Monday, August 09, 2004

Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty
6 August 2004

Corruption Monitoring Body Holds First Meeting
By Hrach Melkumian

An ad hoc commission tasked with monitoring the Armenian government's declared fight against corruption met in Yerevan on Friday for the first time to map out its activities already dismissed as mere window-dressing by the opposition.

The monitoring commission is part of the Council on Combating Corruption, a high-level body coordinating and overseeing the implementation of the government's anti-graft strategy drawn up late last year. The commission is headed by an adviser to President Robert Kocharian, Bagrat Yesayan, and comprises the leaders of the Armenian parliament's pro-presidential factions, government officials and representatives of several non-governmental organizations.

Members of the parliament's opposition minority were also asked to join it last month, but turned down the offer, describing the government effort as a "farce." Opposition leaders said the authorities are themselves sponsoring corrupt practices and will never tackle them in earnest.

One of the non-governmental members of the monitoring commission, Edik Baghdasarian of the Armenian Association of Investigative Journalists, also sounded skeptical. "The most trendy phrase in Armenia now is the fight against corruption," he told RFE/RL after the meeting. "You can hear it from everyone: deputies, government officials, journalists, non-governmental organizations. But nothing real has so far been done in any sphere, even though the media have publicized many facts."

Baghdasarian and other reporters working for his association's Hetq-online publication have extensively covered the controversial sale and lease of public land in Yerevan for commercial development. The decisions taken by the Yerevan municipality in recent years have resulted in a dramatic shrinkage of the city's green areas now occupied by open-air cafes. Many of them are owned by senior government, law-enforcement and military officials or their relatives.

Hetq reports have said the land distribution has often violated laws and zoning regulations, suggesting that bribery and favoritism were its driving force. The Association of Investigative Journalists is currently locked in a court battle with the Mayor Yervand Zakharian's office over the latter's refusal last year to make available copies of all mayoral decisions regarding land allocations in the public park surrounding the city's Opera House. The association's lawsuit against the municipality was turned down by a Yerevan court of first instance in June and it is now contesting the ruling in a higher court.

Baghdasarian said he will ask the monitoring commission at its next meeting in September to investigate Zakharian's decision last December to sell large chunks of municipal land just before raising its price. "I have calculated that the state suffered millions of dollars worth of losses as a result," he said. "If nothing is done about it, I will definitely thank them and say that I have nothing to do in the commission."

Yesayan, meanwhile, assured reporters that his commission is able to make a difference by studying the problem and pressing government agencies to comply with anti-corruption measures.

The council to which the commission is subordinated is personally headed by Prime Minister Andranik Markarian. Among its members are several government ministers.

The success of the council's stated mission was called into question last June by a senior representative of the Berlin-based watchdog Transparency International. He said the body is likely to be ineffectual because it is not independent.

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