Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Armenian Traders Call for Corruption Crackdown

Businessmen in Armenia, fed up with being fleeced by police and customs officials, are urging Yerevan and Tbilisi to deal with the problem.
By Avet Demurian

Simon Hanjadian lives in Yerevan but as one of the many heavy goods drivers hauling freight to and from Armenia, he spends most of his time in neighbouring Georgia because it is the most important trade artery linking his country to the outside world.


“Each journey takes between two and four days, depending on where the client is based and the state of the roads – and also between one and two hundred dollars depending on the appetite of the Georgian transport police,” Hanjadian said. “It doesn’t matter which direction I go in, I still have to hand over bribes every few kilometres.”


Immediately after independence, Armenia found itself in an enviable position because of the international road and rail routes that crossed its borders. But the conflict with Azerbaijan over Nagorny-Karabakh and the severing of diplomatic relations with Turkey closed even the smallest roads leading east and west. In many ways, Georgia is now its economic lifeline.


Problems begin for Armenian drivers at the international border crossings, whichever way they are going.


“The Georgian customs officials are often too lazy even to come out of their carriages and inspect our cars,” said Sarkis Vardanian, a minibus driver who runs a regular route between Yerevan and Tbilisi. “They play dominoes and often can’t be bothered to even break off their game. They just say ‘Give us ten lari (about 5 US dollars) and you can go’.”


Once across the border, the problems mount. For here await the Georgian transport police. “Over the past few years, I’ve got used to the tyranny of the Georgian cops and now regard them as an inevitability, like rain or the dawn,” said Handajian. “Many of them already know me and only stop me for as long as it takes them to relieve me of five or ten lari. They call it ‘humanitarian aid’.”


However, if a driver’s route takes him in the opposite direction he still has to have his money at the ready, as Armenian customs officials often demand bribes.


Sergei Grigorin, who lives in Tbilisi and travels to Armenia at least twice a month, says he’s sick of paying extra because of his Georgian number plate. “I’m thinking of buying an Armenian vehicle and using it to drive around Armenia. I’ve several acquaintances who are already doing this,” he said.


Armenian businessmen are now calling on the governments of both countries to resolve the problem. “The strengthening of trade and business ties between countries in the region can have a stabilising effect on the political situation. But for this to happen, you need political will,” said Samvel Sharbatian, an Armenian entrepreneur and former government official responsible for trade.


In a sign that Armenia is willing to address the corruption issue, the authorities are clamping down on the smuggling of food products, cigarettes and building materials along the 180 km border between the two countries. “In the past month alone, customs officials have seized contraband to the value of 15 million dollars,” said Armen Avetisian, head of the state customs committee.


The benefits of the crackdown have been evident at Bagratashen, one of the main border crossing points, where tax collection is said to have risen by forty per cent, further improving the fortunes of this once sleepy village that’s been turned into a bustling marketplace by the growing volume of frontier traffic.


“Every Tuesday - the day when there’s most trade - an estimated 250 buses converge on the market, not to mention all the private vehicles. In all, we sometimes have up to 4,000 people coming to do business at the border,” said Avetisian.


“Before the market had 170 kiosks and provided the state with no revenue whatsoever, but now there are 340 trading spaces and the revenue from the market amounts to between 2.5 and 3 million drams, or 5,000 dollars.”


But success brings new problems. In becoming one of the largest trade centres in the south Caucasus, Bagratashen has also seen yet another business booming – prostitution – leading the Armenian health ministry and Yerevan-based NGO Doctors Without Borders to open a drop-in centre for sexually contracted diseases and free contraception.


Avet Demurian is an independent journalist in Yerevan