Various firefights along the increasingly militarized Armenia-Azerbaijan border have led to the deaths of two Armenian soldiers this week.
On the morning of August 16, the Ministry of Defense (MoD) of Armenia reported that 46-year-old senior non-commissioned officer Vahan Dimiki Tatosyan had been fatally wounded in what Armenian officials described as another provocation by the Azerbaijani Armed Forces in the direction of the Yeraskh community along the border near Nakhichevan. One Armenian soldier had been killed and one civilian wounded previously near Yeraskh in intermittent shootings that erupted on July 14.
That evening, 19-year-old private Arman Hovannesi Hakobyan also died of a gunshot wound when the Azerbaijani military fired weapons of various calibers at Armenian positions in the Gegharkunik province. The MoD reported three casualties on the Azerbaijani side as a result of the intense skirmish that ensued from the attack.
Armenian Ombudsman Arman Tatoyan shared that Azerbaijan specifically opened fire on the villages of Kut and Norabak, forcing residents to hide in shelters. “They are…creating a real threat to the life and health of the civilians and causing damage to property and livestock…illegally attempting to deprive people of their liberty,” wrote Tatoyan, underscoring Azerbaijan’s violation of international norms.
In the afternoon hours of August 17, Armenia’s MoD reported more shooting in the province of Gegharkunik, this time in the region of Sotk. One Armenian serviceman was injured. Armenian military officials say there was one casualty and one injury on the Azerbaijani side.
Earlier, the MoD also wrote that Azerbaijani units attempted to advance their positions into the Sev Lake region of the Syunik province. The forces were repelled. Azerbaijan suffered one casualty, the MoD reports.
The MoD of Azerbaijan shared two updates on August 16. It reported that Armenian forces fired upon Azerbaijani positions in the Sadarak region of Nakhichevan in the morning and in Kelbajar, one of the seven provinces outlying Artsakh that came under Azerbaijani control at the end of the 44-day war, in the evening. It did not report any casualties.
The Armenia-Azerbaijan border has been volatile since Azerbaijani forces invaded Syunik and Gegharkunik on May 12. On August 12 the Russian government, which so far has been loath to recognize the Azerbaijani troop movement as an invasion, recorded the first ceasefire violation last week since the signature of the trilateral end-of-war agreement on November 9. The MoD of Russia confirmed a report published by the Artsakh Defense Army that on August 11 Azerbaijan armed forces carried out strikes using combat drones on Armenian positions in Artsakh.
Russian peacekeeping forces were also informed this week of a fire that broke out near Artsakh’s southwestern border. Artsakh’s Ministry of Defense reports that three hectares were burned by Azeri forces on August 17. When firefighters arrived on the scene, military officials said Azeri forces opened fire on them. No casualties were reported.
The MoD of Azerbaijan, for its part, has accused the Artsakh Defense Army of deploying Armenian soldiers near the Mukhtarkend (Mkhitarashen) and Shushakend (Shosh) communities in Askeran, a province that remains under Armenian jurisdiction where Russian peacekeepers have been deployed since November, in violation of the ceasefire agreement. “Weapons and servicemen cannot be sent from Armenia to the territories controlled by Russian peacekeeping forces,” President Ilham Aliyev asserted during an August 14 interview with the CNN Turk TV channel. “This contradicts the November trilateral statement.”
“The November 9 statement envisages the withdrawal of Armenian troops only from the adjacent territories of Nagorno-Karabakh (Artsakh), which are clearly identified in the statement,” the Armenian Foreign Ministry wrote in response.
Back in Yerevan, mounting concerns regarding restrictions on freedom of speech and press have been addressed to the National Assembly in light of heightened regulations of journalistic activity in the parliamentary chamber.
Earlier this month, Lilit Galstyan, a photojournalist for Panorama.am, was informed that she had been banned from entering the National Assembly after photographing State Protection Service (SPS) officers the previous day. She was accused of violating new protocols prohibiting journalists from recording, videotaping or photographing SPS personnel. On August 3, one day after the new parliament convened, National Assembly speaker Alen Simonyan announced that journalists would no longer be allowed to enter the parliamentary chamber without special permission or interview deputies in the hallway, which they had freely done in the past.
Almost a dozen media organizations released a joint statement demanding that the National Assembly revoke the ban on Galstyan’s entry and lift all recent restrictions on journalistic activity.
“The recent torrent of legislative initiatives and decisions that restrict freedom of speech and media activity clearly undermine the possibility for establishing civil relations between leadership and media,” the statement reads. “As long as these regressive initiatives are not cancelled, we will consider them an encroachment on the rights of our colleagues.”
Newly appointed Minister of Justice Karen Andreasyan defended the restrictions, introducing the example of Nairi Hunanyan, the former journalist who led the attack in parliament in October 1999 that left eight politicians dead. “Journalism or freedom of speech are not absolute values, and if the security officers saw certain risks, we need to respect that decision,” he told reporters.
The alliance of media associations further criticized the National Assembly after the routine livestream of the parliamentary sitting was suspended during an incipient brawl between majority and opposition deputies on August 11.
The shouting match ensued after National Assembly vice-president Ishkhan Saghatelyan of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF) defended the use of terms such as “capitulator” and “land giver” in reference to PM Nikol Pashinyan by his fellow deputies from the Armenia Alliance as “political evaluation, not a personal insult.” On July 30, during the last sitting of the former parliament, the National Assembly approved an amendment criminalizing grave insults directed at individuals because of their “public activities.”
“Mr. Simonyan, I understand that you got clear instructions from your boss to make sure that phrases like ‘capitulator’ and ‘land giver’ are not uttered in the National Assembly, and this was probably one of the conditions for electing you chairman of the National Assembly,” Saghatelyan said.
Saghatelyan’s speech incited an altercation between deputies on the parliament floor, in which Simonyan instructed State Protection Service bodyguards to intervene. He subsequently directed the live televised broadcast of the sitting to be halted, and the SPS forbade journalists from filming or photographing from the press gallery overlooking the chamber.
The coalition released a second statement demanding greater transparency from the National Assembly, writing, “Citizens of Armenia have the right and must be informed of what is taking place inside parliament and what behavior is displayed by each deputy, regardless of whether it will be evaluated positively or negatively.”
Tatoyan also criticized the decision to halt the broadcast, noting that journalists admitted to the parliamentary complex do not pose a security hazard as they are accredited with the National Assembly and undergo a daily screening, another measure instituted by the new speaker.
Simonyan’s newly-imposed restrictions on journalistic activity were essentially upheld during an extraordinary sitting of the National Assembly Council to discuss amendments to a 2017 accreditation for journalists. On Wednesday, lawmakers voted to adopt a draft amendment that would limit the presence and work of journalists to designated areas inside the National Assembly.