President Serzh Sarkisian’s staff has allocated some 500 million drams ($1.2 million) in grants to three dozen non-governmental organizations that have generally avoided publicizing their activities purportedly including human rights advocacy.
The Yerevan-based Center for Freedom of Information has obtained detailed information about the funding, provided from 2010-2012, from the Armenian Finance Ministry. The latter had to make it available in accordance with Armenia’s freedom of information legislation.
Hardly any of the 31 recipients of the presidential grants has been covered by the Armenian media to date. The government data shows that many of them were founded and registered with the Justice Ministry shortly before receiving state funding.
According to Arman Saghatelian, Sarkisian’s press secretary, decisions regarding the funding were made by a team of presidential administration officials and representatives of “partner organizations.” In written comments to RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am) sent late last week, Saghatelian said that this “monitoring group” oversaw the use of the presidential grants. He said it is now looking into ways of making the state assistance to the civil society more “program-based and development-oriented.”
One such NGO, called Development and Integration, accounted for the single largest share of that assistance. In 2011-2012 it received six grants totaling almost 75 million drams. The Justice Ministry’s electronic registry of Armenian legal entities lists Levon Martirosian, a pro-government lawmaker, among its founders. Martirosian worked as an assistant to President Sarkisian before being elected to parliament in May 2012.
Practically nothing is known about the activities of Development and Integration. The same is true for virtually all other grant recipients. Six of them have the same person, Suren Barseghian, among their founders.
Shushan Doydoyan, the director of the Center for Freedom of Information, said she has tried in vain to obtain information about the work of the 31 NGOs. “This is surprising because nowadays any organization is interested in informing as many people as possible about their activities,” Doydoyan told RFE/RL’s Armenian service. “However, these NGOs are trying to stay in the shadow.”
Even locating them is not an easy task. Two of them, the self-declared human rights group Arbanyak (Satellite) and the Country of Youth organization supposedly promoting proper health care, have the same registered address. An RFE/RL journalist discovered that their purported premises located at an office building in downtown Yerevan are now empty. A woman working there, who described herself as the building manager, said she has never heard of either organization.
Another presidentially supported NGO, Educated Generation, claimed to have an office on the same street in the city center. It turned out to be an empty apartment. Residents of the apartment block were unaware of Educated Generation. “I’ve never heard that name before,” said one neighbor.
This obscurity is in sharp contrast to the high-profile activities of Armenia’s best-known NGOs that are financed, as a rule, by Western governments, international organizations and foreign private foundations. Many of them are engaged in civil rights advocacy, regularly criticizing the government.
Levon Barseghian is a veteran pro-democracy campaigner who runs one such group, the Gyumri-based Asparez Journalists’ Club. “It’s unclear how newly established NGOs were getting that state funding so quickly,” he said. “There was little public awareness of their activities.”
Boris Navasardian, the chairman of the Yerevan Press Club, linked the problem with the overall lack of transparency in various tenders and funding contests administered by Armenian state bodies. “We know how state tenders are handled,” he said. “Grants are distributed in the same fashion.”
“We want the civil society’s activities to be as transparent as possible,” added Navasardian.