The head of Armenia’s most powerful security agency on Thursday publicly rebuked the government for failing to pay back wages owed to thousands of former and current employees of a troubled chemical plant.
Gorik Hakobian, who runs the National Security Service (NSS), unexpectedly spoke up during a weekly meeting of Prime Minister Hovik Abrahamian’s cabinet that discussed renewed street protests staged by Nairit plant workers.
The workers are accusing the government of failing to meet its recent pledge to end the wage arrears by July 15. Hundreds of them blocked a Yerevan street adjacent to Nairit’s premises on Tuesday and rallied outside Abrahamian’s office during Thursday’s cabinet meeting.
“There were around 500 protesters yesterday,” Hakobian told ministers. “It’s not a small number. Their sole demand is as follows: they want to get the money at once, all at the same time. Why? Because they fear that you would pay a particular number of workers and [then say that] the money has run out.”
“There is no trust in our authorities,” added the media-shy general heading the successor agency to the Armenian branch of the Soviet KGB.
Abrahamian assured Hakobian that the government has already set aside 5.3 billion drams ($11 million) for the payment of more than one year’s worth of back wages. Energy Minister Yervand Zakharian, for his part, said his ministry will now start paying the Nairit workers. He said it needs up to 15 days to complete this process.
Zakharian reiterated this pledge when he met with Hrach Tadevosian, the leader of the workers’ trade union, after the government session. Not all of the protesting workers were convinced that the government will meet the new deadline. Some of them said they will continue to demonstrate and keep up the pressure on the government.
“We are sick and tired of our long-running fight,” said one middle-aged man. He said he and his colleagues are worried that the government will not fully honor its pledge.
The Soviet-built plant manufacturing synthetic rubber has barely operated since 2011. The government laid off 1,700 of its workers in January.
The NSS chief’s remarks, meanwhile, came as a surprise for Armenian political observers and, most probably, government members as well. Hakob Badalian, a prominent media commentator, described them as “extraordinary.”
“This could be a warning that the situation [in Armenia] is, in a sense, getting out of hand and that it is no longer possible to cope with or suppress popular sentiment with traditional methods,” Badalian told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am). “This might also be a message to the effect that changes are needed within the government because the situation is so grave now that such changes are now a matter of national security.”