By Marianna Grigoryan*
Amid civil society calls for Armenia to take part in the United Nationsí December 9 International Anti-Corruption Day, some local observers contend that Armenian President Serzh Sargsyanís anti-corruption strategy has so far proven to have more bark than bite.
The governmentís official corruption crackdown began under the late-prime minister Andranik Margarian, who kicked off the campaign in 2003. Since his election in 2008, President Sargsyan has made the "transparent and continuous fight against bribery" an administration priority. The program, overseen by Prime Minister Tigran Sarkisian, targets several trouble spots, including education and the judiciary system.
At the November 28 congress of the governing Republican Party of Armenia, Sargsyan declared that the fight against corruption, among other "challenges," means "first and foremost the fight of the ruling party against them. Only a strong party can handle such a fight."
Mass media outlets are giving increasing coverage to the governmentís anti-corruption initiatives; 309 criminal prosecutions for corruption cases had been launched by October 2009, news media reported General Prosecutor Aghvan Hovsepian as stating.
The head of the Yerevan office of anti-corruption watchdog Transparency International, Amalya Kostanian, says she can see some progress, but she expressed the belief the governmentís fight is directed only against "the lower echelons" of officialdom. Many of the investigations featured on television focus on police and low-level officials. "We know how deeply the economic and political links are intertwined," said Kostanian. "But if you donít target the top level, the ministers, the [parliamentary] deputies, there is no real fight, no political will that would demonstrate authoritiesí willingness to fight against the bigwigs."
The Berlin-based watchdog recently released a report that stated that, in contrast with neighboring Georgia and Azerbaijan, corruption has increased in Armenia since 2008. In Transparency Internationalís Corruption Perceptions Index, Armenia slid 11 slots from 2008 to rank in 120th place out of 180 countries -- alongside Kazakhstan, Mongolia, Ethiopia and Vietnam - for 2009. Georgia held 66th place, the highest score in the South Caucasus, while Azerbaijan rose 15 slots to 143rd.
Armeniaís score -- 2.7 on a 10-point scale -- fell beneath Transparency Internationalís 3.0 threshold for systemic corruption. [Editorís note: Transparency International receives funding from the Open Society Institute, which also funds EurasiaNet.org through its Central Eurasia Project].
The government affirms that it will evaluate the results of its 2009-2010 anti-corruption program by the end of the year. But many Armenians remain skeptical that Soviet-era habits of bribery and graft can be easily contained.
One pro-opposition human rights activist running anti-corruption programs in Armeniaís northern Lori region contends that the government is focusing only on filing "criminal cases against some small-fry entities." The campaign is not "a real fight," asserted Arthur Sakunts, head of the Helsinki Citizensí Assembly in Vanadzor.
Some Armenians suggest that new forms of bribery are evolving in order to outpace government efforts to contain graft. For example, several taxi drivers from a taxi service in a Yerevan suburb tell EurasiaNet that traffic police began hitting them up for bigger "fines" - which the drivers call bribes - after legislative amendments passed in 2007 that prohibited traffic police from laying in wait for drivers to collect alleged fines.
"If earlier you could get off by bribing the traffic officer with, say, 500 dram (about $1.20) or 1,000 dram (about $2.40), now the bribery rates have risen five to 10 times, along with the fines," claimed one driver, who asked to remain anonymous. "How can you call this an improvement?"
The head of Yerevanís Achilles Center for Protection of Driversí Rights, Eduard Hovhannisian, agrees that the legislative amendments "in a way contributed to an increase in corruption," but notes that the drivers are also now calling "to try to get information about their rights and to protect their interests."
Sociologist Aharon Adibekian, director of the opinion research center Sociometer, believes that Armeniaís economic doldrums have contributed to an uptick in corruption. The countryís Gross Domestic Product declined by 17.5 percent in the first 10 months of 2009, the National Statistics Service announced. That means that a government official with a low salary cannot "go to work every day, cleanly shaved and neatly dressed, and not think about bribery," Adibekian posited.
Eradicating such occurrences will take time, asserted Transparency Internationalís Kostanian. Adibekian agreed: "You cannot tackle corruption by finding an easy prey every now and then and making loud statements."
*Marianna Grigoryan is a freelance reporter based in Yerevan.
Source: Eurasianet, 09 December 2009