I refused the Post because I had never had Inferiors: First Minister of Justice of the RA

Declaration of Independence was the first legal document of the newly independent Armenia. The laws and regulations were inherited from the Soviet Union and did not issue from the values that the Independent Armenia had accepted. Mr. Vahe  Stepanyan, the First Minister of Justice of the RA who held this post in the period of 1991-1996, in the interview with told about the objectives that the Ministry of Justice was suggested, and how they were solved. The interview with the Doctor of Law, Professor Vahe Stepanyan was held in the framework of the project “RA Ministers of Justice”

– Mr. Stepanyan, do you remember how you were assigned to the position of the RA Minister of Justice? Was it easy to undertake such responsibility, especially in those difficult days?

– You know, I did not agree to undertake the position for a long time, just considering that responsibility, and always brought the argument that I had never had inferiors before and undertaking the position of the minister may be beyond my abilities.

– And what were you doing before being appointed a minister?

– Before that I was involved in science. I was a postgraduate student at the Moscow National Research Institute of the Ministry Justice. Then I worked at the Institute of Philosophy and Law as a junior, senior and leading scientific specialist. And suddenly I was proposed the Minister’s position

– What were the problems that the Ministry of Justice was suggested to solve then?

– The Ministry which was in the Justice system of the Soviet Union should become an independent ministry. Ant the most complicated problem was assisting the establishment of the new legislation starting from the constitutional level till the laws and Governmental decrees. In other words, this was a period when the foundations were changing.

– To what Extent was the Problem solved?

– We both succeeded and failed. Of course, it was a very difficult problem and there should be omissions in the process of solution and failures as well. I remember that in the United States, I asked a Nobel Prize-winning economist, who could help us, and especially in the issue of rapid privatization process and especially of land privatization. I told him that we had done, but we made mistakes. He said that no one could help. We have to try, make mistakes, correct them and go forward, because never before such a widespread privatization process had taken place.

– What mistakes are you speaking about?

– Well, for example, much attention has been paid to issues of privatization of land; but agricultural, livestock and other issues were left aside and some certain problems rose.

– I often hear from the older generation that the judiciary system was not developed during the first years of independence and it was easier to come to unjust solutions. What can you say about this?

– You know, I do not quite agree. On the one hand we were a country at war; on the other hand by 1995 our judicial system had remained the same Soviet judiciary system. We had the first instance, the so-called people’s courts and the Supreme Court; in fact we had two instances. And under these conditions, of course, level of independence of the courts was very low. Judicial reforms were made by the 1995 Constitution, the first instance court, the court of appeals; the cassation court and the Supreme Court were created. And these changes were made with considerable difficulties. As a justice minister, I considered that the system needs to be change as soon as possible. The chairman of the Supreme Court and the Prosecutor General thought that the system was working normally and should remain. And the whole process was carried out under such internal contradictions. But saying that there was an atmosphere of impunity and it was possible to kill anyone you want of course is absurd.

– And what are the problems that the Ministry of Justice faces currently, and whether the operation of the Ministry of Justice continued in the normal course?

– Actually the authorities have changed. For example the formerly the compulsory enforcement system was under the Ministry of Internal Affairs, currently it is in the structure of the Ministry of Justice. Changes were also made in relation with the judicial system. At the time the Ministry had close contacts with the judiciary; the minister was the deputy chairman of the Council of Justice and had a notable influence. Currently there is no such influence and it has its positive as well as negative aspects. If you subject the entity to 2 different bodies, then it became independent from them both to some extent. If you place it under one pyramid it may decrease the independence of that entity. It seems that if we take it out from the influence of the government, then it ensures the independence of the judiciary, however this problem shall be solved within the pyramid as well.

– Currently the Concept of Constitutional Changes foresees transition to a two-tier judiciary system. You seem to be against this change.

– If there are three functions, it should be a three-tier judicial system. Two different functions cannot be put into one instance. There is a first instance trial, appeal, and then cassation, therefore, it should be a three tier.
Yes, I am against it, but we still have a concept, and how exactly this concept will be formed into a project, we shall still see. The concept is a level of good wishes. And even the road to hell is paved with good wishes. Once I see the text and if understand what is intended to be more specific, I will speak more specifically.

– The form of government is being changed by the same concept; there will be transition to Parliamentary governance.

– You know, theoretically parliamentary government is the most democratic: a monarchy or a republic. I am for the parliamentary monarchy rather than to the republic. For example in Europe you see how many countries have retained the monarchy.
If we shall have an electoral system, which can provide a stable majority in parliament, it is likely that they will succeed and it will be right. I assume that after that the Electoral Code should be changed.
If there is no stable majority in parliament, then the country’s stability is impaired. An example is given in post-war Italy when the government changed; the government crisis was becoming a parliamentary crisis. But there is a bright example of France, which passed to the semi presidential system. They realized that the parliamentary management of the post-war period shall not work properly.

–  But we can say that Armenia is not in the post war state but rather is a country at war.

– That’s why I say that not only the politicians should assess, but also the political scientists, sociologists, lawyers, whether we are able to provide a clear majority in parliament. Now we have a parliamentary majority, because of the semi-presidential system that we have. And in case of the semi-presidential system the president is a stabilizer.
The country’s stability is paramount. There are many examples (Greece, Chile), when the country had the level of democracy, but there was no stability. The result was a revolution and radical, totalitarian powers came to power.

– Do you think such a change would be right?

– I do not know, I point out many factors that must be evaluated. If the stable parliamentary majority is to be ensured by the electoral system then the parliamentary management level is more democratic. And if it would not ensure then we shall constantly be appearing in the situation of parliamentary crisis and here there is a real danger.

– Let’s talk about current issues. It is repeatedly stated that serious problem at the core issues in Armenia is the corruption problem.  In your opinion, is enough being done to fight against it.

– Your question is rhetorical. … If the international agencies are assessing the level of corruption is high, it proves that the fight against it is not carried out at the level that it should. I have no reason to disagree with them.

– Several countries that have had some success in combating corruption, have criminalized illicit enrichment. Is it necessary to have such Article in the RA Criminal Code?

– For illicit enrichment one should perform it through a crime, embezzlement, theft robbery or something else. Ostap Bendern was saying that he knew 40 ways to become rich, without infringement of the Criminal Code. I do not know these ways; I believe there is no form of illicit enrichment without violation of the Criminal Code.

– When my colleague met with the First Prosecutor General Artavazd Gevorgyan, he was impressed by his modest lifestyle. But it is no secret that during the time at office people manage to accumulate wealth.

– Being rich is not a shame nor it is a crime. Bu in case if it is a legal wealth. I do not see it in size, I speak about the legality.

– What did you do after leaving the ministerial office?

– I was Deputy Chairman of the Constitutional Court until September 1997. Then I came out and was involved in legal activities, Chair at the Academy of Management, Pro-rector, then Head of the Staff of Ombudsman, now I am a professor at the RA State Pedagogical University and the Academy of Management, also a member of Council of Justice.

– Mr. Stepanyan, with whom do you live now?

– I have a wife and a son. My wife teaches at the Academy of Sciences and the Academy of Management. My son after obtaining bachelor’s degree from the French University, served in the Army, and after the service entered the University of Southern California, a lawyer by profession.
My son is not even 25 years old yet. I have married late, as was a post graduate student in Moscow (he laughed – author). After graduating he has the right to work there for one year. Currently he is employed in a law firm.

– Have you had a role in his choice of profession?

– I always think the worst form of Fascism is the domestic fascism which is performed in the family. I have never instructed my son. In the 8th class he said he wanted to be an economists and I never said a word against. In the 10th form he approached me and asked whether he could be a lawyer. I said ‘why not?!’ He took all his decisions all by himself, including the one that after the Bachelor’s degree he went to the Army, though he had the right for extension.

– And how did you choose law.

I was going to enter the Polytechnic University. My uncle was the deputy Prosecutor of Mountainous Karabach marz. He came, convinced me and said why you need that Polytechnic….

Interview: Astghik Karapetyan

Photos: Aleksabder Sargsyan 

Author of the Idea: Karen Zadoyan 

Other interviews of this series:

What is the Only Penalty of the Former Minister of Justice Gevorg Danielyan?


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