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Unraveled In Armenia: Pashinian Orders Firings After Dirty Flag Catches His Eye

Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian was less than pleased after a recent visit to a customs facility.

Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian vaulted to power after leading street protests against a political castling last year on a pledge to clean up Armenia's corrupt public structures.

Apparently that extends to national symbols.

While touring a customs facility in Yerevan on April 9, Pashinian noticed a dirty Armenian flag in an office. Already upset with a customs officer for failing to stand at attention when he entered the room, Pashinian reacted swiftly, ordering everyone in the room to be fired.

Though State Revenue Committee officials said they had not received an official instruction to fire employees, Hayk Martirosian, the officer in question, resigned the next day.

"If anyone finds that the prime minister of the Republic of Armenia can't protect the flag of the Republic of Armenia, then our understanding about the state is different," Pashinian told reporters after a tour of the Noragavit automobile customs house.

When contacted by RFE/RL, one of Martirosian's colleagues who was in the same room during the incident said he could not comment on the situation "without the permission of my superiors."

Armenian customs officer Hayk Martirosian
Armenian customs officer Hayk Martirosian

Casting himself as a man of the people, Pashinian became the face of protests last year as tens of thousands of Armenians took to the streets across the country to rally against Serzh Sarkisian's planned move to the prime minister's post after two terms as president and a political system they saw as deeply corrupt and undemocratic.

Since taking power, the popular 43-year-old prime minister and former journalist has publicly made a priority of peeling back the layers of the old guard that had basically ruled the country since it left the Soviet Union in 1991, including the detention of former President Robert Kocharian, who is awaiting trial on charges of "overthrowing Armenia's constitutional order."

While Pashinian's efforts to enact deep structural reforms to an economy hampered by decades of graft have been lauded, some rights activists openly questioned the legality and ethics of his demand that heads roll at the customs house.

It also comes on the heels of one of the highest-profile blows to Pashinian's liberal standing when political opponents objected to an appearance by Lilit Martirosian, a transgender woman, before an April 5 parliamentary hearing on human rights to discuss widespread violence and discrimination against sexual minorities in Armenia.

After the opposition chair of that meeting challenged Martirosian's right to appear, Pashinian sought to politicize the previous administration's issuance of Martirosian's passport as a woman.

'I Say Things Only Once!"

After the customs spat, Zhanna Aleksanian, an associate expert on human rights at the Armenian Center for National and International Studies, accused Pashinian of needlessly publicly humiliating Martirosian, the customs officer, condemning the incident as "ugly" and "disgraceful."

"I cannot imagine the prime minister of any civilized country talking to citizens with such threats and in such a tone," she said while acknowledging that Pashinian's critical comments regarding the flag were "justified."

"I think it was quite humiliating for the customs officer. Besides, the prime minister has no right to fire him," she added, citing Armenian labor laws.

Another human rights campaigner, Artur Sakunts, argued that only the head of the State Revenue Committee or a superior within the customs unit where Martirosian worked was legally authorized to fire him.

Pashinian, however, defended his order and made clear that he would not backtrack, saying, "I say things only once!"

"If I need to dismiss tens of thousands of people from office, I will, but I will not tolerate such an attitude towards the national flag, and that's final," Pashinian later wrote on his Facebook page, doubling down on his comments earlier in the day.