By Karine Kalantarian
The longtime head of an Armenian government agency issuing passports and visas was sacked on Monday less than two weeks after being publicly accused of corruption by Prime Minister Tigran Sarkisian.
Colonel Alvina Zakarian, widely thought to be a figure close to President Serzh Sarkisian, headed the Department of Passports and Visas of the Armenian police for more than 15 years.
The agency, better known as OVIR, is also responsible for granting residency permits to foreigners, processing applications for Armenian citizenship and dealing with other immigration-related matters. In recent years it has also been granted the authority to draw up and update Armenia’s notoriously inaccurate voter lists.
The police gave no official reason for Zakarian’s sacking. The development has been anticipated since a June 26 session of the Armenian government during which Prime Minister Sarkisian called corruption “the number one problem” facing the country and singled out OVIR as one of the most corrupt government agencies.
“We are receiving numerous complaints from both our citizens and [Diaspora] compatriots visiting Armenia,” Sarkisian told ministers. “Clearly we have a problem in this sphere and that problem is corruption, when a service is provided on behalf of the state but some people set tariffs and extort money. I think the environment there is such that we can’t tolerate it.”
“I am asking the chief of the police present proposals about what measures we need to take there in order to quickly improve the quality of services which we provide to our citizens,” he said.
OVIR and its controversial chief have long faced corruption allegations but it was the first time that they were effectively endorsed by a senior government official.
Zakarian has also been a target of frequent opposition attacks ever since her agency officially certified in early 1998 that then Prime Minister Robert Kocharian has permanently resided in Armenia for the previous ten years and can therefore run for president. Kocharian had served as president of Nagorno-Karabakh before moving to Yerevan in 1997. His opponents say he was therefore not eligible to stand in the presidential elections held in 1998 and 2003.
Opposition politicians have also accused OVIR of manipulating voter lists and issuing tens of thousands of fake passports to bribed voters to ensure Serzh Sarkisian’s and his Republican Party’s victory in Armenia’s last presidential and parliamentary elections. Zakarian and other government officials have strongly denied these allegations.