YEREVAN (RFE/RL)–President Serzh Sarkisian said on Thursday that Armenia’s National Security Service (NSS) must be at the forefront of his administration’s promised crackdown on widespread government corruption.
Sarkisian issued the order as he visited the NSS headquarters in Yerevan to discuss security challenges facing the country with senior officers of the Armenian successor to the Soviet KGB. The presidential press service released the transcript of his speech but gave no details of “views and concerns” expressed by the NSS leadership at the meeting.
Sarkisian said that the feared security agency must fight against corruption “every day, every hour.” “Of course, that is not only your job, but you must be at the forefront of this effort,” he said. “Your passivity in this area is strange to me.”
“This is the greatest danger threatening our country’s progress, the biggest hurdle in our path,” he added, referring to corruption. “I am confident that you will step up your efforts in that direction.”
The administration of Armenia’s former President Robert Kocharian, of which Sarkisian was a key member, pledged to combat corruption throughout its decade-long rule that came to an end last spring. It launched in 2003 a Western-backed anti-corruption program consisting of mainly legislative measures. There is little evidence that they have reduced the scale of graft, however.
The Armenian government is currently working on a new anti-corruption plan which officials say will place the emphasis on the enforcement of existing laws and, presumably, prosecution of corrupt government officials.
Sarkisian acknowledged that the virtual absence of such prosecutions has undermined public trust in the declared crackdowns on corruption. “People must see that we are not only talking but also acting,” he told the NSS leadership. “If we talk about corruption all day long and don’t show persons engaged in it, then our actions will not only produce zero results but will further aggravate the situation.”
Prime Minister Tigran Sargsyan said on Wednesday that the crackdown will start from the government’s tax and customs departmen’s where corrupt practices are believed to be particularly rampant. “All factors feeding corruption lie in the sphere of tax and customs administration,” he said.
Opposition politicians and other government critics dismiss the significance of such statemen’s, saying that corruption is one of the pillars of Armenia’s political system that has allowed Kocharian, Sarkisian and other top officials to stay in power. They also say that law-enforcement agencies and NSS in particular are themselves too corrupt to tackle the problem in earnest.
Many senior law-enforcement officials are reputed to have extensive business interests and/or sponsor businesses enjoying privileged treatment by the government. A deputy chief of the NSS, Grigor Harutiunian, was reportedly sacked by Kocharian last year after it emerged that a banana-importing company controlled by him evaded $2 million in taxes.