Speaking during a weekly cabinet meeting in Yerevan, he accused law-enforcement authorities of “punishing people who did not steal” any public funds.
One of Kerobian’s deputies, Ani Ispirian, and several other officials from the Ministry of Economy were detained in two criminal investigations jointly conducted by Armenia’s Investigative Committee and National Security Service (NSS). Most of them, including Ispirian, were moved to house arrest or freed pending investigation in the following days.
In of those criminal cases, a ministry official is accused of abusing his or her position to help other individuals receive 238 million drams ($590,000) in state agribusiness funding in violation of rules set by the ministry. The official was not charged with bribery or embezzlement, a fact emphasized by Kerobian.
The minister said that law-enforcement authorities have “paralyzed the work of the entire state system.”
“Our agricultural divisions are now wondering how they should continue working in order to be sure that their honest work will not be punished in the end,” he told Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian. “That is why I believe that we need to make a cultural change and decide whether we allow people to make mistakes sometimes. I am sure, though, that in this case it will turn out that no mistakes were really made.”
Pashinian responded ambiguously to the unprecedented complaint: “Was money stolen from the budget or not? … If so, then it’s a different matter. If not, it’s the kind of mistake which you mentioned.”
The government grant investigated by the authorities was allocated from a state fund tasked with helping private entrepreneurs set up intensive fruit orchards in Armenia. The government has provided about 100 billion drams ($248 million) in such financial aid since 2018. It decided on Thursday to extend the scheme by two more years despite the criminal case.
The other case stems from a procurement tender that was organized by the Ministry of Economy and invalidated by a court last summer. Ministry officials are accused of illegally disqualifying an information technology company, Harmonia, to make sure that the tender is won by another, larger firm, Synergy International Systems, which set a much higher price for its services.
The investigators also arrested last week Synergy’s founder Ashot Hovanesian and two current and former employees, drawing condemnation from the Armenian Union of Advanced Technology Enterprises (UATE). The tech association said that “unfounded” detentions of “business representatives and other prominent persons” are turning Armenia into a “risky country” for local and foreign tech entrepreneurs.
On Tuesday, 64 lawmakers representing Pashinian’s Civil Contract party petitioned prosecutors to release the three suspects from custody. One of the suspects, Ani Gevorgian, is the sister-in-law of Alen Simonian, the Armenian parliament speaker and a senior ruling party figure. She remained in custody as of Thursday afternoon.
Some commentators claim that Pashinian personally sanctioned the young woman’s arrest in a bid to boost his falling approval ratings by showing Armenians that he is serious about combatting corruption. Pashinian allies have dismissed such claims.