Former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld famously said, “Democracy is messy.” That observation surely applies to the states which emerged from the U.S.S.R.
Call them what you will, Russia, Kazakhstan, Moldova, Ukraine and the other ex-soviet socialist republics remain far from the Jeffersonian model of law and order. Perhaps best described as “kleptocracies,” these regimes are run by maverick military leaders, unreconstructed KGB officers and various, assorted, sordid thugs. Their legislatures and judiciaries are similarly riddled with Mafia-style corruption.
Even Armenia, once thought of as quasi-Western because of its large Christian Diaspora, is today in the grips of organized (and often, not-so-organized) criminals. Armenia is nestled in the Caucasus Mountains between Turkey, Georgia, and Iran – and victimized by twenty years of war with its other neighbor, Azerbaijan. The two countries are in a suspended state of military conflict over the disputed territory called Nagorno-Karabagh.
In addition to threats against national security, individual Armenians are at risk. Problems range from ordinary street crime to high-level fraud. But it is possible to prevail in the face of all those obstacles. As one Armenian-American couple learned, the key to fighting crime in the old Soviet Union is perseverance.
Philanthropist George Najarian of suburban Boston has been actively involved in rebuilding Armenia ever since a devastating earthquake killed tens of thousands on Dec. 7, 1988 and left half a million homeless. For the past twenty years, he and his wife, Dr. Carolann Najarian, have devoted their energy and resources to providing humanitarian aid through the non-profit Armenian Health Alliance.
For nearly a decade, the couple has been trying to recover from a multi-million dollar swindle, followed by legal maneuvering and delays.
This case dates back to 1996 when, at the urging of Armenian translator Grigor Igityan, the Najarians purchased a photo shop on Abovian Street in the capital city of Yerevan. Igityan had attached himself as an assistant to George Najarian following the earthquake.
The American couple took this new friend under their wing. As Carolann Najarian put it, “Igityan eagerly accepted and wore George’s old clothes and shoes. We also brought him to the U.S. for corrective surgery which allowed him to have children.”
Over the next two years, the Najarians invested in the development of other property in Armenia for residential and commercial use, including offices for their non-profit medical aid organization. It was agreed that the Americans would provide the money and that Igityan would do the work.
In 2001, according court records, Igityan, illegally converted all of the Najarian properties to his own name using a limited power of attorney. After two years of attempting to resolve the situation out of court, the Najarians filed a criminal suit against Igityan with the Yerevan City Prosecutor’s office. The case was repeatedly dismissed and re-instated amid suspicions of powerful, behind-the-scenes pressures.
At one point, the Prosecutor General was replaced by a man whose brother had been hired to help the defendant avoid prosecution.
Transcripts indicate that prosecution witnesses were threatened with tax investigations and worse if they did not change their testimonies. The defense came up with one delay tactic after another. Even the most optimistic observers said the Najarians’ chances of success ranged from zero to forget about it. Hope had all but run out.
Finally, in an unexpected landmark decision on Sept. 13, 2008, the Court of First Intention found Igityan guilty on all counts of theft and fraud against the Najarians. On Dec. 24, the Armenian Court of Appeal upheld that ruling which is now final.
“We are thrilled, as you can imagine,” said George Najarian. “It will take time for the reality of this verdict to sink in and become part of our new reality.”
Igityan was sentenced to 4½ years in prison and ordered to return all properties taken from the Najarians. Throughout this process, the convicted conman remained free on his own recognizance An arrest warrant has been issued, but as of this writing he is at large.