Covering Up Potholes Doesn’t Fix Corruption

The Moscow Times
Thursday, Mar. 11, 2004. Page 13

Covering Up Potholes Doesn’t Fix Corruption

By Kim Iskyan

Corrupt activities in the developing world — government ministers
controlling local industry cash cows, traffic cops shaking down random
motorists for a buck or two, tax inspectors squeezing small businesses until
they bleed — tend to be homegrown.

But abuse of power in Armenia is often exacerbated by the misguided and
naive efforts of foreign do-gooders, including wealthy outsiders with a few
teaspoons of Armenian blood.

Take the Lincy Foundation. Back in June 2000, Armenian President Robert
Kocharyan lobbied Las Vegas billionaire Kirk Kerkorian, who is of Armenian
descent, for handouts.

Tell us what you want, Kerkorian’s Lincy Foundation said, as the candy
cupboard door swung open.

Three years and $165 million later downtown Yerevan has spanking new
sidewalks, bigger highways and fewer potholes. There’s better tourism
infrastructure, and people hit by a 1988 earthquake now have a permanent
roof over their heads.

One of the greatest beneficiaries was Kocharyan, who was happy to take
credit for the improvements during his re-election campaign last year.

Never mind that the money spent amounted to more than twice the total annual
health care budget for 2003. Fresh blacktop is nice, but so are doctors and

And many of the new roads were riddled with potholes in under a year, thanks
to shoddy workmanship by contractors handpicked by the government.

While the Lincy Foundation certainly helped the economy in the short term,
it missed a golden opportunity to try to bring about sustainable, long-term
growth by investing in the country’s economy.

Often, foreign investors in Armenia — usually diaspora Armenians — let
their feelings overrule business sense. They buy into ideas, sometimes sold
to them by selfish and arrogant government bureaucrats, that wouldn’t
warrant a moment’s consideration back home.

Other times, diaspora investors cut sweetheart deals with the government,
thereby destructively promulgating the culture of corruption. Instead of
being a force for change, they sometimes wind up propagating the same old
corrupt system.

Yes, it could be worse. Transparency International ranked Armenia 78th out
of 133 countries surveyed in its Corruption Perceptions Index. This compares
with, say, Russia (86th), or Azerbaijan and Georgia (tied at 124th).

But comparing yourself with some of the ugliest kids on the block doesn’t
make you pretty. And it could be so much better, if only the do-gooders
looked in the mirror once in a while.

Kim Iskyan, a freelance journalist and consultant based in Yerevan, Armenia,
contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.