament.

During the monthlong campaign, Pashinian has blasted members of the old elite as corrupt and pledged to revive the economy, create new jobs and encourage more Armenians to return home. “An economic revolution is our top priority,” Pashinian told reporters Sunday.

Armenia has suffered from an economic blockade stemming from the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh, a region of Azerbaijan that has been under the control of ethnic Armenian forces backed by Armenia since the end of a six-year separatist war in 1994. Attempts to negotiate a peace settlement have stalled and fighting has occasionally flared up between ethnic Armenian forces and Azerbaijan’s soldiers.

Both Azerbaijan and Turkey have closed their borders with Armenia over the conflict, cutting trade and leaving Armenia in semi-isolation. The country has direct land access only to Georgia and Iran. About one-third of Armenia’s population has moved to live and work abroad and remittances from those who have left account for around 14 percent of the country’s annual GDP.

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.

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.

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