The governors of at least three provinces (marzes), including Ararat, Armavir and Syunik, have caused controversy after an investigative report by Hetq.am revealed they had paid themselves end-of-year bonuses equivalent to more than a month’s salary. The governors reportedly paid bonuses to some of their staff members as well.
According to RFE/RL’s Armenian service, provincial governors (Marzpets) generally receive around 660,000 AMD (1,400 USD) per month. The average monthly wage in Armenia is about $400 per month.
The governors—Garik Sargsyan of Ararat, Hambardzum Matevosyan of Armavir and Hunan Poghosyan of Syunik—have been appointed by Pashinyan and have yet to serve a full year. The governor of Ararat Marz in particular has become an object of media scrutiny. The 31 year-old garnered attention back in 2016 when he became one of the first members of the Civil Contract party to hold elected office as mayor of the Nor Kyank village in Ararat. Back then, Sargsyan made headlines by selling his official car and riding a bike to work in order to save money.
Though there is no legal provision against governors receiving bonuses, this revelation still caused a minor controversy in the National Assembly. The image of governors helping themselves to budgetary funds may have brought back memories of the Republican Party’s inappropriate and infamous spending scandals—a comparison which Civil Contract wishes to avoid at all cost.
Suren Papikian, the newly-appointed Minister responsible for overseeing provincial administrations, appeared to defend the governors’ self-distributed bonuses to the press. He argued that extra incentives were useful because they help reward competent civil servants in local government, especially since state employees in Armenia are notoriously underpaid. Many also believe this type of extra income from legal sources can stave off the temptation of corruption or employment opportunities from the private sector.
Regardless, critics from the opposition benches called these actions “morally wrong,” arguing that lower-level civil servants should have been prioritized when bonuses were awarded. Governing lawmakers agreed that the amount of the payoffs may have been ‘too much’ and promised to look into the mechanisms with which bonuses are allocated. Others raised questions about the low compensation received by civil servants.
This latest controversy follows on the heels of an earlier scandal at the Yerevan municipality. Elders from the Bright Armenia faction have threatened to sue the newly-elected mayor, Hayk Marutyan over his refusal to divulge the names of municipal employees who received 1.2 billion AMD ($2.5 million) in year-end bonuses. The mayor claims he did not personally receive a bonus.
In an interview with Azatutyun radio, Governor Sargsyan apologized for the controversy, claiming that his actions were not illegal. He announced that he, as well as the rest of his staff, would donate a portion of their bonuses to underprivileged families in the province.
On Wednesday, Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, who is currently attending the Davos Forum in Switzerland, defended the governors on Facebook. He explained that he had a lot of trouble finding competent and experienced candidates to accept the governor positions specifically because of the low salary; he said the bonuses act as an extra incentive. “Stretched out over a year, the bonus comes to less than $103 dollars a month—a modest sum,” he argued. The Prime Minister added that the practice has been long established.