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Armenia's Anticorruption Wave Swells 


A screen-grab of Vachagan Ghazarian, a former bodyguard of Armenian ex-Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian who was arrested after being stopped exiting a Yerevan bank on June 25 with more than $1 million in cash.

Palatial homes, luxury cars, expensive watches. All would seem beyond the means of a public servant, especially in Armenia, one of the poorest countries in the Caucasus.

But activists there say they've uncovered evidence that indicates Taron Markarian, the mayor of the capital, Yerevan, has been living for years well beyond his office.

The activists from First AntiCorruption Television, or FACT TV for short, released an explosive video on June 24 complete with drone footage of the real estate in question, sparking an outcry in this country of nearly 3 million.

The outrage spilled over to the mayor's office, where protesters showed up on June 25.

"We have blocked entry to what we consider to be a crime scene, so that the relevant bodies start dealing with the case and make sure nothing is covered up inside," 25-year-old student and activist Mikayel Nazarian told RFE/RL's Armenian Service.

"Our demand is that Taron Markarian be held accountable for his actions. And one of the consequences of being held accountable for his deeds is naturally his resignation as mayor," Nazarian said.

High Public Support

Armenia is still reeling from the biggest protests in the country's post-Soviet history. In April, people took to the streets en masse after parliament elected Serzh Sarkisian to become prime minister, just days after he had completed his second term as president. The protests, fueled by public anger over high-level graft and the perception that Sarkisian's election was a power grab, led to his resignation after a week in office.

Opposition lawmaker and protest leader Nikol Pashinian was elected prime minister by parliament on May 8, capping a meteoric rise from relative anonymity to the top post in the government.

Armenia's new Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian speaks to reporters shortly after taking office in May 2018.
Armenia's new Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian speaks to reporters shortly after taking office in May 2018.

Armed with a strong public mandate to tackle corruption and crime, Pashinian's government has carried out a series of raids and arrests across the country, targeting mostly members of the former ruling Republican Party but alleged organized-crime figures as well.

In by far the most high-profile case, a retired general and current lawmaker with the Republican Party was arrested on embezzlement and weapons charges after a raid of his resplendent residence turned up sports cars, tigers caged in a private zoo, and food rations sent by Armenian schoolchildren to Armenian soldiers fighting in the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh.

When public TV broadcast footage of the June 16 raid by masked security service agents on Manvel Grigorian's estate, jaws dropped across Armenia, further cementing support for Pashinian and his antigraft drive.

Guns, Cars, And A Tiger: Raid Rocks Armenia
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Despite the public backing, however, Pashinian faces an uphill struggle, argues longtime U.S. diplomat Matthew Bryza, a former U.S. ambassador to Azerbaijan and deputy and former co-chair of the Minsk Group of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which is tasked with negotiating a resolution between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh.

"Rocking the political boat and challenging the existing elite structure in Armenia can be extremely bad for a leader's health, but Pashinian is doing it anyway," Bryza explained in an interview with RFE/RL, noting that the 1999 assassination of Prime Minister Vazgen Sargsian and seven other lawmakers during a question-and-answer session in parliament highlights just how high-stakes politics can be in Armenia.

Bryza said it appeared that Pashinian was "making the first steps potentially toward a systemic change," but was not optimistic. "There's no precedent for success in this struggle in Armenia," he said.

Like Yerevan Mayor Markarian, other public officials find themselves facing calls to step down.

At a June 26 protest in Metsamor, site of Armenia's sole nuclear power plant, participants accused Mayor Robert Grigorian of failing to tackle the city's problems during his decade in office, complaining about the miserable state of roads, shuttered culture centers, and a dearth of playgrounds.

Elsewhere, several mayors recently tendered their resignations, including in Armavir, Hrazdan, and Echmiadzin. In all cases, the mayors in question had served at least 10 years in their post and were either members of or affiliated with the former ruling Republican Party.

'Gangsters And Guns'

Karen Grigorian, the mayor of Echmiadzin, also the home to the Mother See of the Armenian Apostolic Church, stepped down on June 17 a day after his father, Manvel Grigorian, was arrested.

The elder Grigorian, along with his son, had been the eminence grise in Echmiadzin, treating it like his personal fiefdom, according to Aleksei Romanov, a popular blogger focusing on Armenia.

"Grigorian is a deputy in parliament, he is a former general, he is the 'ruler' of one of Armenia's smallest cities. He's a person who had taken control of the city and everyone there is subservient to him. He's the ruler there informally, his son is the mayor of the city. It's like something from a movie about how they lived in America during the Great Depression with gangsters and guns," Romanov said in the YouTube video posted on the Newsader channel.

Retired General Manvel Grigorian (file photo)
Retired General Manvel Grigorian (file photo)

​Grigorian has denied any wrongdoing and vowed to clear his name. On June 19, Armenian lawmakers voted to strip Grigorian of immunity, paving the way for the criminal case against him to proceed.

For now, Mayor Markarian and other public officials and former insiders outside Yerevan have attracted the spotlight.

Amid growing calls to step down, Markarian on June 27 denied reports that he had decided to resign.

The pressure on Markarian, a senior member of the Republican Party, increased two weeks ago when the National Security Service searched the offices of a municipal fund supervised by the 40-year-old mayor.

Yerevan Mayor Taron Markarian (file photo)
Yerevan Mayor Taron Markarian (file photo)

The Yerevan Fund's executive director and another municipal official were detained on suspicion of extorting hefty payments for the charity from individuals seeking construction permits from the mayor's office.

Others with ties to the old guard, such as Sarkisian's former body guard, have been caught up in the anticorruption wave.

Vachagan Ghazarian was stopped on June 25 as he exited a Yerevan bank with more than $1 million in cash. He was arrested on charges of "illegal enrichment," and on June 28 a Yerevan court ordered him held in pretrial detention for two months.

Can Pashinian Succeed?

Whether Pashinian stands a chance of rooting out corruption in Armenia hinges on carrying out deeper reforms, argues Varuzhan Holtanian, the project director at the Armenian branch of Transparency International.

"After the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, I witnessed that the system had changed. It was another revolution. It was a communist country, it became a capitalist country. Very serious changes occurred, but it went in the wrong direction," Hoktanian said.

"Those who were in power who did this revolution, quickly they transformed into very corrupt officials. Because the system that was created at that time, there were many negative, vicious features of the former Soviet system with its nepotism, protectionism, bribery, which was total in Soviet times. That continued and new forms of corruption appeared."

Written by Tony Wesolowsky based on reporting by RFE/RL's Armenian Service.
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