Armenia, like the rest of the world, was swept up in the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. As the country’s healthcare system was struggling to confront the challenges the virus presented, skirmishes between Armenian and Azerbaijani forces took place in the northeastern region of Tavush in July. On the heels of this latest escalation, a major blast occurred at the port of Beirut, devastating entire neighborhoods, killing and injuring scores of residents including many Armenians. Then, on September 27, Azerbaijan launched a wide scale offensive in Artsakh (Nagorno-Karabakh). The 2020 Artsakh War lasted 44 days, resulting in painful human and territorial losses. Here we present our annual Year in Review that looks at these events and others more closely.
On September 27, 2020, Armenians woke up to news that the Azerbaijani Armed Forces had launched an offensive along the full length of the Line of Contact with Artsakh, including helicopter and unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) drone assaults as tank units advanced. According to Major-General Jalal Harutyunyan, then-Commander of the Artsakh Defense Army, the operation had begun shortly after 7 a.m. local time.
The attack was reminiscent of the one that kickstarted the 2016 Four Day April War. This time, however, civilian centers, including the capital of Stepanakert, were targeted and the population rushed to shelters for safety. What followed was a bloody 44-day war that ended on November 9, after a Russian-brokered trilateral agreement was signed by Armenia’s Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Below are some of the major turning points of the war.
Within the first few hours of September 27, Artsakh President Arayik Harutyunyan declared martial law at an emergency session of Parliament, announcing a general mobilization of all males over 18. Armenia followed shortly after, with Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan announcing martial law and a partial mobilization.
Armenia’s Government Ombudsman, Arman Tatoyan reported that severe casualties and damage had already been inflicted upon the peaceful population of Nagorno-Karabakh (Artsakh) as a result of the large-scale military offensive launched by Azerbaijan since the early morning of September 27. Martakert, Martuni, Stepanakert and other cities, as well as many villages, came under high-caliber artillery shelling. That very first day, a child and a woman were killed and two civilians were wounded in the Martuni region.
According to Tatoyan, starting from the very first day, the peaceful population of Artsakh was purposefully targeted by Azerbaijani forces, in violation of the Geneva Conventions and customary international humanitarian law.
The same day, the OSCE Co-Chairs issued a statement that they “view with concern reports of large-scale military actions along the Line of Contact in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict zone. We strongly condemn the use of force and regret the senseless loss of life, including civilians. The Co-Chairs appeal to the sides to cease hostilities immediately and to resume negotiations to find a sustainable resolution of the conflict.
“The Co-Chairs call on the sides to take all necessary measures to stabilize the situation on the ground and reiterate that there is no alternative to a peaceful negotiated solution of the conflict.”
On the first day, all large and a number of small settlements, including Stepanakert, Askeran, Martakert, Martuni, Hadrut and Shushi were shelled with the use of artillery and combat drones. The Azerbaijani Army used large-caliber rocket launchers, including Smerch, Kasirga and Polonez, as well as incendiary munitions.
Failed Attempts to Establish a Humanitarian Ceasefire
Throughout the 44-day war, there were three attempts to establish a humanitarian ceasefire, brokered by Russia, France and the U.S., respectively, but did not hold.
The first one was on October 10, after almost two weeks of bloody battles in Artsakh. The humanitarian ceasefire was reached in Moscow after over 10 hours of negotiations among the Foreign Ministers of Armenia, Azerbaijan and Russia. Cessation of hostilities was to allow for the exchange of POWs, other detainees and for the sides to be able to retrieve the bodies of their killed servicemen, in accordance with the standards of the International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC). Below is the statement of the Ministers of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation, the Republic of Armenia and the Republic of Azerbaijan:
In response to the call by the President of the Russian Federation Vladimir Putin, and in accordance to the agreement reached with the President of the Russian Federation Vladimir Putin, Prime Minister of the Republic of Armenia Nikol Pashinyan and the President of the Republic of Azerbaijan Ilham Aliyev, the sides agreed to the following steps:
1. A ceasefire will be declared on October 10, 2020 at 12:00 for the exchange of POWs, other detainees and the bodies of the killed with the mediation and according to the standards of the International Committee for the Red Cross.
2. Specific parameters of the ceasefire regime will be agreed upon further.
3. The Republic of Azerbaijan and the Republic of Armenia, with the mediation of the OSCE Minsk Group Co-Chairs, will begin substantive negotiations based on the basic principles of the settlement to achieve a peaceful settlement as soon as possible.
4. The sides affirm that the format of the negotiation process will not change.
But hours before the ceasefire was to come into effect, Armenia’s Defense Ministry said that Azerbaijani forces had intensified their military operations, particularly along the southern section of the Artsakh-Azerbaijan Line of Contact. Azerbaijani forces attempted an unsuccessful incursion into the town of Hadrut that was being held by Armenian forces. Violating Armenian airspace, Azerbaijani combat drones also attacked settlements in Armenia’s Syunik region, killing one person and injuring three others.
As the deadline approached and then passed, some feared the ceasefire would not hold as hostilities continued. Artsrun Hovhannisyan of Armenia’s Ministry of Defense at first said that, for the most part, the ceasefire was holding. However, hours later, Vahram Poghosyan, the spokesperson for Artsakh's President Arayik Harutyunyan, announced that Stepanakert was being shelled again.
Defense Ministry spokesperson Shushan Stepanyan reported that Azerbaijani forces, ignoring the ceasefire for humanitarian purposes that was to start at noon on October 10, initiated an attack in the direction of a settlement known as Karakhambeyli at 12:05 p.m.
On October 17, the second attempt at a humanitarian truce was made, this time in Paris. The following is a statement by the Armenian Ministry of Foreign Affairs on the establishment of humanitarian truce:
“The Republic of Armenia and the Republic of Azerbaijan have agreed to a humanitarian truce as of October 18th, 00h00 local time.
“This decision was taken following the statement of the Presidents of the French Republic, the Russian Federation and the United States of America, representing the co-chair countries of the OSCE Minsk Group, of 1 October 2020, the Statement by the Co-Chairs of the OSCE Minsk Group of 5 October, and in line with Moscow Statement of 10 October 2020.”
But this agreement was again violated minutes after it was supposed to come into effect, as Azerbaijani forces began firing using artillery and small arms. Armenia’s Foreign Affairs Ministry issued a swift response saying this violation demonstrates Azerbaijan’s “treacherous nature, which we have been dealing with for decades.” The Armenian side said that it will continue to undertake necessary measures to “impose peace on Azerbaijan and establish a ceasefire regime, which will entail precise and effective mechanisms for maintaining and verifying it on the ground.”
On October 25, Armenia and Azerbaijan agreed to a third humanitarian ceasefire, following a meeting of the Foreign Ministers with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Representatives of the U.S., the Republic of Armenia, and the Republic of Azerbaijan released the following joint statement:
“Armenian Foreign Minister Zohrab Mnatsakanyan and Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Jeyhun Bayramov met with Deputy Secretary of State Stephen E. Biegun on October 24, 2020 and reaffirmed their countries’ commitment to implement and abide by the humanitarian ceasefire agreed in Moscow on October 10, which were reaffirmed in the statement issued from Paris on October 17, in accordance with the October 1, 2020 joint statement of United States President Donald J. Trump, French President Emmanuel Macron, and Russian President Vladimir Putin. The humanitarian ceasefire will take effect at 8:00 a.m. local time on October 26, 2020. The United States facilitated intensive negotiations among the Foreign Ministers and the Minsk Group Co-Chairs to move Armenia and Azerbaijan closer to a peaceful resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.”
But the U.S.-brokered humanitarian ceasefire was no exception and again failed to hold. Throughout the day, battles took place along different sections of the front line. After civilian settlements came under attack by Azerbaijani forces, one civilian was killed and another two wounded. Artsrun Hovhannisyan admitted that Azerbaijani forces were nearing the borders of the Syunik region in the Republic of Armenia. The Artsakh Defense Ministry said that the units of the Defense Army were strictly following the reached agreement.
The Involvement of Mercenaries
The day after the hostilities began, Reuters and The Guardian published articles outlining evidence that Turkey is recruiting and sending Syrian rebel fighters to support Azerbaijan in its escalating conflict with neighboring Armenia. “The two fighters, from Turkish-backed rebel groups in areas of northern Syria under Turkish control, said they were deploying to Azerbaijan in coordination with Ankara,” says the article by Reuters. “The potential deployment is a sign of Turkey’s growing appetite for projecting power abroad, and opens a third theatre in its regional rivalry with Moscow,” says the article by The Guardian. In the following weeks, the information was confirmed by multiple other sources.
The Russian Foreign Ministry issued a statement on the transfer of foreign mercenaries to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict zone: “According to incoming information, militants of illegal armed groups, in particular from Syria and Libya, are being transferred to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict zone in order to directly participate in hostilities.
“We are deeply concerned about these processes, which lead not only to an even greater escalation of tension in the conflict zone, but also create long-term threats to the security of all countries in the region.
“We call on the leaderships of the states concerned to take effective measures to prevent the use of foreign terrorists and mercenaries in the conflict and their immediate withdrawal from the region.”
The Russian Foreign Intelligence Service also announced that they have information about mercenaries from international terrorist organizations in the Middle East, including Jahbat al-Nusra, Firkat al-Hamza, Sultan Murad, and Kurdish extremist groups in the [Nagorno-Karabakh] conflict zone. Director of Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service Sergey Naryshkin said that he is worried Transcaucasia could become a new springboard for hundreds of terrorists. He noted that hundreds, even thousands of radicals are hoping to make money in the new Karabakh war. He stressed that it is important for the sides to return to discussions, noting that “he has no doubt that, with the assistance of the international community, the parties to the conflict will eventually stop using force and sit down at the negotiating table.” According to Naryashkin, for Russia, as a co-chair of the OSCE Minsk Group, a new war in the region is inadmissible. “We are not indifferent to the fact that, as a result of hostilities, people from our allies Armenia and Azerbaijan are dying,” said Naryashkin.
On October 19, Ria Novosti reported that an additional 1,000 mercenaries were sent to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict zone on October 16. Earlier, President Bashar al-Assad of Syria said in an interview that Turkey is using terrorists from Syria and other countries in the region to help Baku.
At the Council of Europe, President Emmanuel Macron of France said his country has evidence that Syrian Islamists from Turkey are participating in military activities in Nagorno-Karabakh. He said: “We have concrete information that Syrian militants left the battlefield in Gaziantep to join the battles in Nagorno-Karabakh. This is very serious and we will discuss it at today's EU summit.”
On October 8, Azerbaijani forces hit the iconic Holy Savior Ghazanchetsots Cathedral in Shushi, which had been restored after the first Karabakh War. Later, Armenia’s Government Ombudsman Arman Tatoyan wrote on his Facebook Page that Ghazanchetsots, which is the symbol of Shushi, is located in the center of the city, and only children and women were in the Cathedral‘s basement at the moment of the strikes: “There are no military objects and nothing close to the military around the Cathedral. Residential houses were also damaged… Clear signs of war crimes and use of terrorist actions.”
At 6 p.m. Artsakh’s Human Rights Defender Artak Beglaryan tweeted that there was a second strike on Ghazanchetsots. At the time, there were journalists inside the church filming. Three journalists were wounded. One of them, a Russian journalist, required emergency surgery.
On October 14, Azerbaijani forces targeted a hospital located in the northeastern direction of the front line that was treating civilians. Such behavior is in strict violation of the norms and principles of international humanitarian law and customary law, according to which it is forbidden to target hospitals and places where wounded are being treated. “This is an obvious war crime and the entire responsibility for the consequences falls on the military-political leadership of Azerbaijan,” said Shushan Stepanyan, the spokesperson of the Defense Ministry.
On October 31, video images surfaced of what appeared to be phosphorus munitions being used over Artsakh, setting fires to forests close to civilian settlements. This took place hours after the Foreign Ministers of Armenia and Azerbaijan took part in mediated talks in Geneva with the OSCE Minsk Group Co-Chairs.
Weeks Leading Up to the Trilateral Agreement
On October 16, Armenia’s Government decided to temporarily ban the import of Turkish goods. The official communication reads:
“Turkey openly supports Azerbaijan in its war and terroristic acts unleashed against the people of Artsakh. Turkish authorities transfer mercenaries to the region and supply arms to Azerbaijan, undermining the stability in the region, the peaceful settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and the efforts of the OSCE Minsk Group Co-Chairs.
“The ban on imports of Turkish goods not only imposes an economic sanction on Turkey, but also suspends the flow of financial resources to the Turkish state treasury from Armenian sources, which, in turn, have allowed the Turkish authorities to support Azerbaijan. Some Armenian businesses and people have already voluntarily restricted the sale of Turkish products and refrain from purchasing such products.”
During a Facebook Live on October 21, PM Nikol Pashinyan spoke about the situation that the Republic of Armenia, the Republic of Artsakh and the Armenian people are in and the solutions before them. He said that any hope for a diplomatic solution is not viable at this stage as Azerbaijan is refusing to compromise. Pashinyan noted that Baku has increased its maximalist rhetoric and its strategy is to oppose any point that the Armenian side would agree to during negotiations. At this stage, therefore, Armenia’s PM said that it is pointless to speak about a diplomatic solution.
He went on to say that, in the context of the position Azerbaijan has adopted, to fight for the rights of the Armenian people means to “take up arms and devote ourselves to the protection of the motherland. And only after the effective organization of this process will we reach a diplomatic solution that is acceptable for us.”
On October 25, Artsrun Hovhannisyan of the Defense Ministry cited Colonel Senor Hasratyan as saying:
“The entire territory of the Republic of Artsakh is now a battlefield. All the settlements, from north to south, from west to east, are under air strikes. And this is the case almost every day. However, it is already clear that all the plans of the adversary, including its plan to suppress the people of Artsakh through long-range artillery and incursion units, are destined to fail. Studying the adversary’s tactics, the Armenian soldier day-by-day is becoming a master of the situation. This is visible in ongoing combat operations along defensive positions and confrontations in neutralizing subversive units. I write these lines based not on what I have heard, but what I just witnessed at the Karmir Shuka gorge. We have no other path, this is a fight for survival and we are fated to win.”
On October 29, Artsakh President Arayik Harutyunyan said in a video address that Azerbaijani forces are five kilometers away from Shushi.
Earlier Harutyunyan wrote in his Facebook Page that Turkish-Azerbaijani and terrorist gangs have put all of their most serious military resources toward Shushi with the objective of conquering, at all costs, the proud Armenian fortress city. “Shushi is not simply a city, it is the symbol of the determination of the Armenian people to live in their homeland. Shushi is the beating heart of the entire Armenian nation. As the Supreme Commander-in-Chief of Artsakh, I am calling on you once again: Join us, let us protect our Shushi, our Artsakh, our national dignity together,” added Harutyunyan.
On October 31, PM Nikol Pashinyan sent a letter to Russian President Vladimir Putin detailing the situation created by the Azerbaijani-Turkish military aggression against Nagorno-Karabakh and the resulting challenges. The letter stressed the fact that armed foreign terrorists have been transferred from the Middle East and are now involved in hostilities against Nagorno-Karabakh.
Taking into account that military operations were not only approaching the borders of the Republic of Armenia, but that encroachments took place on the territory of the Republic of Armenia, the Prime Minister requested that the Russian President immediately start consultations to determine the type and size of assistance that the Russian Federation can provide to the Republic of Armenia to safeguard its security based on allied relations between Armenia and Russia and Article 2 of the August 27, 1997 Agreement on Friendship, Cooperation and Mutual Assistance.
The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a statement regarding Pashinyan’s letter, stating that Russia will provide Yerevan with the necessary assistance if the clashes are transferred directly to the territory of Armenia in accordance with the agreement. (Several times during the war, the village of David Bek in Armenia proper came under shelling; on November 2 one civilian was killed and another two were wounded. A 14-year-old boy was injured in Armenia’s Gegharkunik region by an Azerbaijani drone attack on October 14).
Since November 5, Azerbaijani forces were doing everything in their power to capture the symbolic fortress town of Shushi. On November 7, Artsrun Hovhannisyan of the Defense Ministry said that Azerbaijan brought new forces into play and was able to advance closer to Shushi. Azerbaijan continued its attempts to capture the strategic fortress city ahead of Azerbaijan’s State Flag Day, celebrated on November 9. Already on November 8, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev claimed that his forces had been able to capture the town. During his live press briefing, Hovhannisyan said that the coming days will be decisive and that very soon Armenia’s victory would be conclusive.
On the evening of November 9, Vahram Poghosyan, the spokesperson of the Artsakh President said in a Facebook post: “Unfortunately, we have to admit that, to this day, the chain of failures continues to haunt us: the city of Shushi is completely out of our control and all kinds of propaganda and reassurances do not give us anything, other than a false sense of reality. It is time to tighten our belts because the adversary is at the gates of Stepanakert and the existence of the capital is already endangered.” Throughout the day, there were many conflicting statements about the situation in Shushi. PM Nikol Pashinyan said that the battles for Shushi continue. Masis Mayilyan, the Foreign Affairs Minister of Artsakh, wrote that battles continue in the direction of the city of Shushi.
On November 10, people woke up to the news that the war had ended in an Armenian surrender.
We, the President of the Republic of Azerbaijan I. H. Aliyev, Prime Minister of the Republic of Armenia Nikol Pashinyan and President of the Russian Federation Vladimir Putin announce the following:
1. We hereby declare that a complete ceasefire shall be established and all hostilities shall be stopped in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict zone as of 00:00 Moscow time on November 10, 2020.
The Republic of Azerbaijan and the Republic of Armenia, hereinafter referred to as the Parties, shall remain at their current positions.
2. Aghdam region shall be returned to the Republic of Azerbaijan until November 20, 2020.
3. Peacekeeping troops of the Russian Federation shall be deployed along the line of contact in Nagorno-Karabakh and along the Lachin corridor, including 1,960 servicemen with firearms, 90 armored personnel carriers, 380 units of motor vehicles and special equipment.
4. The peacekeeping troops of the Russian Federation are being deployed in parallel with the withdrawal of the Armenian armed forces. The peacekeeping troops of the Russian Federation shall stay there for a period of 5 years, with automatic extension for the next 5-year periods, if none of the Parties declares of its intention to terminate the application of this provision 6 months before the expiration of the preceding period.
5. A peacekeeping center shall be deployed to monitor the ceasefire with a view to increasing the effectiveness of control over the implementation of the agreements reached by the Parties to the conflict.
6. The Republic of Armenia shall return the Kelbajar region to the Republic of Azerbaijan by November 15, 2020, and the Lachin region by December 1, 2020. The Lachin corridor (5 km wide), which will provide for communication between Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia and at the same time will not affect the city of Shushi, shall remain under the control of the peacekeeping troops of the Russian Federation.
The Parties have agreed that a plan for the construction of a new route along the Lachin corridor shall be determined within the next three years, providing communication between Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia, with the subsequent redeployment of Russian peacekeeping troops to protect this route.
The Republic of Azerbaijan shall guarantee traffic safety for citizens, vehicles and goods in both directions along the Lachin corridor.
7. Internally displaced persons and refugees shall return to Nagorno-Karabakh and adjacent areas under the control of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.
8. An exchange of prisoners of war, hostages and other detained persons and bodies of the dead is to be carried out.
9. All economic and transport links in the region shall be unblocked. The Republic of Armenia guarantees the safety of transport links between the western regions of the Republic of Azerbaijan and the Nakhichevan Autonomous Republic with a view to organizing the unimpeded movement of citizens, vehicles and goods in both directions. Control over transport communication is exercised by the Border Guard Service bodies of the FSS of Russia.
The Parties agree that the construction of new transport communications linking the Nakhichevan Autonomous Republic with the western regions of Azerbaijan shall be provided.
Hours before the announcement about the trilateral agreement, a Russian helicopter was shot down by Azerbaijani forces based in the Nakhichevan exclave. Azerbaijan admitted that it accidentally shot down a Russian Mi-24 helicopter. This was reported by the country's Foreign Ministry. The Ministry explained that the error occurred because the helicopter was flying in close proximity to the Armenian-Azerbaijani border. The Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry said the flight took place in the dark, at low altitude and outside the radar detection zone of air defense systems, adding that Russian helicopters have not previously been seen in the area where the incident occurred. Baku expressed readiness to pay compensation in connection with the incident and conveyed condolences to the families and friends of the crew members killed.
*At publication, the final number of Armenian military casualties over the course of the war is not yet known (neither is the exact number of wounded known). According to the latest numbers, there are 2996 servicemen killed in action. However, this number is expected to rise as the search, retrieval and identification of bodies continues.
Since the hours before the November 10 Russian-brokered trilateral agreement that ended the 2020 Artsakh War, a coalition of 16 political parties had demanded the resignation of PM Pashinyan and his government. Its most significant supporters were the former-ruling Republican Party of Armenia and its former coalition partners Prosperous Armenia Party and Armenian Revolutionary Federation. On December 5, during one of their largest rallies, the coalition issued an ultimatum to the Prime Minister: resign by noon on December 8 or face countrywide protests and acts of civil disobedience.
The coalition proposed setting up a caretaker government called the National Movement for the Salvation of the Homeland that would lead negotiations within the framework of the truce agreement to prevent what they said was the impending loss of Armenian statehood, implement post-war recovery efforts and hold fresh elections within a year through a constitutional process.
On December 3, two days before the ultimatum was issued, the Homeland Salvation Movement had announced that Vazgen Manukyan would be their candidate for the Prime Minister’s office. Manukyan was Armenia’s first Prime Minister (1990-1991) and then acting Defense Minister (1992-1993). He ran unsuccessfully against Levon Ter-Petrosyan in the 1996 presidential election, in which OSCE/ODIHR observers noted mismatches between the number of ballots issued and those counted.
Manukyan delivered a speech at the December 5 rally in Yerevan’s Opera Square. Speaking about the reasons why Armenia lost the war, Manukyan said that Pashinyan decapitated the Artsakh Defense Army by removing the best commanders, who had the needed experience and knowhow. He also noted that Armenia lost all of its allies (Russia, China, Iran) and was left alone, adding that Pashinyan’s conflicting and provocative announcements only brought Armenia closer to the war. “We could have prevented the war, we could have won the war, we could have put a stop to it sooner with less losses, but none of this happened,” he stressed.
Speaking about the steps moving forward, Manukyan said that the new government should turn every uncertainty of the November 10 trilateral agreement in Armenia’s favor. Armenia will also need to restore its armed forces and special relationship with Russia and other allies. Some of the other concerns that Manukyan mentioned were connected with the issue of POWs, the missing persons, wounded soldiers and families of the deceased soldiers. “There are many obstacles but, right now, one of the main obstacles keeping the nation from moving forward is Pashinyan. He should leave, let him leave voluntarily or else he will leave by force,” added Manukyan.
The opposition factions in Armenia’s parliament also called for the resignation of the PM. The Prosperous Armenia Party (PAP) led by Gagik Tsarukyan is part of the coalition backing the candidacy of Vazgen Manukyan. The other opposition faction, the Bright Armenia Party (BAP), also called for Pashinyan’s resignation but distanced itself from the group backing Manukyan’s candidacy (which includes the former-ruling Republican Party of Armenia). They declared that their candidate for the office of Prime Minister remains BAP party leader Edmon Marukyan.
Following the war, Armenia’s PM Pashinyan put forward a 15-point roadmap that his Government will follow to overcome the current situation. It concluded by saying progress would be reviewed in June 2021 and next steps taken accordingly. On a number of occasions, Pashinyan made it clear that he does not plan to resign.
Some of his points refer to the challenges of the post-war situation, including the return of civilians to Artsakh and the restoration of destroyed infrastructure, residential and public buildings, providing social guarantees to the families of killed and injured citizens and servicemen, as well as the immediate return of captured soldiers and civilians. He also mentioned providing psychological rehabilitation for the people who participated in the war, and society as a whole. Reforming Armenia's Armed Forces and resuming the negotiation process within the OSCE Minsk Group format are also included in the roadmap. Aside from the problems of the post-war situation, the roadmap also focuses on overcoming the coronavirus pandemic, restoring economic activity and the business environment in Armenia, addressing demographic problems, amending the electoral code and the law on political parties.
Following weeks of protests calling for his resignation, PM Pashinyan in a Facebook post on December 25 said that he will be inviting parliamentary and extra-parliamentary forces for consultations on holding snap parliamentary elections in 2021. The Homeland Salvation Movement, however, dismissed this call as “a fake political agenda aimed at manipulating and diverting public attention from the demand for the prime minister’s resignation.” They went on to say that Pashinyan no longer has moral or political legitimacy and cannot guarantee a free and fair electoral process. “As we have previously declared, only an interim government formed following the prime minister’s resignation can make it possible to create an atmosphere of public solidarity in the country, to prevent the loss of statehood through crisis-prevention measures, after which early parliamentary elections will be held.”
The Return of POWs And Civilian Hostages
The 2020 Artsakh War
Failed Attempts to Establish a Humanitarian Ceasefire
The Involvement of Mercenaries
Weeks Leading Up to the Trilateral Agreement
Trilateral Agreement to End the 2020 Artsakh War
The Return of POWs And Civilian Hostages
Two More Villages in Artsakh Fall Under Azerbaijani Control
Syunik Border Demarcation
Russian Peacekeepers in the Region
July Clashes in Tavush
Major Legislative Bills of the Year
Notable ECtHR Rulings
The following articles, from EVN Report’s Magazine Issue “Dignity,” provide a comprehensive overview of the war crimes committed by Azerbaijani troops.
Varujan Avedikian, CEO of the Insurance Foundation for Servicemen spoke to EVN Report about the need to ensure that soldiers and their families live a life of dignity after war. The Foundation’s mission is to insure the social well-being of soldiers injured while on active duty as well as supporting the families of soldiers who died while performing their duties.
HALO Trust is working to clear unexploded ordnance from schools, homes, gardens, fields and public spaces in Stepanakert and other towns and cities following the 2020 Artsakh War. Nick Smart, Regional Director, Europe for HALO Trust talks about the situation, the challenges and needs in the coming years to ensure the land is safe.
To date, 52 Armenian POWs and civilians who were in Azerbaijani captivity have been returned to the Armenian side. Three elderly Armenian civilians were returned with the mediation of Russia a month after the signing of the trilateral agreement. All three were suffering from health conditions and one of them died shortly after returning to Armenia. The second and thus far the largest group, of 45 Armenian POWs and civilian captives, was returned on December 14. Among the captives were Narek Sardaryan, Karen Ghazaryan and Arayik Ghazaryan who were in Azerbaijani captivity before the war. For its part, the Armenian side returned 12 Azerbaijani captives, including two who, in 2014, were accused of illegally crossing the border and killing an officer and a teenage boy and were charged with espionage and murder. One was sentenced to life in prison in Armenia and the other to 22 years in prison. The exchange took place after the Armenian and Azerbaijani sides agreed to apply the principle of “all for all” for the exchange of POWs and other detainees. On December 28, four captives were returned. It is believed that the actual number of Armenian captives is significantly larger and that the Azerbaijani side is purposefully hiding the real number.
Also, during the search and rescue operations in the areas that are now under Azerbaijani control, six conscripts who were missing for 70 days and two civilians missing for 61 days were found. Artsakh President Arayik Harutyunyan made the announcement, saying that the search and rescue operations are being carried out by the Artsakh State Service of Emergency Situations, Russian peacekeepers and the International Committee of the Red Cross. All eight remain under the supervision of doctors.
Two More Villages in Artsakh Fall Under Azerbaijani Control
Following the war, the Armenian government announced that 121 communities located in the Kashatagh, Martakert, Shahumyan, Hadrut, Shushi, Askeran and Martuni regions of Artsakh were transferred to Azerbaijani control in accordance with the terms of the November 10 trilateral agreement.
On December 11, the most serious post-agreement ceasefire violation was reported, as Azerbaijani forces launched an attack against an Armenian military position in the southern Hadrut region. Russian peacekeepers also confirmed the violation of the ceasefire. The next day, the Azerbaijani side resumed offensive operations near the communities of Hin Tagher and Khtsaberd (the only two villages of the Hadrut region that remained under Armenian control after the war). Six Armenian reservists were wounded following an exchange of gunfire. Russian peacekeeping forces were not stationed in the area at the time.
Although the hostilities were stopped following the actions of Russian peacekeepers, both villages fell under Azerbaijani control. PM Nikol Pashinyan also confirmed the news in a Facebook Live. Following the fighting, videos started circulating in Azerbaijani media and Telegram channels showing dozens of Armenian servicemen captured by Azerbaijani troops. The Artsakh Defense Army confirmed that the videos are accurate and that they have lost contact with the personnel of several military positions near the Hin Tagher-Khtsaberd area.
Defense Minister Vagharshak Harutyunyan confirmed that 62 servicemen were captured and that the Armenian side provided the list of those servicemen to the ICRC and their personal cases were submitted to the European Court of Human Rights. On December 21, the ECtHR required the Azerbaijani Government to provide information about the Armenian POWs captured near Hin Tagher-Khtsaberd by December 28.
Syunik Border Demarcation
The issue of the demarcation of a new borderline has been a concern since the end of the war. The eastern border of Armenia’s southern Syunik region is now bordering Azerbaijan instead of the Republic of Artsakh, after some of the territories were either taken back during the hostilities or returned to Azerbaijan as part of the truce agreement. As a result of the ongoing demarcation processes, defense positions of 13 villages of the Syunik region near the city of Kapan were handed over to Azerbaijan on December 18. Gevorg Parsyan, the Mayor of Kapan, said that they received the order from the Defense Ministry. Following the changes, the border with Azerbaijan is only one kilometer away from the city and only 200 meters away from the airport, which is still under construction. After the announcement, residents of Syunik blocked the road near the Kapan airport, demanding security guarantees from the authorities.
At present, some sections of the Goris-Kapan-Meghri highway pass through areas that Azerbaijan is claiming were within the Soviet Azerbaijani borders. Parsyan said Russian border guards will be deployed to the area to guarantee the security of the highway. According to Defense Minister Vagharshak Harutyunyan, an agreement has already been reached with Russian border guards. He also said that new Armenian military units are being organized and new positions will be formed in the region. And that “not a single meter will be conceded from Armenia's territory during the demarcation.”
Russian Peacekeepers in the Region
As was envisioned by the November 10 agreement, Russian peacekeepers were stationed throughout the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh that remains under Armenian control. Several dozen observation posts have been set up and peacekeepers are now monitoring the road leading to Stepanakert, the Lachin corridor and ensuring the safe movement and return of refugees. They have already built a field hospital and a modular camp equipped with all the necessities.
*EVN Report’s section “Spotlight Karabakh” features daily briefings covering 44 days of the war and post-war commentary and analysis.
On July 12, at approximately 12:30 p.m., skirmishes broke out on the internationally-recognized borders of Armenia’s northeastern Tavush region with Azerbaijan, after Azerbaijani soldiers employed artillery fire to take a border post manned by the Armenian Armed Forces. Azerbaijani soldiers attempted to cross the Armenia-Azerbaijan state border in a UAZ military jeep. After warning shots by Armenian forces, the Azerbaijani soldiers abandoned their vehicle and returned to their positions. At 1:45 p.m., Azerbaijani soldiers attempted to attack the border post using artillery fire but were stopped by the Armenian side and forced to retreat, suffering casualties.
At approximately 11 p.m., Shushan Stepanyan wrote in a Facebook post that the Azerbaijani side had resumed shelling, using 82 mm mortar and tank fire near the same military post. She said that Azerbaijan’s leadership will bear responsibility for the consequences of the escalation of the situation. Periodic shelling continued with varying intensity during the next day and the skirmishes intensified into the use of heavy weaponry and Azerbaijan’s subsequent shelling of Armenian villages. On November 14, several Armenian civilian settlements were targeted, namely the villages of Chinari, Aygepar, Nerkin Karmiraghbyur and Paravakar, and the city of Berd.
Following the attack, the Turkish Foreign Ministry issued a statement strongly condemning the attack of the Armenian Armed Forces on Azerbaijan’s Tovuz region [the region on the Azerbaijani side of the state border has a very similar name but is separate from Armenia’s Tavush region]. “Turkey will continue, with all its capacity, to stand by Azerbaijan in its struggle to protect its territorial integrity,” read the statement.
After a 24-hour period of relative calm, the ceasefire was broken early in the morning of July 16, as Azerbaijani special forces attempted a diversion leading to further clashes and shelling of the villages of Aygepar, Chinari, Movses and Nerkin Karmiraghbyur, and the city of Berd.
According to several media reports, Colonel Vagif Dargahli, the Azerbaijani Defense Ministry spokesperson, threatened that their latest missile systems have the ability to hit Armenia’s Metsamor Nuclear Power Plant with accuracy, explicitly saying that it “could lead to a major disaster for Armenia.” Dargahli said that their modern air defense equipment is in place to protect the Mingachevir Reservoir, which he claimed was a potential target for Armenian forces. According to the Armenian side, it has never targeted civilian objects nor has it ever claimed that the reservoir was a target.
Over the course of the week beginning on July 12, four Armenian soldiers were killed from Azerbaijani gunfire after sustaining fatal wounds. Armenian Air Defense Units shot down an Azerbaijani Elbit Systems Hermes 900 drone. The Israeli-made multi-payload, medium-altitude long-endurance UAV is designed for tactical missions (and reportedly costs approximately $30 million).
Aside from intermittent gunfire across the interstate border by the Azerbaijani military, the situation in Tavush has been relatively calm since July 17.
Armenia confirmed its first case of COVID-19 on March 1. The patient was a 29-year-old citizen of Armenia, who arrived from Tehran (one of the epicenters of the virus at the time) on a flight evacuating Armenian citizens after regular flights were canceled. Passengers on that flight were asked to self-isolate but were not quarantined.
Even before the virus started spreading in Armenia, the Government had taken a number of precautionary measures. Some of the key actions in January and February were the formation of a special Task Force to prevent the spread of the virus, temporarily suspending the new visa-free regime with China, where the virus originated (just two weeks after a bilateral agreement between Armenia and China removing visa restrictions came into force), and closing the border with Iran on February 23. The messaging of the Government in early March, before a national lockdown and restrictions on freedom of movement were imposed through a State of Emergency, mainly focused on urging citizens to limit non-essential travel to countries where the virus was rapidly spreading. PM Pashinyan also pledged to be fully transparent and keep the public constantly updated about COVID-19 developments.
Also, the day Armenia confirmed its first coronavirus case, Armenia’s then-Minister of Education, Science, Culture and Sport Arayik Harutyunyan announced the Ministry’s decision to move Spring Break up as a precautionary measure and thus shut down all educational institutions for one week. The Ministry decided to reopen all schools on March 9, as no further cases of COVID-19 had been confirmed. However, four days later, schools and universities across the country were shut down again as new cases were registered. Educational institutions transitioned to online learning until the end of the academic year.
On March 16, fifteen days after the first coronavirus case was reported, the Government declared a 30-day State of Emergency (SOE), which was subsequently extended five times until September 11. When the SOE was declared, Armenia had 30 confirmed cases of COVID-19, 20 of which were traced back to the city of Etchmiadzin, which at that point was the largest infection hub and had been placed under lockdown a day earlier. In declaring the SOE, the Government also changed the status of the initial Task Force for coronavirus prevention and formed the Special Commission of the State of Emergency, led by Deputy PM Tigran Avinyan, to coordinate the government response. According to the rules introduced by the SOE, Armenian citizens as well as foreign nationals were prohibited from exiting the country through land borders (except those transporting cargo). However, there was no government-imposed restriction on boarding flights to leave the country, as long as the airline ran the flight and the receiving country accepted the passenger. All citizens of Armenia and family members of citizens (whether or not they were citizens themselves) were allowed to return. Those with special residency permits, representatives of diplomatic missions based in Armenia and their family members, and representatives of foreign states who were in Armenia on official visits were also allowed to enter the country. Visitors who had been in highly affected countries (as determined by the Special Commission) in the preceding 14 days were not allowed to enter the country (except representatives of diplomatic missions and international organizations and their family members).
The most restrictive measures, however, pertained to the dissemination of information about the virus. Individuals posting on social media platforms, as well as media organizations, were required to reference only official sources when writing or reporting about COVID-19. If and when these requirements were not met, they were obliged to immediately remove the post. The restrictions, however, were lifted on April 13 after concerns were raised that the government had overstepped into media censorship. Though the measure was initially meant to prevent panic, it was later determined that people were not taking the risks posed by the virus seriously enough.
By March 18, Armenia already had 84 confirmed cases of COVID-19, over 70 percent of which could be traced back to two major infection hubs, the city of Echmiadzin and a factory based in Yerevan. At the time, PM Pashinyan explained that people who had arrived from affected countries but did not report their symptoms were the major reason for the spread of the virus. As a result, the government's strategy henceforth was predicated on the assumption that people are often unwilling to self-quarantine at home. Testing, hospitalization, contact tracing and isolation were the four key elements of the prevention strategy. Armenia thus became one of the very few countries which hospitalized all confirmed patients, including those who did not exhibit symptoms, and isolated all citizens who had come in contact with an infected patient. However, this strategy was gradually modified as the ability of the healthcare system to expand its capacity met its limits.
Twenty-four days after Armenia registered its first coronavirus case, a national lockdown was imposed. In a Facebook Live, PM Nikol Pashinyan announced that the geographic transmission and the volume of new infections warranted additional restrictive measures to curb the spread of the virus. At this point, Armenia already had 235 confirmed cases of COVID-19. The new decision prohibited the operation of all cafes and restaurants, with the exception of deliveries. Supermarkets, pharmacies and banks remained open but citizens were encouraged to use online services as much as possible. All those leaving their homes were required to fill out a standardized form about their movement and carry it with them, along with their ID, to present to a police officer when asked. Much tighter restrictions on movement were introduced from April 1 to April 13. According to the new decision, everyone was required to self-isolate in their place of residence in order to limit direct contact with others and prevent the transmission of the virus. Free movement of the population was also restricted between the regions of Armenia and the administrative borders of the capital Yerevan. Public transport did not operate, with the exception of trains. People were required to carry a form filled out by their employer if they were going to work.
In the week of May 29, PM Pashinyan announced that Armenia was dealing with the second wave of infection. He said the measures in place are adequate and the problem lies in the implementation of the rules. Pashinyan stressed that people need to follow three simple rules: wear a face mask, maintain social distancing and regularly wash/disinfect their hands. At that point, the Government’s strategy was to change public behavior and ensure that people follow the safety rules.
Prior to the start of the 2020 Artsakh War, the number of active cases in Armenia peaked on July 6 at 11,984, before increased vigilance in maintaining safety precautions started bringing the numbers down. By the end of July, PM Nikol Pashinyan said that the country can be cautiously optimistic, while Health Minister Arsen Torosyan noted that Armenia might have passed its peak. At that point, the number of active cases stood at 8,587. At the end of August, the COVID-19 situation remained relatively stable in the country. Six of the 20 medical centers that had been treating COVID-19 patients for the past few months returned to their normal course of operations.
In the week of September 11, the number of active cases was below 3,000. After extending the SOE five times, the Parliament adopted a bill introducing a quarantine regime, which allowed implementing emergency measures when necessary, instead of continually extending the state of emergency.
In the week of September 18, there was another uptick in the number of COVID cases, which PM Nikol Pashinyan said was “worrying.” The increase was partially explained by the large number of daily tests being conducted (on average 4,000 tests) but the percentage of the confirmed cases had also increased. The reproduction number of the virus stood at 1.02, indicating that each new patient was infecting on average 1.02 other people. A few days earlier, the number had been below 1, indicating that the caseload was shrinking. Analysis by the Health Ministry indicated that the increased freedom of movement was the main reason for the growth and that people should continue following the anti-epidemic rules to avoid a fresh wave of the virus. At that point, the number of active cases was 3,330.
During the 2020 Artsakh War, as battles continued raging on the front line, the number of COVID-19 cases in Armenia skyrocketed. On October 22, over 2,300 new cases were reported and the number of active cases was 17,869, a new high. Healthcare officials warned that, with the number of wounded soldiers requiring medical care, the healthcare system could collapse.
Armenia received COVID-related assistance from a number of countries and international organizations, including the World Health Organization, European Union, France, Russia, Lithuania, Georgia, Poland, Serbia, China, the U.S., Italy, Japan, Germany, the Netherlands and Canada.
As of December 30, the Ministry of Health reported 158,878 cumulative cases of COVID-19, of which 13,548 are active cases and 141,844 have already recovered. To date, 2,807 COVID-19 patients have died and over 591,048 tests have been conducted.
In January, Parliament approved a draft bill that would allow police to wiretap telephone conversations with a court order. Since 2007, only the National Security Service (NSS) could wiretap phones. Previously, the police were required to seek approval by the NSS to wiretap phones before getting a court order. The current law authorizes police to go to the courts directly and conduct their own investigation without NSS supervision.
The legislative package was tabled by two MPs from the My Step faction, who said it is a necessary tool for police reform, providing police with the needed independence to act as a government watchdog. The Government was opposed to the proposed changes to the law, stating that there needed to be comprehensive police reform before such changes are introduced.
Also in January, Parliament passed a bill drafted by the Ministry of Justice, criminalizing the creation of and membership in or support for groups that are part of the criminal subculture in Armenia - also known as “Thieves-in-Law.” According to the proposed changes, such acts will be punished with imprisonment for 5-10 years. Stricter punishments will be imposed if such groups involving minors are created in the military forces or in prisons. The Prosperous Armenia Party voted against the bill, while the Bright Armenia Party abstained.
Parliament unanimously voted in favor a draft bill that would make the punishment for inducing a soldier to commit suicide much more strict. The bill was tabled by four MPs from the Prosperous Armenia faction (Naira Zohrabyan, Vahe Enfiajyan, Shakée Isayan and Arman Abovyan). According to the changes, inducing a soldier to commit suicide or attempted suicide by threatening him, offending his honor and dignity, or through violent and cruel behaviour will be punished with imprisonment between three to eight years.
In April, the National Assembly voted in favor of the draft bill tabled by the Justice Ministry, proposing to criminalize hate speech in Armenia, including public calls for violence or publicly justifying/inciting violence. Deputy Minister of Justice Srbuhi Galyan, who presented the bill in Parliament, said that public calls for violence based on a person’s gender, race, skin color, ethnic or social origin, language, religion, political or other views, age, disability, or any other social and personal circumstances will be criminally prosecuted. According to the bill, such actions will be punished by a fine of 50,000-100,000 AMD, detention for a maximum of two months, or imprisonment for a maximum of one year.
More severe punishment is set if the act is committed by a group of people with prior consent or by a group of people in positions of authority. In such circumstances, penalties are increased to a fine of 150,000 to 300,000 AMD, detention for a term of two to three months, or imprisonment for a term of one to three years.
In May, Parliament passed a legislative package proposing to confiscate illegally-acquired properties and other assets. According to the law, a property is considered illegal when its acquisition cannot be justified by legitimate income. The bill would allow prosecutors to investigate individuals when there are sufficient grounds to suspect that the market value of their assets exceeds their legal income by more than 50 million AMD (approx. $95,000). The initial threshold was set at 25 million AMD (approx. $47,500) but was increased based on the recommendation of the opposition factions. The property can only be confiscated with a court decision.
President Armen Sarkissian signed the law but also released a statement outlining that he received several concerns from NGOs, foreign investors and legal experts regarding the constitutionality of the law, possible risks it may pose as well as the potential negative impact of the law on economic development and the overall investment climate. The presidential office has discussed all these concerns with the Justice Minister and the Chairman of the Standing Committee on State and Legal Affairs. The statement also said that it is expected that the law will be applied as an exceptional measure in the fight against crimes that pose a danger to the public and that any inappropriate application of the law can undermine trust toward the state and endanger its efficiency.
In May, Parliament also voted to ratify the Council of Europe Convention on the Protection of Children against Sexual Exploitation and Sexual Abuse (also known as the Lanzarote Convention). The ruling My Step faction voted in favor of the bill, opposition Prosperous Armenia voted against, while Bright Armenia did not participate in the session. The Convention requires the criminalization of all kinds of sexual offences against children. It sets out that states in Europe and beyond shall adopt specific legislation and take measures to prevent sexual violence, to protect child victims and prosecute perpetrators. According to the Convention, people working with children are required to have relevant knowledge of child sexual exploitation, sexual violence against them and ways to detect such violence. Also, states have to ensure that people working with children on a regular basis (for example teachers) do not have a previous conviction for sexually assaulting or exploiting a child. Critics of the convention spread disinformation that the ratification of the treaty undermined the traditional family unit.
The Armenian government signed the Lanzarote Convention back in 2010, but had not ratified it until now. All 47 Council of Europe member states have signed it. After Armenia’s ratification, Ireland is now the only CoE country that has not yet ratified it.
In June, the National Assembly approved a government bill to make amendments and changes to Armenia’s Tax Code. The bill changes the methodology to calculate property tax by replacing a legacy cadastral value of a property with an estimated market value (which will be higher in almost all cases).
The increase in property tax owed will be staged over six years. The bill introduces a progressive scale of taxation, applying the largest increases to the most expensive properties. Finance Minister Atom Janjughazyan estimated that Armenia’s property tax revenue would more than quadruple as a result, which is mostly transferred to local municipal budgets. The bill enters into force on January 1, 2021.
April War Investigation
The parliamentary committee investigating the circumstances behind the 2016 Four Day April War officially concluded its activities this year. Yuri Khachaturov, who in 2016 was the Chief of the General Staff of the Armenian Armed Forces, is the only former high ranking official who refused to participate in the Committee’s session. It was Khachaturov who, on April 5, 2016, held a meeting with his Azerbaijani counterpart in Moscow and agreed to a ceasefire regime along the Line of Contact. (Khachaturov was arrested in 2018 while he was the head of the Collective Security Treaty Organization for subverting public order following the 2008 post-election protests in Armenia; he was the head of the Yerevan military garrison at the time).
The parliamentary ad hoc committee was formed in June 2019. It was authorized to question senior officials and request classified military reports and documents. The mandate of the committee was quite broad, and included issues related to combat readiness, compliance with the rules of combat duty and intelligence activities. Former high ranking officials that were questioned by the Committee include former President Serzh Sargsyan, former Defense Minister Seyran Ohanyan, former Chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces Artak Davtyan, former PM Karen Karapetyan and former Foreign Minister Edward Nalbandian. It was expected that the committee would present its findings/analysis to the public in September. The report has yet to be published.
Law on Political Parties
A new Law on Political Parties finally passed second reading (Armenian bills only require two readings) on December 29. A joint opinion by the Venice Commission and OSCE/ODIHR on an earlier draft version had been published on March 26 and many of its recommendations were included in the final version (which had been delayed due to the COVID-19 State of Emergency and then the 2020 Artsakh War). The bill aims for greater transparency in the field of political finance by restricting donations from corporations or those made in petty cash and tasks the new Corruption Prevention Commission with oversight in this area. It also expands public funding of political parties, lowering the eligibility threshold for state subsidies from 3% to 2%.
International human rights expert and litigator Ara Ghazaryan scrutinizes the criminal underworld of crime bosses otherwise known as “Thieves-in-Law.” Find out what the Armenian government plans to do to eradicate these deeply rooted criminal elements in the country.
Despite a heavily polarized political environment, the bill passed with 99 votes in favor and only 1 against. Independent MP Arman Babajanyan voted against the bill and the Prosperous Armenia Party was mostly absent from the session. However, the Bright Armenia Party supported the initiative, which preceded heightened tensions between the BAP and the ruling My Step alliance over the course of 2020 (The BAP is currently calling for the resignation of Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan).
In June, Armenia’s second President Robert Kocharyan, charged with overthrowing the constitutional order, was granted 2 billion AMD (approx. $4.1 million) bail. Most of the bail money was posted by Samvel Karapetyan, the owner of Tashir Holding, Sergey Hambarzumyan, the owner of the Monarch group of companies, Genady Stepanyan, a Russian-Armenian businessman and philanthropist, and Vladimir Yevtushenkov, a Russian billionaire and one of the shareholders of the Russian AFK Sistema (Kocharyan has been an independent member of this company’s Board of Directors since 2009).
Kocharyan's legal team had filed a motion on May 8 with the Court of First Instance to have him released from detention based on the personal guarantees of former Prime Ministers of Armenia Karen Karapetyan, Khosrov Harutyunyan, Vazgen Manukyan and former PM of Artsakh Anushavan Danielyan, citing the former president’s age and health amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Presiding Judge Anna Danibekyan had rejected that motion, after which his lawyers filed an appeal. Presiding Judge Arsen Nikoghosyan of the Criminal Court of Appeal, while rejecting the personal guarantees, overturned Danibekyan’s decision and set bail instead.
Kocharyan was first arrested in July 2018 and was twice released from pre-trial detention (first by the decision of the Court of Appeal, the second time, based on the personal guarantees to two former Presidents of Artsakh, Arkadi Ghukasyan and Bako Sahakyan). Although the Prosecutor’s Office appealed the court decision stating that there is substantial risk that while in freedom Kocharyan will try to illegally influence people involved in the case, the former President was not remanded into custody.
In March, the Special Investigative Service (SIS) announced that charges were brought against Armenia’s former Defense Minister Seyran Ohanyan for embezzling 1.46 billion AMD ($2 million) in state funds. Ohanyan, who served as defense minister from 2008 to 2016, is under investigation for squandering state property and cannot leave the country while awaiting trial.
Dr. Nerses Kopalyan puts the criminal case against Gagik Tsarukyan, leader of the opposition Prosperous Armenia Party into context and says that knowing the scope and depth of the case against him was serious, Tsarukyan went on the offensive by attacking the government so that once charges were filed, he could claim political persecution.
In 2010, DzoraHEK hydroelectric plant, which is located in the northern Lori region, was sold by former President Serzh Sargsyan’s government to a private company for $7.5 million. It was in May 2019 that the Prosecutor General’s Office said that the plant was sold well below its market value, causing substantial damage to the state and that the actual estimated value of the plant is 4.646 billion AMD ($9 million). The Investigative Service said that, at the time of its privatization, the plant belonged to the Ministry of Defense and it was the ministry that proposed the deal. Ohanyan denies the charges leveled against him.
Ohanyan is also being investigated for overthrowing the constitutional order following the disputed 2008 presidential election (along with Robert Kocharyan, Yuri Khachaturov and Armen Gevorgyan).
In February, the trial of former President Serzh Sargsyan, who has been charged with embezzlement, kicked off. Sargsyan himself was present during the first day of the hearing. He was greeted by more than 100 supporters rallying outside the district court building. Sargsyan addressed his supporters and thanked them for protecting justice. He said that the “the supreme goal of his life” is to keep Nagorno-Karabakh out of the hands of Azerbaijan.
The former President was charged back in December 2019. Sargsyan is accused of embezzling about $1 million in government funds between January 25 to February 7, 2013. The charges stem from a state assistance program providing farmers with cheap diesel fuel. Sargsyan allegedly interfered by ensuring the government tender was won by Flash, one of Armenia’s main fuel importers, rather than another fuel importer that offered a lower price and could have saved the government $1 million. The owner of Flash, Barsegh Beglaryan, who is believed to have close relations with Sargsyan, former Agriculture Minister Sergo Karapetyan, former Deputy Minister of Agriculture Samvel Galstyan and the Head of the Crop Management Department of the same ministry Gevorg Harutyunyan were also indicted as part of the criminal case. All five deny the charges leveled against them.
In April, Armenia’s State Revenue Committee (SRC) brought corruption charges against Mikayel Minasyan, Armenia’s former ambassador to Vatican City (2013-2018) and former President Serzh Sargsyan’s son-in-law. Minasyan is accused of illegal enrichment, false asset disclosure and money laundering. According to the statement by the Committee, Minasyan’s 2017-2018 asset declaration, which he was required to submit as a public official, shows that his assets have significantly increased, and their acquisition cannot be justified by legitimate income. Within the same reporting period, Minasyan also failed to fully disclose his assets and legalized a large number of illegally acquired properties.
One of Minasyan’s lawyers, Amram Makinyan, said that the money laundering charge stems from large sums of cash which Minasyan transferred from one of his bank accounts to another in 2017-2018. He also insisted that the other accusations are based on a “technical error” committed by the employee of a private firm which prepared and filed Minasyan’s income declarations. The investigation is ongoing.
In June, the SRC announced that Minasyan has been charged with more counts of illegal enrichment, false asset disclosure and money laundering. The statement said that they have collected an unprecedented amount of information about his illegal financial activities. The statement went on to say that the investigation revealed that Minasyan failed to declare that he owns 49 percent of the shares of Spayka (Armenia’s largest food-exporting company) in his 2017-2018 asset declarations. Minasyan denies the charges against him as politically motivated. His whereabouts remain unknown though he regularly holds Facebook Live broadcasts from a now-famous kitchen.
On June 14, following a search by the National Security Service (NSS) at Gagik Tsarukyan’s home outside of Yerevan, he was summoned to the NSS, where he was questioned for about nine hours. On the same day, the NSS announced the opening of three criminal cases relating to Tsarukyan’s political party and businesses owned by him. They include:
Voter Fraud: According to the charge, a group of Prosperous Armenia Party members distributed vote bribes ahead of the 2017 parliamentary election. Hundreds of millions of Armenian drams were allegedly handed out to secure votes for the party and the party’s candidates. The statement also said that, during the investigation, over four dozen searches were conducted and the NSS had confiscated computers and documents, which contain detailed information about the funds allocated for vote buying and analysis of the number of votes that were secured. Although Tsarukyan’s name was not explicitly mentioned in this statement, it did say that the party’s leadership was involved in the process.
Illegal activities with regard to Tsarukyan’s Shangri La Casino, which was allegedly operating without a proper license, causing the state over $61 million in damages. Also, the illegal activities of the casino allegedly obstructed an investment project worth over 40 billion AMD ($83 million).
Illegal appropriation of state property: According to the NSS, officials of the Arinj community (where Tsarukyan resides) used their official positions for personal benefit and leased 7.5 hectares of agricultural land to New Company LLC, which belongs to Tsarukyan. The statement notes that the head of the community later legalized the illegal constructions built on the agricultural land, after which the area was sold to the same company. Over 378 million AMD (almost $800,000) was not transferred to the municipal budget.
On June 15, the Prosecutor General’s office submitted petitions to the National Assembly to institute criminal charges as well as a vote to remove his immunity. Prosperous Armenia and Bright Armenia boycotted the vote. On June 16, Gagik Tsarukyan, leader of the opposition Prosperous Armenia Party (PAP), was stripped of his parliamentary immunity via secret ballot [in a vote of 87 to 0] to allow Armenia’s Prosecutor General to file criminal charges.
After the vote, Prosecutor General Artur Davtyan presented to parliament the grounds for detaining Tsarukyan. Davtyan said a primary investigation has shown that there is sufficient evidence that Tsarukyan, as leader of the Tsarukyan Alliance of parties and president of the PAP, created and led an organized group to procure votes during the 2017 parliamentary elections for the candidates on the Alliance’s list. The financial reports of the group included lists of voters who were paid for their vote, including their names, passport numbers, family members and the amount paid, at a rate of 10,000 AMD per person.
Davtyan said that, given the elaborate structure of the scheme, Tsarukyan’s influence over the group and the considerable financial means available to him, there is reasonable concern that he can influence the course of the investigation. In a second secret ballot, as per the request of the Prosecutor General, parliament approved holding Gagik Tsarukyan in detention [in a vote of 87 to 0].
After the National Assembly voted to strip Tsarukyan of his parliamentary immunity on June 16 [for a summary on the parliamentary proceedings, see below], the National Security Service (NSS) filed a motion to a Yerevan court to hold Tsarukyan in pretrial detention. On June 21, a Yerevan Court decided that the leader of the opposition Prosperous Armenia Party will not be held in pre-trial detention.
The Prosecutor’s Office appealed the decision and the Court of Appeal partially satisfied the complaint; overturned the decision of the First Instance Court and sent it back for a new examination. Tsarukyan was arrested on September 25, based on the decision of the First Instance Court. On October 22, he was released on bail for 100 million AMD (approximately $190,000).
Tsarukyan and his Party have said the charges are fabricated, politically motivated and that the Government is trying to blackmail him after he criticized the country’s leadership and demanded the resignation of PM Nikol Pashinyan and his Government because they have mishandled the coronavirus response and failed to deliver on their promises.
On February 6, Parliament voted in favor of holding a referendum to amend Article 213 of the Constitution and dismiss seven of the nine members of the Constitutional Court. Bright Armenia voted against the bill, while Prosperous Armenia did not participate in the vote. Before the vote, PM Pashinyan called on the members of the Constitutional Court to hand in their resignations before the referendum. Pashinyan also said that he had already discussed the situation with President Armen Sargsyan who reassured him that he is in favor of holding a referendum.
Following the vote, the co-rapporteurs of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) monitoring Armenia, issued a statement calling on the Armenian authorities to request the Venice Commission’s opinion regarding the constitutional changes. A few days later, PACE issued another statement saying that they are concerned about the tensions between the Prime Minister’s Office and the Presidency of the Constitutional Court. The co-rapporteurs monitoring Armenia noted that these tensions should not hinder the reform process in Armenia.
The statement talked about the importance of checks and balances in any democratic system and how all the branches of the government and institutional powers must respect each other and act in accordance with the rule of law. “If they fail to interact according to these principles, they undermine and damage each other,” the statement read as it welcomed the Armenian government’s and parliament’s efforts to address the situation through legal procedures. Speaking about the early retirement scheme of the Constitutional Court judges, PACE reaffirmed that such measures must be strictly voluntary. “We have already emphasised the need for political players to refrain from actions and statements that could be perceived as exerting pressure on the judiciary,” added the statement.
On February 9, President Armen Sarkissian signed a decree, according to which the referendum on constitutional changes that would suspend seven of the nine judges of the Constitutional Court would be scheduled for April 5.
Before President Sarkissian set the date for the referendum, however, former Human Rights Defenders of Armenia and Artsakh, Larisa Alaverdyan and Ruben Melikyan, and President of the Helsinki Committee Avetik Ishkhanyan, along with 130 lawyers and human rights activists, had sent a petition to the President saying that Parliament’s decision to hold a referendum was in violation of Armenia’s Constitution and constitutional legislation. They also asked the President to not get involved in what they considered an anti-constitutional process and to not set a date for the referendum.
The President’s Office clarified that, by setting the day for the referendum, he was not expressing his position on the changes to the Constitution. The statement also said that the Constitutional powers of the President regarding the decision are procedural and limited exclusively to signing a decree in a three-day period and setting a date for the referendum.
The campaign for the April 5 referendum began on February 17. The Yes Campaign was headed by the Chair of the Civil Contract Party Board, Minister of Territorial Administration and Infrastructure Suren Papikyan. Forty four MPs from the My Step parliamentary faction also joined the campaign team. The No Campaign was formed by 61 lawyers, most of whom are known for being critical of the Pashinyan administration (the list was headed by the former Government Ombudsman of Artsakh Ruben Melikyan). Early in the campaign, controversy arose when it was revealed that the Yes Campaign’s logo had been plagiarized from the 1991 independence referendum.
But all the preparations for the April 5 referendum were suspended on March 17, after the Government declared a State of Emergency (SOE) because of the COVID-19 pandemic. As the SOE was renewed several times, it was eventually decided to table a bill on Constitutional amendments in the National Assembly.
The bill on Constitutional changes passed on June 22 with 89 MPs voting in favor. The two opposition parties (Bright Armenia and Prosperous Armenia) boycotted the vote. Vahagn Hovakimyan from the My Step faction presented the bill. He explained that Armenia will not be able to hold a referendum for at least another year but that delaying the constitutional changes will affect Armenia’s development and upcoming reform process.
The Constitutional Amendment that eventually passed was less severe than the original referendum question. Instead of dismissing seven of the nine justices, only the judges who had served 12 years or more were retired (Alvina Gyulumyan, Felix Tokhyan and Hrant Nazaryan), while those who had not met the 12 year tenure will continue to serve until they meet this newly-universal term limit (they were previously only subject to age restrictions). The powers of then-Chairman of the Court Hrayr Tovmasyan were also terminated and he continues to serve as a judge of the Court. Without the amendments, he would have continued to serve as Chairman until 2035.
The Venice Commission published its opinion about the constitutional changes the same day Parliament started discussing the bill. The Commission’s report confirmed the legality and constitutionality of the amendments to the Constitution. The Venice Commission qualified the proposed changes as “a legitimate aim” and agreed that these are “good arguments in favor of the new approach proposed by the Armenian authorities.”
The Commission, however, recommended setting a “transitional period” for those judges who served more than 12 years. Speaking about this recommendation, Justice Minister Rustam Badasyan explained that, for judges that have already surpassed their 12 year tenure, a transitional period on top of their excessive tenure would arbitrarily discredit the fairness doctrine.
MPs voted against sending the bill to the Constitutional Court for review (88 against and 1 in favor). The My Step faction argued that asking the Constitutional Court to review a matter that directly involves the Constitutional Court is a conflict of interest and, according to the Law on the Constitutional Court, judges must recuse themselves from such cases.
Armenia’s Parliament also voted in favor of amending the National Assembly Rules of Procedure, according to which the bill on constitutional changes does not need to be signed into law by the President. This was done to provide consistency with precedent, as constitutional changes in 1995, 2005 and 2015, which were approved through a referendum, were not signed by the President. Ararat Mirzoyan, the Speaker of the Parliament, noted that they had discussions with President Armen Sarkissian and his staff regarding the proposed change and that it was the presidential office that insisted that Parliament look into this legislative gap and set clear regulation. President Armen Sarkissian did sign this change in procedure into law.
The dismissal of the three members of the high court was completed on June 30, after the National Assembly passed a bill (80 in favor and one against), which stipulates that members whose powers were terminated by the recent Constitutional changes will still be eligible for a state pension. Bright Armenia and Prosperous Armenia again did not participate in the vote.
After the bill on Constitutional changes was passed by Parliament, President Armen Sarkissian declined to sign it into law and notified the Speaker of Parliament Ararat Mirzoyan about his decision. According to the procedure, the President has 21 days to sign the laws adopted by the National Assembly or apply to the Constitutional Court if there are concerns about the constitutionality of a particular law. But if the President declines to sign a bill into law, he gives the Speaker of the Parliament an opportunity to sign it within five days. So, the President’s decision does not mean that the bill is unconstitutional or that he does not want to sign it into law.
After the 21 days set by law expired, Ararat Mirzoyan, the Speaker of Parliament, signed the bill on making changes and amendments to the Law on Constitutional Court.
Yervand Khundkaryan, Edgar Shatiryan and Artur Vagharshyan were appointed to fill the three vacancies created by the changes.
Presidential and parliamentary elections were held in Artsakh on March 31, despite calls to postpone them because of COVID-19. Over 72 percent of eligible voters participated in the election. The leader of the Free Homeland Party Arayik Harutyunyan, came first with 49.2 percent of the votes, while Foreign Affairs Minister Masis Mayilyan came second with 26.4 percent of the votes, forcing a runoff election 14 days later, on April 14.
During the runoff election, Arayik Harutyunyan was elected Artsakh’s next president. The Central Electoral Commission of Artsakh reported that 44.9 percent of eligible voters participated in the election. Harutyunyan registered a landslide victory with 88 percent of the votes, while Mayilyan received only 12 percent.
Five political forces passed the minimum electoral threshold (5 percent for parties and 7 percent for alliances) to be represented in the 33-member National Assembly. They include: Free Homeland and United Civic Alliance (16 seats), United Homeland Party (9 seats), Justice Party of Artsakh (3 seats), Armenian Revolutionary Federation (3 seats), and Democratic Party of Artsakh (2 seats).
Following the 2020 Artsakh War, President Arayik Harutyunyan announced that early presidential and parliamentary elections would be held in 2021 and that he would not seek re-election.
Makuchyan and Minasyan v. Azerbaijan and Hungary
On May 25, the ECtHR passed a Chamber judgment in the case of Makuchyan and Minasyan v. Azerbaijan and Hungary. The case concerned the brutal 2004 murder of Armenian Lieutenant Gurgen Margaryan and attempted murder of another Armenian soldier, Hayk Makuchyan, by Azerbaijani Lieutenant Ramil Safarov during a NATO Partnership for Peace English language program in Budapest. Safarov, who was sentenced to life imprisonment with no chance of parole for 30 years by a Hungarian court, was extradited to Azerbaijan in 2012, where he was welcomed as a hero and immediately pardoned. Safarov was also given a new apartment, promoted to the rank of Major and received back pay for the preceding eight years he had served in prison. Following Hungary’s decision to extradite Safarov to Azerbaijan, Armenia suspended its diplomatic relations with Hungary in August 2012.
The European Court unanimously found that there had been a procedural violation by Azerbaijan of Article 2 (right to life) of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) and of Article 14 (prohibition of discrimination). The Court, however, also found that there had been no substantive violation by Azerbaijan of Article 2 (right to life) and no procedural violation by Hungary of the same article. Also, the court unanimously found that neither the Azerbaijani nor Hungarian governments had failed to comply with Article 38 (obligation to furnish necessary facilities for the examination of the case). The Court also held that Azerbaijan has to pay the applicants 15,143 pounds sterling (GBP) in respect of costs and expenses.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs commented on the ECtHR ruling, saying that the decision is against Azerbaijan's policy of Armenophobia. The decision recognizes that it is unacceptable to promote hate crimes committed against Armenians by Azerbaijan. The statement also said that Armenia views the ruling as a demand addressed to the authorities of Azerbaijan to restore justice in the murder of Gurgen Margaryan and end its racist policy toward Armenians.
Saribekyan and Balyan v. Azerbaijan
In January, the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) issued a judgement in the case of Saribekyan and Balyan against Azerbaijan, requiring the Azerbaijani government to pay the victims’ parents €60,000 ($66,000) in damages. According to the court, they found that Saribekyan had been subjected to ill-treatment in the form of severe physical violence during the final days of his life.
Manvel Saribekyan, a resident of an Armenian border village, was arrested by the Azerbaijani military police in 2010 after he went into a nearby forest allegedly to collect wood with his neighbors. The Azerbaijani side said that he was attempting to cross the border to commit a terrorist act, namely, to blow up a school. A month later, Saribekyan was found dead, hanging from a rope in his cell.
The Armenian Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a statement saying that the ruling was the first time that the ECtHR has found Azerbaijan responsible for the killing of an Armenian citizen. “This ruling once again demonstrates that Azerbaijan is violating its international human rights obligations,” read the statement. “It also indicates that every Armenian who would fall under the control of the Azerbaijani authorities, regardless of his or her status, is subjected to a life threat.”
On August 4, 2750 tons of ammonium nitrate, which had been stored at the Port of Beirut for six years, exploded after an adjacent warehouse caught fire. The detonation was registered as a seismic event hitting 3.3 on the Richter scale by the U.S. Geological Survey. The intense shockwaves were felt in Cyprus, Turkey, Syria and Israel. To date, the explosion has left at least 200 people dead, thousands injured and 300,000 homeless.
Following the explosion, the Armenian Government sent three planes of humanitarian aid to Lebanon (each carrying about 12 tons of food, medicine and textile products). Two of the humanitarian aid packages were for the Lebanese people generally and one was specifically directed to cover the needs of the local Armenian community. Armenia also sent a delegation to Beirut to assess the situation on the ground and understand how the Government can assist Lebanon overcome the crisis. Over 100 Armenians returned to Armenia with the planes that delivered the assistance.