Why Anti-Corruption Protests Are Rising In Armenia

While corruption has been a defining characteristic of Armenian politics for decades, the summer 2015 Electric Yerevan protests revealed that Armenians are increasingly willing to participate in anti-corruption demonstrations.
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On July 17, 2016, 12 Armenian anti-government activists raided a police station in Yerevan and took nine police officers hostage. After storming the station, the hostage takers urged the Armenian government to release right-wing opposition leader Jarir Sefilian from prison and called for Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan's immediate resignation.

Even though Sefilian's New Armenia Salvation Front is only a fringe party, many Armenians expressed solidarity with the hostage takers' scathing criticisms of government corruption. While corruption has been a defining characteristic of Armenian politics for decades, the summer 2015 Electric Yerevan protests revealed that Armenians are increasingly willing to participate in anti-corruption demonstrations.

In response to growing outrage with state corruption, Sargsyan granted sweeping powers to a new anti-corruption council in July 2015. However, this council's actions have not assuaged popular concerns. Corruption allegations against members of Sargsyan's inner circle have shaken public confidence in his government. Many Armenians also believe that corruption weakened Armenia's ability to respond to Azerbaijani territorial incursions during the April 2-5 hostilities in Nagorno-Karabakh.

Corruption Allegations Against Sargsyan's Inner Circle

Even though Sargsyan's recent public speeches have emphasized his desire to combat corruption in Armenia, the actions of the president and members of his inner circle have frequently contradicted his anti-corruption rhetoric. In August 2015, the head of Armenia's anti-corruption council, Prime Minister Hovik Abrahamyan, was embarrassed by a Civilnet.am report, which revealed that Abrahamyan had used government funds to pay for numerous high-cost private flights.

Abrahamyan was a questionable choice to head Armenia's anti-corruption council due to his ownership of private companies, gas stations, casinos and vast investment properties, while serving as Prime Minister. The Armenian constitution's conflict of interest clause forbids government officials from signing business deals for personal enrichment while in office. Extensive media coverage of Abrahamyan's flagrant violations of Armenian law caused public confidence in his anti-corruption council to plummet just weeks after its creation.

Sargsyan's anti-corruption campaign was undermined further by the release of the Panama Papers on April 8. The Panama Papers revealed that Major General of Justice Mihran Poghosyan and two of his uncles had created companies in Panama to obtain Armenian government contracts. While Poghosyan has insisted that his offshore business ventures did not violate Armenian law, Armenian human rights activists, like Armine Sahakyan, contend that the Panama Papers revealed a conflict of interest worthy of prosecution.

Sargsyan has responded to public outrage over the Abrahamyan and Poghosyan scandals by selectively punishing corrupt officials. On June 1, Melsik Chiligarian, a senior Armenian general, and two prominent Defense Ministry officials were arrested on corruption charges.

These arrests have not increased the public's trust in Sargsyan. Many Armenians view these arrests as mere token gestures, comparable to the 2011 arrests of Armenia's police chief for embezzlement and late 2014 indictment of a senior Armenian judge for bribery, which shielded more senior officials from prosecution.

Sargsyan's unwillingness to prosecute corrupt members of his inner circle has further entrenched the public's perception that government allies can commit crimes with impunity. This sense of impunity has extended to violent crime. Armenia's Transport Minister Gagik Beglarian resigned as mayor of Yerevan in December 2010 for assaulting an official in the presidential administration's protocol unit.

Beglarian was never prosecuted for this crime. According to Vartan Harutiunian, a prominent human rights activist, Beglarian was promoted to the cabinet because of his ability to coerce blue-collar workers in central Yerevan into supporting Sargsyan during presidential elections.

Beglarian's immunity is not an isolated case. Syunik Governor Suren Khachatryan assaulted a businesswoman in the Marriott Hotel in Yerevan in 2011 and allegedly threatened the wellbeing on an environmental activist earlier this year. Even though these crimes received considerable media attention, Khachatryan was not indicted.

Flagrant double standards in the Armenian legal system have turned public opinion against Sargsyan and increased support for political factions who believe that violence is the only way to confront injustice. Sargsyan's refusal to label Armenian hostage takers as "terrorists" during the latter stages of last month's hostage standoff is a tacit acknowledgement of growing support for violent anti-government activism. This activism poses a serious threat to Sargsyan's hold on power.

Why Armenians View Government Corruption as a Security Threat

While corruption has long been regarded a major impediment to economic development and political liberalization in Armenia, the April 2-5 hostilities in Nagorno-Karabakh caused many Armenians to view corruption as a national security threat for the first time. The Armenian military's use of Soviet-era weaponry during the hostilities contrasted starkly with the Azerbaijani army's technological sophistication.

Even though Sargsyan has insisted that Armenia possesses modern weaponry, Armenian opposition activists have questioned these claims. Probes by Armenian law enforcement authorities into the Armenian military's combat readiness and conduct have further undercut Sargsyan's credibility.

In early June, Colonel Mher Papian, was arrested for his "negligent attitude towards military service." This indictment fuelled allegations from Armenian opposition leaders that Armenia's intelligence services had failed to warn the army of Azerbaijan's military buildup.

The storage, maintenance and repair of weapons have also been placed under greater scrutiny. Anti-corruption watchdogs allege that the Armenian military routinely purchases sub-standard technology at inflated prices to reward government allies.

Opposition activists have also responded derisively to Sargsyan's claims that Armenia's military shortcomings are a product of budgetary constraints. Armenian investigative journalists like Sara Khojoyan have increased public attention to Sargsyan's extravagant expenditures. The Armenian government's authorization of a $45 million construction of a new training center for tax officials, and Sargsyan's purchase of $80,000 utensil set for government functions, have circulated frequently on Armenian social media websites with the hashtag "there is money."

Last month's hostage standoff has helped popularize the belief that state misuse of funds had weakened Armenia's national security. Corruption scandals have also emboldened right-wing Armenian nationalists, who condemn Sargsyan's willingness to make territorial compromises to Azerbaijan.

Over the past year, many Armenians have protested against corruption perpetrated by Sargsyan and his political allies. Last month's hostage crisis was the culmination of years of frustration with Armenia's corrupt political system. If Sargsyan does not punish corrupt officials and reform Armenia's political institutions, anti-government protests and political violence could become an enduring feature of Armenian political life for years to come.

Samuel Ramani is a DPhil candidate in International Relations at St. Antony's College, University of Oxford. He is also a journalist who writes regularly for the Washington Post, Diplomat magazine and Huffington Post. He can be followed on Twitter at samramani2 and on Facebook at Samuel Ramani.

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