By Emil Danielyan
President Serzh Sarkisian appointed the new chief of the Armenian customs on Wednesday, a move that came on the heels of his harsh criticism of rampant corruption among customs officials.
The State Customs Committee (SCC) will be run by Gagik Khachatrian, who has until now worked as its deputy head.
The previous SCC chief, Armen Avetisian, was fired shortly after Sarkisian took office on April 9. During his tenure the SCC solidified its reputation as one of the country’s most corrupt government agencies. Nonetheless, Avetisian’s sacking came as a surprise given the fact that he has long been regarded as Sarkisian’s protégé.
The new Armenian president acknowledged and deplored “thriving” corruption within the SCC at a high-profile meeting with its leadership held on April 17. Sarkisian said customs officials abet smuggling to illegally enrich themselves and penalize importers refusing to pay kickbacks. He threatened to fire those of them who will fail to “work honestly.”
Although the blistering attack was not followed by sweeping personnel changes, local businessmen involved in import operations say that the scale of bribery, nepotism and other corrupt practices in the customs has decreased considerably over the past one-and-a-half months. Many of them wonder if the change is irreversible.
Like the much-maligned Avetisian, Khachatrian has extensive business interests and is no stranger to controversy. His name figured prominently in a corruption scandal that erupted more than three years ago.
Royal Armenia, one of the country’s largest coffee processing and packaging companies, claimed that it is being driven out of business for refusing to engage in a fraud scam with senior SCC officials and Khachatrian in particular. Khachatrian was alleged to have personally offered Royal Armenia to grossly undervalue the price of its imported coffee beans in return for sharing in the resulting extra profits.
The SCC strongly denied the charges before bringing its own fraud charges against Royal Armenia’s main shareholder, Gagik Hakobian, and deputy director, Aram Ghazarian. The two men were arrested in October 2005. A Yerevan court found the fraud charges baseless and freed them in July last year. However, Armenia’s Court of Appeals overturned the sensational acquittals in November, sentencing Hakobian and Ghazarian to six and two years in prison respectively.
Khachatrian also faced corruption allegations from Khachatur Sukiasian, a millionaire businessman now opposed to Armenia’s leadership. Sukiasian complained in September 2006 that extensive business interests of senior customs officials preclude free enterprise and fair competition in the country. He specifically pointed the finger at Khachatrian, saying that the latter owns over a dozen lucrative businesses and does not tolerate any competition. The SCC dismissed the claims.
(Photolur photo: A customs checkpoint at Armenia's main border crossing with Georgia.)