From Amulsar Mine to the Situation on the Frontline: Q/A with Prime Minister Pashinyan

On the evening of July 15, Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan responded to questions that had been submitted on Facebook. Pashinyan chose those which had received the most “Likes”. During the more than one hour session, he read and responded to questions about healthcare, public transport, Amulsar Gold Mine, etc. This was the prime minister’s second Q/A session on Facebook. Read his Q/A from June 25 here. Before answering questions, he congratulated France, the French team, and the French president on the occasion of France’s win in the World Cup Football Final. He also congratulated Croatia on reaching the final. He reminded listeners that although there are questions about Armenia’s football (soccer) team as well, that he had said earlier that the Armenian Football Federation is an independent entity and the expectation is that they, too, will hold elections, per their rules, and undergo changes that are logically and obviously expected. He said, recognizing the huge potential for Armenian football both in Armenia and in the Diaspora, there is hope that it will be possible to harness this potential and register new successes for the Armenian national team, repeating that the Football Federation will begin to address this.

About employment and hiring processes

Q: When will the employment hiring process change in Armenia? The insistence always is for people with experience, which I understand that for new companies and organizations experienced staff is essential. Age, gender, appearance — requirements having to do with these should be removed.

PASHINYAN: Of course this is a very important issue, I have also heard the opposite where elderly workers complain that only people up to 35 are hired. Let’s acknowledge, just between us, that we live in a country where having someone on the inside, and of course, often bribes, are accepted procedure. And we have not registered a revolution there yet. During a recent meeting in Dilijan, at the Central Bank Education Center, I said that we have to carry out the most important part of the revolution, that of the change of cadres. Which will bring new resource to the governance system and the public generally.

Every worker, every government employee, the prime minister, the ministers have to constantly think about raising their professional skills. In today’s world, it is becoming difficult for job seekers who do not speak one or two foreign languages. Unfortunately, there are people, even those who have graduated from universities, have just a mastery of Armenian as they note on their CV, and expect to quickly find jobs. Not knowing a second language doesn’t mean you’re not able to join the workforce, but we must understand that in the labor market, the requirements are becoming greater.  On the other hand, can we in fact say that we have a situation, that all those who are worthy do have a job, or that within the government apparatus, only the best are hired. I can’t say that today. But when we speak of a revolution, we are now thinking about creating an online database, self-sustaining, public, which would assist the government in finding more qualified employees. This would be a labor resource bank, at the government level, online, with its own filters, that the government can use to locate and hire citizens and professionals from around the world, Armenian, or someone with or without a strong command of Armenian, thus presenting the best of those who wish to be employed within civil service.

I also want to be frank and say that during the last two months we have not been fully able to reverse the tide of tendencies, in certain structures, there are people still thinking that the clock will turn back, and everyone will forget all this, and we’ll be able to go back to making under the table, and will be able to once again use their old, unsavory ways. We need to make change, and perhaps with a huge online data bank, we might be able to affect such a revolution, make massive changes perhaps even within one day.

Your question has to do with justice and with doing away with corruption. And this is not a problem to be solved with one action, it will require several steps, and we will be persistent in making this happen. Today, there are sectors in Armenia — I know of one specifically — where there is always some 4000 available job positions and that is the IT sector and I invite all to apply for those positions. I am confident that if we are able to implement a combination of these several approaches, interlinked to each other, eventually everyone will be able to find a job based on their qualities.

About Yerevan’s water issue

Q: Mr. Pashinyan, please take time to learn about the Veolia Water Company; identify the reasons for the periodic water cuts and the quality of the water that we use daily.

PASHINYAN: Honestly, I have had the opportunity to deal with this problem on a few occasions and, based on alarms that have been raised, I have instructed the  Ministry of Territorial Administration to deal with this, and I am aware that there are serious problems with water distribution in the city of Yerevan and in the regions. Veolia says that those issues have been resolved in Yerevan. But I know that’s not the case. I have met with the regional leadership of Veolia, and it was a rather serious conversation. I conveyed to them our displeasure with their operations and that they would seriously review their work i the Republic of Armenia. Just one indicator — The percentage of inefficient water use is significant. Almost 60-70% of drinking water is wasted. Of one liter of water, we lose 60-70%. Sometimes this is explained by the poor infrastructure of the system, but I am also in agreement with those who have said on Facebook and elsewhere that there are serious corruption problems underlying this issue and this needs to be investigated.

Veolia blames the current problems on equipment – that the pump has been damaged and resulted in the current problems. And they also talk about the pace of use in the summer. But in Armenia, and ot just in Armenia, there is this phenomenon that  it snows in the winter and that there will be heat in the summer. We all know this and should be prepared for it. Let me add something else. These days, while driving through Yerevan, I see full trash bins not picked up, and I have to stop and give directives for their cleanup. This too is not in patshaj in Yerevan. This is also a serious problem and our partners, Sanitek Company and Veolia must get the message that we are not very satisfied with their work, because citizens are not receiving the service they expect. The reason why I single out Yerevan in this matter is because Veolia has only recently taken upon itself the governance of water supply throughout the country, in the regions, but in Yerevan they have been in charge of that for over a decade. There are some successes. But the situation is still unsatisfactory.

As to the quality of water, previously Yerevan received artesian waters, then water came from Garni and Aparan. Now that it’s an emergency situation, the artesian waters that were stored as backup are in distribution. That might be why people may notice a change in taste of water. Veolia assures us that this water is up to standard. Explanations are fine, but we must register that Veolia and appropriate government bodies have much room to work together seriously. Citizens’ protests are justified. We need to find answers.

There is a similar situation in trash pickup, as well. We must be able to assure that the rights of our citizens are protected. Thank God, Armenia is a country where there is plenty of water. But we have 60-70% loss in water distribution. I am convinced these are instances where it can be blamed on bad governance. And sometimes corruption. Veolia must therefore make appropriate steps so we don’t have such bad conditions. Water usage increases in the summer, all summers in Yerevan are hot, and people in Yerevan and around the world use a lot of water. That is why the equipment has to be tested and ready in the beginning of the season so that such problems don’t arise. Pumps need to be inspected so that they can run consistently. Spare parts need to be ordered.  In these discussions, we have been provided responses, but we don’t need these responses, we need water flowing through the pipes. We need water, not explanations. And we will find ways to defend for the rights of our citizens.

About the issue of public transportation

Q: Mr. Pashinyan, please provide a solution to the issue of transportation. And that includes transport from the regions.

PASHINYAN: Of course I agree, and to be honest it is difficult to see our citizens riding in overcrowded buses. I mentioned that during the elections for Yerevan’s city council elections and called them the microbuses of despair. And those buses continue to work in and around Yerevan, unfortunately, and this is a matter that should be on the agenda of Yerevan’s new mayor. The government is now developing new transportation routes to and from the regions; the Ministry of Transportation is currently working on implementing a unified transportation network. We should recognize that sometimes we talk about improving the transportation system, but we create serious problems while doing so.  

I don’t know if you followed my working visit to Syunik, but we had a discussion there about transport in and around Goris. The mayor and his family subsidize transport and sponsor several bus routes to operate free of charge. But it turns out there are no transport lines connecting Greater Goris to the towns around it. Even if the government or any individual were to provide free transportation through a private enterprise, on certain city lines, then there rises a question — what if that company or that individual were to go bankrupt, or decide to spend their money elsewhere, is the city supposed to remain without transport? This type of solution can lead to bigger problems down the road. There needs to be a solid financial basis.

There needs to be a clear city transportation network which could of course be subsidized by the municipality. But there must be some sort of revenue circulation there.  This is a serious issue throughout the country, especially between cities and towns, and between them and the center.

All of these questions are directly tied to one issue, to increase state revenue, or to increase the state budget. To solve all issues we are fighting, the government budget needs to become larger. How do we do this? We can strike against corruption, and to develop the economy, to create new companies and organizations and create new streams of revenue for the budget. This is the direction that we are already working toward. But it is very important. It would be a lie if I said that we can resolve this issue in a day. We will do what we can, and in Yerevan, this is first of all an issue for the new mayor of Yerevan and local municipalities. And the government must work towards organizing regional transportation.

About Karekin II, Catholicos of All Armenians

Q: What are your thoughts around the issues surrounding the Armenian Apostolic Church and Karekin II and what actions are you ready to take? Also, why do sects, particularly the Jehovah Witnesses, receive such great allowances, for example, not serving in the army.  

PASHINYAN: The issues around the Armenian Apostolic Church have created an unpleasant situation. I have directed the police to look into the recent issue in Vayots Dzor regarding the issue and government’s involvement. If anything wrong or illegal has taken place, if steps have been taken to prevent the Catholicos from his work, then this must be addressed. It is my belief that government has no place in the church’s internal issues. Why am I calling this an internal church affair? Because my impression is that there are Armenian Apostolic clergy, and people connected to the clergy, among the protestors. When I see some of these statements by the protesting clergy, that confirms my understanding that these are internal church affairs. But some of of the statements made by some members of the clergy, who appear to be protecting the Catholicos, are actually throwing fuel onto the fire. Still, this remains within the church and has not yet spilled over into the public domain for the government to take a position. But, of course, when it comes to defending the law, the government must do what it must do. And specifically, the police, which answer to the prime minister, must do their job. We will not allow this environment of love and understanding to be disturbed by people connected to the Armenian Apostolic Church.  You know that the police intervened to free the area around the Mother See. And if needed, they will do so again.

But I urge the church leaders to come together, discuss and resolve their internal problems and not put the rest of us in this situation. In many instances, there are internal structural questions. At this point I don’t see a reason for the government to get involved but the government will make sure that order is maintained. And government will. When I was reviewing the videos surrounding the situation in Vayots Dzor, I was not very happy with that investigation. I once again call on the church and its representatives to resolve their internal issues; if I am mistaken, I urge them to correct me, I’m not an expert in church matters, but I think there are issues there, it’s not acceptable that hidden processes are taken to aggravate the situation and place us before an undesirable situation. If not, if these issues come before the government, we will have to take a thorough look and offer very concrete responses. But that’s not the situation yet.

Regarding the religious permissions allowed, these emanate from the international obligations undertaken by Armenia. Honestly, when I was in the correctional facility in Kosh, there were Jehovah’s Witnesses who had refused to serve in the military based on their religious beliefs and were convicted. There were people there with the deep conviction that they could not serve, whether you agree with them or not, that was their conviction. But my impression is that there were also people who wanted to benefit from such mechanisms, but today our legislation says that they will perform alternative service. These laws emanate from our international obligations. An important attribute of democracy is religious freedom but we are not going to allow anyone to use the umbrella of religious freedom to seek special allowances, or take on illegal acts. We will protect freedom of conscience but won’t allow its abuse, within or outside the government.  Those issues will be addressed but for that I have to be aware of such instances.

I am very glad that many of our citizens are following government work with a magnifying glass and alerting us about it. I can assure you that we are not going to ignore any serious alert and leave it without a response. We will not close our eyes to any such infractions, regardless of who they are. If I implement this with my own family members, you can be assured that we will do this with everyone. I said the other day that if we have made mistakes, we also have the opportunity to correct that mistake. We are not taking money, we are not taking shares in someone’s business. We can correct our mistakes. If the criticism is constructive or not constructive, it doesn’t matter; we will elicit what is valuable in such criticism, and won’t ignore any of them.  

About Amulsar gold mine

Q: Mr. Pashinyan, if you were still a member of the opposition, you would doubtless be opposed to the Amulsar project. I know that you love Armenia and would not want to see a mine instead of a mountain. Here is my question, what can we do for you to be an oppositioner again for a day and shut down the Amulsar problem once and for all?

PASHINYAN: I very clearly announced that had the Amulsar process had begun during my tenure as prime minister, I would have opposed it and would not have allowed it to go forward. I have said this. And not because I think that there should not be any sort of mining industry in Armenia, but because I think it is absurd to develop a mining operation in one of Armenia’s main recreational and health centers. Secondly, we, as the government, cannot carry out any action  if there is no clear legal, de jure justification for it. A lot of people now tell us to just go and shut down the mine, but we cannot just go and, without basis, close down the mine. That is the beginning of unruliness. I am sure that none of you would want me to allow that kind of indulgence again and push the government to act upon my whims, however noble the issue may be. And it would just be first one, then two, then five moves like this. Today, we shut down a mine because the Prime Minister wishes that. The next day we close another factory. A third day we shut down a member of the media because of the Prime Minister’s whim. Then we lock up people. I hope this is not what you want. We need to know how decisions are made. According to the Constitution, government officials and state bodies are only allowed to carry out actions that are backed by law. I hope that you would not want that we return to that kind of indulgence in the Republic of Armenia. As you know now, the Commission for Environmental Protection has started a review and we are studying this matter. During my trip to Jermuk I was hoping that representatives of Lydian Armenia would also take a step forward to trying to explore this and understand how we might resolve this issue. We have inherited this situation from the previous government where an internationally traded mining company which is the only mining company represented in the stock market, has carried out $400 million investment in this project. We have this situation and it cannot be resolved with a simple move. The Prime Minister cannot just get up in the morning and order the mine shut. I hope this is not what you expect of the government. We have inherited it and have to deal with. I’ve said this, and in the past as well, when we complain about the authorities, we say they are illegal, corrupt, that is not just a product of people’s character. There must also be institutional limitations.

Recently when we were talking with world-famous economist Daron Açemoglu, he said that the efficiency of any government depends on a crucial factor, the willingness to limit itself, its freedoms. For example, currently according to Armenia’s constitution, Prime Minister has major powers and if limits are not placed then people will be faced with a major problem. No one wants the government to authorize lawlessness.  I am very concerned about Amulsar, first of all environmentally. It is not clear to me how the previous government allowed this.

Lydian Armenia says that your government gave us clearance and we came in and invested. We have to resolve this issue in accordance with the letter and spirit of the law because if we mishandle this then it will lead us on a wrongful path and Armenia will be faced with a difficult problem.

When I visited Jermuk, in speaking with the protesters, I asked the people, dear brothers and sisters, this project has been around for a decade why didn’t you raise the issue back then when it could have been prevented so that neither the investors nor the government would have been faced with such a situation? They said that back then they couldn’t protest because they feared repercussions. I

I should also note that I was stunned to find out that some people after me got up and said that they would resolve the issue with arms. They’d take up guns and shoot. I want to strongly say to them that no issue in Armenia will be resolved with arms. I want to strongly condemn anyone who thinks that in this atmosphere of peace and understanding any question is going to be settled with an armed action. In that case what was the purpose of the revolution? No one will solve a problem with violence, with arms. I say this as prime minister. Let’s forget about these kinds of interactions and relations. Any such statement will face a strong response from law enforcement. They will not be ignored.

Regarding Amulsar, I want to say that this issue is being carefully studied, I am worried, we will find a solution, but unfortunately Lydian Armenia did not demonstrate a constructive approach to discuss this issue during my visit.

About high interest loan debts

Q: Since 80% of the population has loans, and even after years of payments the principal only goes down by a fraction, will the interest rates be lowered?

PASHINYAN: I hear your concerns and want to say that we have begun to deal with these questions. We have touched upon this question during our last meeting with the professionals from the banking sector. According to the Central Bank today we already have adopted a slightly lower interest rate. We are attempting to lower mortgage rates to an unprecedented low level.

We began a legislative process to forgive late fees on payments, and that during this process interest rates will slowly go down. We have huge problems with loan organizations, and with fraud in this area. Such instances are very rare in banks or the banking system. But loan organizations do sometimes have these problems and law enforcement has to also deal with such expressions of corruption. The question is very legitimate and it’s tied to the economic situation. Why are interest rates high? Because the amount of money in the economy is low.  We are currently working on increasing the amount of money in the economy, and not just print money. If we can attract foreign investments, and we are working in that direction, and improving the investment environment. We are also working on extending the loan payments, and establish a more flexible repayment process, and make loans more affordable. The issue of initial deposit or down payment is also a problem. But experts explain that is a guarantee of repayment.

Otherwise, loan payments are equal to rent payments, more or less, and at any time, someone can say ‘I’m done, I’m not ready to continue to make payments.’ That’s what experts caution us about. Experts think that the loan crisis of recent years stemmed from such loans. We are taking into account those expert opinions so that in resolving this issue we do not end up facing a bigger financial problem.   

About high cost of healthcare

Q: Is it possible to have free healthcare in Armenia or to ensure that everyone has health insurance, like in Europe?

PASHINYAN: Healthcare is not free in any country; the question is who pays for it. In Armenia we have now implemented a program to give health insurance to state employees. We are trying to implement the same for socially vulnerable members of society, which means roughly 400,000 people will be able to get ‘free’ care. Why is ‘free’ in quotations? Because it will be paid from the state budget. We will need to raise about eight billion AMD to solve this problem, to secure health care so that no one stays away from hospitals because they cannot afford care.

We don’t allocate a lot of funds for state-sponsored healthcare, and some of what has been allocated has been misused and I have given directives for this to be checked and investigated. Ministry of Health has notified me that state funds have been allocated to a major health institution, I won’t mention the name yet — we must respect the presumption of innocence — but that institution has not provided any service. So they’ve been paid without providing a service, but people had been kept waiting at the facilities and care has been delayed. We have to resolve this problem and not allow those who have taken state funds to use any opportunity to escape the law. We may not invest a great deal in health care, as compared to international rates, but even if that’s 20%, and that has been abused, we will be very strict. Although these institutions will respond with huge PR campaigns, complaining of being persecuted. But we will pursue all abuse of citizens’ funds.

There is a sad statistic, based on 2016 data: 36% of Armenia’s citizens, knowing that they needed to see a doctor, didn’t go to one due to inability to pay for healthcare. We have to do everything to provide health insurance to the most vulnerable in the society.

About continuing corruption cases

Q: When are the big corruption cases involving Sashik Sargsyan, Mikayel Minasyan, Gagik Khachatryan, Robert Kocharyan, Hovik Abrahamyan, etc. going to be uncovered?

PASHINYAN: I don’t like the phrasing of the question – that we have to find guilty people. But rather, we have to go after every stolen dime. The fight against corruption is a priority for us.

In my opinion, not all law enforcement agencies have been effective in the fight against corruption. This needs to change. Sometimes there is the impression that some law enforcement circles are sabotaging the corruption investigations. I continue to say that the fight against corruption needs to actively continue in Armenia, but that needs to happen within the bounds of law, defense of human rights, etc. As a former political prisoner, it would be a personal disgrace for me if there are political prisoners in Armenia during my tenure. But it would be equally disgraceful if the battle against corruption is not very effective.

I have said to law enforcement agencies that if they do not demonstrate their effective efforts to counter corruption, then there will be new appointments. I have said this openly. If there is the thinking that, well, we’ll wait a few months, and these guys will forget, and we’ll go back to working as we used to work… that’s not going to happen. They will be disappointed, those who think this way. I want to assure them that it will never be the case and that the careers of those with that mindset will be very short in the government. They will not just be relieved of their positions, but also be faced with legal proceedings. I expect effective battle against corruption, and within the limits of the law.

Oh, also — People think that I get up in the morning and send the law enforcement to chase this or that person. That is not how it works; the law enforcement works based on complaints and clear evidence.

I will say again, the fight against corruption will continue effectively in Armenia. We are grateful to those law enforcement officials who are contributing effectively. And we will act against those officials who are not sabotaging the process. Corruption was not carried out by a handful of people, there were hundreds and thousands involved, we are going to be diligent to go after them. Our law enforcement is trying

About the situation on the border with Azerbaijan

Q: Please comment on the situation on the Armenian-Azerbaijani border.

PASHINYAN: The situation is tense, and I don’t just mean violations of the ceasefire. Since I have become prime minister, the number of ceasefire violations has been relatively low, however, the overall situation is very tense with aggressive statements coming out in frequent numbers. There is also military buildup along the border with Nakhichevan. We have to be ready at any point to defend ourselves and give a response.

It seems that Azerbaijan’s President Aliyev has domestic issues and he is worried that the democratic processes in Armenia might encourage the Azerbaijani society to begin their own democratic changes and anti-corruption fights. And for this reason I say that, any aggression from Azerbaijani side, is not only aggression towards the Armenian people, but also towards democracy.

The good thing is that today Armenia and the Diaspora are united and it is not a secret that if need be, we can start a pan-national mobilization of resources, both mental, physical and financial. Each one has to be ready at any point to drop everything and join the national effort. My own son is serving at the moment and

About fallen hero Robert Abajyan

Q: Fallen soldier Robert Abajyan’s parents, unable to find employment, have left for Russia. Please do your best to provide them with resources to return to their homeland.

PASHINYAN: Your information is incorrect. I am saying that because last month I invited Robert’s parents here, to my office and we had a talk. The story of Robert Abajyan is very dear to me. For years, Robert’s family has lived in Russia, even before he was drafted. I have also let them know that it would be better if they had lived in Armenia. Robert’s father said that they had been considering the move, especially after the revolution. But I also understand them because they have been living and working there close to a decade it would not be easy for them to pick up and move back here. They have a home here, and if they do move, our government will do everything to assist them.

I think that all of our veterans, and the families of those who have sacrificed their lives in defense of the country, should live comfortably.

About registering wartime injuries

Q: What to do in cases when soldiers  wounded during service have not been registered for disability?

PASHINYAN: This status is given to those who had been in military action and those who have proof of their military record and have sustained a disability. If your case satisfies these conditions, you can apply to the Ministry of Defense to take care of this issue.

Translated by

Gegham Mughnetsyan

Mshak Ghazarian

Syuzanna Petrosyan