By Atom Markarian and Emil Danielyan
Government corruption in Armenia has been just as endemic during President Robert Kocharian's four-year rule as it had been under his predecessor, a leader of an influential pro-presidential political party admitted on Monday.
Vahan Hovannisian, who is a senior member of the worldwide governing body of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutyun), said corrupt practices in the country have continued unabated and are now even more discernible in some areas.
"Now that the [business] competition field has expanded, manifestations of corruption are becoming more vivid and visible," Hovannisian told a roundtable discussion in Yerevan.
He explained that in the early and mid-1990s, under former president Levon Ter-Petrossian, many economic spheres were tightly controlled by latter's cronies, and there was no need for them to pay kickbacks too often.
But Hovannisian, who also heads the committee on defense and security of the Armenian parliament, stopped short of blaming Kocharian for the lack of improvement since Ter-Petrosian's resignation in February 1998.
A pledge to combat corruption was a key theme of Kocharian's 1998 presidential campaign and one of the main reasons why Dashnaktsutyun, banned under Ter-Petrosian, rallied around the new president. Kocharian and his successive governments have repeatedly announced crackdowns on corruption.
But few concrete steps have been taken so far despite strong pressure from Western governments and lending institutions that view the problem as a serious obstacle to Armenia's economic development. U.S. Ambassador to Armenia John Ordway complained last week that the Armenian government has still to come up with a clear plan of action.
In an interview with RFE/RL, Ordway said: "I think that there is a great deal of recognition of the scope of the problem in Armenia and also a general acceptance that something has to be done about it. What there isn't at the moment is an effective plan as to how to begin to go about reducing corruption." He described bribery and nepotism as "one of the major psychological barriers to foreign investment in Armenia."
Last year the government received a $345,000 grant from the World Bank to draw up a comprehensive program to tackle the problem. It is expected to be unveiled by August. In addition, a special commission was set up by Prime Minister Andranik Markarian to coordinate the government's anti-corruption steps.
However, a recent opinion poll among Armenian business people exposed widespread skepticism about the success of the government's stated anti-corruption effort. Two out of three local entrepreneurs said they do not believe that the authorities are committed to eradicating corrupt practices.
According to Dashnaktsutyun's Hovannisian, one of the main causes of Armenian corruption is a close link between business and politics. He argued that many senior government officials have extensive business interests and are therefore not interested in the rule of law and fair competition. He said many businessmen, mindful of the importance of government connections, consequently curry favors with top officials, or themselves engage in political activities.