Law Enforcement and Adjudication
The Ministry of Environmental Protection is the principal agency to uphold environmental law in RA. For several reasons, it largely fails to do so. First, the ministry is woefully understaffed. As it ranks at the bottom of the ministerial hierarchy, it does not receive the financial means to fulfil its protective role. Budget cuts and political considerations have led to the elimination of several oversight committees in the ministry. For instance, in 2005, the Geology Department’s Scientific Council was eliminated. This council was critical in issuing permits for the exploitation of new mines. Regular bureaucrats in the ministry with no scientific training now issue these permits, putting the companies in an advantageous position. The ministry also dissolved a government committee that conducted independent EIAs. In short, the ministry rid itself of the expertise to conduct independent assessments about the environmental harms of proposed mining projects. The ministry is therefore essentially condemned to rubber stamp the EIAs that were conducted by the mining industry such as by the Lernametalurgiai Institute (Ayvazyan and Barker 2013, interviews; Sanasaryan 2008).
Moreover, with the low priority that the RA government ascribes to environmental protection, the Ministry of Environmental Protection is under constant pressure from the presidential apparatus and other ministries to turn a blind eye on environmental issues. As a general rule, the greater the oligarchic influence, the less environmental enforcement there appears to be (Aghalaryan, Barker, Zarafian & Anonymous Representative of International Organization 2013, interviews). Moreover, as the case of the former Minister ofEnvironmental Protection Vartan Ayvazian demonstrates, corruption reaches even the highest levels of the RA government.
Ayvazian revoked a mining license given to a foreign company after the company refused to pay a multi-million dollar bribe to the minister (Hoktanyan 2012). For a bribe or a well-hidden stake in a mining company that is registered offshore, fines and fees are waived or significantly reduced, forest areas are simply declared non-forest areas (in which case mining becomes permissible), and scientific evidence of pollution is ignored (Ayvazyan 2013 interview). For instance, if fish stocks are depleted due to pollution, the ministry calculates the compensation for local villagers based on the market value of the dead fish. It does not consider the long-term costs of severely depleted fish stocks or the costs to the environment that cannot be calculated according to market prices such as the destruction of microorganisms (Anonymous Representative of International Organization 2013 interview).
To assume that courts could hold mining industries and government officials accountable is equally unrealistic. Villagers most affected by mining operations are generally too afraid to go to court. They might lose their jobs and the level of physical intimidation through local thugs is high. Moreover, with their livelihood destroyed due to the pollution of agricultural land, the only way to survive is to take one of the few jobs that mines offer.
Environmental NGOs based in Yerevan have been more willing to take legal action against the mining corporations. However, in violation of international obligations and in contradiction to a ruling by RA’s Constitutional Court, lawsuits brought forward by NGOs were thrown out on the grounds that the NGOs’ interests were not at stake in these mining operations. Only people directly affected by these operations are legally entitled to take legal action (Amirkhanian n.d.). While it is not clear if illicit payments facilitated these rulings, it would not be surprising. Armenian judges are notorious for taking bribes. Moreover, a remnant of Soviet times still exists, called “telephone justice.” It describes the practice of top government officials calling judges to tell them how to rule in cases that affected their political and/or economic interests. Phone calls were used to leave no written traces. The independence of the RA court system is therefore a sham (Aghalaryan 2013 interview; Stefes 2006).