As part of its stated fight against corruption, the Armenian governments plans to give more powers to a body that scrutinizes income declarations submitted by senior state officials and their family members.
The Commission on the Ethics of High-Rankings Officials was formed by President Serzh Sarkisian four years ago with the stated aim of detecting possible illegal self-enrichment by some 600 officials. None of those officials is known to have been sanctioned by the commission to date despite regular media reports linking some of them with lucrative businesses.
Many senior officials have attributed their and their close relatives’ conspicuous wealth to lavish financial “gifts” received from unnamed individuals. The anti-graft body has not investigated the origin of those donations.
Justice Minister Arpine Hovannisian unveiled this week a government bill that would empower the commission to fine officials refusing to file income declarations or underreporting their assets up to 1 million drams ($2,100). She said this will put it in a better position to accomplish its mission.
Varuzhan Hoktanian, the executive director of the Armenian branch of Transparency International, reacted cautiously to the announcement on Wednesday. He said it is not yet clear whether officials fined by the commission will face prosecution in case of again failing to declare their assets.
“The minister did not clearly answer this question,” Hoktanian told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am).
Other civil society representatives were even more skeptical about the proposed measure. “I’m sure that those fines won’t be a solution to the problem,” said Levon Barseghian of the Gyumri-based Asparez Journalists’ Club.
“Even if they fine people 5 million drams that won’t make any difference,” agreed Artur Sakunts, a human rights activist based in Vanadzor. He claimed that Prime Minister Hovik Abrahamian and other senior officials will continue to underreport millions of dollars’ worth of personal assets.
The Armenian government vowed 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.
U.S. Ambassador to Armenia Richard Mills defended in November the promised U.S. assistance to the government body, saying that it will be contingent on “measurable achievements.” “If the council does not deliver, our support will end, plain and simple,” he warned.