The state human rights ombudsman, Karen Andreasian, has again accused tax and customs officials of abusing their powers to own businesses and undermine competition in Armenia.
In an annual report made public late on Tuesday, Andreasian said officials from the State Revenue Committee (SRC) and their relatives routinely engage in entrepreneurial activity involving conflicts of interest. “As a result, those officials have gained illegal advantages over other entrepreneurs,” he charged.
Andreasian voiced similar criticism in a report issued one year ago. It decried “numerous cases” of SRC officials doing business and gaining unfair advantages over their competitors. The SRC rejected those claims based on confidential interviews with businesspeople conducted by the ombudsman’s office.
Many senior tax and customs officials are thought to be wealthy individuals. The Armenian media has long portrayed Gagik Khachatrian, the controversial head of the SRC, as one of the country’s richest men with wide-ranging business interests. Khachatrian has repeatedly denied owning lucrative firms, however.
Babken Tunian, a Yerevan-based economist, believes that the ombudsman’s claims are credible. “But that is true for not only the SRC,” Tunian told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am) on Wednesday. “In the entire state apparatus it is hard to find a senior official who doesn’t own a business.”
“So the problem is a systemic one. It’s impact on the overall business environment is very negative,” he said.
President Serzh Sarkisian appeared to acknowledge the problem when he addressed members of an Armenian business association in late 2011. He said that “business must be consistently separated from government.