YEREVAN — Armenian President Armen Sarkisian appointed acting Prime Minister Nikola Pashinian to the post of prime minister on August 2, the first day of the parliament’s new term following an election six weeks ago.
Sarkisian signed the relevant decree after the ruling Civil Contract party nominated Pashinian to the post as lawmakers started the inaugural session.
Pashinian has 15 days to win approval for a cabinet from parliament.
His Civil Contract party holds 71 of the legislature’s 101 seats since snap elections in June prompted by a crisis following a truce in intense fighting with neighboring Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh and nearby districts.
The 44-day eruption of a decades-long unresolved war with Azerbaijan over the breakaway Azerbaijani territory concluded with a Moscow-brokered truce in November that cemented Azerbaijani control over regions that had been controlled by ethnic Armenians for almost 30 years.
Street protests broke out in which Pashinian’s opponents blamed him for the loss of control over the territories to the bigger and better-equipped Azerbaijani military.
Pashinian and his supporters have said former leaders of the country, including ex-Presidents Robert Kocharian and Serzh Sarkisian, were also responsible for the war’s outcome.
While fighting between Armenia and Azerbaijan escalated into a full-scale war, both local and international media reported about Turkish-backed mercenaries from Syria being transported to Azerbaijan. Up till now, most reports relied on the testimonies of soldiers and sources in Syria. But on October 3, a video showing Arabic-speaking men listening to the chants of the Turkish-backed Sultan Murad division has been geolocated to theAzerbaijani Horadiz military base.
Evidence shows mercenaries are being transported from Gaziantep to Baku
The first reports about mercenaries from Northern Syria in Azerbaijan appeared back in July when Armenia and Azerbaijan clashed near the Tavush/Tovuz borderline. Turkey and Azerbaijan both denied the information. In September, reports became more frequent, and as the situation escalated, videos and photos of alleged mercenaries appeared on social media.
On September 22, journalist Lindsey Snell published a photo that showed alleged mercenaries being transported to Azerbaijan. Days later, journalist Youri van der Weide tweeted about a military A400M aircraft flying on September 22 from the Turkish city of Gaziantep (near the Syrian border) to Ankara. The interior of the A400M is similar to the one in the photo published by Snell.
Russian Novaya Gazeta recreated the route of the mercenaries from Syria to Azerbaijan based on the evidence of a local source. NG writes that fighters are first sent to the Turkish border town of Killis, where they change uniforms. Then they are taken to Gaziantep airport to fly to Baku via Istanbul. The flight passes the airspace of Georgia (note that Georgia temporarily prohibited the transport of military cargo through its airspace on October 3).
Soon, many other photos claiming to show mercenaries in Azerbaijan appeared on social media. Men in those photos are wearing the military uniform of the State Border Service of Azerbaijan. This was pointed out by Washington-based analyst Emil Sanamyan (here and here) and Baku-based journalist Khadija Ismayilova (however, Ismayilova claimed that proves nothing, as those could be real Azerbaijani soldiers).
The uniforms on the photos indeed look similar to the one that Border Service uses. Moreover, the round sign on the jacket’s arm can be seen on both Border Service and mercenaries’ photos.
Mercenaries filmed themselves in the Azerbaijani military base
Another piece of visual evidence of Turkey-backed mercenaries in Azerbaijan is a video with Arabic-speaking men dancing and listening to Sultan Murad Brigade chants.
The video was soon geolocated to be in Horadiz – a town not far from the line of contact where an Azerbaijani military base is located. The geolocation was done both by Armenian Razminfo and by German conflict analyst Julian Röpcke.
Third-party countries also report the presence of mercenaries in Azerbaijan. French President Emmanuel Macron said that France has reliable information about jihadist groups being transported through Turkish Gaziantep to the warzone in Artsakh/Nagorno Karabakh. Additionally, the United States warned its citizens not to travel to Azerbaijan due to “COVID-19 and terrorism concerns.”
Most sources agree that militants from the Sultan Murad division are fighting for Azerbaijan
Most reports agree that the Sultan Murad division has been recruiting mercenaries. Named after 16th century Ottoman Sultan Murad II, the division is part of Syrian Turkmen Brigades – groups of Turkmen and Turkish militants that fight against the state army of Syria. The Sultan Murad division is also part of the so-called Syrian National Army (SNA, known also as the Free Syrian Army), which is a unity of different armed groups supported by Turkey. Turkey supplies weapons and provides military training to SNA.
Not all mercenaries in Azerbaijan are professional fighters
It should be noted that while mercenaries are recruited by armed groups and include long-term militants, not all people transported from Syria to Azerbaijan are professional soldiers. Some are regular civilians that signed up as mercenaries driven by poverty: years of war have crashed the Syrian economy. For example, The Guardian spoke to a tailor displaced from Aleppo to Azaz, who said he cannot make living practicing his craft and had to sign up as a mercenary.
Information about the amount of the mercenaries’ salary varies from 1,000 to 2,500 USD which is significantly higher than what those men could make in Northern Syria. Novaya Gazeta writes that Turkey promises not only a high salary but also Turkish citizenship for mercenaries and their family members, as well as 30,000 USD to the family in case of the fighter’s death.
Fighting has erupted between Armenia and Azerbaijan around the separatist region of Nagorno-Karabakh. Both sides have blamed each other; Armenia claims the alleged Azerbaijan attack is a declaration of war.
The two sides resumed open conflict again on Monday morning with the use of heavy artillery. Outbreaks of violence had continued through the night, according to the Armenian Defense Ministry spokesperson Shushan Stepanyan.
“During night battles continued with different intensity. Early in morning, Azerbaijan resumed its offensive operations, using artillery, armored vehicles, TOS heavy artillery system,” Stepanyan wrote on Twitter.
Armenian forces reportedly attacked the town of Terter with heavy artillery, according to the Azerbaijani Ministry of Defense.
At least 31 people — both civilians and military — have died in fighting that erupted on Sunday between Azerbaijani forces and Armenian rebels in the breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh region, officials said.
Separatists reported 15 further military casualties on Monday. The Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry, meanwhile, announced the death of six civilians, with at least 19 more injured in the violence.
Fear of new war
The worst violence in the region since 2016 has raised the prospect of a new war in an area that has been simmering for decades.
Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan said in a televised address that Azerbaijan’s “authoritarian regime has once again declared war on the Armenian people.”
“We are on the brink of a full-scale war in the South Caucasus, which might have unpredictable consequences,” he added. “We are ready for this war.”
Both countries declared martial law. The president of Azerbaijan declared a partial military mobilization in the country as part of a presidential decree on Monday morning. Armenia began a general mobilization on Sunday.
Pashinyan also spoke to Russian President Vladimir Putin, with Putin expressing “serious concern” over the escalation. Russia maintains a military base in Armenia, and is seen as an ally to Yerevan. Both Armenia and Azerbaijan are former Soviet republics.
Turkey, meanwhile, is considered an ally of Azerbaijan, and has been vociferously criticizing the Armenian government.
In a statement posted on Twitter following a phone call with Azeri President Ilham Aliyev, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan called on the Armenian people to stand against leaders who he said were “dragging them to catastrophe,” before adding that Ankara’s solidarity with Baku would “increasingly continue.”
Armenia’s Defense Ministry accused Azerbaijan of launching a bombing campaign against civilian targets. Yerevan said the military responded by shooting down four of Azerbaijan’s military helicopters, as well as 15 drones and 10 tanks, a claim Azerbaijan’s Defense Ministry denied.
“The entire responsibility for this lies with the military-political leadership of Azerbaijan,” insisted an Armenian Defense Ministry spokesperson.
Azerbaijan, meanwhile, accused Armenian forces of launching “deliberate and targeted” attacks on Nagorno-Karabakh.
“There are reports of dead and wounded among civilians and military servicemen,” Azerbaijan’s president said.By the afternoon, Azerbaijan claimed to have taken several villages in the region. “We have liberated six villages — five in Fizuli district and one in Jebrail district,” a ministry spokesman told AFP.
Iran has offered to mediate between the two sides. Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said Tehran was following the violence in the south Caucasus with great concern, news agency ISNA reported.
“We call on both sides to exercise restraint, end the conflict immediately and resume negotiations,” he said, while offering Tehran’s support in working towards a resolution.
This image, from footage released by the Armenian Defense Ministry, purportedly shows Armenian army tanks destroying vehicles belonging to Azerbaijan
Authorities in Nagorno-Karabakh said the city of Stepanakert has been shelled and urged residents to get to safety. Numerous houses in villages have been destroyed, with injuries reported.
The breakaway region immediately declared “martial law and total military mobilization,” Karabakh’s president Araik Harutyunyan told an emergency parliament session. He said that those liable for military service had been called up for duty.
European Council President Charles Michel said the renewed violence was “of most serious concern” and called for an end to the fighting.
German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas also urged a return to diplomatic channels.
“I call on both parties to the conflict to immediately cease all fighting and especially the shelling of villages and towns,” he said, according to the Foreign Ministry in Berlin.
Months of tension
Silvia Stöber, a journalist and expert on the Caucasus region, told DW that both sides had been preparing for an escalation like this for months.
She blamed the deteriorating economic situation in both countries for the flare-up but said international involvement probably played a role.
“The leadership of Azerbaijan may feel more motivated to escalate the whole situation” due to increased support from its ally Turkey, while the importing of Russian arms into Armenia means that it “looks like a conflict that [will go] further,” Stöber added.
During his noon blessing from St Peter’s Square, Pope Francis asked both sides to make “concrete gestures of goodwill and brotherhood” in order to resolve their differences without the use of force.
Violence first erupted in the region when ethnic Armenians seized Karabakh from Azerbaijan in the 1990s. An estimated 30,000 people were killed during the war.
A ceasefire, which was signed in 1994, largely put an end to the full-scale conflict, but peace talks mediated by France, Russia and the United States collapsed in 2010.
Azerbaijan has made repeated threats to take back the region by force. Although the region declared independence, it is heavily reliant on Armenian support and Armenia has stated that it would defend the territory militarily.
Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev has lambasted the U.S., Russian and French mediators trying to broker a solution to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and said the most recent Armenian-Azerbaijani talks were fruitless.
In an interview with Azerbaijani television aired on Tuesday, Aliyev denounced the mediators co-chairing the OSCE Minsk Group for reiterating last week that “there is no military solution to the conflict.”
“Their main point is that the problem cannot be solved militarily,” he said. “Who said that? We expect more serious, clear and targeted statements from the mediators.”
“In essence, no negotiations are held right now,” claimed Aliyev. “The video conferences of the [Armenian and Azerbaijani] foreign ministers are meaningless and are only leaving the impression that the Minsk Group exists.”
“As I have said before, we will not negotiate for the sake of negotiating and we want substantive negotiations without any change in their format. In that case, we will participate in them. Otherwise, I see no need for pointless negotiations.”
Foreign Ministers Zohrab Mnatsakanian and Elmar Mammadyarov as well as the three mediators most recently talked via video link on June 30. They reported no progress towards a Karabakh settlement.
In a joint statement issued right after the talks, the Minsk Group co-chairs said they urged the conflicting parties to “take additional steps to strengthen the ceasefire and to prepare the populations for peace.” They also said the two ministers agreed to hold another video conference in July and to meet in person “as soon as possible.”
Yerevan and Baku traded bitter recriminations both before and during the latest round of peace talks. Speaking at a June 25 meeting with Azerbaijani army officers, Aliyev described Armenia’s post-Soviet history as “shameful,” saying that his country’s arch-foe was for decades ruled by “criminals and thieves.” He also said that the 2018 popular protests that brought Nikol Pashinian to power were not a democratic revolution.
The Armenian Foreign Ministry hit back at Aliyev, saying that he leads one of the world’s most corrupt and repressive regimes which feels threatened by “democratic changes taking place in Armenia.”
Azerbaijan Launches Military Offensive Against Armenia Despite Global Ceasefire Appeal, Incites Pro-War Protests in Baku Calling for “Death to Armenians”
On July 12, at around 12:30 pm, the servicemen of the Azerbaijani Armed Forces attempted to violate the RA state border in the direction of Tavush region with an UAZ-model vehicle. After the warning of the Armenian side, the Azerbaijani servicemen left the UAZ-model vehicle and returned to their positions.
At 1:45 pm, the Azerbaijani servicemen repeated their attempt to take the border position of the Armenian armed forces, using artillery fire, but were suppressed by the Armenian side and pushed back, suffering losses.
In the evening, the Azerbaijani side resumed firing from the 82 mm mortar and tank in the direction of the same position. The shootings continued at regular intervals throughout the night.
All the attempts of the opponent were targeted by the units of the Armenian Armed Forces and neutralized.
On the morning of July 13, the opponent resumed provocative actions, continuing to shell in the direction of the Armenian positions. The RA Armed Forces subdivisions gave an adequate response.
The Armenian side did not suffer any losses.
Armenian Defense Minister David Tonoyan is in constant contact with the Personal Representative of the OSCE Chairman-in-Office, Ambassador Andrzej Kasprzyk. The Minister of Defense has informed that the personnel and command of the Armenian army are instructed to still remain restrained and in case of provocations by the opponent in the direction of the Armenian borders, to respond as needed, even to take new favorable positions.
The Armenian Armed Forces are not firing on the Azerbaijani settlements. Only the engineering infrastructure and technical means of the Azerbaijani Armed Forces are targeted.
The Azerbaijani military-political leadership will bear all the responsibility for the losses on the Azerbaijani side and for the consequences of the intensification of the situation.
YEREVAN—Gagik Tsarukyan, Armenia’s wealthiest businessman and leader of the opposition Prosperous Armenia Party, has been formally charged with corruption and bribery. According to his lawyer, Emin Khachatryan, late on Tuesday night, the National Security Service (NSS) filed a motion with the Yerevan Municipal Court to detain Tsarukyan under Article 154.2 of Armenia’s criminal code which deals with political bribery.
This development comes hours after the National Assembly voted to revoke Tsarukyan’s immunity from prosecution—which he was entitled to as a parliamentarian—upon the request of Prosecutor-General Artur Davtyan. In his speech to lawmakers, Davtyan accused Tsarukyan of creating and leading “an organized group that bought more than 17,000 votes for his Prosperous Armenia Party during parliamentary elections held in April 2017.” Alleged evidence of these claims was found in the businessman’s mansion in an early-morning raid on Sunday. Investigators purportedly uncovered piles of handwritten and signed letters from Tsarukyan’s known deputies formally pledging to provide him with a desired amount of votes by any means necessary for the 2017 parliamentary election. According to Davtyan, the documents even included voter names, passport numbers and the amount of bribes provided.
As Parliament debated the motion, employees of Tsarukyan’s various business interests attempted to block Yerevan’s Acharyan Street which leads to the tycoon’s mansion using buses and trucks registered to his Multi Group holding company. However, a video posted online depicted passersby removing those vehicles from the road. Another group of Tsarukyan supporters was detained by police in front of the National Assembly for violating the ban on mass gatherings under the State of Emergency.
Parliament passed the motion in a secret ballot on Tuesday with 87 of the 137 MPs voting in favor. Judging by the figures, Prosperous Armenia and Bright Armenia legislators abstained from voting.
Tsarukyan has dismissed the accusations as a politically motivated retaliation against his recent public calls for the government’s resignation over what he claims was poor handling of the ongoing pandemic. “Going against Tsarukyan marks the end of your Revolution,” Tsarukyan declared on the debate floor, addressing himself in the third person. Parliamentary Speaker Ararat Mirzoyan responded that he is guaranteed a fair trial under Armenia’s constitution.
Several extra-parliamentary opposition parties joined the two parliamentary opposition factions in condemning the charges on Tsarukyan as ‘politically motivated.’ In a written statement, the Bright Armenia Party claimed to “strongly condemn” the criminal prosecutions “resulting from political expediency and carried out through a selective enforcement of the law.” This statement was echoed by the now-ousted Republican Party communiqué which called for the “resignation of the impotent government of Nikol Pashinyan” for his alleged authoritarian behavior. Incidentally, the Republican Party itself successfully silenced a similar bout of public descent by Tsarukyan through threats of auditing and corruption charges a mere five years earlier.
The raid and ensuing charges have sparked vigorous debate among analysts and the public alike over the state of the country’s transitional justice and anti-corruption efforts. While there is widespread consensus that the charges are valid, some have questioned whether Pashinyan’s government was employing intimidation tactics against political opponents not unlike those used by the previous regime.
Tsarukyan, who is widely accused of using his close relationship with former president Robert Kocharyan (who is currently in pre-trial detention himself) to amass millions in assets and wrest control over a vast business empire, became somewhat of an oddity as one of the few oligarchs to survive the Velvet Revolution as a political force. The oligarch-turned-politician had managed to cultivate an image of an uneasy, yet mutually beneficial alliance with the Pashinyan government, begging the question as to whether Pashinyan simply cracked down on him when he turned into a political liability.
While the timing for these charges may seem on the nose, Dr. Nerses Kopalyan, a political science professor at the University of Nevada postulates that such a causation/correlation argument “makes no chronological sense.” Tsarukyan and his various business dealings have been subject to a series of separate investigations long before this apparent public spat with the Pashinyan government. Tsarukyan’s holding company Multi Group has been audited by both tax and health and safety inspectors on several occasions. His personal bodyguard, Edward Babayan, was arrested on assault charges in July of 2018. Multi Group CEO Sedrak Arustamyan was arrested on multiple charges including bribery, tax evasion and money laundering relating to the construction of the North South Highway. Vahagn Gevorgyan, the mayor of the commuter-town of Abovyan (widely considered to be Tsarukyan’s seat of power) is also facing charges for allowing Multi Group to illegally privatize municipal property for condo development.
The charges do not coincide with the first time Tsarukyan publicly criticized the authorities either. While his party initially made overtures to the new government, they took part in an attempt to impede a motion for snap elections back in 2018, in which they eventually won just over eight percent of the popular vote. Since then, Tsarukyan has publicly derided the new government for its refusal to extend tariff protection to his failing businesses, accusing it of mismanaging the economy and fostering an unhealthy business climate. He also recently refused to pay his own employees’ wages when the government announced lockdowns at the start of the ongoing pandemic.
Tsarukyan is not the first public figure associated with the former government to paint himself as the victim of political repression for criticizing the new authorities. Other notable figures to make the same assertions include Mikayel Minasyan (former President Serge Sarkisian’s self-exiled son-in-law), Gagik Khachaturyan, Ruben Hayrapetyan and other oligarchs widely accused of using their ties to the previous government for self-enrichment.
Political analyst Richard Giragosian described Sunday’s raid on Tsarukyan’s compound and subsequent arrest as a strategic “determination to show an end to the previous culture of impunity that prevailed under the old government for many wealthy businessmen that entered politics.” The events of the previous week have also, in Giragosian’s view, exposed Tsarukyan as having “no real power base of his own” beyond those financially dependent on him. This view was echoed by CivilNet’s Tatul Hakobyan who characterized Tsarukyan as “playing the wrong hand and paying dearly for it.”
In Parliament on Wednesday, Prosperous Armenia MPs announced that they would call for a parliamentary inquiry into the government’s handling of the COVID-19 crisis, as well as a constitutional appeal to the ban on public demonstrations during the State of Emergency. The other parliamentary opposition party, Bright Armenia, signaled that it might join in this motion.
6 new cases of the novel coronavirus were confirmed in Armenia, bringing the total number of infected to 84, one patient has recovered, Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan said live on Facebook.
“6 new cases of the coronavirus were confirmed in Armenia. The total number of cases is 84. 81% of the cases are connected with the cases registered in Etchmiadzin town and a manufacturing company [in Yerevan]”, the PM said.
Pashinyan informed that at this moment 444 people are under quarantine, and the government urged 799 people to self-quarantine in their homes.
On March 16 Armenia declared a 30-day state of emergency to fight against the spread of the novel coronavirus. The state of emergency is effective until April 14, at 17:00.
As coronavirus spreads along Turkey’s borders, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his ministers remained in denial. Just last week, Turkey’s health minister denied any cases existed in the country, a claim made against evidence that travelers to Turkey had been infected there. Ergin Kocyildirim, a pediatric cardiothoracic surgeon at the University of Pittsburg’s School of Medicine, wrote a brilliant essay describing both the Turkish government’s claim to have established an effective testing kit and the fraudulence of its claims.
When faced with both local and international disbelief about why coronavirus would bypass Turkey, Turkish authorities took a dual approach. As in China, they arrested whistleblowers. They went beyond simple repression as panelists on the state-controlled Turkish press insisted that Turkish genes rendered most Turkic peoples immune. Many Turks, Erdoğan included, may embrace the notion of both Islamic and Turkish supremacy, but his basic ignorance of science may have condemned Turks to once again prove Darwin correct.
What might have motivated Erdoğan to lie about coronavirus and gamble with the lives of 80 million Turks?
Part of the reason might be Erdoğan’s dangerous combination of arrogance and ignorance. The Turkish leader’s arrogance is reflected in the thin skin he has toward criticism. According to the Turkish Justice Ministry, Turkish police charged an average of 4,500 people each year from 2014 through 2017 with insulting the Turkish leader for criticizing Erdoğan or speaking about his corruption. (Full disclosure: I am one of them). In 2018, the Erdoğan regime initiated 26,000 new cases. Aa cracks began to show in the Turkish economy, Erdoğan spared no effort to muzzle growing criticism. Nor is the Turkish leader’s ignorance any secret as the crackdown on the free press has meant the surviving media merely amplifies the conspiracy theories in which Erdoğan and his top aides believe, such as the Jews targeting them with telekinesis, or that bands on migratory birds to be evidence of Israeli espionage. The Turkish accusation that followers of exiled theologian Fethullah Gülen contributed to the spread of the virus likely is only a matter of time.
A larger motivation may be fear. While Turkey’s demography is shifting in Erdoğan’s favor as conservative families from Turkey’s Anatolian heartland grow relative to the Europeanized Turks from central Istanbul and the Mediterranean coast, the economy is faltering. In 2010, Erdoğan promised that by Turkey’s 2023 centennial, Turkey would be one of the world’s top ten economies. Even before coronavirus, Turkey would be lucky to remain in the top 20 as corruption, nepotism, political interference in business, and broad mismanagement have combined to send confidence in Turkey’s economy into the gutter.
Hetq: Pashinyan secretly orders doubling of salaries for ministers
Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan ordered in July the doubling of salaries paid to ministers, deputy ministers and chief secretaries of ministries. The government kept the order a secret.
To verify the information Hetq received about the secret order, we wrote to three ministries.
It received May-August data on the number of employees and the salary fund.
In the case of one ministry, there was a substantial difference in the salaries of the same number of employees. We sent an additional inquiry to the three ministers asking how much the minister had received in terms of salary, bonuses, and other salaries.
For example, Emergency Affairs Minister Felix Tsolakyan received a salary of 6 million drams in May, June, July, and August, as was the case with Environment Minister Eric Grigoryan. If we divide the salary by 4 months, we get 1.5 million drams a month.
We had sent a similar inquiry to the Minister of Finance Atom Janjughazyan. The secretary-general of the ministry did not provide us with information about Janjughazyan’s salary. Instead, he suggested waiting for the annual disclosure.
The amount of salary of public officials in Armenia is defined by law.
According to the RA Law on Remuneration of Public Officials, a minister’s salary coefficient is 12. In order to receive a minister’s salary, this number must be multiplied by the base salary of 66,140 drams. The sum is AMD 793,680, which includes taxes. Meanwhile, without making any changes to the law, the secretary’s order doubled, amounting to 1.5 million drams, according to the prime minister’s secret order.
The same is the case with the salaries of deputy ministers and chief secretaries.
According to the coefficient stipulated by law, the salary of a deputy minister is 562,160 drams, which became 1.060 million drams. The salary of a chief secretary has increased from 595,260 thousand drams to 870,000 drams.
When we understood what had happened, we asked PM Nikol Pashinyan in writing asking why the process had been carried out in secret.
Here is the response of Armen Khachatryan, Acting Head of the Information and Public Relations Department of the Prime Minister’s Office:
“The issue you raised was, as you have mentioned, carried out by secret procedure, so such information is not subject to disclosure. It is important for us to note that the officials you cite submit a declaration of property, income, and interests, which implies that the above process is entirely public and transparent.”
Pashinyan made his first visit Sunday to Los Angeles, the largest Armenian population center outside the Republic of Armenia.
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Nikol Pashinyan, Prime Minister of Armenia, address the audience during a rally at Los Angeles City Hall/Grand Park in Los Angeles on Sunday, Sep 22, 2019. (Photo by Ed Crisostomo, Contributing Photographer)
Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan addressed some 10,000 people from the steps of City Hall on Sunday, Sept. 22, in a rally marking his first visit to Los Angeles, the largest Armenian population center outside the Republic of Armenia.
Pashinyan was appointed to his post after leading a wave of anti-government protests between March and May of 2018 that led to the resignation of former Prime Minister Serzh Sargsyan — and has been widely hailed as a harbinger of democracy by championing free elections and government transparency.
“We have created a new image for Armenia,” said Pashinyan after lauding the warm California welcome in Armenian, the diaspora crowd chanting his name.
“We have developed a new slogan: It’s cool to be Armenian,” he said. “And together we have to make it even better, because the Armenian people is one of a great history and past. And our country has a bright future.”
North Hollywood councilmember Paul Krekorian, who became the first Armenian elected to city office in 2010, played a leading role in organizing the rally. Burbank Rep. Adam Schiff also addressed the crowd, calling LA the “capitol of the Armenian diaspora.”
LA Mayor Eric Garcetti praised Pashinyan’s leadership, saying “A day of sunshine has come to Armenia, a day of openness, of democracy. The day has come to invest and support and help the new Armenia rise, and rise and rise under this prime minister.”
Thousands are starting to pour into Grand Park from Glendale, Pasadena and the SFV for a visit today by Armenian Prime Minister @NikolPashinyan. It’s his first stop in LA, the largest Armenian population center outside Armenia, since getting elected last year
The bulk of attendees, clapping and dancing along to traditional music and dance performances on the steps of City Hall, came in predominately from such Armenian community population centers as Glendale, Burbank, Pasadena and the San Fernando Valley. Buses to downtown LA were made available to the communities.
While estimations of the Armenian population in Greater LA vary, the 2000 census reported over 150,000 Armenians in LA County with some 40,000 living in the San Fernando Valley.
“We’re here to honor and welcome him, for having led the revolution and cleaning up corruption,” said Hrair Koutnouyan of Glendale, who came to see Pashinyan with his wife. “A government that’s without stealing and cheating isn’t something that’s easily accepted, but he’s proving it can be done.”
Some, like 24-year-old Ani Dergrigorian of Glendale, who has lived in Armenia, is “optimistic” about Pashinyan’s leadership but hopes to hold him to account on issues facing every day Armenians. She and her sister, Areni, brought signs that demanded an end to environmentally harmful mining practices in the nation’s Almusar region.
“Maybe we don’t feel the impacts as much here, but it’s more important than ever for us to be engaged in politics in Armenia,” she said. “We’re all facing climate change on the same planet. At the end of the day it impacts us too.”
Monterey Park doctor Jack Der-Sarkissian said he was moved by the “optimism and enthusiasm” in Armenia following the Pashinyan-led protests, what he and his supporters call the “Velvet Revolution.” He’s listening for proof that the leader will be the steward of democracy he said he would.
“A lot of people in Los Angeles will financially invest in their families and Armenia needs it,” he said. “At the end of the day he needs to convince people like myself that it’s the right time to invest in Armenia. He has a lot of work ahead of him.”