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Edik Baghdasaryan

Battling Corruption: Parliament Puts On a Show

There is an Armenian adage - "One robber robbed another one; even God was surprised." I am not sure if other nations have a similar saying, but this is a brilliant description of the battle against corruption in Armenia. When I received an invitation to a two-day international conference (April 6-7) entitled "The Role of National Assembly-Civil Society Cooperation in the Fight against Corruption" I intended to participate at first, planning to present a number of cases of corruption that involved members of parliament.

But four days before the conference, when one of the groups organizing it called to ask if I was going to attend, I told them I hadn't decided yet. The caller said that it would be good if I would let them know as soon as possible so that, in case I were unable to participate, they would be able to invite someone else, as space was limited. The tone of voice irritated me, the same way that the "battle against corruption" in Armenia has been irritating me for the past three years. I immediately replied, "Call someone else, thank you."

The Armenian National Assembly is now a member of the Global Organization of Parliamentarians Against Corruption (GOPAC). The conference this month resulted in the establishment of the Armenian arm of GOPAC within the National Assembly. In the past, they collaborated with GRECO, the Council of Europe's anti-corruption watchdog. The battle against corruption has gained momentum in Armenia, but this is undeniably all just an act.

Bagrat Yesayan, advisor to the president of Armenia on anti-corruption issues, mentions in almost all of his speeches that this fight is hampered by the absence of certain laws, and lack of enforcement of those laws that do exist. In truth, there is nothing wrong with Armenia's laws - the only problem is that they are ignored.

Yesayan himself could point to perhaps hundreds of cases of corruption, but he does not speak out because it might make his life unnecessarily complicated. At meetings, representatives of law enforcement agencies justify their inaction, saying that it is difficult to prove corruption. They equate corruption with bribery, but it goes beyond that.

Corruption can be seen in various decisions by government and city hall, in auctions and tenders for licensing in most fields, in the judicial system and the activities of customs departments.

A month ago, Artashes Toumanyan, the president's chief of staff, was relieved of his duties. A large collection of incriminating evidence against Toumanyan that had been gathered by the government was presented to certain news agencies, which publicized them without hesitation. But to this day there has been no reaction from a legal point of view. Law enforcement agencies have kept out of it, saying they have no evidence to launch a criminal case, even though the information presented should have been more than enough. It has long been accepted practice in Armenia that when they confiscate from an official the money he made illegally, they force him to transfer a part of it to the state budget, meanwhile taking an equal amount for themselves. The same thing happened with former Communications Minister Grigor Poghpatyan - he transferred a million dollars to the state budget, and provided the same amount to have the case against him closed.

This was also what happened with Anatoly Avagyan, head of the Service for Obligatory Enforcement of Judicial Acts. He has already transferred US $400,000 to the state budget for his illegal acts, and only he knows how much he has passed on to various officials. Artashes Toumanyan is now in the same process - the amount he has to pay exceeds US $10 million. And here we are, trying to battle corruption through membership in one organization or another.

"The Customs Committee has become a structure that regularly breaks the law. And we all know that breaking the law is a crime. That makes the head of the Customs Committee a criminal in this case," said Tatul Manaseryan, a Member of Parliament, first at a press conference he called on April 6, and then again at the conference mentioned above.

The Customs Service takes different duties on the same goods which have the same invoices. Some foreign goods sold in Armenia are not even registered with the Customs Services as imported. There are measures of punishment outlined by law for such cases, but who is going to enforce them?

There were fiery speeches about corruption in the National Assembly, as if they did not know how it happened. Many MPs have their own business. They don't care much for legislative work, skipping most National Assembly sessions to look after their own businesses. The Constitution of Armenia forbids Members of Parliament to have their own businesses, as Speaker Arthur Baghdasaryan no doubt is aware. But members of his own party are on the list of businessmen.

Is it corruption when parliamentarians vote in each other's stead, or when the truancy of businessmen MPs is explained away? Is it corruption when the head of the Customs Service, who makes US $300 a month, builds a house in the center of Yerevan worth a few million dollars? Is it corruption when Communications and Transport Minister Andranik Manukyan is involved in hotel and car businesses, even as he holds the post of minister? Is it corruption when oligarchs store their money in offshore zones, transfer them to Armenia to invest in their businesses, then claim to have "foreign investment" in order to be exempt from profit tax? Nobody talked about real corruption during that two-day conference. They didn't talk about it, because within the scheme of corruption, the National Assembly has its own important role to play.

Parliamentary elections are scheduled to be held a year from now, and as they draw nearer, the invisible battle against corruption in Armenia will only gain momentum.