Books on Armenia
Update No: 322 - (25/10/07)
The model of Putin
President Robert Kocharian of Armenia keeps a very close eye on what happens in
Russia. He will certainly have noticed that Putin has come up with a new idea of
how to stay in power after he steps down from the presidency next year - to
become prime minister!
Kocharian is also due to end his second and last term next year. He could
perhaps emulate Putin here. It would be a tricky operation to perform because he
is nothing like as popular.
This might be seen to be belied by the fact that the government was re-elected
easily in the May elections.
But it is not. The premier had just died and a sympathy vote for his successor
was natural. He, Serzh Sarkisyan, would be the natural next president. As his
closest crony from their days together running Nagorno-Karabakh, his successor
would faithfully cooperate.
One reason why Kocharian lacks the Putin-style charisma is made clear by the
Kocharian has ignited controversy by dismissing a judge who defied state
prosecutors by setting free two businessmen embroiled in a corruption-related
dispute with the government.
Local lawyers and civil society advocates say the move makes a mockery of the
Kocharian administration's commitment to promote an independent judiciary in
Armenia. They also regard it as an indicator of government tolerance of
Kocharian formally relieved Pargev Ohanian, a district court judge in Yerevan,
of his duties on October 16, citing a recommendation made by the Council of
Justice, a presidentially appointed body overseeing the judicial system. The
council made the recommendation on October 12, following a two-day hearing. The
council convened the hearing after another government body, the Judicial
Department, claimed to have uncovered serious violations of law in Ohanian's
handling of two dozen criminal and civil cases.
The disciplinary proceedings against Ohanian were formally launched on September
4, less than two months after he sensationally acquitted the owner and a senior
executive of the coffee packaging company Royal Armenia. They had been held for
two years on charges of tax evasion and fraud. The arrests came after they
publicly accused senior customs officials of corruption.
"This is a pure coincidence," Justice Minister Gevorg Danielian
insisted on September 24, denying any connection between the Royal Armenia
verdict and Ohanian's dismissal. Danielian and other officials contended that
none of the violations alleged by the Judicial Department related to the Royal
Nonetheless, the judge's sacking is being widely linked with what was apparently
the first-ever court defeat suffered by the National Security Service (NSS), the
Armenian successor to the Soviet KGB and the agency that handled the Royal
Armenia probe. Ohanian himself has made clear his belief that the acquittal cost
him his job. "I think we can say that," he told reporters.
"It was definitely retribution," Tigran Ter-Yesayan, a prominent
lawyer, told EurasiaNet. "I directly link it with Ohanian's ruling on the
Royal Armenia case."
Armenian courts are notorious for their lack of independence, rarely making
decisions going against the government's and prosecutors' wishes. That is seen
as a key reason for the weakness of the rule of law in the country. The Armenian
authorities admit the problem but say they are doing their best to increase
judicial independence. They point to an ongoing structural reform of the
judiciary and, more importantly, the passage in late 2005 of Western-backed
amendments to Armenia's constitution.
One of those amendments relates to the formation of the Council of Justice,
which has the exclusive authority to nominate judges and initiate their removal
by the president of the republic. To date, Kocharian has headed the council and
has appointed all of its members, effectively giving him unrestricted control
over the courts. Under the amended constitution, Armenian judges themselves will
elect nine of the 13 council members by secret ballot. But that will happen only
after the current council members, who were handpicked by Kocharian, complete
their terms in office. That process will take years.
For legal experts and other government critics, Ohanian's sacking is proof that
incumbent authority has no intention of relaxing its grip over the judiciary.
The pro-opposition daily Haykakan Zhamanak called the development a "deadly
blow" to judicial independence. Ter-Yesayan, whose non-governmental
organization, Forum, helps Armenians file lawsuits at the European Court of
Human Rights, agreed. "They want to make sure that the judicial system is
not independent," he said. "Any positive precedent [of judicial
independence] is dangerous for them."
Ohanian, for his part, predicted that his colleagues will now be even more
careful not to challenge the government. "My dismissal will have very
negative consequences for the judicial system, which is already in a bad shape,
both in terms of the audacity of judges and their enforcement of law," he
But Hovannes Manukian, chairman of Armenia's highest Court of Cassation who also
presides over Council of Justice meetings, claimed the opposite. "I don't
think this is the kind of decision that will affect the judicial system,"
he told journalists.
Ohanian's fate and the Royal Armenia case raise fresh questions about the
sincerity of government pledges to combat corruption. In the months leading up
to their October 2005 arrest, Gagik Hakobian, the embattled coffee company's
main shareholder, and its deputy director, Aram Ghazarian, repeatedly and
publicly alleged that Royal Armenia was being illegally penalized by the State
Customs Committee (SCC) for its refusal to engage in a fraud scam with senior
customs officials. The SCC is reputed to be one of the country's most corrupt
agencies and is a major source of complaints from local entrepreneurs. Royal
Armenia was the first company to go public with such complaints.
The SCC, which is headed by a close confidante of Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian,
flatly denied the corruption allegations before having the NSS open a criminal
case against Hakobian and Ghazarian. The two men went on trial in late 2006 on
what they characterized as trumped-up charges of evading $3 million in taxes and
defrauding a US businessman of Armenian descent. They were cleared of the
accusations and walked free in the courtroom on July 16. Kocharian reportedly
expressed outrage at their unexpected acquittal during a meeting with senior
judges held several days later.
Not surprisingly, trial prosecutors were quick to challenge Ohanian's verdict at
the Court of Appeals. In mid-September, the court issued an arrest warrant for
Hakobian, citing his failure to attend its first hearings on the case and
ignoring his assurances that he is undergoing medical treatment in Spain and
will soon return to Armenia. In what his supporters view as an act of civic
courage, the businessman flew back to Yerevan on October 3 to be again arrested
by police and face the possibility of a 12-year imprisonment sought by
"The whole thing shows that corruption has an institutionalized character
in Armenia," Varuzhan Hoktanian, deputy chairman of the Armenian affiliate
of the international anti-graft group Transparency International, told
EurasiaNet. "The authorities are not only doing little to tackle
corruption, but are punishing people who really fight against it."