By Shakeh Avoyan
Improved tax and customs administration is the key to the success of the Armenian government’s efforts to combat endemic corruption and address other problems hampering the country’s development, Prime Minister Tigran Sarkisian said on Wednesday.
“This is the key to building democratic society, organizing free and fair elections, ensuring fair competition, creating a normal business environment,” he said after opening an anti-corruption forum in Yerevan organized by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).
The forum, attended by government officials, civic activists and representatives of Western donor agencies, discussed ways of helping the government develop a new strategy of tackling bribery, nepotism and other corrupt practices.
“The United States government is supporting this effort through USAID and we will continue to do so as long as a political will is shown by the government,” the U.S. charge d’affaires in Armenia, Joseph Pennington, said in an opening speech.
The government already launched in 2003 and claims to have implemented a Western-backed anti-corruption program consisting of mainly legislative measures. There is little evidence that they have reduced the scale of graft in the country.
The government has pledged to achieve more tangible results with a new program which it says will put the emphasis on the enforcement of existing laws. The program is expected to be drawn up by the end of this year.
According to Sarkisian, the new anti-graft drive will start from a reform of the government’s reputedly corrupt tax and customs bodies. That, as he has repeatedly stated, means forcing them to treat all businesses equally and to stop turning a blind eye to tax evasion by those entrepreneurs who pay kickbacks or have powerful government patrons.
“All factors feeding corruption lie in the sphere of tax and customs administration,” Sarkisian told reporters. “This problem has very deep roots. That is why we are targeting this sphere.”
“I am convinced that if we achieve qualitative improvements in these two areas in the next three years, we can be sure that we will be living in a qualitatively different society in five years from now,” he said.
Government connections have long been essential for engaging in lucrative and large-scale forms of economic activity in Armenia. The country’s recently elected President Serzh Sarkisian (no relation to Tigran) himself has been accused by his political opponents of ensuring privileged treatment for wealthy businessmen linked to his Republican Party.
Prime Minister Sarkisian implied that his planned reforms will meet with strong resistance from influential economic clans and urged civic and opposition groups to help him keep them at bay. “We need public support because if entities opposed to these reforms unite they will become a powerful force,” he said. “If we don’t have public support we won’t be able to prevail in this struggle.”
“It is very important for us to have various strata of the population, non-governmental organizations and opposition representatives participate in the development and implementation of the program,” added the Armenian premier. He specifically urged the Armenian opposition to join a commission monitoring anti-corruption measures taken by various government agencies.
However, a top aide to opposition leader Levon Ter-Petrosian shrugged off the appeal. “For our rulers, corruption is not only a source of financial enrichment but also a way of governance,” said David Shahnazarian. “For these authorities, corruption is a very serious political lever for retaining power. Everything is build around corruption.”
“Are the authorities going to fight against themselves?” Shahnazarian asked journalists.
Ter-Petrosian was likewise highly skeptical about Tigran Sarkisian’s ambitious reform agenda as he addressed supporters in the northern city of Gyumri last Saturday. “I do believe that there are individuals who have just joined the government and may have honest goals: Tigran Sarkisian, [Foreign Minister] Eduard Nalbandian and a couple of other ministers,” he said. “But I don’t believe that these people will be able to take any practical steps because the system will strangle them.”