Armenia’s new parliament convened for the first time this week in a turbulent sitting marked by boycotts and protests from the opposition and unanticipated restrictions on journalists.
Nikol Pashinyan, who was officially reappointed this week as prime minister, triumphed with almost 54-percent of the vote in June’s snap parliamentary election, renewing his party’s parliamentary majority and securing 71 of 107 seats in the National Assembly. The Armenia Alliance came in a distant second with just over 21-percent of the vote, earning 29 seats. The I Have Honor Alliance failed to meet the seven percent electoral threshold necessary for alliances to enter the National Assembly. Yet the alliance was awarded seven seats since the Armenian Constitution requires the representation of at least three political forces in parliament.
Nine members of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF) are represented in the new parliament as members of the Armenia Alliance. They include Ishkhan Saghatelyan, Lilit Galstyan, Armen Rustamyan, Artsvik Minasyan, Kristine Vardanyan, Gegham Manukyan, Ashot Simonyan, Armenuhi Kyureghyan, Tadevos Avetisyan and Artur Khachatryan.
During the final session of the outgoing parliament on July 30, the National Assembly approved an amendment to the RA Criminal Code criminalizing grave insults. Article 137.1 prohibits insulting a person gravely or offending their dignity in an extremely indecent manner, punishable by a fine of up to 500,000 drams. It imposes harsher penalties (up to one million drams) for insults publicly directed at persons, through the dissemination of materials online or by other public means, because of their “public activities,” including state officials, politicians and civic activists. Repeatedly directing grave insults at individuals because of their public activities is punishable by a fine of up to three million drams and a three month prison sentence.
Chair of the NA Standing Committee on State and Legal Affairs and primary author of the bill Vladimir Vardanyan argued that swearing has become pervasive on social media, widely transmitted through “fake pages.” “This bill is primarily aimed not so much at punishing individuals resorting to grave insults as having a preventive impact and eliminating insults from our society,” he said.
Co-author Gevorg Papoyan asserted that the bill will not restrict free expression. “Profanity should never be confused with freedom of speech,” he said.
Critics of the measure predict that it will be applied arbitrarily to quell criticism of the ruling party. MP Sofia Hovsepyan, who disaffiliated from the My Step faction this year, questioned how the ruling will affect representatives of opposition parties who repeatedly call the authorities “unpatriotic,” “capitulators” and “land sellers.”
In March, the National Assembly adopted a bill tripling the penalties for insult and defamation that was harshly criticized by media organizations as detrimental to freedom of speech and press. President Armen Sarkissian refused to sign the bill into law, referring the matter to the Constitutional Court. The bill was one among a series of bills proposed in the early months of 2021 that threaten to restrict freedom of expression through censorship, under the avowed purpose of combating disinformation and misinformation.
Tensions were running high between the ruling and opposition factions during the first session of the new parliament, convened on August 2. Members of the Armenia Alliance, wearing t-shirts emblazoned with the photos of four arrested officials reading “political prisoner,” interrupted the session shortly after President Sarkissian’s opening speech to demand the release of Mkhitar Zakaryan and Artur Sargsyan from detention.
Zakaryan and Sargsyan were arrested on charges of embezzlement and abuse of power in June amid a wave of arrests of political leaders from the Syunik province associated with the Armenia Alliance. The Armenia Alliance has decried the arrests as a politically motivated effort to repress the newly elected opposition.
In addition to Zakaryan and Sargsyan, the t-shirts worn by the opposition MPs included pictures of MP Armen Charchyan, who was charged with obstruction of voters’ free will, and Goris mayor Arush Arushanyan, who was charged with voter bribery.
The Armenia and I Have Honor alliances contend that the arrests of Zakaryan and Sargsyan, who were elected to the National Assembly with the former faction, violate Article 96 of the RA Constitution, which states that criminal prosecution may be initiated against a parliamentary deputy only upon the consent of the National Assembly.
“Mkhitar Zakaryan and Artur Sargsyan have been detained without overcoming their parliamentary immunity,” MP Aram Vardevanyan upheld. “Today they are not absent but held hostage. They want to attend the parliament session just like you do, but they are not allowed to.”
In response, the Office of the Prosecutor-General released a statement clarifying that Article 96 of the Constitution does not imply that the consent of the NA must be obtained in cases in which a criminal investigation is opened before an individual obtains the status of a deputy.
The Armenia and I Have Honor alliances nominated Zakaryan and Sargsyan, respectively, for the position of president of the National Assembly. The opposition factions subsequently walked out of the session and boycotted the secret ballot, in which former Vice President of the National Assembly Alen Simonyan was elected for the position with 71 votes. The two alliances have announced that they will challenge Simonyan’s election in the Constitutional Court.
MP with the Civil Contract Party Arsen Torosyan lamented the opposition’s refusal to cooperate constructively with the proceedings of the National Assembly. “Elections to the National Assembly have taken place, as a result of which some political forces have received a vote, an order of the voters, to go and represent their interests in parliament. If they refuse to represent the interests of their constituents in parliament, let them say so directly,” he said in an interview. “If not, then they must come to parliament, work with the government and accept their mandates.”
Deputies were also met with heightened security at the National Assembly on Monday. Metal detectors have been installed outside of the parliamentary chamber, in addition to those already in place at the entrance to the complex. The new security measures particularly curtail the work of journalists, who were prohibited from interviewing deputies as they exited the parliamentary chamber by officers from the State Protection Service guarding the hallway.
“This is simply ridiculous,” head of the I Have Honor Alliance Artur Vanetsyan said regarding the increased security. “Either these authorities want to get on the opposition’s nerves in this way or they are just terrified of the opposition.”
On August 3, Simonyan announced that he signed a decision amending the National Assembly security rules. All deputies will undergo inspections before entering certain areas of the National Assembly that have been denoted “controlled working zones,” including the parliamentary chamber and the office of the president of the National Assembly. Journalists will no longer be allowed to enter the chamber without special permission or interview deputies in the hallway; instead, deputies will provide briefings to accredited journalists after parliamentary sittings in a designated chamber.
According to Simonyan, these new regulations have been set in place to reduce tensions between deputies and journalists. “Using the word restriction is incorrect, because this is about the coordination of work,” he said. “We have had a problem for years in that journalists are forced to run after deputies in the hallways, and there have been incidents when deputies have threatened and slapped journalists.”
Rumors were finally put to rest this week as former MP and head of Pashinyan’s My Step bloc Lilit Makunts was officially appointed as Armenia’s new ambassador to the United States. Critics of the decision point to Makunts’ lack of diplomatic experience, as she did not engage in political activities prior to her appointment as Armenia’s culture minister in 2018. “With the stakes so high—and the need for serious, seasoned professionals so very clear—we cannot afford on-the-job-training, political sinecures, or anything other than our very best in high level diplomatic postings,” executive director of the Armenian National Committee of America Aram Hamparian wrote on Facebook in January following initial reports about the decision.