U.S. Ambassador Richard Mills meddled in Armenia’s internal affairs when he claimed last week that endemic government corruption undermines the country’s national security, a senior representative of President Serzh Sarkisian’s Republican Party (HHK) charged on Thursday.
“Armenia’s internal issues must be dealt with by Armenia,” said Vahram Baghdasarian, the HHK’s parliamentary leader.
Mills commented on corruption and its consequences for Armenia in a September 16 interview with RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am). “We would like to see Armenia free, prosperous and at peace with its neighbors, and corruption at all levels stymies that,” he said. “Corruption sets back economic growth, it hurts human rights development, and it undermines democracy.”
“I think it even undermines the national security of a country where there’s corruption. Outside forces can control the development of your country,” added the diplomat.
Baghdasarian rejected those remarks as unacceptable. He was particularly upset with Mills’ reference to national security. “We are more concerned with our national security than any foreign diplomat is,” he told RFE/RL’s Armenian service.
The senior pro-government lawmaker also said that Mills meant Russia when he warned of “outside forces” exploiting corruption to gain leverage against Armenia. The U.S. envoy thus tried to use Armenia as a “tool” in the West’s ongoing standoff with Russia, he claimed.
Baghdasarian also said that the Armenian government has not reacted to Mills’ comments because “we do not consider that to be America’s official position.” “The ambassador represents his country but not all of his statements are official statements,” he said.
Opposition lawmakers and pro-Western pundits dismissed Baghdasarian’s claims. “I see no [U.S.] interference,” said Tevan Poghosian, a parliament deputy representing the opposition Zharangutyun party. “What I see is readiness to help our country combat corruption.”
Poghosian argued that even senior Armenian officials admit that graft is a serious problem hampering the country’s progress.
Stepan Safarian, a prominent analyst critical of the Armenian government, condemned the HHK representative’s verbal attacks as “shameful.” “I think that Serzh Sarkisian must at least discreetly reprimand the leader of his parliamentary faction,” he said.
In an annual report released in June, the U.S. State Department described “systemic corruption” as one of the most frequent and serious forms of human rights violation in Armenia. It said that the authorities in Yerevan are not doing enough to tackle the problem.
Armenia ranked 94th of 174 countries and territories evaluated in Transparency International’s most recent Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) released last December.
Successive Armenian governments have repeatedly pledged to fight against widespread bribery, nepotism and other corrupt practices in the past. There has been little evidence, however, of major improvements in the situation with the rule of law in the country.
The current government pledged to step up its declared fight against corruption in July as Prime Minister Hovik Abrahamian chaired the first meeting of his newly formed anti-graft council. The council approved a plan of mostly legislative actions meant to complicate corrupt practices among officials dealing with healthcare, education, tax collection and law enforcement. Officials said that the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) is ready to provide the bulk of $750,000 needed for the program’s implementation.
Karen Hilliard, the USAID’s mission director for Armenia, confirmed and defended the U.S. assistance last month. She called it a “risk” worth taking.
Armenian civic groups are highly skeptical about the seriousness of the government’s stated intentions. Virtually all of them turned down earlier this year government invitations to join the new anti-graft body.