A group of Armenian citizens on Wednesday gathered near the government offices in Yerevan to demand an opportunity to leave the country and specifically go to Russia.
Some Armenian citizens who live and work on a permanent basis in Russia had come to Armenia before the introduction of the coronavirus-related state of emergency in March and had to stay in the country due to the subsequent closure of international borders.
Five months on, many of them, including those who also hold Russian passports, say they cannot travel back to Russia either to rejoin their families or return to work there.
The protest comes on a day when the Armenian government has announced imminent removal of certain travel restrictions for foreigners to enter Armenia by air.
In presenting to parliament the decision to extend the state of emergency for another month, Deputy Prime Minister Tigran Avinian said, however, that land border crossings with both Georgia and Iran will remain closed for now.
Avinian also made it clear that there are no restrictions for Armenian citizens to leave the country by air and that it was within the competence of the receiving country to remove any existing prohibitions.
At the same time, the official confirmed that the Armenian government was in talks with counterparts in Moscow regarding the possibility of Armenian citizens traveling to Russia.
Answering the question of opposition Bright Armenia faction leader Edmon Marukian on the fate of thousands of Armenians who travel to Russia as migrant workers, Avinian said: “As you know, the Russian Federation has publicly expressed its readiness for a mutual opening of borders. Now individual negotiations are being conducted. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs is working in this direction. In other words, work is being conducted with the Russian Federation at this point over a mutual opening of borders and also over subsequent regulations.”
Some participants of today’s protest said they wanted to travel to Russia in their own cars. But even for citizens holding Russian passports this looks problematic given that they have to go through Georgia, a country with a much better coronavirus epidemiological situation than Armenia’s.
“We went to the [Russian] embassy, we went to the National Assembly... We have been raising this issue for three or four weeks now,” one protester complained.
Some Armenians who mainly live in Russia spent several nights in their cars at the Bagratashen border checkpoint in northern Armenia only to be turned away by border officials. “Many of us are Russian citizens. We all want to return home. We want to be given a corridor to go to Russia,” the protester said.
Armenian Foreign Minister Zohrab Mnatsakanian came down to listen to the protesters. He explained to them that borders are opened and closed not only in Armenia, but in other countries as well. “At this moment Armenia has a system in place for other citizens to cross the border, and other countries have theirs. If our neighbors keep the border closed, that is their policy.”
Mnatsakanian said that it is the Russian authorities that should answer the questions raised by the protesters in Armenia.
One man claimed that they were being held hostage in Armenia. “There is no such [harsh] state of emergency,” he contended.
The minister countered: “Do you understand that there has been a pandemic? Do you follow the numbers? Do you see that the risks are very high?”
Since the start of the epidemic in March over 40,000 coronavirus cases have been identified in Armenia, making the infection rate in the South Caucasus country with a population of about 3 million one of the highest in the world. During this period 806 people in Armenia have died from COVID-19, the death of another 234 patients infected with the virus, according to the health authorities, was primarily caused by other, pre-existing diseases.