By Astghik Bedevian and Emil Danielyan
The chief of Armenia’s notoriously corrupt traffic police claimed on Friday that his officers are doing a much better job of ensuring road safety than the famously reformed police service of neighboring Georgia.
Colonel Ishkhan Ishkhanian, head of the State Automobile Inspectorate (SAI), insisted that traffic in Georgia is even more chaotic than in Armenia despite a radical police reform carried out by Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili two years ago. He said he arrived at such conclusion during a recent visit to Tbilisi.
“Compared to Georgia, we are Europe,” Ishkhanian told a news conference. “They wanted to attain European standards in Georgia, but it is clear that they have failed.”
The claims are in sharp contrast to media reports, witness accounts and the dominant opinion of Armenian motorists about the results of the Georgian reform. Shortly after sweeping to power in the November 2003 “rose revolution,” Saakashvili disbanded his country’s entire traffic police and formed a Western-style patrol service manned by well-paid and mainly young officers.
The drastic change seems to have all but eradicated rampant bribery among Georgian road policemen, a problem that had turned Georgia into a virtual no-go zone for cars with Armenian license plates. Armenians have since had little difficulty driving through Georgian territory. Scores of them traveled to Georgia’s Black Sea resorts by car last year.
By contrast, bribing a traffic policeman remains the norm in Armenia, with kickbacks for avoiding legal punishment for an alleged or proven violation of traffic rules starting from 1,000 drams ($2.3). Officers patrolling streets or highways are allegedly obliged to transfer a large part of that money to their superiors.
Many of the high-ranking traffic policemen are wealthy individuals with extensive business interests. Ishkhanian, for example, is believed to own a major taxi service.
That traffic police corruption is a serious problem was admitted on Tuesday by Major-General Ararat Mahtesian, deputy chief of Armenia’s Police Service. Mahtesian referred to SAI as the “vulnerable spot” and the “pain” of the Armenian police. He said the Armenian government will soon embark on a reform of SAI to be financed by the World Bank, but gave no details.
Ishkhanian also acknowledged the problem, saying that 66 of his subordinates were subjected to “disciplinary action” last year. But he would not say how many of them were fired and whether there were any senior officers among them. He spoke instead of the need to create unspecified “conditions” that would discourage police bribery.
The SAI chief also said that President Robert Kocharian has formed a “working group” tasked with making proposals on how to improve road safety in Armenia.
According to police data, 58 people were killed and 446 others injured in 317 accidents that were officially registered across Armenia during the first four months of this year. The official death toll for the whole of last year stood at 310.
The deeply entrenched corruption hardly bodes well for the success of the stated police efforts to reduce the number of deadly road accidents. The increasingly heavy traffic in Armenia and Yerevan in particular is disorderly and dangerous not least because of wealthy government-connected drivers that routinely ignore traffic rules.
The road police rarely dare to flag down their luxury cars that usually carry license plates with repeating numbers, a badge of prestige among the local rich. The “fanciest” of the easy-to-remember plates may be worth as much as $2,000 in the police black market.
Reports of ordinary citizens dying as a result of negligent driving have not been uncommon in the Armenian press. The “Aravot” daily said this week that a plush Mercedes driven by a son of Seyran Saroyan, a feared army general, ran over two boys in a village in southern Armenia, killing one of them and critically injuring the other. The paper alleged that eyewitnesses of the accident have been bullied into not testifying against the young man and that a village mayor has “confessed” to the crime instead.
“I have no such information at this point,” Mahtesian told RFE/RL, referring to the case. “I am ready to look into those reports and tell you whether they correspond to reality.”
In another infamous incident, a U.S.-made Hummer rammed into a taxi in Yerevan at an enormous speed in January 2005, killing a 30-year-old woman and wounding her infant daughter. An unemployed man was subsequently identified by the police as the expensive SUV’s driver before being given a short prison sentence. The man was reportedly released from jail a few months later.
(Photolur photo: An expensive car ignoring red light at a busy intersection in Yerevan.)