Pope Francis visited Armenia to promote the values of peace and reconciliation, but, for many ordinary Armenians, the pontiff’s June 24-26 trip only deepened a divide that separates them from their own government.
When Armenia joined the Moscow-led Eurasian Economic Union in 2015, Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan justified the decision in part by asserting that membership would enhance Armenia’s national security. But, as the early April flare-up in fighting between Armenian and Azerbaijani forces over the Nagorno-Karabakh territory showed, such security benefits are more theoretical than real.
In an unprecedented move, Mihran Poghosian, a senior Armenian official named in the Panama Papers’ corruption exposé, resigned from office on April 18. His stated reason, though, was not the accusations against him, but, apparently, a more patriotic one – the dishonor of sharing press space alongside Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev.
In an explanation sent to Armenian media outlets, Poghosian described himself as “saddened that my name is being raised alongside the family of Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliev, who has actually privatized millions of dollars,” according to an English-language translation of his comments published by RFE/RL’s Armenian service. “I find it unacceptable that I might be the reason for any possible civilized parallel to be drawn between my country and dictatorial Azerbaijan.”
“Is this a sign that something is changing in this country?” asked Yerevan resident Naira Soghomonian, 31. “Or is this another way of distracting people from the truth? Anyway, who would have thought . . .?”
Civil activist Syuzan Simonian, founder of the Front of Armenian Women, suspects the resignation is intended to quiet potential frustration with the government.
The influx of Iranian tourists in March to celebrate Nowruz, the traditional Persian New Year, is a major economic event for businesses in Armenia’s capital Yerevan. But while plenty of restaurants and clubs in the city display signs in Farsi, reports of discrimination against Iranian visitors suggest that the tourism surge is a source of social friction.
In an earlier age, dissidents and political activists could be treated somewhat like royalty by fellow inmates when they were locked up. Not any more in Armenia. Some prominent government critics openly worry that they will be targeted for abuse if they ever find themselves behind bars.
With a high-profile trial in Armenia set to resume in which a Russian soldier stands accused of murdering a family of seven, observers wonder whether the loose ends connected to the case will ever be wrapped up. Russia is not eager to see light shined on systemic flaws within its military structure.