Armenia’s National Security Service (NSS) searched some offices in Yerevan’s municipal administration building and confiscated documents from them on Wednesday in a criminal investigation into a charity headed by embattled Mayor Taron Markarian.
In a statement, the NSS said two individuals claimed to have been forced by municipal officials to make hefty payments to the Yerevan Fund in return for receiving construction permits sought by them. It said its investigators have already found that a part of the “large amounts” of cash paid by them never reached the municipal charity and was “embezzled” instead.
According to the statement, NSS officers raided the Yerevan Fund’s offices located in the municipality building as part of “large-scale operational-investigative measures” taken by the powerful security agency.
The statement did not say whether any municipal officials have already been questioned. It said only that the investigation is being conducted under articles of the Armenian Criminal Code dealing with abuse of power and fraud.
The search conducted at the Yerevan Fund headquarters lasted for several hours. Plainclothes officers carried many black plastic bags filled with documents and heavier objects as they emerged from the building afterwards.
Mayor Markarian is the chairman of the fund’s board trustees. The fund reportedly raised about 2 billion drams ($4.1 million) in 2017. More than three-fourths of that sum is said to have been contributed by undisclosed private donors.
In March this year, two senior members of Civil Contract, then an opposition party, charged that the municipal administration may be extorting illegal payments to the Yerevan Fund in return for various services provided to businesses or citizens. Arayik Harutiunian and Lena Nazarian sued the fund after it refused to identify its donors.
Harutiunian, who now serves as education minister in Armenia’s new government headed by Civil Contract leader Nikol Pashinian, said last week that the Mayor’s Office has decided to liquidate the fund. “It will be hard to clean up traces [of corruption] by shutting down the fund,” he warned.
Nazarian, for her part, expressed hope on Wednesday that the NSS inquiry will establish the truth about the opaque fund’s activities. “I think it’s very unlikely that corrupt practices and other abuses could have occurred without the knowledge of the leadership, including the board chairman, Taron Markarian,” she told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am).
Anahit Bakhshian, a member of Yerevan’s municipal council highly critical of the mayor, said she too has heard numerous allegations about people being forced to donate money to the fund. “It has obviously been a theft channel,” she charged.
Markarian came under growing pressure to resign after massive protests led by Pashinian forced the country’s longtime leader, Serzh Sarkisian, to step down on April 23. The 40-year-old mayor is a senior member of Sarkisian’s Republican Party. He has refused to quit.
Markarian’s press secretary, Artur Gevorgian, said the NSS probe is not sufficient grounds for the mayor’s resignation.