YEREVAN (RFE/RL)—The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) defended on Monday its decision to finance the Armenian government’s latest efforts to combat corruption which have prompted skepticism from many civil society figures in Armenia.
Karen Hilliard, USAID’s mission director for Armenia, said U.S. government funding for an anti-corruption strategy recently unveiled by authorities in Yerevan is a “risk” worth taking.
A new anti-corruption council headed by Prime Minister Hovik Abrahamian discussed and approved the strategy at its first meeting held on July 28. Abrahamian’s chief of staff, Davit Harutiunian, announced at the meeting that USAID is ready to provide the bulk of the $750,000 cost which he said is needed for its implementation.
Successive Armenian governments have repeatedly pledged to fight against endemic bribery, nepotism, and other corrupt practices in the past. There has been little evidence, however, of major improvements in the situation with the rule of law in the country.
But virtually all Armenian civic groups have turned down government invitations to join the new anti-graft body, signaling widespread skepticism about the seriousness of the current cabinet’s stated intentions.
“If the government doesn’t set up an anti-corruption commission, then what is the alternative?” Hilliard told RFE/RL’s Armenian service. “If the alternative is doing nothing it won’t lead Armenia anywhere. Therefore, what I’m going to do is the following: to take a risk by investing in this anti-corruption commission.”
In Hilliard’s words, USAID is acting on the assumption that its financial assistance will produce concrete results. “If there are results, I’ll continue to invest,” she said.
Hilliard suggested that Armenian authorities start their promised fight by targeting “administrative corruption” encountered by ordinary Armenians during their contacts with various state bodies.
The government’s anti-corruption strategy appears to envisage just that. Presenting the document to members of Abrahamian’s council on July 28, acting Justice Minister Arsen Mkrtchian said it will lead to sweeping legislative changes meant to complicate corruption among officials dealing with healthcare, education, tax collection, and law enforcement.
“The Armenian authorities intend to form a whole class of law-abiding and diligent officials through which they will be combatting corruption,” said Mkrtchian.
“We must disappoint those people who don’t want to join our council,” Abrahamian said.
Hilliard also stressed the importance of putting in place a “legislative and regulatory framework that would separate business and politics.”
“Concrete steps are needed,” she stressed.
President Serzh Sarkissian promised such steps when he addressed members of Armenia’s leading business association in 2011. “Business must be consistently separated from the government and public administration,” he said at the time.
Many senior Armenian government and law-enforcement officials as well as high-ranking civil servants continue to own businesses, either directly or through their relatives and cronies. Such firms often enjoy privileged treatment by tax authorities. Also, government connections remain important for engaging in some forms of lucrative and large-scale entrepreneurial activity.
Armenia ranked 94th of 174 countries and territories evaluated in Transparency International’s most recent Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) released last December. It occupied the same position in the 2013 CPI which ranked 177 nations.
In an annual report released in June, the U.S. State Department described “systemic corruption” as one of the most frequent and serious forms of human rights violation in Armenia. It said that authorities in Yerevan are not doing enough to tackle the problem.