By Anna Saghabalian
Pilots representing hundreds of former Armenian Airlines staff have resumed public protests to demand payment of 160 million drams ($470,000) in back wages owed to them by the now defunct state-owned carrier.
Dozens of them rallied outside the main government building in Yerevan on Thursday. Leaders of the protesters held a news conference the next day to elaborate on their claims that the Armenian government is deliberately ignoring their demands.
The once profitable company was declared bankrupt in 2002 after years of mismanagement, leaving over one thousand employees, many of them pilots, jobless. More than a third of them have still not be paid for their work. Some are owed as much as 4 million drams ($11,700).
The protesters say the government has repeatedly broken its pledges to eliminate the wage arrears despite having raised more than 200 million drams from the partial sale of the liquidated company’s planes and other assets.
Officials at the government’s Civil Aviation Department counter that under Armenian law workers of a bankrupt company can be paid only after a complete sell-off of its property. They says the Armenian Airlines assets have still not been fully auctioned off.
The protesters told journalists that only a fraction of the 300 or so former Armenian Airlines pilots have found other decent jobs in the country. “Some have menial jobs or at best work as taxi drivers,” said Nikolay, an unemployed aviator who refused to tell his last name.
Others have had to join obscure airlines carrying out passenger and cargo flights in Africa and Asia. Dozens of Armenian pilots are believed to work there in conditions that are often difficult and dangerous. As one pilot who has for years worked in Sudan told RFE/RL, “There is no proper legal framework, no proper legal protection. Your are totally unprotected there. But what can you do if your kid is hungry?”
Six of his colleagues who shipped cargo to and from Equatorial Guinea were arrested in March 2004 and subsequently sentenced to between 14 and 24 years’ imprisonment on dubious charges of involvement in a reported plot to topple the west African state’s autocratic president. The aircrew of the Antonov-12 plane that belonged to a Yerevan-based airline were set free in June 2005 with the help of Russian-Armenian businessman Ara Abrahamian.