A photo campaign launched by the pro-government youth group Miasin (Together) has touched off a debate in Armenia about the nature of justice. Heightening passions on both sides of the question is the fact that the debate revolves around one of the country's most pervasive social ills -- corruption.
Yerevan residents on March 12 were surprised to see large, color photos of some 30 well-known professors hung on Yerevan State University buildings, near metro stations and at other busy gathering-places around the city. The photos all featured a blazing caption: "Bribe Takers."
Some passers-by studied the faces with curiosity; others tore down the photos and called their appearance "shameful."
"This reminds me of the Stalin regime of 1937. Those were times when people were charged without any grounds," said an angry Yerevan State University Rector Aram Simonian at a news conference the same day.
Few Armenians argue publicly with the group's intent to battle corruption. But many are questioning Miasin's methods.
No proof of wrongdoing has been produced against those depicted in the photos. Critics have also been quick to point out that some of those targeted in the anti-corruption campaign have been falsely accused. The most glaring example is Armenia's ambassador to Egypt, Hrachya Poladian, who is among those who made the photo line-up. In a March 13 statement, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated that Poladian had never worked as a professor and urged Miasin to "be brave enough to ask publicly for the diplomat's pardon."
Miasin's 24-year-old leader, Hakob Hakobian, described the incident as "a simple mix-up" which the group plans to correct. "We are not the prosecutor's office. We are just a youth movement that aimed to simply [call attention to] the problem and we will continue to [do] it," he said.
One opposition member, however, counters that the group is, in fact, acting as the prosecutor's office. "Taking bribes is a criminal charge that needs to be proved before a person's portrait is hung in a public place, and you call the person a bribe taker, or those responsible have to be punished for libel," said Vardan Khachatrian, a member of parliament for the opposition Heritage Party and a theology lecturer at Yerevan State University.
Miasin claims that it came up with the list of professors based on an anonymous survey held at Yerevan State University, Yerevan State Pedagogical University, Yerevan State Economics University, and the Medical Institute. In an interview with EurasiaNet, however, Hakobian could not recall key survey details, such as how many people participated in the survey.
Amalia Kostanian, executive director of the Yerevan office of anti-corruption watchdog Transparency International, described Miasin's actions as "a dark story lacking any transparency."
"They [Miasin activists] first should have made public the results and the methodology used in the survey," Kostanian said in reference to the photo displays. "It's unacceptable in the way and with the inaccuracy it was done."
Yerevan State University Rector Simonian argued that cracking down on corrupt professors should be left to the university itself. "We took and we will take all measures to fight corruption and anticipate getting constructive support," he said. Ten instructors have been fired from the university since 2007 for taking bribes "and serious disciplinary offenses."
Simonian put the blame for the corruption problem, in part, on low salaries. "A professor at Yerevan State University gets 160,000 drams ($430) [per month], whereas [many of] his students come to classes in cars that cost half a million of dollars," he fumed. "These people may have weak points and, seeing the students want just grades, not knowledge, they may take a step amounting to a crime. But I assure you there are very few who do that."
At first, some Yerevan State University students suspected a political motivation to the photo campaign. "Many of us thought at first that there is some political underpinning here, that the professors are pro-opposition, if the [campaign] organizer is Miasin," recounted Hasmik Muradian, a 20-year-old sociology student. "But then, we found pictures of those who used to threaten to expel us from the university, or not allow us to take exams, if we went to the opposition's rallies."
Although Miasin's anti-corruption efforts may not have been coordinated with the government, available evidence supports the impression that top officials were aware of Miasin's intent to wage an aggressive campaign.
The youth movement first appeared last spring, as a counterbalance to the pro-opposition group Hima (Now), which organized demonstrations after the disputed 2008 presidential election. [For background, see the Eurasia Insight archive]. In a clear show of support, President Serzh Sargsyan turned up at Miasin's one-year anniversary celebration on February 21.
In November of 2008, Prime Minister Tigran Sargsyan expressed public support for Miasin and its plan "to disclose all corruption cases in universities with the help of university students, and to make public the names of all corrupt professors, other university employees and students."
Yerevan Police Chief Nerses Nazarian told reporters that although Miasin's choice of tactics "is not very nice," police would not be taking action to prevent the posting of the photo displays because such action "took place late at night."
For now, most professors featured in Miasin's photo line-ups remain silent. In an interview with EurasiaNet, one of the accused, Yerevan State University Law Faculty Dean Gagik Ghazinian, said he has no plans to sue for libel. "The first reason is that I don't want speculation about my name again. I don't want to become a participant in that show again, and, secondly, I am not sure the court will be unbiased," Ghazinian said. "Obviously, this movement has serious leverage."
Political scientist Karen Simonian seconds that observation. Simonian, who is not related to Yerevan State University Rector Aram Simonian, attributes the silence of the accused professors down to shock. "The blow came from such an unexpected direction that they don't know how powerful the force is standing behind it and how far it can go," Simonian said.
Gayane Abrahamyan is a reporter for the ArmeniaNow.com weekly in Yerevan.