Scepticism Over Police Graft Charges

Officials say arrests show they are serious about tackling corruption, although opposition figures are not so sure.
onflict within government rather than a genuine effort to stamp out corruption.

After a month-long investigation, Margar Ohanyan, head of the traffic police, and Stepan Karakhanyan, a battalion commander in the service, were charged with stealing petrol and selling it for profit. They face two to eight years in prison if convicted.

The case centres on the alleged misappropriation of petrol assigned for police vehicles. Prosecutors allege that out of 276 tons of fuel supplied between January and August this year, only 120 tons were actually issued to the force. The rest was allegedly sold off, netting a profit of more than 150,000 US dollars.

Varujan Hoktanyan, who heads the Armenian office of the anti-corruption group Transparency International, said the arrests suggested the classic pyramid-shaped system, in which “lower-level officials are detained, and officials higher up should be detained later”.

Hoktanyan said it would take more than just two arrests to rid the country of corruption, which his organisation classes as “systemic” in Armenia.

The arrests set off a wave of speculation about possible links to more senior officials. This led Alik Sargsyan, who heads the police force, denied any connection to the case.

“I have not conducted business with Margar Ohanyan – not ever. I don’t know who invented this or who’s benefiting from it,” he said.

He insisted the arrests were part of a “fight against corruption”.

“It isn’t news that we’ve launched a war on corruption - the president issued a call for this long ago,” he said. “If it comes to it, I will not protect a friend or relative. Let them behave properly. Involvement in this [corruption] is a crime in this country.”

On August 25, President Serzh Sargsyan said the state must punish corrupt officials. He said there were two sets of issues – the investigation of crimes, and the judicial process, adding, “We have problems with both these issues, and we will not tolerate these problems any more.”

Many observers have yet to be convinced that other cases will follow.

“Given the presumption of innocence, I cannot say whether the authorities are merely pretending to combat corruption or not. This could, of course, be the first step in the fight against corruption, but let’s see what happens next,” Hoktanyan said.

Avetik Iskhanyan of the Helsinki Committee of Armenia expressed similar doubts.

“I’m not convinced, because any fight against corruption should be broader. Of course this will be construed as an example of the fight against bribe-taking, but in reality it’s a fight between different groups within the state,” he said.

That was also the line taken by opposition groups such as the Heritage party.

“I am doubtful that the government has launched a war on corruption. It’s more likely that they are resolving their own internal issues and that they decided to punish individuals who weren’t obeying the internal rules,” Stepan Safaryan, who leads the Heritage faction in parliament, said. “The system is corrupt from top to bottom.”

At the same time, Safaryan said, “If this really is a message about the fight against corruption, then it’s a good thing.”
Gayane Mkrtchyan is a journalist with Armenianow.