By Anna Saghabalian
Officers of Armenia’s traffic police have not been prosecuted or sanctioned otherwise for corruption this year despite continuing to routinely accept kickbacks from motorists, it emerged on Tuesday.
A senior traffic policeman, who revealed that fact, strongly disputed the widely held belief that the Armenian State Automobile Inspectorate (SAI) is rife with bribery and other corruption practices.
“We don’t accept the claims about corruption,” Colonel Hayk Sargsian, head of the inspectorate’s Organizational-Analytical Department, told reporters. “If you have any concrete facts you should present them. It’s easy to accuse all agencies and enterprises of corruption. You can not speculate about corruption.”
“We have not registered any such facts,” Sargsian said.
The claims are certain to be brushed aside by a vast majority of Armenian car owners who deal with traffic police on a regular basis. Many would agree that bribing a road policeman is customary in Armenia. A typical kickback for avoiding legal punishment for an alleged or proven violation of traffic rules is 1000 drams (just over $2). Officers patrolling streets or highways are allegedly obliged transfer a large part of that money to their superiors.
Another source of illegal payments is “technical inspections” which each of an estimated 250,000 cars registered in Armenia must undergo once a year. A special SAI division is supposed to check their condition and safety standards, something which they rarely do. As part of the process motorists also have to submit medical certificates testifying to their good health and mental sanity.
But few of them take time and trouble to obtain such a document after a cumbersome bureaucratic procedure. Most prefer to pay a $10 bribe to the traffic police instead.
Sargsian, however, denied the existence of such practice. “If you have such facts please submit them in writing,” he said. “We will look into them.”
The SAI official also disagreed with those who feel that traffic in Yerevan is chaotic and even dangerous. “We control traffic lights and road signs on a daily basis,” he claimed.
However, anecdotal evidence suggests that as many as half of the traffic lights in the city, including those on some of its busiest intersections, break down on a regular basis. In addition, the lights and other traffic rules are routinely ignored by the country’s wealthiest government-connected citizens. Many of them ride in expensive cars that have license plates with repeating numbers, a badge of prestige among the local rich. The easy-to-remember plates can reportedly “bought” from the police for as much as $2,000.
The Armenian authorities’ most recent crackdown on road police corruption was reported three years ago. Several police officers were arrested at the time after being caught red-handed accepting kickbacks. No other anti-corruption measures are known to have been taken since then.
Two other ex-Soviet states, Georgia and Ukraine, appear to have successfully tackled the problem by simply disbanding their entire traffic police and creating a new Western-style patrol service from scratch. Their current pro-Western leaders came to power on the back of successful popular revolts against corrupt and incompetent regimes that ruled the two countries.
Sargsian was asked whether he would advocate a similar radical reform in Armenia. “I don’t want to comment on that,” he said. “One should first examine the results obtained by them.”
One of those results is a dramatic increase this year in the number of Armenians traveling to Georgia by car. The now disbanded Georgian police were notorious for their corruption and in particular routine extortion of bribes from the drivers of Armenian cars and buses.