President Serzh Sarkisian emphasized the importance of a new anti-corruption body tasked with scrutinizing incomes reported by Armenia’s top state officials after it held its first meeting on Tuesday.
The state Commission on the Ethics of High-Ranking Officials has been set up in accordance with a government-drafted law passed by parliament last year. Its five members have been nominated by Armenia’s prime minister, parliament speaker, prosecutor-general and the chairmen of two high courts and appointed by Sarkisian.
The commission elected one of the members, Emil Babayan, as its chairman during the meeting. Babayan served as deputy minister of justice until the appointment.
Armenia already enacted in 2001 a law that required some 3,000 senior officials, including the president of the republic, and their family members to declare their revenues and assets to tax authorities on an annual basis.
The law has proved largely ineffectual, with many officials grossly understating their income in declarations filed with the State Revenue Committee. The latter has had no right to check the veracity of those statements.
The Armenian government pledged to address the problem with amendments to another law that were approved by the National Assembly in May. They are meant to toughen procedures for financial disclosure by a smaller number of top civil servants and other officials. Justice Minister Hrayr Tovmasian estimated that the measure will cover between 500 and 600 officials.
The commission is supposed to look into officials’ income declarations and compare them with their expenditures that will also have to be reported to it. It also has to investigate possible instances of conflict of interest among them.
The new law also bans those officials from accepting financial or other gifts directly related to the performance of their duties. In all other cases, they must inform the commission about gifts worth more than 50,000 drams ($130) apiece.
Significantly, the commission has no authority to sanction officials found to have presented false financial information or committed other violations of anti-corruption norms. It can only publicize its findings and share them with other state bodies.
Sarkisian insisted that the new body can play a major role in increasing public trust in the government and promoting good governance in Armenia. He told the commission members that he will closely follow their activities but will not seek to influence them.
“I want to stress that there can be no influence on the commission’s members except the influence of the law and your own ethical standards,” Sarkisian said, according to his press office.
Sarkisian has pledged to reduce endemic government corruption in Armenia throughout his presidency. Local and international anti-graft watchdogs have reported few improvements so far, however.
Armenia occupies a lowly 129th place in Berlin-based Transparency International’s latest Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) of 183 countries released in December. It ranked 123rd of 178 nations surveyed in 2010.