By Ruzanna Stepanian
An aide to President Robert Kocharian insisted on Friday that corruption in Armenia is not as rampant as it is perceived to be, arguing that the authorities identified only five instances of bribery last year.
Bagrat Yesayan, who heads a “monitoring commission” in a special anti-corruption body advising Kocharian, claimed that the Armenian media is unfairly playing up the problem widely seen as a major obstacle to the country’s development.
“There is a sense that everyone up there [in government] is corrupt,” he complained in an interview with RFE/RL. “I’m sure this is not the case. I know many honest deputies, deputy ministers and department chiefs.”
According to official statistics provided by Yesayan, Armenian law-enforcement agencies registered 352 “corruption crimes” and solved 232 of them last year. Most of those took the form of embezzlement and misuse of government funds. The figures show that 27 officials were prosecuted for abuse of power and five others for giving or taking bribes.
Yesayan declined to name any of those officials, saying only that none of them held high-level positions in government. He also could not say how many people, if any, were found guilty and imprisoned by courts on corruption charges.
Bribery and other corrupt practices are believed to be far more widespread in Armenia which ranked 82nd in the most recent corruption survey of 146 countries conducted by Transparency International, a respected Berlin-based watchdog. The problem is also regularly highlighted by Western donor governments and agencies.
The U.S. State Department, for example, noted “a high degree of corruption” in Armenia in its latest global human rights report released on Monday. “According to an opinion survey released in September by a local research institute, a large majority of citizens believed that corruption exists "in all spheres and at all levels" in the country,” said the report. “A similar survey in 2003 indicated that citizens believed that corrupt authorities were not truly committed to fighting corruption.”
The Armenian government approved and released in late 2003 a comprehensive strategy of combating graft that mainly includes legislative measures. Its implementation is meant to be overseen by a special Council on Combating Corruption which Kocharian set up last summer.
Yesayan’s “monitoring commission” is part of that body. The presidential aide claimed in January that the anti-corruption efforts are already bearing fruit.
Many Armenians would disagree with this assertion, however. Not least because high-ranking Armenian officials rarely lose their jobs and are prosecuted on corruption charges.
In one such example, the head of a key division at the Armenian Ministry of Finance and Economy was sacked and arrested on fraud charges late last month. Yerevan is rife with rumors that the official ended up in jail after uncovering financial abuses in the Armenian police or customs service.
“Do you have credible information that a minister or deputy minister taking a bribe?” Yesayan asked. “I have no such information.”