Looking for justice in Armenia: A plea to hold the corrupt accountable7 min read

After the so-called Velvet Revolution in Armenia in Spring 2018, the country in the South Caucasus has become the rising star of hope for the feasibility of profound and non-violent democratic change from below. Under enormous public pressure, former Prime Minister Serzh Sargsyan, who had been dominating the Armenian political scene as its ruler since 2008, resigned voluntarily and Nikol Pashinyan, the charismatic leader of the revolution, succeeded the office. Peaceful transition – check. But the recent political change brings at least one fundamental challenge for the new administration: How can the new regime deal with the flawed and corrupt system that flourished under Sargsyan’s rule?

The euphoria in Armenia at the moment isn’t just over the promising CV and profile of Pashinyan, who for years as a journalist uncovered large-scale corruption on all political levels in Armenia; it is also because of the newly-elected government’s many promising assurances to end corruption and secure basic human rights for all Armenian citizens. These include both civic and political rights, such as freedom of expression and the right to fair and public hearings, as well as social and economic promises, such as the right to functioning health care and education systems.

According to the 2017 human rights report by the US State Department, corruption was widespread on all societal, political, judicial and economic levels in Armenia while the Corruption Perception Index has consistently placed Armenia in the bottom third, between 107-110 out of 180 countries. Top level examples of the government’s misconduct in recent years include company executives and oligarchs occupying seats in the National Assembly, despite the fact that Article 95 of the Armenian Constitution prohibits individuals engaged in “entrepreneurial activity” from holding public office. In the health care sector, subsidized medicine has been provided to patients through a system of bribery, while in education, money allocated for schools was often pocketed by principals, many of whom unqualified for their jobs, and conspicuously affiliated with the former ruling party, the Republican Party of Armenia. In the justice system, Armenia’s Soviet-style judiciary primarily served the interests of the executive branch rather than the citizens, and failed to guarantee the accused a fair and public trial.

Pashinyan and his revolutionary administration don’t just want to change course: they want justice as well.

Getting the meaning of transitional justice right

In late 2018, Pashinyan announced that “The most important thing for us is to be able to objectively assess how much money has been robbed and how much money must be returned.”

In analytical terms, he seem to be describing transitional justice. Transitional justice is a means of “dealing with the wrongs committed in the past in a constructive way that helps change society by improving it. It is about keeping an eye on the future and the past at the same time,” according to William A. Schabas, Professor of International Law at Middlesex University in London. It is focused on revealing past human rights violations, prosecuting the former officials that committed these violations, providing reconciliation for the victims, and reforming the institutions that were involved in unjust procedures. The truth aspect involves the formation of so-called truth commissions which have the task to reveal past wrongdoings, usually set up by a government (e.g. Chile, South Africa) or by international actors (e.g. Yugoslavia, Rwanda). Pashinyan himself mentioned that transitional justice would have to include the public as it “puts a demand before us to be more effective in the anti-corruption fight”. Professor Nadia Bernaz, Associate Professor of Law at Wageningen University, suggests that the formation of truth commissions in Armenia should include corporations, businesses and the private sector that were involved in corruption crimes and illegal confiscation of property.

Purges of former officials and reconciliation for the people

Pashinyan has again and again brought up his willingness to prosecute and imprison former corrupt officials. He first made good on his promise in June, 2018, when Manvel Grigoryan, a Lieutenant General in the armed forces and former Member of Parliament, was arrested, and a raid of his house allegedly turned up sports cars, tigers caged in a private zoo, and food rations intended for soldiers serving in the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh.

Apart from prosecution, there is also the possibility to rather choose the option of amnesty, a form of forgiveness as a long-term option. Once officials returned the money to the state, the state would abstain from imprisonment. It will have to be observed which methods will finally be chosen in the Armenian case. A large scale amnesty however would lead to a failure of holding officials accountable for their deeds. Armenia has ratified the United Nations Convention Against Corruption (UNCAC) and therefore is obliged to “make asset recovery a fundamental principle”.

When speaking about the violation of political rights, the imprisonment of former President Robert Kocharyan has to be mentioned as a first success of transitional justice measures. He is strongly connected to the March 1st presidential election protests in 2008 and one of the bloodiest chapters of Armenia’s post-Soviet history. After the opposition demonstrated against electoral fraud, he ordered security forces to break up the protest rallies. This led to the death of eight demonstrators and two police officers. A trial of Kocharyan could dissolve traumatic experiences of thousands of protesters, strengthen the right of peaceful protest and assembly and on the long-term lead to reconciliation.

Economic reconciliation would refer to redemption of social and economic abuses. In this case, it can be said that not certain individuals, but the society as a whole was a victim. Consequently, instead of paying reparations to single persons, it would be a better solution to increase the quality of public social services in the education and health sector and to give citizens broadened access to it.

Future challenges ahead

If and how transitional justice is to be implemented in Armenia is unclear. The new Deputy Prime Minister Ararat Mirzoyan said that “Only after in-depth comprehensive studies the government will decide on this issue”. A failure to carry out justice would undermine the legitimacy of the current government in the short term, and could, in the long term, endanger the very newborn political culture built on the rule of law that the new administration aspires to build.

But transitional justice can go wrong. William A. Schabas emphasises the importance of the right to a fair trial, no matter how unpopular the ousted politicians might be. A new political culture based on quick, sloppy trials would be not merely a contradiction, but a violation of human rights.

Transitional justice also demands institutional reforms. In Armenia, where the judiciary is still subordinate to the elites, reforms ought to begin in courts, where bribery and corruption are major issues. But, because most judges have hardly ever ruled against the elites, they both lack the legal experience that an independent judiciary demands and “have a healthy number of the proverbial skeletons in their closets”. Transparency and neutrality, especially with the aid of international observers, are essential to avoid further corruption..

Understanding Armenia’s uniqueness and start implementing change

The Armenian case of transitional justice is a very specific one and in contrast to prominent cases like Yugoslavia, Rwanda or South Africa is not about reconciliation of physical abuses and mass violence. It is about fixing a past that was based on repressive economic and unjust court procedures that led to individual weakness against a state machine that refused to grant basic rights to its citizens. It is necessary to continue working on socio-economic transitional justice and to get rid of a hierarchy of human rights that regards political rights as more important than social and economic ones. Time could work against the Armenian government, but much more important against an empowered and optimist population that has hope in the advantages of a fair and democratic model of society.

Veronika Pfeilschifter is a CEERE student, at the University of Glasgow. She holds a B.A. in Political Science and European Ethnology from the University of Regensburg, Germany and from Jagiellonian University, Poland. Besides that, she has a background in human rights and international law from Bard College, USA. She is interested in human rights and foreign and security policy in the post-Soviet space, particularly in Russia and the South Caucasus. Hopefully, one day, she will have travelled all of Georgia and Armenia.