Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian on Thursday threatened to respond “very harshly” to unnamed “former oligarchs” who he said falsely accuse his government of pushing up fuel prices in Armenia.
Pashinian ordered the National Security Service (NSS) to crack down on anyone who uses mass media or social media to “manipulate public opinion.”
“Let nobody succumb to the temptation to feel on their jaw the power of a counterblow by the government enjoying the people’s trust,” he warned at a weekly cabinet meeting in Yerevan.
Pashinian was incensed by a newspaper report which claimed that the retail price of pressurized natural gas, used by most vehicles in Armenia, has jumped by around 40 percent because of government plans to introduce new pricing requirements for it.
Under a bill approved by the government in February, motorists would have to pay for every kilogram, rather than cubic meter, of gas purchased by them. Officials argued that the weight of gas is a more objective measure than its volume because the latter can have different degrees of density. The bill has yet to be debated by the Armenian parliament.
Speaking at the cabinet meeting, the head of a government body monitoring the domestic fuel market, Armen Kotolian, said that car owners have paid more for pressurized gas for the last few days because of its increased density. Kotolian insisted that the cost of gas has not gone up in real terms.
Pashinian seized upon that explanation to denounce “manipulative reports” about the impact of the measure planned by the government. He blamed them on owners of gas stations who he said want to continue to evade taxes.
“If some former oligarchs think that in the existing situation they can enter the field of manipulations, they are mistaken,” he said. “I want to warn everyone for the last time not to interpret our civility as weakness. Or else, each of them will get a very harsh counterblow.”
The outspoken premier did not name any of those tycoons. The major owners of gas station chains include Gagik Tsarukian, one of the country’s richest men who also leads the opposition Prosperous Armenia Party (BHK). The BHK controls the second largest faction in the National Assembly.
Pashinian went on to order the head of the NSS, Artur Vanetsian, to already launch a crackdown. “True, the freedom of speech and information is guaranteed in our country,” he told Vanetsian. “But if some criminal circles spend millions on manipulating public opinion through the press and social media, that’s a matter of national security, and I hope that your service will manage to achieve concrete results on this front.”
The premier also demanded NSS action against “fake” social media users who he said also openly call for violent actions, including against members of the former Armenian government.
Speaking to journalists after the government session, Vanetsian said that the NSS will be treading “very carefully” on the issue. “If [social media] posts, whether by fake or actual users, do not contain elements of a crime, law-enforcement bodies will have no reason to act,” he said.
All forms of libel were decriminalized in Armenia about a decade ago.