Armenia’s military defeat by Azerbaijan is not diminishing Yerevan’s determination to tackle widespread domestic corruption, an official has said. If anything, the war has reinforced the notion among reformers that promoting transparency is vital for ensuring Armenia’s future national security.
During a recent online panel, Haykuhi Harutyunyan, the chair of Armenia’s Commission on the Prevention of Corruption (CPC), said the fighting late last year – resulting in Azerbaijan’s reconquest of much of the territory in and around Nagorno-Karabakh that it lost to Armenia in the 1990s – underscored the importance of developing robust anti-corruption institutions. Left unsaid were concerns that widespread top-level corruption over the past two decades arguably hampered Armenia’s ability to maintain strategic parity with Azerbaijan and made the state less nimble when confronting strategic challenges.
Strengthening domestic watchdogs can “help guarantee that [Armenia’s] external relations are stronger and the country is secure,” Harutyunyan said during a February 11 public discussion at Columbia University.
The CPC started operating in late 2019. Among its top priorities is introducing a digital registry of financial declarations of public figures, government agencies, political parties and other relevant entities. The CPC will evaluate the declarations to ensure that assets were obtained in a legal and transparent manner. The agency will also be responsible for vetting governmental appointees and nominees, especially judges and prosecutors, for potential conflicts of interest that could influence their job performance. It will additionally mount public awareness campaigns to broaden support for clean government.
The agency has been working quietly since its inception to build out systems and bolster staff capacity, Harutyunyan said. Once fully operational, the CPC aims to serve as a “model for other state institutions.”
Global watchdogs give Armenia middling marks on containing corruption. Transparency International, for example, ranked Armenia 60th out of the 180 counties surveyed in its 2020 Corruption Perceptions Index – though that is a notable improvement over recent years. Freedom House, meanwhile, gave Armenia three points out of a possible seven in addressing corruption in its latest Nations in Transit report. While the government has expressed a desire to tackle corruption, it has so far addressed the issue “on a case-by-case basis” that is inefficient, Freedom House said.
The CPC aims to systematize the fight against graft, but its potential is constrained by a lack of prosecutorial authority: It can uncover instances of corruption but has no power to indict suspected offenders. A crucial test will be whether a prosecutorial mechanism and an anti-corruption court are established in 2021, as projected under the existing government blueprint.
The U.S. government is assisting the CPC in developing Armenia’s new anti-corruption framework. The departure of the old leadership and the rise of Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan in 2018 infused anti-corruption efforts with a much higher level of political will, said Adam Stefan, the director of the Democracy and Governance Office for USAID in Armenia. He noted that a “key point” in building the new framework is “sustaining these gains beyond this government.”
“All stakeholders need to be invested […] and holding each other accountable,” he added.
Matthew Murray, the event moderator and co-chair of Columbia’s forum on Innovating Solutions to Systemic Corruption in Eurasia, said Armenia’s new anti-corruption framework, if fully implemented, could mark a “paradigm shift” in the regional effort to promote transparency and accountability.
“What’s now required is patience,” he said.