Foreign Policy Blogs

The Achilles Heel

Corruption in the police force is commonplace in countries with high levels of petty bribery. In Georgia, the solution was to fire the entire traffic police force and rehire through objective procedures. In neighboring Armenia – where the government is either more gradualist or less committed, depending on your viewpoint – the Achilles project is filling the gap.

The Achilles Center for Protection of Drivers’ Rights is a nonprofit organization dedicated to ending corruption related to the traffic law. To this end, the organization operates a phone line that drivers can call when stopped by police in order to clarify their rights and seek advice. Some common corrupt activities the group has cited are removal of license plates, confiscation of driver’s licenses, and impounding of vehicles, all illegally perpetrated by police.

Anecdotes of Achilles’ successes were relayed to me recently by an Armenian anti-corruption researcher. One example was a man stopped for no discernible reason and asked to pay a bribe. He called Achilles, who requested that the man pass the cell phone to the policeman. When the policeman got on the line, the Achilles representative lambasted him first for taking the driver’s phone, an action that could warrant disciplinary action in and of itself, and then for requesting a bribe. The driver was ultimately allowed to go without payment.

To anyone who can’t imagine being cornered into paying a bribe, it would seem that such a service should have phones ringing off the hook. But in early 2009 Achilles reported an average of just 8 or 9 calls per day. This could indicate lack of awareness of the service, or a low incidence of corrupt police. Or it could be a sign that Armenians would rather pay a bribe and move on with their lives than try to combat a system they believe is unlikely to change.

Such complacency may be the real Achilles heal. The Achilles organization has made a genuine dent in corruption, bringing successful lawsuits against police to court and advocating for new legislation. The Armenian people should meet them halfway and realize that it is in fact possible for their lives to change for the better.