By Anna Saghabalian
Armen Avetisian, the controversial chief of the Armenian customs, claimed on Monday that his agency is not as corrupt as is widely thought and might even be more law-abiding than customs authorities in the United States.
“I have never denied that this phenomenon exists here,” Avetisian said. But he rejected the widely held belief that the State Customs Committee (SCC) is one of Armenia’s most corrupt government agencies where bribery, favoritism and other illegal practices are the norm.
Speaking at a news conference, Avetisian argued that the customs services in the West are also not immune to the problem. “According to a report by the World Customs Organization, an ordinary customs inspector in the United States took a $6.5 million bribe,” he said. “I don’t think there is that much corruption in the Armenian customs.”
Many local businesses will laugh off the claim and insist that the SCC’s arbitrary practices are one of the main obstacles to doing business in Armenia. They may also privately point to Avetisian’s reputation as one of the country’s wealthiest men.
Khachatur Sukiasian, a millionaire businessman and parliament deputy, publicly charged last month that the extensive business interests of senior customs officials preclude free enterprise and fair competition in the country. Sukiasian specifically took a swipe at Avetisian’s deputy Gagik Khachatrian, saying that he owns 11 lucrative businesses and does not tolerate any competition.
But Avetisian dismissed the claims, arguing that Sukiasian’s businesses have “thrived” during his five-year leadership of the SCC. He claimed that Khachatrian controls no businesses and that the latter’s relatives own only one supermarket in Yerevan. “Just because he is my deputy doesn’t mean that he can’t have relatives or that his relatives must be librarians,” reasoned the customs chief.
Armenian has no legislation regulating conflicts of interest, and it is therefore not illegal for its customs officials to engage in any type of business. President Robert Kocharian personally blasted Avetisian and other customs chiefs at an extraordinary meeting in January 2005, saying that their failure to act in a “civilized and lawful” manner is hampering economic activity. Kocharian also pointed to allegations that they are helping large-scale importers avoid taxes in return for kickbacks.
Avetisian, who is believed to be close to Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian, insisted that he is doing his best to stamp out corruption among his subordinates. He said 121 of them have been fired this year for bribery, abuse of power and other “violations.” He would not say if any of them held a senior position in the SCC, however.
(Photolur photo: Armen Avetisian.)