“Mimino” truck driver Rubik Khachikian, no doubt, would be proud: Armenian truck drivers recently came close to securing a breakthrough in the bitter breakaway dispute between Georgia, Russia and the separatist enclave South Ossetia that has bedeviled diplomats for years.
Since June, Georgia has been facing an Armenian-truck traffic jam in its north, where a landslide and flooding clogged the highway leading to its only official border-crossing with Russia. The road is the sole way by land for Armenia to reach Russia, a key economic and diplomatic partner, and its main military ally.
With this trade lifeline blocked, Armenia late last month tried its luck asking Tbilisi for passage through separatist South Ossetia, which Moscow calls an independent state, and Tbilisi Georgian territory occupied by Russia.
The Georgian government proved unexpectedly amenable to the idea, first raised by Armenian Transportation and Communications Minister Gagik Beglarian.
But the Georgian public heavily criticized the proposal. Government critics insisted that allowing transit through the breakaway territory region means capitulation to Russia and violation of the Georgian law on the occupied territories, which bans the transportation of cargo via the separatist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
Yet Georgian Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili and other proponents of Armenia’s proposal argued that it was in Georgia’s interests to ensure the continued passage of both Armenian and Georgian exports to Russia.
Dismissing the criticism as "hysteria," Kvirikashvili pointed out that using South Ossetia as a backup export route would be temporary.
So far, Moscow’s embargo plans seem to extend only to state purchases of health supplies; retailers can still carry imported brands. The reasoning for the measure was variously put down to hopes to bolster domestic production or retaliate against the West for its sanctions against Russia’s campaign in Ukraine.
Some believe that, thanks to the restrictions, Russians will be making more condoms and/or more babies. Government aide Gennady Onishchenko, a former chief sanitation inspector best known in the Caucasus for bans on imported Georgian food products, expressed the hope that Russians will become more selective in picking sex partners and that the country's "demographic problems" will be resolved.
“It is better to be under the Russian yoke,” reasoned MP Mher Sadrakian of the ruling Republican Party of Armenia, echoing other lawmakers’ views that alliance with Russia is a necessary evil. “Our people always have been under a foreign yoke,” Sadrakian went on saying, RFE/RL reported. “We are used to someone standing above us… the Persians, the Turks, the Russians… “
Without Russia, Armenia would not have “conquered” predominantly ethnic-Armenian Nagorno Karabakh, claimed by Azerbaijan, he continued. “Without them [the Russians], they will devour us,” Sadrakian said in reference to Azerbaijan and its longtime ally, Turkey.
Another Republican, Seryan Saroian, offered more transcendental reasoning, though getting somewhat confused in the process.
“Why are you lamenting us joining the European Union… the Euronews… I don’t know, Eurasia…Let’s say you eat two more kilos of sausage, will it change anything?” Saroian was quoted by RFE/RL's Armenian service as saying.
Many would guess Russia, but it is actually Argentina. Data on direct foreign investment shows that Argentina now ranks as the largest foreign spender in this South Caucasus country, better known for its politically prohibitive economic reliance on Moscow.
The official stats, reported by Hetq Online, suggest that Armenia’s trade, development, and even foreign policy options may not be as limited as its long dependence on Russia may suggest.
For years, Russia has been the single largest foreign investor in Armenia until France took over the title in 2012. A year later, Russia got pushed further down the list, below France and Argentina, which is now in the lead with just just under $118 million.
One man could be behind the seemingly unlikely Armenian-Argentinian connection. The full detail of Argentina’s investment projects in Armenia is not readily available, but Argentinian billionaire Eduardo Eurnekian, an ethnic Armenian by descent, could be behind the hike.
Argentina’s second richest man, Eurnekian is committed to turning Armenia into paradise on earth and has called on fellow members of the far-flung Armenian Diaspora to shoulder the task. The octogenarian airport and investment magnate has invested in upgrading and expanding Yerevan’s international airport, Zvartnots, and gifted an airplane to the new airport in Nagorno-Karabkh, the ethnic-Armenian-controlled breakaway territory.
The Armenian government has revised its controversial pension plan umpteen times, but many Armenians just don’t like it. And the government just does not give up.
The main problem -- mandatory salary deductions for a national retirement plan -- was discarded after a wave of protests, battles in parliament and a smack-down by the Constitutional Court. In a rare policy-concession to the opposition, the ruling establishment gave workers the discretion to opt out of contributing five percent of their salaries to the pension fund, but now questions are asked about how optional is optional.
On May 13, Armenia's parliament reluctantly approved in its first reading a truncated, deductions-optional version of the original bill. Some political parties welcomed the “free will” addition to the draft, but still the ruling Republican Party of Armenia was the bill's lone supporter. Others chose to abstain or oppose.
The most ardent critic of the pension scheme, and of the government in general – the Armenian National Congress (ANC) – maintained that, despite the compromise, a compulsory savings system has been forced on Armenia. The government has the means to put pressure on public and even private companies to force employees to make the transfers to the pension fund no matter what their individual decisions, asserted the ANC, RFE/RL reported.
The claim is debatable, but some media reports already alleged that the government is putting pressure on public servants to keep pitching into the pension fund.
Against the darkness of night, an Armenian villager was filmed by the news service A1+ this week lighting candles around her tomato and potato seedlings. It was no occult ritual. Alina Ambardzumian was trying to protect her crops from а vicious late frost, feared by some to have wiped out most of this year's harvest.
Other farmers in the village of Ayanist also have been sticking candles around their crops, creating churchly scenes. They believe that the warmth of candlelight will save the seedlings. “We put over them four layers of cellophane and lit the candles. Now we just need to wait for what is God’s will,”Ambardzumian told A1+. “If we don’t do this, we will have nothing to eat throughout the year,” she added.
According to a local farmers’ association, Kavkazsky Uzel reports, last weekend's unseasonable blizzard has destroyed an estimated 90 percent of the apricots which are the pride-and-joy-fruit of Armenia.No official estimates of the apricot loss, or other agricultural damage is available yet, but Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty has reported about entire apricot orchards frozen over in the western agricultural region of Aragatsotn.
The blizzard, which raged through Armenia for several days, also wiped out other fruit, like cherries and grapes.
Farmers now worry about both this year's ration of fruits and veggies and about repaying their bank loans. Inevitably, many angry eyes have turned to the government.
Libertarian detractors of the US' Social-Security program might well be feeling envious right now: Armenia's Constitutional Court has deemed unconstitutional the obligatory deduction of funds from workers' salaries for a government-run pension fund.
In its April 2 ruling, the Court found that a proposed five-percent monthly deduction violated Armenians' constitutional right to property and right to decide for themselves how to make use of that property, news outlets reported.
Hundreds of Armenians have taken to streets in recent months over the plan, formulated with advice from the US government.
But these protesters are not bespectacled wonks. The debate has become one of this poverty-stricken country's hottest and prickliest issues; as much about trust in the government as in the strength of its investment skills.
Opposition members have hailed the decision -- Armenia's court system is not generally celebrated for its independence from government influence -- but cautiously so. Further challenges could lie ahead, they reason.
With Ukraine now a lost cause for the Customs Union, Russia’s Vladimir Putin has checked in with Armenian Prime Minister Tigran Sarkisian to see how Armenia's plans to join the Customs Union are coming along.
For Russia, Armenia is a poor substitute for Ukraine, but still a victory in Moscow's efforts to assert its broader economic clout through the trade bloc.
Prime Minister Sarkisian seems to have seized on that status to lodge a request with Moscow to keep the investments coming and to underwrite some of the legal and institutional changes that Armenia needs to meet the upcoming trade club’s membership rules by 2015. Yerevan also needs resources to keep selling Armenians on the idea of pushing the country into what many claim will be an economic throwback to the USSR.
How far Kocharian could go with this is unclear. Memories of the 2008 bloodshed under his administration do not endear him uniformly to Armenian voters. But his choice of topic could add at least some fuel to the fire.
So what do the Armenian government, the Armenian Apostolic Church and Sierra Leone all have in common? The answer is businessman Ashot Sukiasian, who was arrested in Tbilisi on February 1 in connection with an alleged $10.7-million con-job.
Several years back, Sukiasian borrowed that sum from AmeriaBank, an Armenian concern of uncertain ownership, to invest in importing raw diamonds from Sierra Leone for refining in Armenia, the Hetq.am investigative service reported last May. Diamond-refining is one of the few booming businesses in Armenia, and a key source of exports.
Documents unearthed by Hetq.am revealed that Sukiasian borrowed the money for his own diamond venture in the name of Wlispera Holdings, a Cyprus-based company allegedly co-owned by Armenian Prime Minister Tigran Sarkisian and former Archbishop Navasard Kjoian.
Prime Minister Sarkisian and Kjoian have denied being Sukiasian's business partners, but the ownership documents for Wlispera Holdings have their signatures, Hetq reported.
Jumping on the make-your-own-national-gadget bandwagon, Armenia has come up with a smartphone and a tablet computer of its own. Presented to the Armenian government on December 6, Armphone and Armtab are expected to hit stores after New Year's Day.
As is often the case with such devices, Armphone and Armtab are only partly sovereign Armenian. Designed in Armenia, the devices run on an Android operating system and will be assembled in the US and Hong Kong. The creators – Technology and Science Dynamics/Armtab Technologies, described as an Armenian-American joint-venture – say that they hope the low price will attract first regional (Georgia and Ukraine) and, eventually, international customers.
The price of the 16-GB tablets will range from $225 to $280, Vahan Sahakian, the director of Technology and Science Dynamics/Armtab Technologies, told Armenpress. Sahakian presented Prime Minister Tigran Sarkisian with a sample Armtablet at a government meeting, which then managed to segue from smart technologies to a discussion about Armenia's textile, knitting and shoe industries.