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Half-Measures on Corruption in Armenia

Investigative body has generated some prosecutions, but its critics say it isn’t addressing corruption as systemic issue.
By Hasmik Hambardzumyan
  • Ishkhan Zakaryan, head of the Control Chamber, Armenia’s anti-corruption agency. (Photo: Control Chamber of Armenia)
    Ishkhan Zakaryan, head of the Control Chamber, Armenia’s anti-corruption agency. (Photo: Control Chamber of Armenia)

A body tasked with curbing bribery in Armenia is under fire from critics who say it has failed to address the culture of endemic corruption since it was set up in 2008.

Opposition leaders are demanding access to the Control Chamber’s files so that they can put any suspicious-looking cases before parliament.

In November, Spartak Melikyan of the Republican Party, accused a Control Chamber official of soliciting a bribe while checking the accounts of a university. The chamber’s head Ishkhan Zakaryan responded by suing Melikyan, but eventually dropped the case, saying the two sides had settled out of court.

The outcome did little to allay concerns about the anti-corruption body.

The Control Chamber can run checks on the accounts of any government agency or publicly-funded institution. It reports to parliament, and any possible cases of wrongdoing are handed over to the prosecution service.

Sona Ayvazyan of the Armenian office of Transparency International, an international anti-graft group, said the Control Chamber had conducted some serious investigations, but these had not resulted in legal action.

“In the end, no one is made responsible. I don’t know of any cases where someone’s been held to account over an embezzlement case,” she said, “The investigations remain on paper, and the checks are done for their own sake.”

Armenia’s ranking on Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index has slipped from 99th place in 2007, before the Control Chamber it was created, to 123rd, alongside Eritrea and Niger, in 2010.

The prosecution service says 11 of the 15 cases the Control Chamber has passed to it since have resulted in criminal law proceedings and the recovery of more than half a million US dollars.

An investigation of the emergencies ministry’s Seismic Defence Service last year resulted in its head being sacked and charged with embezzling around 9,000 dollars, while the head of Armenia’s social security service lost his job in December following a similar probe. In the latter case, Zakaryan said his agency found that pensions were being paid out to dead people, although it was too early to say whether this was deliberate embezzlement or just incompetence.

Officials say findings like these have proved the chamber’s worth.

“We are very satisfied by this organisation’s performance, and we’re trying to assist it as much as we can,” Prime Minister Tigran Sargsyan said. “Problems are identified, debated properly and made known to the public. That helps to minimise the risk of corruption growing.”

Opposition politicians want more of a say in running the Control Chamber, which they accuse of operating double standards.

“An ordinary doctor earning 40,000 drams [110 dollars a month] can be arrested for taking a bribe of 20,000 drams. Yet officials who steal millions can easily evade punishment; in some cases they just have to pay compensation for damages and that’s the end of the matter,” Armen Martirosyan, a member of parliament from the Heritage party said.

Ayvazyan said the Control Chamber should be focusing its attention on high-ranking officials, since those in the middle grades would not get involved in major corruption unless their superiors approved.

“This work must not be an end in itself. Why is the process incomplete? Because there is no desire to make these people take responsibility, since they have the support of the highest officials,” she said.

Arthur Sakunts of the Vanadzor office of the Helsinki Civil Assembly, says the Control Chamber has failed to win public’s confidence.

“Its investigations… do not go into the whole mechanism for embezzling state funds,” he said. “One gets the impression that the political and executive authorities use the chamber as a method of punishing officials.”

This year, the Control Chamber is due to broaden its the scope of its investigations, looking into the court system, a number of government ministries and provincial administrations, and the underground railway in Yerevan.

Hasmik Hambardzumyan is a correspondent for the site.

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