Prime Minister of Armenia Nikol Pashinyan

Pashinyan Raises Some Doubts on Amulsar But Presses Ahead

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YEREVAN (Combined Sources) —  Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan on September 9 asked the residents of Jermuk to open the roads leading to the Amulsar gold mine.

He said that even if the roads are opened now constructions works will not commence there until April 2020.

“I am asking the residents of the town of Jermuk to open the roads leading to the Amulsar mine because you don’t need to close them, because you have a government which in the event of seeing a legitimate necessity to close these roads, will go and close the roads with its tools and lawful authority,” he said during a live Facebook broadcast.

Pashinyan added that his government has no “legal grounds” to ban its development by a Western mining company.

Pashinyan said that failure to allow the company, Lydian International, to mine gold at the Amulsar mine would have severe consequences for Armenia’s economy and even national security. He also argued that Lydian has given the Armenian government more guarantees that mining operations there would not contaminate water, soil and air.

“My statement remains the same as during the last live broadcast, that at least for now we don’t have any legal grounds to ban the operations of the Amulsar mine. But understandably we can’t not take into account the concerns which exist among our society,” he added.

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Pashinyan said he has tasked the environmental inspection agency to start inspections at Amulsar to clarify certain issues raised by the Minister of Environment.

Pashinyan explained the theoretical developments resulting from the inspection.

“Option one – there are no violations, everything is normal. Option two – there are violations and irregularities and they can be eliminated without project changes,” he said, adding that in this case a new EIA will not be required.

“Option number three – these violations and irregularities cannot be eliminated without a new project and if a new project is considered it means that a new EIA is considered,” he said, adding that in additional to the environmental inspection agency the Investigative Committee’s criminal investigation will have to give answers to certain other issues as well.

Pashinyan said the government has  asked Lydian, the parent company of Amulsar, to clarify whether if they were to be granted permission to resume operations, when would they begin working at the mine and the company has noted that it will not take place before spring 2020.

“If the roads leading to Amulsar were to be opened today, no construction will take place there at least until April 2020. But the closure of the road is creating serious problems for Armenia in terms of international economic image and rating, creating concrete chance for a drop in Armenia’s rating.

Pashinyan added that a recent video-conference with ELARD — the company which conducted an environmental audit of the project — said that eventually Lydian International bears responsibility for any actions.

“The company Lydian itself must give or not give guarantees, assume certain obligations, as a result of which the government must decide to what extent it trusts these records,” he said.

Access to the Amulsar mine has been blocked by environmentalists for many months and the government is expected to announce its decision whether or not it will allow Lydian International to resume operations. ELARD, an international audit company, carried out an Environmental Impact Assessment study for the project, which in turn is under scrutiny.

Anger from Former Ally Sefilian

The leader of Sasna Tsrer, an Armenian party whose members stormed a police station in Yerevan in 2016, on Friday, September 6, warned Pashinyan against giving the green light to the project opposed by environmentalists.

Sefilian said a government decision to allow a British-American company to restart the project disrupted by protesters over a year ago would be exploited by Pashinyan’s bitter political foes branded by him as a Russian “fifth column.”

“The fifth column is praying and waiting for Nikol Pashinyan to reactivate the Amulsar mine as soon as possible,” Sefilian said in an interview. “The fifth column has very well calculated that … the people would not allow [mining at Amulsar] and that there would be a clash between the people and police forces there.”

He claimed that heavy-handed police actions against the protesters would deal a huge blow to Pashinyan’s popularity and lead to his downfall.

Jirair Sefilian

Sefilian admitted that the Amulsar issue was on the agenda of Pashinyan’s unexpected meeting with him and another Sasna Tsrer figure, Garegin Chukaszian, held late on Thursday. “We urged Mr. Pashinyan yesterday not to make mistakes on this issue,” he said. “If he makes a mistake on Amulsar that will mean his political death. We made this clear to him yesterday.”

Sefilian stressed that his party, which got 1.8 percent of the vote in the December 2018 parliamentary elections, remains opposed to the Amulsar project. “We will not allow the opening of any new metal mines,” he said.

Asked whether Sasna Tsrer will protest if Pashinyan’s government decides to restore the Lydian International company’s access to Amulsar, he said: “Of course, and we will protest and at the same time try to ensure that Mr. Pashinyan does not issue wrong orders.”

The Lebanese-born politician dismissed speculation that he and his associates have actually pledged not to hamper the Amulsar project as part of a secret deal with Pashinyan.

Some of those associates led a 31-member armed group, also called Sasna Tsrer, which seized a Yerevan police base in July 2016 to demand than then President Serzh Sarkisian free Sefilian and step down. Sefilian had been arrested a month before the attack.

The gunmen laid down their weapons after a two-week standoff with security forces which left three police officers dead. All but two of them were set free pending the outcome of their trials shortly after Sarkisian was toppled in last year’s “Velvet Revolution” led by Pashinyan.

The two Sasna Tsrer members remaining behind bars stand accused of killing the policemen. They deny the accusations.

In February, Sefilian warned that Sasna Tsrer will “force” the authorities to free the “rebels.” Leaders of the pro-government majority in the Armenian parliament denounced the threat.

ELARD Findings Ambiguous

Lydian’s interim chairman, Edward Sellers, and top Armenian executive, Hayk Aloyan, met with Pashinyan on Friday. They also attended on Saturday a meeting with senior government officials chaired by Pashinyan.

The prime minister said on Monday that they made fresh assurances to the effect that “not a single liter of toxic water” would be leaked during gold production at Amulsar. He said his government will not hesitate to stop mining operations and even revoke Lydian’s license if the company fails to honor these commitments.

Pashinyan also stressed in that context that he has instructed the Investigative Committee and the government’s Inspectorate Body on Environment Protection and Natural Resources to look into the “questions” raised by the ELARD experts.

Pashinyan also implicitly mentioned Lydian’s threats to take international legal action against Yerevan. The company, headquartered in Colorado and listed on the Toronto Stock Exchange, claims to have invested $400 million in Amulsar.

Lydian planned to produce 210,000 ounces of gold, worth over $315 million at current international prices, annually. It pledged to create about 800 permanent jobs and pay $50 million in annual taxes.

The company was due to start mining gold at Amulsar in late 2018. The blockade, which began in June 2018, delayed those plans indefinitely.

Pashinyan met with his political allies, environmental activists and the chief executive of a Western mining company on Friday to discuss the future of its controversial project to develop Armenia’s Amulsar gold deposit.

Pashinyan briefed parliament deputies from his My Step alliance on the status of the stalled project and answered questions from them. He declined to talk to journalists after the three-hour meeting behind the closed doors.

Alen Simonian, a senior My Step figure and deputy speaker of the Armenian parliament, gave no details of what Pashinyan told his loyalists. He said that the participants of the meeting did not arrive at any “conclusion.”

“The prime minister’s position is known,” Simonian told the press. “As for his remarks, they were about the existing situation.”

Pashinyan went on to hold separate meetings with activists opposed to the project and Edward Sellers, the interim chief executive of the British-American company Lydian International that had received in 2016 a government license to mine gold at Amulsar.

Pashinyan echoed that assessment on August 19 when he signaled his intention to restore Lydian’s access to Amulsar. But he then decided to ask ELARD experts to personally explain their findings at a video conference held ten days later.

The experts said they cannot definitively evaluate environmental dangers of the project Lydian because had submitted flawed and incomplete information to Armenian regulatory authorities. Lydian responded by accusing them of misleading Pashinyan’s government.

Pashinyan said at the end of the Skype call that the government might require Lydian to go through a fresh licensing process which would probably take months. The government has announced no decisions to that effect yet.

The meetings followed the release of ambiguous findings of an independent environmental audit of the Amulsar project conducted by ELARD, a Lebanese consulting firm hired by the Armenian government.

ELARD sent a 200-page written report to Armenia’s Investigative Committee a month ago. According to the law-enforcement body, the report concluded that Lydian’s operations would pose only “manageable” risks to the environment. It said that toxic waste from the Amulsar mine is extremely unlikely to contaminate mineral water sources in Jermuk or rivers and canals flowing into Lake Sevan.

But at an August 24 video conference with Armenian officials moderated by Pashinyan, ELARD experts said they cannot definitively evaluate environmental dangers of the project. They claimed that Lydian had submitted flawed and incomplete information to regulatory authorities before obtaining its mining license in April 2016. The British-American company responded by accusing the Lebanese consultants of misleading the government.

(Reports from Armenpress and RFE/RL were used to compile this story.)

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