A New Armenia: Fighting Corruption
19 December, 2018

When Armenians took to the streets last spring in anti-government protests, ridding the country of corruption and poverty were their top demands. The Velvet Revolution was victorious, leading to a change in power. The newly elected leader, Nikol Pashinyan, declared war on corruption. But how much has changed since the revolution? Hromadske travelled to Armenia’s capital, Yerevan, to examine the situation.

A Town of Corruption

“This is the most expensive house in Armenia,” says journalist Diana Ghazaryan, pointing to a luxurious mansion with a green roof. She leads us to a hill in the center of Yerevan. At one time a city garden stood here. Now the area is full of mansions that belong to the elite. Ordinary Armenians don’t come here. “This is kind of, a town of corruption. All the houses here belong to our officials, that are one way or another connected with the former ruling party, the Republican Party,” she says.

Journalist Diana Ghazaryan, Yerevan, Armenia. Photo: Oleksandr Kokhan/Hromadske

This district has grown over the past decade under the rule of former President Serzh Sargsyan, who was overthrown during the revolution. Now the time has come to deal with the consequences of his presidency. And Ghazaryan is among those keeping on top of corruption investigations. For two years now she has been working with an investigative publication called HETQ, meaning “Trace” in Armenian.

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“I’ve loved everything related to officials since school. My classmates joke that I’d like to count the money of those in power,” Ghazaryan laughs. “But it was just interesting for me. And now I like working with topics related to officials or their families. That’s where all the corruption is. It’s tied to them and their relatives.”

Ghazaryan is currently investigating undeclared houses of former officials. And the place where we stand is a real example of this. “See this house?” Ghazaryan asks. “This is the property of our former Prime Minister, Hovik Abrahamyan. It looks like the building of the Armenian parliament. This is a small copy of it. The difference being that there are big initials on the facade – H. A.”

Yerevan, Armenia. Photo: Oleksandr Kokhan/Hromadske

In the past ten years, corruption in Armenia has reached unbelievable proportions. At least, all Armenians are united in this view – and they associate it primarily with the Republican Party. It was precisely because of corruption that people were so negative about the previous government. And it was corruption that led to the Velvet Revolution.

“We constantly conducted scandalous investigations about those in power, sometimes we had to worry about our own security,” recalls Liana Sayadyan, deputy chief editor of HETQ.

“There were times when we were intimidated, myself included. Emails with threats came all the time – we’ve gotten used to them. One evening, when it was dark – (our chief editor) was leaving the office, and was severely beaten by three people. He ended up in the hospital with serious head injuries,” Sayadyan said.

“The police only found one of the attackers, there was a trial, but nothing came of it: the investigators did not find a motive for the suspect. After that, the editor began his own investigation into the attack on himself and obtained evidence that this guy was connected with the former ecology minister. The day before we published a series of high-profile articles about how he made his riches illegally. Strange coincidence, isn't it?”

However, police simply ignored the publications that concerned the authorities. “I will give you an example,” continued Sayadyan.“In 2010, we published a big investigation about the then Prime Minister being implicated in an offshore scandal. Instead of resigning, he remained at his post for several months, and then he was appointed Armenian ambassador to the United States.”

– Is that demotivating?

“No, I wouldn’t say that. It’s sad – but it doesn’t diminish the enthusiasm. We always believed that one day it would all change. It couldn’t last forever.”

A New Order

Hope for change came in early May this year, when, as a result of the revolution, the previous government was overthrown. The new Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan and his team declared a war on corruption – at all levels. Starting from gas stations and ending with the government. First, the new government forced large supermarkets and retail chains to regularly issue checks to customers. Previously, many people didn’t do this in order to evade paying taxes, and the state budget suffered as a result. “Now everyone gives out checks voluntarily,” says Sayadyan.

Deputy Chief Editor of HETQ Liana Sayadyan, Yerevan, Armenia. Photo: Oleksandr Kokhan/Hromadske

The way the publication worked with the government also changed. “If earlier we could only expect threats from officials, and at best being simply ignored, now officials even turn to us for help with investigating corruption. Over the years, we have accumulated a lot of groundwork, which can now be very useful. However, this does not mean that we are no longer watchdogs. If we have any suspicions about the new government, we will also investigate them,” she says.

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The rest of the work for journalists hasn’t changed. That’s business as usual. However, according to Sayadyan, the changes in society itself, among ordinary Armenians, are palpable. “Citizens and residents have become freer. Previously, when they saw corruption, or someone demanded money from them, they would have kept silent about it. Or quietly handed over a bribe, because everyone did that. Now people are talking about it aloud, they even go to the police with statements.”

There was no vetting of corrupt officials though. Only the management was replaced while the investigators and policemen remained in their positions. However, there were those who left themselves – they weren’t pleased with the new order. These were mainly traffic police officers. Their wages were low so inspectors were often compensated with bribes. Now that this is being monitored, being a traffic officer in Armenia has become unprofitable. Some of them simply quit and went to work as taxi drivers – they can earn more there now.

View of the elite residential area, which was built on the site of a city garden. Yerevan, Armenia, August 20, 2018. Photo: Oleksandr Kokhan/Hromadske

As for the fight against corruption at the higher levels, in recent months a number of high-profile detentions have taken place in Armenia. However, not a single one of them has ended in a trial yet. Much like what happened in Ukraine, some of the suspects were detained and then released.

“Pashinyan, it seems to me, can’t immediately fight all the oligarchs. And doesn’t even want to, because many of them own big businesses that provide jobs and bring money to the budget,” Sayadyan reflects.

“But it seems to me that they were told: from now on you must work honestly. Pay taxes, like you’re expected to. They remained untouched, but it was made clear to them that the rules have now changed.”

One of the most notorious cases during this time is the arrest of the second president, Robert Kocharyan, suspected of quashing a rally in 2008, which killed 10 people and injured several hundred more. The case was not investigated for 10 years. Until now. However, after criticism from the Kremlin (they called it a political vendetta), they released Kocharyan. After that, he declared he had been persecuted and announced that he was returning to big politics.

“For ordinary people, the news was a nightmare!" – says Sayadyan. “When we heard about this, we decided to launch an investigation. Kocharyan had previously insisted that he earned his $4 billion honestly. So we would try to prove to the former president that he is lying. Challenge accepted!"

Turbulent Times

Major changes and decisive steps are expected from the new government in Armenia following the parliamentary elections - when a stable government will be formed. Majority here believe that Pashinyan will be able to finish what he started.

View of the elite residential area, which was built on the site of a city garden. Yerevan, Armenia, August 20, 2018. Photo: Oleksandr Kokhan/Hromadske

However, Armenia is experiencing turbulent times. The system is just beginning to transform, and it is unclear what the final changes will be. There has not yet been a vetting of corrupt officials and new anti-corruption departments have not yet been created either. Whether Pashinyan will succeed in overcoming deep-seated corruption in the long run remains an open question. Ghazaryan hopes that long-term changes will still take place.

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“I don’t know how long it will take the new government to overcome corruption,” she shrugs.

“But I see that they have the will to change the situation and promote anti-corruption projects. Everything is in their hands. They can do whatever they want. They have all the data, all the documents, they know where corruption is.”

She looks at the panorama of Yerevan, which starts at the “town of corruption.”

“But you can’t relax. I think time will tell if their promises have brought results. We will be following this closely,” she says.

/By Ostap Yarysh and Oleksandr Kokhan

/Translated by Natalie Vikhrov