YEREVAN -- The Armenian nongovernmental organization Educated Generation is registered at a nondescript street in downtown Yerevan. But if you show up at the address you find an empty apartment.
And if you ask the neighbors about Educated Generation, you’ll likely be met with a shrug of the shoulders. One local resident said he had "never heard of them before."
Just a few doors down on the same street, the story is the same. A self-proclaimed human rights group called Arbanyak (Satellite) and a health-care NGO called Country of Youth are both registered at one address. But the offices are empty and the building manager told RFE/RL’s Armenian Service that she’d never heard of either organization and that the building was actually "a rental house for foreign guests."
What these organizations have in common, besides mystery, is that they are among 31 Armenian NGOs that received government grants in the period 2010-12 worth a total of $1.2 million, according to information that the Yerevan Center for Freedom of Information has obtained from the Armenian Finance Ministry.
None of the organizations on the list, however, has actually played a significant role in Armenian civil society.
The data also shows that many of the organizations were founded and registered with the Justice Ministry just weeks before receiving their grants.
Staying In The Shadows
Shushan Doydoyan, director of the Center for Freedom of Information, told RFE/RL that her center has been trying in vain to find out more about these organizations and their activity.
“This [lack of information] is surprising because these days any organization is interested in telling as many people as possible about their activities," she said. "But these NGOs are trying to stay in the shadows.”
An NGO called Development and Integration got the most state money – six grants worth a total of $183,000. According to the Justice Ministry, one of its founders is pro-government lawmaker Levon Martirosian, who worked as an assistant to President Serzh Sarkisian until he was elected to parliament in 2012.
According to Development and Integration’s website, the organization is primarily used to channel government grant money to other civil-society organizations. The ultimate grant recipients are not identified.
Most of the other NGOs on the list from the Finance Ministry also arouse suspicion. Six of them list a man named Suren Barseghian among their founders. It has not been possible to contact any of them or find more information about Barseghian.
“It is unclear how newly established NGOs were getting such state funding so quickly," says Levon Barseghian (no relation), a veteran democracy activist who heads the Asparez Journalists Club in Gyumri. "There is no public awareness of their activities."
Armenia’s best-known NGOs typically rely on Western governments and foreign foundations for their funding.
The Armenian government grants were overseen by a "monitoring group" comprising presidential administration officials and representatives of "partner organizations," according to a written statement sent to RFE/RL by Sarkisian’s press spokesman, Arman Saghatelian.
Saghatelian did not identify the "partner organizations" but said the same group monitored the use of the grants. However, the website of Development and Integration -- one of the shadowy NGOs mentioned above -- describes itself as a "partner organization" of the presidential administration.
Saghatelian added that the group is now looking into ways of making state aid to civil society more "program-based and development-oriented."
Boris Navasardian is the chairman of the Yerevan Press Club. He sees the mysterious grants as part of the general opacity of state finances.
“We know how state tenders are handled," he said. "Grants are distributed the same way. We want civil society’s activities to be as transparent as possible."
On Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index 2012, Armenia ranks 105th among 176 countries, just behind Gabon, Tanzania, and Algeria.
RFE/RL correspondent Robert Coalson contributed to this report from Prague