Opposition Skeptical About New Anti-Graft Body

Armenia’s leading opposition groups voiced skepticism on Wednesday over the formation of a new anti-corruption state body charged with verifying income declarations of senior state officials.

The state Commission on the Ethics of High-Ranking Officials consists of five members appointed by President Serzh Sargsyan upon the recommendation of Armenia’s prime minister, parliament speaker, prosecutor-general and the chairmen of two high courts.

Sargsyan told the commission members after their first meeting on Tuesday that they have an important role to play in the Armenian authorities’ fight against corruption.

Artsvik Minasyan, a deputy from the Armenian Revolutionary Federation-Dashnaktsutyun, said that the commission cannot be independent because all of its members were handpicked by the three branches of government loyal to Sargsyan. The body should have comprised opposition representatives, he said. “The authorities cannot oversee themselves. And corruption is definitely not in the opposition field, corruption is in the government field,” Minasyan told RFE/RL’s Armenian service.

Stepan Safaryan, a leader of the opposition Heritage (Zharangutyun) party, agreed, saying that the commission will only target “those who betray the authorities.” “That commission will serve as a truncheon hanging over deputies and other officials,” he claimed.

“It is Serzh Sargsyan, not the commission, who will decide which official breached ethics and whether or not they should be prosecuted,” claimed Aram Manukyan of the opposition Armenian National Congress (HAK).

Sargsyan assured the commission members that nobody can exert influence on their work.

The state Commission on the Ethics of High-Ranking Officials has been set up in accordance with a government-drafted law passed by parliament last year. Its five members have been nominated by Armenia’s prime minister, parliament speaker, prosecutor-general and the chairmen of two high courts and appointed by Sargsyan.

The commission elected one of the members, Emil Babayan, as its chairman during the meeting. Babayan served as deputy minister of justice until the appointment.

Armenia already enacted in 2001 a law that required some 3,000 senior officials, including the president of the republic, and their family members to declare their revenues and assets to tax authorities on an annual basis.

The law has proved largely ineffectual, with many officials grossly understating their income in declarations filed with the State Revenue Committee. The latter has had no right to check the veracity of those statements.

The Armenian government pledged to address the problem with amendments to another law that were approved by the National Assembly in May. They are meant to toughen procedures for financial disclosure by a smaller number of top civil servants and other officials. Justice Minister Hrayr Tovmasyan estimated that the measure will cover between 500 and 600 officials.

The commission is supposed to look into officials’ income declarations and compare them with their expenditures that will also have to be reported to it. It also has to investigate possible instances of conflict of interest among them.

The new law also bans those officials from accepting financial or other gifts directly related to the performance of their duties. In all other cases, they must inform the commission about gifts worth more than 50,000 drams ($130) apiece.

Significantly, the commission has no authority to sanction officials found to have presented false financial information or committed other violations of anti-corruption norms. It can only publicize its findings and share them with other state bodies.

Sargsyan insisted that the new body can play a major role in increasing public trust in the government and promoting good governance in Armenia. He told the commission members that he will closely follow their activities but will not seek to influence them.