Successfully using one’s weakness to one’s advantage has existed as long as human civilization itself. It has been successfully applied in military strategy as well as in the nation building process. In Armenia’s case, it has been demonstrated with the dynamic and growing tech industry, unhindered by blockades and geopolitics, that became a pillar of the economy during the previous administration.

The current coronavirus (COVID-19) crisis would seem to present another opportunity where Armenia’s extremely unenviable geopolitical reality would put the country at a great advantage, were its government to have been proactive in its response to the challenge.

Armenia has had to overcome the challenge of having over eighty percent of its borders militarized, while its open borders face a myriad of geopolitical and transportation hurdles that constrain trade and traffic.

Armenia has a mere four border crossing points, and Zvartnots International Airport averages just over a single passenger plane arrival and departure per hour, without any transit routes.*

By contrast, neighboring Georgia has based its economy on tourism and transit, well-positioned as a midway point between Europe and Central Asia, acting as a hub for Europe, Turkey, and Azerbaijan.

Given this otherwise unfortunate reality for Armenia, one would expect that it would be one of the least adversely affected nations on earth during this crisis, easily closed off to the rest of the world, while Georgia would find itself on opposing ends of the spectrum.

That, however, is not the case.

At the time of publication, Armenia has 136 reported cases, more than three times as many as the 40 cases in Georgia, which has a larger population. Azerbaijan, with a population of about 10 million, has 44 cases.

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Coronavirus in Armenia Timeline (source: antifake.am)

What Happened?

As the crisis arrived in the region, Armenia immediately got off to a troubling start. With the spread of the virus out of control in Iran, there was widespread public demand to shut down the Iranian border by February 23, 2020, with opposition leader Edmon Marukyan leading the charge in the National Assembly.

At this point the gravity of the situation was being fully felt as several COVID-19 cases began appearing in neighboring countries in the form of travelers who had arrived from Iran.

However, during parliamentary debates, MP Viktor Yengibaryan from Nikol Pashinyan’s ruling party completely rejected the request to shut the border, demanding that such thinking should be stopped once and for all.

As an indication of the Armenian government’s confusion, the embassy in Iran announced soon after that it was suspending all service at the embassy, with the step largely being taken by the public as a sign of the coming closure of the border. But a mere five hours later, the embassy announced that the embassy will continue to function as normal, contradicting the earlier statement. Finally, on February 24th, the Armenian government closed the border with Iran.

The Referendum Must Go On

On January 23, 2020, China closed off Wuhan, the epicenter of COVID-19 and a week later, on January 30, the World Health Organization declared a global health emergency. The same day, Russia, recognizing the seriousness of the outbreak, closed its 2,600-mile-long border with China.

While this crisis and confusion was unfolding, Prime Minister Pashinyan was busy promoting a highly-controversial referendum that would allow him to remove members of the Constitutional Court and replace them with judges loyal to him, eventually allowing him to rewrite the constitution. He announced it on February 9.

The referendum, which would cost $7.3 million dollars and would take place on April 5, 2020, overshadowing the anniversary of the Four Day War, has been roundly condemned by the opposition and international observers who were previously strongly supportive of him.

A month after drastic measures were being taken by countries around the world, including the lockdown of towns in Europe and Asia, massive testing schemes, and overwhelmed hospitals, Pashinyan and his proxies were holding large gatherings throughout Armenia.

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“Yes” Campaign Launch for Pashinyan’s Referendum, February 26, 2020.

Members of the ruling government then made a series of seemingly inexplicable statements, with Pashinyan’s statement on March 1 overshadowing them all:

“What is the coronavirus that it should even begin to create any sort of a problem in our lives?” This statement came after the confirmation of the first case in Armenia.

While these statements seem irrational and shortsighted, they cannot be considered outside the context of the referendum.

For the referendum to be successful, in addition to a majority voting “Yes,” at least a quarter of all eligible voters would have to vote. This means that even if the government received a majority of the vote, the referendum would not pass unless some 650,000 voters voted in favor of it, especially problematic since Pashinyan’s party received less than 900,000 votes at the peak of its popularity in December 2018. Compounded with public concern over the lack of clarity about the referendum’s goals and voter fatigue and apathy with the seemingly endless appeals to revolutionary rhetoric by Pashinyan with little tangible progress in the country, the government was uncertain they would garner enough votes even before the coronavirus crisis.

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Pashinyan and his team have apparently violated the law by using state assets to travel the country to campaign for the referendum.

Far Niente: A Governing Style

This situation wasn’t very different from that of neighboring Iran which had been condemned for having understated the severity of the virus in order to maximize voter participation and secure a satisfactory participation rate during its February 21 parliamentary elections, at which point the epidemic had grown beyond their control.

As it quickly became evident that Italy had joined Iran as yet another nexus of the epidemic, there were again widespread calls to stop Ryanair flights from Milan to Yerevan, with opposition leader Marukyan once again leading the charge.

Minister of Health Arsen Torosyan, seemingly resigned to the virus entering Armenia, declared on March 1 that there is no need to cancel flights from Milan, saying “when the virus spreads across almost all countries, there is no longer a need to close any border.”

Even as it became clear that the situation in Italy had developed into a national crisis, Armenia never established any means of mandatory testing or health inspection for those arriving in the country before the announcement of cancellation of flights. Rather, the extent of government intervention was asking those that develop symptoms to self-quarantine upon arriving home.

Considering the fact that Zvarnots Airport has, on average, only one international flight landing an hour on small-body jets and that each passenger could have been easily examined, this suggests terrible laxity and neglect on the part of the Armenian government.

It is unsurprising then, in light of Torosyan and the government’s lackadaisical attitude, that the outbreak of the virus in Armenia was largely related to two cases, both from Ryanair flights arriving from Milan. One was a woman from Echmiadzin who was allowed by authorities to return home and reportedly attend an engagement party where she was the vector that infected dozens of people and led to the quarantine of hundreds in the city.

Ultimately, it was Ryanair, not the Armenian government, that stopped the flights from Milan on March 13.

In the days that followed, even as the severity of the global epidemic grew, the response of the Armenian government only became more disappointing.

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Leading members of Pashinyan’s government during a mass referendum rally on March 11, 2020.

Entirely preoccupied with ensuring the success of the referendum, the government continued to trivialize the seriousness of the situation.

PM Pashinyan announced that he was going on a one-month vacation to begin campaigning for his controversial referendum, even as leaders around the world were declaring national emergencies and the global economy was coming to a halt.

Despite continuing criticism by opposition parties and a highly visible reproach by the Parliamentary Assembly of Council of Europe (PACE) for being unconstitutional, Pashinyan – the man who had long been financed by the U.S. State Department – stated that the will of the Armenian people will not be influenced by foreign opinion.

He began traveling across the country, organizing rallies, and downplaying the threat of the virus all the way up to March 12, when in Jermuk he stated he saw no reason yet why the referendum campaign should be halted. This almost a month and a half after the WHO global emergency declaration.

Finally, on March 13, Pashinyan decided to return to Yerevan to discuss the situation in the country. After meetings and after weeks of dismissing the coronavirus threat when communicating with the public, he retreated to the prime minister’s palace on Lake Sevan to self-quarantine along with his family.

Then, on March 16, he declared a state of emergency, which was the only constitutional way for him to delay the referendum. Two days later, the government announced a $300 million emergency economic aid package to help the country through the period of uncertainty, including $160 million for “innovative projects tackling the virus.” It’s yet to be seen where this money will go and to whose benefit it will be.  

Given all that had transpired during the preceding weeks, as the head of the government and key ministers were “on vacation” campaigning and trivializing the threat posed by the virus, one has to wonder to how the situation might have been different if they had reacted to the threat with urgency and competency.

For a country whose economy was already lagging compared to its pre-Pashinyan trajectory, it is worth asking whether $300 million dollars could have been better spent on something else if the government had reacted to global and domestic developments with the vigor and moxie it commonly extols its supporters to have.

Neglecting to grasp the rapidity of the virus’ spread and the grave effect on those it infected, the government, led by Pashinyan, chose to characteristically advance its own political objectives instead of prioritizing the health of Armenia’s citizens. It was a monumental dereliction of government’s first duty to safeguard citizens from preventable injury.

One has to soberly ask for how long the Armenian Nation can afford to continue to hold onto its existence in the tumultuous and unforgiving Caucasus with a leader who evidently still does not appreciate the responsibilities and consequences that come with the power that he has attained. And what more devastating crisis might Armenia be facing next while its commander-in-chief is protesting in a village somewhere or continuing to seek out imagined enemies for retribution or laughing off the impending threats? Since the government has shown its incompetence in quickly addressing a lethal threat, this is a question we need to ask – and answer.

*Editor’s Note: We received information that Zvartnots Airport has 70 daily arrivals and departures, which would average to just under 3 arrivals an hour. We also cross-checked our information with official government statistics about Zvarnots air traffic and the official figures show that there were 13,260 take-offs and landings from January to December 2019. This averages to a combined 36.3 departures and arrivals per day, or 18.1 departures or arrivals per day. This, in turn, averages to less than 1 arrival flights per hour.

17 Comments

  1. Unbelievable. He needs to be held accountable for the brazen and criminal conduct putting public health at risk

  2. It’s scary to think that Pashinian is in charge at times. Truly this lackadaisical attitude is the exact type of leadership that enemies wait for to strike. Maybe there is hope for Edmon Marukyan to steamroll this dunce out of office.

  3. Pashinyan’s inadequacies are again on full display in a time of crisis. He was, and sadly will likely always be, a small time empty suit propped up by Western interests to defang and pacify the Armenian nation in the name of modernization. Why anyone continues to have faith in this man is beyond me.

  4. Folks, before you jump on the bandwagon and criticize Pashinyan, remember that hindsight is 20/20 and Mher has used it to his full advantage in this article. It’s true that flights from Italy were not cancelled in time, but remember the environment the world was in at the time. Look at the major economies of the world with much more advanced healthcare systems and even how they stumbled. They couldn’t foresee the extent of this pandemic that was spreading like the California wildfires. Had Armenia been the only nation caught unprepared, I’d have agreed with you, but that’s not the case. The entire world did.

    It’s healthy to have criticism of the new government as that adds different perspectives, and I applaud Mher for doing that, but when that criticism turns into blind disapproval of EVERYTHING Pashinyan does, it begins to sound like a beeping smoke detector that has gone low on battery. Reading his articles give me the sense that life under Serzh Sargsyan was a lot better, that the economy was booming (albeit all the money was being funneled into the pockets of just a few,) that people were much happier (albeit they looked for the slightest opportunity to leave country, and in droves,) and that there hasn’t been any tangible progress in the country under the new regime, to which I say, seriously?

    1. Asbed, I agree that being an effective leader of a nation is a very difficult and challending endeavor. However, being a real leader — not a cheerleader — means thinking and planning ahead. Pashinyan showed a certain immaturity in not taking this global problem (especially with Iran in crisis directly south on Armenia’s borders) as seriously as was required. The same criticism can be made of Donald Trump among others, but that does not absolve Pashinyan from his obligation of being one step ahead, rather than one step behind (as was the case here). Getting to power is one thing, weilding power is another altogether. If he is to LEAD our nation he has to depart from taking his usual grandiose dog and pony show on the road, and act like a thoughtful and responsible leader. Pashinyan has this far squandered the historic opportunity presented to him to actually lead Armenia in a way that we have not yet seen. Frankly, at this point, having observed his performance in office to date, I have very little faith his ability to rise to the occasion.

      1. Onenation, you correctly point out that this is a ‘historic opportunity’ presented to our people. But let me ask you, who do we owe this historic opportunity to? Serge Sargsyan? Robert Kocharyan? No, we owe it to the person you’re calling a ‘cheerleader,’ a person you say you have very little faith in, so give him some credit. This couldn’t have happened without him.

        I’ve always wondered what Pashinyan-bashers like Mher Almasian have written in the past about our former leaders. I would really love to read them … if there are any of course. I hope there are, and I hope they are as critical of them as they are of Pashinyan, because if they’re not, their real motive will shine clear and bright.

        1. Asbed, I apologize I should have been more specific when referring to “historic opportunity” so I will elaborate. I feel that Armenia’s former leaders all fell short, to varying degrees, and Nikol has an opportunity, and to a certain degree a mandate to separate himself from the pack. Levon Ter Petrosyan was an abject disaster, whose administration opened the doors to the corruption that took root in Armenia. Robert and Serge did an admirable job securing Artsakh’s security and independence, and the economy certainly grew, but their heavy handed ways wore thin with the general public opening the door for Nikol (who was indisputably funded by western institutions) to emerge. Popular Revolutions occur not because people are have hit rock bottom and have no where to go but rather when people have expectations and ambitions that aren’t met. I feel that is what opened the door for Nikol, who to that point never did anything of significance other than lead the cheers for the indisputably worse President Armenia has ever had. Be that as it may, he emerged with an enormous opportunity to distinguish himself as a true national leader. I think he has squandered that opportunity and shown himself as one who is not equal to the task before him. The idiotic decision to continue organizing rallies while the corona virus raged around him is the latest, and perhaps most egregious example of his inadequacy. Just because his predecessors may have been deficient , or that Trump bungled America’s response, doesn’t give Nikol a pass for that monumental screw up. Leading a nation is an arduous challenge and leaders are rightfully held to a high standard. In my estimation Nikol’s record has much to be desired.

          1. { Levon Ter Petrosyan was an abject disaster, whose administration opened the doors to the corruption that took root in Armenia. }
            .
            People who criticize President LTP conveniently forget he was Commander in Chief and a very able leader during a war in which Armenians liberated more Turk-occupied lands than in centuries of our history. If anyone doubts what kind of wartime-leader LTP was, I invite people to find and view a shot vid by former Defense Minister Vazgen Sargsyan about LTP’s wartime leadership.
            .
            No, he did not fight at the front: God bless the 1,000s who did and gave their lives. But neither did, for example Winston Churchill, who rightly is recognized as a great wartime leader by the British. We Armenians need to learn to differentiate the good and bad in our leaders. No leader of ANY nation is without fault.
            .
            I am quite aware that later LTP went off the rails, but it does not diminish his crucial accomplishments at the time.
            .
            Regarding “corruption took root”: corruption had taken root during 70-years of Soviet rule. (I am from Soviet Armenia: I remember). When SU broke up, and the suppression mechanisms (KGB et al) disappeared , corruption, theft, looting… ran rampart in EVERY former Soviet Republic. Russia was looted of 100s of $Billions during the Yeltsin years. LTP inherited it: he did not create it.

    2. On March 2 my employer of 40,000 asked us to work from home despite the financial pain of doing so for a private company. On March 2 this leader of a country was calling its citizens to attend his rallies to promote his personal agenda. It is criminal, there is no excuse for it.

  5. This government has been far from on vacation from the very start of this epidemic — now pandemic. Let me assure you that the government has been hard at work and is probably more prepared for the coming surge in cases than more of the US is. . And please make note — Armenia has been testing to identify cases. For this reason, the numbers of cases may be higher than those reported in neighboring countries. Known Cases is not indicative of anything! I’ve been reassured by the medical community that action has been aggressive in their response and has the necessary medical stockpiles to face what is coming. They need our help… not twisted criticism that ignores what is really going on on the ground.

    1. Thank you Carolann for pointing out the twisted criticism this article is filled with. Given your and your husband’s medical backgrounds, as well as your close engagement with Armenia for over 30 years, I hope other readers will see the reality and give more importance to your views than Mr. Almasian’s propaganda piece passing itself as analytical journalism.

      1. It seems like there is a little privileged circle here…flattering each other for support and calling out flickering lights or beeping alarms or whatever that dumb analogy for bias was. Yours is more than obvious, Asbed. Fighting ghosts of the past does not build a future. Some of us are profoundly disappointed.

      2. {…than Mr. Almasian’s propaganda piece passing itself as analytical journalism.}
        .
        ASBED POGARIAN: Please refute point-by-point the things Mr. Almasian claims in his article. Claiming it is a “propaganda piece” is just that: your personal opinion. I don’t know what’s going on in RoA re COVID-19, but all previous articles by Mr. Almasian I have read here were well researched and supported by facts as he found them. You have facts that say otherwise, please let readers here know. Thank you.
        .
        The Najarian (medical) family, of course, has done tremendous work in Armenia and for Armenia. But reassuring comments by Carolann Najarian mean what? We are to blindly believe them? Nobody in US medical community can, quote, “reassure” people in US about anything re COVID-19. So how is it that anyone in RoA medical community can reassure anyone?

        1. Avery, you are right, I was too harsh on Mr. Almasian. I also enjoy reading his articles and have actually commented positively on some of them. His piece on the high tech industry of Armenia was a masterpiece, so Mher, please accept my apologies. Having said that, however, I still believe the article was one-sided. For example, regarding the $300 million economic package the government announced, he states “it is worth asking whether $300 million dollars could have been better spent on something else if the government had reacted to global and domestic developments with … vigor and moxie.” The reality is, such a package would still have been needed whether the infections were 0, 5o, 500 or 1o,000. The whole world shut down, for Christ’s sake, let’s not forget that crucial fact, and Armenia is part of that world, that global economy, it would have been affected regardless, so criticizing Pashinyan is so unfair. Another thesis the article espouses is that Pashinyan is a US agent (Pashinyan – the man who had long been financed by the U.S. State Department,) which indirectly pushes the idea that the Velvet Revolution was orchestrated by the US and not the Armenian people. This is highly offensive to the will of our people. For once, we rose against tyranny as a nation, so please don’t try to take that away from us. And it was thanks to Pashinyan. I see him as a charismatic leader we so desperately need, despite all his shortcomings. He has given our nation hope and freedom of expression. If in the past an innocent comment like “Privet Rubo” cost you your life, in today’s Armenia you are free to tear the referendum leaflet the prime minister hands you and shove it into his face, with no fear of reprisal, and to me, that alone is huge.

    2. The latest reports show that Armenia has 194 confirmed cases. Per capita that number exceeds all border nations other than the disaster in Iran. In fact, Azerbaijan and Georgia combined have less than 120 with a combined population about 5 times greater than Armenia’s. Also, the argument that Armenia has greater numbers because they border Iran is not convincing since Azerbaijan has a much larger border with Iran than Armenia. The numbers are concerning to say the least. The FACT is that Pashinyan held public rallies into early March, well after the alarms for caution had been sounded worldwide. How anyone can justify or dismiss that fact is beyond me. I hope you are correct about the reports that the government is now working tirelessly to deal with the problem. God’s speed in that endeavor. But even Nikol cannot rewrite history about his huge mistake in gathering huge crowds to support his personal agenda at the expense of the public’s safety. Credit (or criticism) is necessary when due and it is due in this case.

      1. ONENATION: Any reports re ANYTHING from Turkbaijan are bogus. Nothing can be believed. All numbers are made-up, including their alleged population of 10 million.
        .
        Stats from Georgia are more reliable and believable.
        .
        I will write a longer post later re Pashinyan, but you and others are correct in criticizing him and his KoolAid brigade who are dazzled by this dangerous fraud of a man who is methodically dismantling Republic of Armenia’s institutions.
        .
        Any person who supports this Fascist who sicced his mobs on the Judicial Branch, and who told his mobs to surround and block the courts, such that judges had to escape through windows, is drunk with KoolAid. Now this little dictator wants to install his sycophants at the Supreme Court, so he can ruin whatever is left of RoA “legally”.


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