Armenia’s State Revenue Committee (SRC) on Tuesday accused some of its customs officers of being bribed by smugglers to allow illegal tax-free imports of Azerbaijani apples to the country.
The SRC said they as well as the individuals engaged in “illegal entrepreneurship” will be prosecuted on corresponding charges.
The apples apparently grown in Azerbaijan were first discovered in some food stores in Yerevan late last month, causing a stir in the Armenian press and on social media. Some commentators decried the discovery on moral grounds, saying Armenia must not buy any products from a country with which it remains in a de facto state of war.
Many others pointed out that the imported apples were not taxed and did not undergo mandatory safety inspections at the border. The Armenian State Service for Foodstuff Safety cited this fact when it confiscated hundreds of kilograms of the fruit from stores and markets last week.
The SRC officially stated on April 26 that its customs checkpoints on Armenia’s borders with Georgia and Iran did not formally process any Azerbaijani imports. It pledged to conduct an investigation.
Announcing the results of that inquiry, the SRC said it has established that some customs officers at Armenia’s main border crossing with Georgia accepted kickbacks to allow the smuggling of the apples. A statement by the tax and customs agency did not identify those officers or specify their number. It said only that a criminal case has been opened against them and sent to state prosecutors.
The statement added that the prosecutors have also been asked to press charges against the alleged smugglers. They too were not identified.
Armenia’s National Security Service (NSS), which deals with smuggling cases, told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am) at the weekend that it is taking measures to “clarify all circumstances of the import operation” and identify the individuals involved in it.
Corruption within the Armenian customs service has long been widespread, with many businesspeople using bribes and government connections to avoid or underpay import duties. The current SRC chief, Vartan Harutiunian, pledged to crack down on corrupt practices among customs and tax officers when he was appointed to run the government agency in October.
A figure close to Prime Minister Karen Karapetian, Harutiunian said in December that he plans to remove “corrupt and unhealthy elements” from the SRC. He also promised tougher action against tax evasion. Critics have used the apple scandal to question the seriousness of his anti-graft efforts.