By Armen Zakarian
Armenia’s notoriously corrupt traffic police are facing a sweeping government crackdown, with more than a hundred of their officers fired for bribery over the past two weeks, officials said on Saturday.
At least seven of them were arrested by the police after being caught red-handed accepting kickbacks from motorists, according to the interior ministry. Some bribing incidents were videotaped and shown to the public on the ministry’s weekly televised crime report.
The interior ministry spokesman, Artak Vartazarian, told RFE/RL that about a hundred other employees of the State Auto Inspectorate (PAT) have been subjected to softer sanctions for “various kinds of misbehavior.” He said the unprecedented crackdown was ordered by Interior Minister Hayk Harutiunian who had grown frustrated over the unabated corruption in the traffic police which dates back to the Soviet period.
“These are very unfortunate and sad incidents,” said Colonel Hayk Sarkisian, the deputy head of the Yerevan PAT. But he claimed to have little knowledge about details of the criminal proceedings against his arrested employees. Five of them hold the rank of police lieutenant.
The crackdown, which has resulted in the virtual disappearance of stationary police patrols from the streets of the capital, was welcomed by an Armenian non-governmental organization defending car owners’ interests. : “We do feel that there is a tendency now in the interior ministry to get tougher on the corrupt police officers,” the deputy chairman of the group called Achilles, Vladimir Ghazarian, told RFE/RL. Ghazarian said he expects that many Armenian motorists will avoid arbitrary checks and money extortions in the coming weeks.
Bribing a road policeman is customary in Armenia where the average kickback for an alleged or proven violation of traffic rules is 1000 drams (about $2). But the latest wave of arrests and dismissals alone is unlikely to solve the problem. Like other Armenian government agencies, the PAT has been chronically underfunded and not reformed since the Soviet times.
State funding allows the agency to procure only two liters of gasoline a day for each of its patrol cars. Low-ranking officers operating them are unofficially required to procure the rest of the required fuel at their own expense. An average monthly salary of 20,000 drams ($36) makes them even more prone to taking bribes. A large part of the illegal payments is known to be redirected to their bosses.
Interior ministry spokesman Vartazarian, however, insisted that there is no need to overhaul the entire system of road policing. “This is the shortcoming of some dishonest employees, not the system as a whole,” he claimed.