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After the war, a cabinet shake-up in Armenia

23 November 2020
Armenia's Parliament. Official photo.

Over the past week, four Armenian ministers have been replaced in the biggest ministerial reshuffle since Pashinyan’s My Step coalition won a landslide in 2018.  

On 20 November, two ministers, Minister of Defence Davit Tonoyan and Minister of Labour and Social Affairs Zaruhi Batoyan, were fired. Minister of Foreign Affairs Zohrab Mnatsakanyan resigned on 16 November and Minister of Emergency Situations Feliks Tsolakyan resigned on 17 November.

Resignations have also hit the country’s parliament. On 16 November, after a controversial Facebook post by Pashinyan, two MPs from the ruling My Step bloc, Gayane Abrahamyan and Lusine Badalyan announced their resignations as member of parliament, while two other My Step Mps, Taguhi Tovmasyan and Vardan Atibekyan, announced that they were leaving the ruling faction. 

That same day, head of Deputy Prime Minister Tigran Avinyan’s Office Varag Siseryan announced his resignation both as Avinyan’s chief of staff and from Pashinyan’s Civil Contract Party.

The post in question was a call by Pashinyan to soldiers in Nagorno-Karabakh who had expressed their support for the prime minister. ‘Today I watched dozens of videos of soldiers from the front line, I was struck by the thoughtfulness of the soldiers’, Pashinyan wrote on 15 November. ‘You, guys, are right. I am waiting for you in Yerevan to finally resolve the issues of the snivelling people under the walls’.

The post was condemned by the country’s Human Right Defender who warned that Pashinyan’s words can lead to violence. 

The Prime Minister later attempted to clarify his earlier statements saying that he did not call for soldiers to exercise violence against political opponents. Instead, he said, he meant that returning soldiers will, by telling their stories, dispel any ideas that Armenia ‘military-political leadership’ was involved in any ‘conspiracies’. 

New ministers

Armenia now has four new ministers leading institutions that played a crucial role during the Nagorno-Karabakh war. 

The country’s new Foreign Affairs Minister is Ara Azatyan, a former diplomat who served as Deputy Foreign Minister from 14 October to 18 November 2020. Azatyan, who received a diploma in Arabic Studies, has served in Armenia’s diplomatic core for the past 25 years. 

He has previously served as Armenia’s ambassador to Argentina, Uruguay, Cuba, Denmark, Norway, Latvia, Sweden and Finland. Before being appointed  Deputy Minister he was Armenia’s Ambassador to Mexico.

While introducing Azatyan to the country’s Foreign Affairs Ministry staff, Pashinyan stated that with the ‘military burden’ decreasing the ‘diplomatic burden’ is increasing accordingly. ‘The diplomatic front is the most important and burdensome now,’ he said. 

According to Pashinyan, all issues the diplomatic core will face have to be analysed and investigated. ‘We shouldn’t be scared in being bold in those investigations, in being severe towards ourselves, so that we can come out stronger,’ he said. 

Major General Andranik Piloyan, the Commander of Armenia’s 5th Army Corps, has been appointed the country’s new Minister of Emergency Situations. Piloyan was awarded the title National Hero of Armenia by former President Robert Kocharyan in January 2008. 

Pashinyan explained his reasoning for appointing a military man to the position.  ‘Essentially, the Ministry of Emergency Situations and its Rescue Services are also part of our armed forces’, Pashinyan said while introducing Piloyan to the Ministry’s staff. ‘In this sense, we can state that the change won’t be that great and there is similar work to be done in this Ministry’.

The new Minister of Labour and Social Affairs is Mesrop Arakelyan. He has replaced former disability activist and the only female member of Armenia’s government, Zaruhi Batoyan. Arakelyan, an economist by profession, has worked in Armenia’s banking sector for the past 16 years.

During an introductory meeting at the Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs, Pashinyan stated that with ongoing pandemic, the war and its consequences, and a difficult economic situation, the social tensions in Armenia will further intensify in the near future. 

‘In the field of labour and social protection, it is necessary to work at a great pace and to register concrete results’, the Prime Minister said. Arakelyan stated during the meeting that his team’s mission will be to create new results ‘every single day’.

One of the most significant staffing changes has been the replacement of Defence Minister Davit Tonoyan with Lieutenant General Vagharshak Harutyunyan. Harutyunyan previously served as Defence Minister from 11 June 1999- 20 May 2000.

The new Defence Minister has had a storied past in Armenia’s politics. In July 2002, Harutyunyan was demoted by then-President Robert Kocharyan. Harutyunyan had recently stated that the reason behind his demotion, was his opposition to a possible peace deal in which Azerbaijan would cede the so-called Lachin corridor connecting Nagorno-Karabakh with Armenia in exchange for a corridor through the southern Armenian town of Meghri that would connect Azerbaijan with Nakhichevan, a plan then being discussed between Kocharyan and Azerbaijan’s then-President Heydar Aliev.  

From 2002 to 2006 Harutyunyan was a member of the opposition Hanrapetutyun Party, led by Aram Sargsyan, the brother of Armenia’s former Prime Minister Vazgen Sargsyan who was assassinated in 1999, from 2002 to 2006.

Harutyunyan’s military rank was restored in 2019 and he was appointed Chief Military Advisor to Pashinyan in August of that year. 

At an introductory meeting between Pashinyan and Harutyunyan with the Ministry of Defence and senior officers of the country’s armed forces on 21 November, Pashinyan stated that what took place during the war needs to be seriously analysed to see ‘where we went wrong, why and what we should do to get to the bottom of these mistakes’. During the meeting, Pashinyan stressed the importance of reforming the army. 

‘It’s important that we are able to build a new logic, new tactics, new strategies that will bring success to our army, while not harming the existing healthy and competitive traditions and logic of our armed forces,’ Pashinyan stated. 

Harutyunyan, in turn, said that the military-political situation in Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh is tied to ‘Turkey’s activities in the region, the mission of the Russian peacekeeping forces and to the situation at hand due to the aftermath of the war’. 

‘Everything needs to change’

In an interview with OC Media, political analyst and consultant Eric Hacopian said that the changes in Armenia’s government are connected to the important roles the ministries undergoing staffing changes played during the war. ‘This was the right time to make these changes,’ he said. ‘Especially in a parliamentary system which Armenia has - if you fail, you go.’ 

‘The bottom line is, we had a complete system failure and when that happens people who were responsible for that failure have to go,’ Hacopian explained. 

This failure, according to Hacopian, was not only because of the actions of the Pashinyan administration, but the collective actions of Armenia’s governments over the past 25 years. 

‘Those in power today still bear the responsibility of what happened even if it’s not solely their fault,’ he said. ‘What’s much more important now is to look at that complete failure and try to come out of it and not blame people’. 

Despite the exit of so many prominent government figures, Hacopian said that he doesn’t believe Pashinyan will be the next to go. 

‘Pashinyan won’t resign. These changes are a sign that he is not resigning,’ he said. ‘It’s like a coach getting rid of their assistant coaches. He is trying to show that he is starting from a new slate. This reshuffling confirms this’. 

Hacopian believes that it’s time for the Armenian government to make drastic changes in two main sectors: foreign affairs and defence. 

‘Armenia needs a new foreign affairs minister who is an experienced old hand and has gravitas’, Hacopian said. ‘Someone who can take a bad deal and make it slightly better. Significant negotiations need to take place in the next six months.’

As for the defence sector, Hacopian believes that the country needs entirely new thinking. ‘The country needs someone who can take the army in a totally different direction,’ he said. ‘The old must be wiped out and someone innovative with potential has to come and rebuild the army within the next ten years’. 

According to Hacopian, Armenia is facing a long and difficult road of comprehensive state reform. ‘Everything we have - all our resources, personnel, military force - is mediocre, and this is not a country that can afford that.’ 

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