Striving to enhance its business environment, Armenia has unveiled a high-profile government strategy to stamp out corruption. Though ambitious in scope, some civil society advocates in Armenia caution that vague implementation mechanisms could cause the anti-corruption drive to stall.
Like many former Soviet republics, Armenia has struggled to overcome corruption as it strives to reconstruct its economy. In 2003, the international corruption watchdog Transparency International gave Armenia one of the best ratings among CIS members, but noted that corruption was "pervasive" throughout the country. Along with other factors, corruption has damaged Armenia's ability to attract foreign investment, which is needed to maintain economic growth. According to government statistics, the Armenian economy expanded at a 13.9 percent rate in 2003.
Pressured by international financial organizations to address its graft problems, Armenia began work in January 2002 on an anti-corruption blueprint. Experts from the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the Council of Europe and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe consulted on the policy, and the World Bank extended a $300,000 grant to finance preparatory work. Prime Minister Andranik Markarian made the final, 70-page plan public on January 17. It envisions a three-year implementation period.
A wide-ranging legislative agenda lies at the core of the program. By 2007, over 90 proposed pieces of legislation are expected to be in place, guiding anti-corruption efforts. Among the envisioned laws are acts to establish a witness-protection program, rate the creditworthiness of financial institutions, block money-laundering, and promote a transparent judicial system. Some anti-corruption measures such as rules for state tenders, and an independent commission to oversee most civil service appointments have already been enacted.
Political corruption is addressed only sparingly in the government plan. After charges of vote-rigging marred parliamentary and presidential elections in 2003, this is a sensitive topic for Armenia's government. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Two new measures call for enhanced responsibilities for local representative bodies, and the reform of the election system. A third measure on campaign finance reform was passed last year by Armenia's National Assembly.
The plan has received skeptical reviews from civil society activists. Some observers say the program's lack of provisions for implementation represents a serious handicap. It is also vague when it comes to ensuring proper oversight of state-agency actions, Amaliya Kostanian, director of the Center for Regional Development, a Transparency International partner, told the ArmInfo news service. Some officials have called for the establishment of a special anti-corruption agency. But many NGO activists and others question the need for such a state body.
The government plan foresees only a limited role for non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in the anti-corruption drive. Only a handful of the anti-corruption programs allows for NGO involvement, drawing criticism from Kostanian and other civil society activists.
Other observers are also questioning the government's selective definition of corruption. For example, Armenia's army escapes all mention in the government blueprint, noted Noyan Tapan news agency analyst Robert Yegian. Meanwhile, bribe-taking for admission to university or to a state-run hospital is given particular attention.
Kostanian also questioned the program's priorities. Its focus lies primarily on customs, tax services and the courts, Kostanian said. No attention has been given to the use or misuse of government funds during elections. The program additionally does not address the possibility of corruption amid a response to a natural disaster. Given that the country is earthquake prone, such contingency plans should be in place, NGO representatives say.
In unveiling the program, Prime Minister Markarian stated that the government recognizes the threat that official corruption poses to Armenia's stable development. But some high-placed officials appear reluctant to risk publicly acknowledging that corrupt practices are pervasive in government. In an interview published in the Haykakan Zhamanak daily, Armenia's prosecutor general, deputy head of police, National Assembly vice-speaker and other influential government officials all maintained that corruption does not exist in their areas of government.
At present, there appears to be little domestic stimulus that would force President Robert Kocharian's administration to undertake efforts to investigate and eliminate official corruption. Armenia's political opposition, though vocal, has proven fractious, and thus unable to exert steady pressure on the administration.
At the same time, Armenia's government is facing growing pressure from outside to root out corruption. On January 17, Armenia officially joined the European anti-corruption organization GRECO. In June, the EU is expected to mull whether to include Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan in a group of countries with which it is stepping up trade and investment ties as the bloc pushes eastward.
Many Armenians doubt whether the full-extent of the program will ever be implemented. A poll conducted in 2003 by Transparency International indicated that 67 percent of Armenians consider corruption a widespread problem in everyday life. Public cynicism about correcting existing problems remains high.
"Armenia's tragedy has not been the adoption of laws," commented Hranush Kharatian, board member of the National Civil Initiative, a non-governmental organization, "but the fact that many of them do not work."
Haroutiun Khachatrian is a Yerevan-based writer specializing in economic and political affairs.