By Ruben Meloyan
The head of Armenia’s leading anti-graft watchdog brushed aside on Monday government pledges to step up the fight against widespread corruption.
Addressing parliament in October, President Serzh Sarkisian promised “drastic steps” to address what his prime minister, Tigran Sarkisian (no relation), has described as the number one problem facing Armenia. “The fight against corruption will change its face,” the president said. “We will switch to tougher and more uncompromising methods and a system of international standards.”
Sarkisian acknowledged earlier that an anti-corruption program implemented by the administration of former President Robert Kocharian failed to yield desired results because it mainly involved legislative measures. The government is currently working on a new anti-corruption strategy that will put the emphasis on the enforcement of existing laws.
Amalia Kostanian, whose Center for Regional Development is affiliated with the Berlin-based Transparency International, was highly skeptical about the government pledges as she spoke to RFE/RL on the sidelines of an anti-corruption conference in Yerevan. She said that while urging the media and the public to assist in the declared fight against corruption, the authorities continue to ignore media reports implicating concrete government officials in corrupt practices.
“This contradiction shows that the declared fight is not serious and is an attempt to legitimize the authorities or to show the international community that they are combating corruption in our country,” said Kostanian.
“For the first time in eight years I can state that there are reforms aimed at preventing corruption cases or prosecuting lower-level officials,” she added. “But these efforts are not adequate.”
Armenia ranked 109th out of 180 countries covered by Transparency International’s 2008 Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI).
U.S. Ambassador to Armenia Marie Yovanovitch, who also attended the anti-graft forum, noted that the fight against corruption is one of the criteria used in the selection of countries eligible for U.S. economic assistance under the Millennium Challenge Account (MCA) program.
The Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), which administers the scheme, suspended some of its promised $236 million assistance to Armenia following last February’s disputed presidential election and the ensuing bloody suppression of opposition protests in Yerevan. The frozen assistance was meant to finance reconstruction of hundreds of kilometers of rural roads across the country.
Meeting in Washington late last week, the MCC’s governing board again expressed concern at “the status of democratic governance” in Armenia and said it expects Yerevan to “fulfill commitments to implement substantive reforms.”
“The Board hopes that Armenia will improve its performance with regard to the indicators, particularly the ‘ruling justly’ indicators, and the Board will take up the issue again at its next meeting in March,” Yovanovitch told RFE/RL.
In the words of Tom Mittnacht, a spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Yerevan, “At its meeting on December 11 the MCC board did not address the hold on funding for the Armenia road program that was put in place last spring.”