BY GAREN YEGPARIAN
Since corruption seems to be all the rage and totally accepted in our homeland, and since many in the west are unaccustomed to the sky-high levels and endless diversity in which this practice manifests itself, I thought I’d do some research and present my findings to Diasporan readers so no Armenian is left out.
Some contend that we are witnessing the beginnings of a decline in the level of corruption. Of course this makes it all the more pressing and timely to learn the techniques and tricks necessary to cash in before it’s too late.
Your first option is to go in with a local, partner up. This way you’ve got an in-house expert to guide you through the serpentine paths of the stygian realm this compact guide is meant to assist you with. Of course, everything has its costs. Now, you’ll have to watch your partner so that s/he doesn’t skim so much of your business endeavor’s potential profits that you end up with a net loss.
There are a couple of ways to avoid this grand garden of graft. Go small, stay under the radar, open a small shop serving a very localized clientele, not making too much money, and you won’t become a target of the insatiable oligarchic avarice consuming the wealth of the nation. Alternatively, you can be extremely, squeaky clean. Hire the best, most competent and knowledgeable bookkeepers and accountants along with equally qualified attorneys. This way, there will be not a single loose end which some zealous, bribe-seeking agent of “Hargayeen” (the Republic of Armenia’s [RoA] taxation agency, equivalent to the IRS) can pinch and start pulling until you unravel like a poorly knitted sweater. But if you go this route, then you will miss out on really, truly, integrating with the Yerevan lifestyle, and that just wouldn’t do!
Let’s say you’re a builder/developer type and want to “beautify” Yerevan’s skyline while making boatloads of money. But, wham, some zoning constraint precludes your building a “skyscraper”. What to do, what to do? Just bribe the relevant official to approve a building that’s 17 stories high instead of the allowed 11 (numbers are not actual), and give that “benefactor” a free unit in the new building as a “token of your gratitude” since things have gotten so “refined” that a crass payment in cash just won’t do. People might actually raise a fuss if they notice. But it doesn’t end there. Permits are needed and inspections required. These can become very time consuming and disruptive if the “proper” hands aren’t greased. So that’s another aspect to consider.
In the same vein, let’s say you’re a road/bridge/tunnel/pipeline builder, a civil engineer. This infrastructure is not only necessary for the country’s economy, but also serves vital national security interests. You know you’re the best one for the job. But how do you get the contract for the project in question. Simple, jack up the price a bit (alternatively, reduce costs by doing shoddy work or using substandard materials), promise a tidy sum in the form of a kickback to the official making the decision of who gets the job, and abracadabra, you’re pouring asphalt!
What if you’re a mechanical engineer, with lots of managerial experience in manufacturing all manner of gadgets and widgets? You do some research, realize that doodad X would be perfect, the raw materials are available in-country, the appropriately trained labor pool is available, and there’s a shortage of doodad X! You round up some money, buy a property, perhaps even one with a now defunct factory’s building (whose guts were sold as scrap by the first generation post-Soviet klepto-capitalists). You fix it up, get things going, employ lots of citizens at good wages… everybody’s happy, right? Well, not quite everyone. Some greedy scion of a big-bellied local power broker is jealous. Why should you be making all that money? So the pressure starts. It’s not mafia-style protection money “requests” … no, that would be illegal! Instead, a false accusation is made, or a government inspector dispatched to find fault (real or falsified) and file a report. This technique is also used by your competitors to increase your costs, hence force your prices upwards, making your products harder to sell in the market. See! These people really ARE capitalists after all. They want to make the market work for them.
How these false filings work is that they lead to fines, which you must pay immediately (though if you ultimately carry the day, the fine amount is credited to you against future tax obligations), or bribe your way out of. Or you can fight in the courts. And now you are at the tender mercies of the justice system. Judges are thrilled when they get wind of such cases because now they can extort both sides. Whoever gives them the best bribe, will usually win. However, you can fight and ultimately prevail. But how many times would anyone be willing to go through this? How long would anyone be willing to tolerate the needless pressure? Eventually, you relent and sell the factory to the envious cretin or lying, cheating competitor.
Maybe you fancy yourself as a swashbuckling, seafaring merchant of yore. But, the RoA and Artzakh are landlocked, so you settle for land or air routes to import something, let’s say fresh tropical fruits. Now, you must deal with customs. If you have a competitor with better connections… beware! Customs might drag out the process of clearing your produce, maybe even causing it to rot, or at least degrade so it’s of inferior quality to your competitor’s. Or, it might just affect your delivery times and therefore credibility with your customers.
An oldy but goody is the action at auctions. This occurs less nowadays than in the early heyday of privatizing public/government assets. Property is scheduled for auction but proper notice is not be given, only to a favored few, allowing them to buy at bargain-basement prices, sell at a big profit, and establish themselves as oligarchs.
Of course there’s the seemingly petty traffic ticket scam which enriches street cops, and then feeds their superiors up the chain. Drivers are pulled over for bogus reasons and cited, being forced to pay a bribe to get out of it. Evidently this is not as prevalent as it once was. But think about it, in the aggregate, it adds up to big money. Now, I’m told, there are traffic cameras with radar and sudden changes in posted speed limits immediately before where cameras are placed. So the motorist doesn’t even have a chance to slow down before s/he’s in violation. Nice racket, isn’t it?
You’ll notice the pattern, you need connections, mostly governmental or bureaucratic to achieve success in almost any of the above corrupt practices.
So how is an unconnected Diasporan to break into the richly rewarding world of corruption in the Armenian highlands? Well, the weak spot of most officials is their credibility, they have almost none in-country. So, they travel to various Diaspora communities, get feted, honored, and give speeches, with much publicity and visibility. Then, when they go back, they use all that to boost their image.
That’s the in, the foot in the door, the weak link in the chain. All a Diasporan has to do is threaten to block crooked officials from accessing their Diasporan “crutches”, or worse, publicly naming and shaming them, thus turning the tables on them. Now, they’ll have to cut you in for a piece of the action!
You have your primer, the tools are listed. Happy extorting, bribing, and generally being a grotesquely corrupt creature in our homeland!