Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan has ordered an investigation of a regional governor two days after naming him, following a rare outbreak of anger against one of his appointees.
On October 15, news broke that Pashinyan had appointed Hunan Poghosyan as governor of the Syunik province. The position was one of several cabinet seats and governorships opened up when Pashinyan fired senior government members from the ARF Dashnaktstutyun and Prosperous Armenia parties two weeks earlier, after those parties rebelled against Pashinyan and tried to foil his plans for early elections.
While most of the replacement officials have been uncontroversial, Poghosyan's appointment drew immediate protests. The day after the news broke, a group of Syunik residents blocked a highway in protest, insisting that “the governor must be from our province.”
Poghosyan is a career police officer, serving as Armenia's deputy chief of police between 2010 and earlier this year. He resigned in May, after Pashinyan assumed power. Under the rule of former president Serzh Sargsyan, the police were often used to disperse peaceful demonstrations, beat up dissidents and harass reporters, leading many to object to Poghosyan's appointment.
“The man was a part of the criminal power,” wrote political commentator Mher Arshakyan. “Very bad, shameful decision,” wrote Levon Barseghyan, a Pashinyan ally and prominent civil society figure in Armenia’s second city of Guymri, in a Facebook post.
At a cabinet meeting on October 16, Pashinyan dismissed the criticism, calling the decision an effort at consolidation. He warned his supporters to avoid “political racism” towards the former regime’s officials. As the criticism grew, the prime minister doubled down on his support of Poghosyan. “There are no flawless people, flawless appointments don’t happen,” he said on the 17th.
Later that day, a 2013 interview of Pashinyan went viral. In that interview, Pashinyan, then an opposition member of parliament, recounted a story from Shant Harutunyan, a political prisoner, about being beaten by police officials including Poghosyan.
The next day, asked about the episode by reporters, Pashinyan said, “The problem is that Shant Harutyunyan didn’t submit a testimony [on this accusation]. This is a good occasion to conduct a new investigation. I hope Shant Harutyunyan will cooperate with the investigation. To be honest, I’ve already talked with the law enforcement representatives today and said that there’s a need to conduct a new investigation, if that’s possible. I think it will be possible.” The same day, the road-blocking protests in Syunik resumed.
In 2012, Armenian investigative news outlet Hetq reported that Poghosyan had declared savings of 19 times greater than his annual salary, totaling more than $180,000.
According to his most recent declaration filed with Armenia’s Commission on Ethics of High-Ranking Officials, Hunanyan had over $60,000 in savings, with an annual salary of roughly $10,000. Under Armenian law, illicit enrichment, which is defined as “increase in the assets [of a public official] and/or decrease in the [financial] obligations substantially exceeding his or her lawful income,” is a criminal offense punishable by up to three years in prison.
Grigor Atanesian is a freelance journalist who covers Armenia.