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Armenia: Battling Corruption

Armenians are sceptical about their government's latest bid to curb dishonesty in public life.
By Pyotr Magdashian

Corruption in Armenia has spiralled out of control in recent years, according to a recent survey conducted by the international non-governmental organisation, NGO, Regional Development/Transparency International, RD/TI.


In an unpublished survey of public attitudes towards corruption - which was published last month - respondents named government officials as the most venal but said that every aspect of Armenian life was tainted by the problem.


Sixty seven per cent of citizens, including 41 per cent of entrepreneurs and 54 per cent of civil servants, told researchers that corruption had become endemic.


"Entrepreneurs and citizens define corruption as abuse of office and bribery," said Arevik Saribekian, head of RD/TI's anti-corruption information centre. "In fact, corrupt practices also include the patronage of monopolies, the facilitation of unfair competition and misappropriation of public resources for personal use."


Indeed, 95 per cent of all those polled believe that government officials propagate corrupt practices through their own behaviour. They said parliamentary deputies also help foster the problem by passing laws that facilitate dishonest practices, instead of erecting barriers against bribe taking, for example.


Analysts agree. "All the key spheres in Armenian society and economy are experiencing extreme pressure from corrupt officials in the higher echelons of power," World Bank spokesman John Odling-Smee remarked in Yerevan last year.


The World Bank lent the Armenian government 300,000 US dollars to develop an anti-corruption strategy, for which a broad-based contingent of experts have been consulted, including officials from Armenian government, members of the presidential office, the World Bank, International Monetary Fund, the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, OSCE, and the Council of Europe.


Originally scheduled to be submitted for public debate by the end of March, the draft document has yet to be published. One of the co-authors, Stepan Tsagikian, says it includes proper mechanisms to combat corruption. "This strategy has been designed to work, but only if top-level officials have the will to let it do so," he said.


An international working group has been set up under the auspices of the OSCE office in Yerevan to help Armenia fight the problem. The group includes representatives of the World Bank, IMF, the UN Development Programme, the European Commission and various European embassies.


"Openness and transparency are the enemies of corruption," said journalist Vaga Amirkhanian, who heads the NGO Hakastver, which lobbies for a greater media role in fighting corruption.


However, attempts by the popular newspaper Aravot to expose corrupt officials appear to have little effect. For over a year, the front page has featured photographs of hotels, villas, restaurants and other luxurious properties belonging to ministers, deputies, judges and their families. Neither the government nor law enforcement agencies have responded, other than by publishing pictures of opposition-owned properties in government-controlled publications.


Armenians are cynical about the government's commitment to curbing a problem which benefits so many. "Corrupt officials gearing up to fight corruption? Give me a break!" said Ashot Markosian, who returned to his native Armenia after running a business in St Petersburg for some years, but is now contemplating leaving the country again.


"You have to bribe to everyone in Armenia - the police, tax inspectors, ministry officials, doctors, firemen, everyone without exception," he claimed.


Until public sentiment changes, corruption cannot be defeated, said Varuzhan Oktanian, a political analyst with RD/TI, who points out that dishonesty was not a major issue during the recent presidential ballot.


"Presidential candidates should have been more vocal in their pledges to curb corruption, but instead they focused on discussing free democratic elections," he said.


In a web poll conducted recently by Radio Liberty in Armenia, corruption was voted the single most important challenge facing the country, ahead not only of employment and democratic development, but also of the disputed province of Nagorno Karabakh - traditionally an issue of major concern.


At the same time, Armenians currently see no way around accepting corruption as part of their everyday lives. "I would have had to endure several months of red tape to secure my pension," said local resident Tamara Arutiunian.


"It would have been too strenuous for me physically, so I paid a small bribe and the issue was settled in a matter of days. Many people I know would rather pay a bribe than spend months running from one government office to another," she said.


The justice ministry have been drafting laws against corruption for two years. Ministry press spokesman Ara Sagatelian believes that some of the legislation, such as the Civil Service Act and the Licensing Act, have already had some impact.


"In order to fight corruption more efficiently, we need to raise the legal awareness level of our citizens," he said pointing out that Armenian law encourages individuals to fight for their rights and obtain redress. Civil institutions and the mass media should take responsibility for this, he added.


However, most Armenians see little point in taking matters into their own hands. The RD/TI poll found that few citizens are prepared to even report instances of bribery to the law enforcement agencies, as they don't believe that any action will be taken.


"They have it all - the power, the connections and the force. I'm not going to fight them," housewife Karine Avakian told IWPR. "I'd rather give them the couple of dollars they ask for and spare myself an endless bureaucratic ordeal."


Pyotr Magdashian is a freelance journalist in Yerevan and a regular IWPR contributor.


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