By Astghik Bedevian and Emil Danielyan
Armenian government officials that have made big personal fortunes starkly contrasting with their modest salaries are not necessarily corrupt, President Robert Kocharian’s special anti-graft adviser said on Thursday.
Bagrat Yesayan made the point that the conspicuous wealth of individuals holding senior positions in the government, security agencies and judiciary is the inevitable result of Armenia’s transition to a market economy.
“Owning a villa or a luxury car is no proof of being corrupt or thieving in itself,” he said. “This was the case in Soviet times when being wealthy in a poor society was considered a crime. Now that we have entered a period of free enterprise, ownership of [expensive] property is not a phenomenon punishable by criminal law.”
“Only when we create a mechanism requiring every person to declare their sources of revenue used for building a luxury villa will we be able to determine whether those sources are legal or illegal,” he added.
Many of the senior and mid-level Armenian officials are wealthy individuals that do not seem to live off their salaries rarely exceeding $500 a month. It is not uncommon for them to own businesses, often registered in the name of their relatives or friends. Large-scale bribery among them is also a serious problem.
Most senior officials are believed to understate their assets in their annual income declarations filed with tax authorities in accordance with Armenia’s law on financial disclosure. The law does not empower tax officials to check the veracity of those statements.
Yesayan is now pushing for legal amendments that would make income declaration mandatory for every adult resident of Armenia. He reiterated on Thursday his view that this would enable the authorities to uncover government officials’ expensive property that formally belongs to their relatives.
Speaking to reporters on the sidelines of an anti-graft conference organized by the Armenian parliament, Yesayan said law-enforcement bodies identified 371 corruption-related crimes last year and prosecuted 97 state officials as a result. Asked to name the most important of those officials, he singled out a former Finance Ministry official sentenced recently to seven years’ imprisonment for fraud and a judge reportedly caught red-handed while taking a bribe. Neither men is known to have ties with Armenia’s most powerful individuals or their cronies.
The Armenian authorities insist that they are successfully implementing an anti-corruption program launched by them with the World Bank’s blessing in late 2003. Yesayan dismissed last November Transparency International’s latest global report which suggested that government corruption in Armenia has actually increased in the last few years. “Corruption is a phenomenon which is impossible to measure, just as it is impossible to measure love and other phenomena,” he famously stated.
Armenia ranked 88th out of 146 nations that were covered by the Berlin-based anti-graft watchdog’s 2005 Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI). The previous survey, released a year ago, put it in 82nd place.
In a November letter to Yesayan, the Transparency International director for Europe and Central Asia, Miklos Marschall, insisted that the situation with corruption in Armenia “does not seem to be improving.” “Honest public discourse about the issue is the right answer to our CPI,” Marschall wrote. “The wrong answer is to sweep the issue of corruption under the rug by trying to discredit our index.”
The Kocharian administration’s stated efforts to tackle widespread corrupt practices were also dismissed as a gimmick by a top leader of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation, an influential party represented in Armenia’s government. “Today there is virtually no real and systematic fight against corruption and poverty in the country,” Hrant Markarian told a Dashnaktsutyun congress last December.
Incidentally, Yesayan is also affiliated with Dashnaktsutyun.