The Armenian parliament began debating on Wednesday a government bill that would criminalize “illegal enrichment” of high-ranking state officials.
The amendments to Armenia’s Criminal Code were drafted by the Justice Ministry and approved by Prime Minister Karen Karapetian’s cabinet last month. They would apply to some 600 officials, including ministers and judges, who are legally obliged to declare their assets to a special state commission.
The officials would have to substantiate the origin of their assets if those exceed their annual salaries by at least 5 million drams ($10,500). They would risk up to 6 six years in prison in case of failing to do so.
Presenting the bill to lawmakers, Justice Minister Arpine Hovannisian said it would reduce government corruption. Opposition deputies were unconvinced, however.
In particular, Hovannes Markarian of the Orinats Yerkir party recently renamed Armenian Revival complained that the bill will have no retroactive effect. “They have already plundered [the state] and enriched themselves,” he said. “There is nothing left anymore.”
Hovannisian argued that Armenia’s constitution forbids retroactive enforcement of punitive laws.
Naira Zohrabian, the leader of the Prosperous Armenia Party (BHK), also claimed that the draft amendments would make no difference. “Look at the income declarations of many National Assembly deputies and ministers,” she said. “They attribute their incomes to loans [supposedly extended by them to other individuals.]”
Even Eduard Sharmazanov, the deputy parliament speaker representing the ruling Republican Party (HHK), questioned the effectiveness of the proposed measures. He argued many officials register their expensive properties in their relatives’ names.
Many senior Armenian officials are believed to be well-to-do individuals despite their relatively modest salaries. It is not uncommon for them to own businesses through their relatives or cronies.
The veracity of their income declarations filed with the State Commission for the Ethics of High-Ranking Officials has long been questioned by anti-corruption activists and media. Some officials have attributed their and their relatives’ wealth to lavish financial “gifts” received from other individuals.
Karapetian’s cabinet pledged to criminalize “illegal enrichment” in its policy program approved by the National Assembly in October. The program promises “more efforts to eliminate the biggest obstacle to the development of the state: favoritism, embezzlements, bribery and other manifestations of corruption.”