Armenia: Officials Try to Spin Court Setback

They say it shows they don't go after opposition-supporting businessmen - though claim sounds hollow.

Armenia: Officials Try to Spin Court Setback

They say it shows they don't go after opposition-supporting businessmen - though claim sounds hollow.

Wednesday, 8 April, 2009

The authorities have sought to turn a pro-opposition tycoon's landmark court victory to its advantage by saying it refutes claims that they harass businessmen who support their political rivals.

But few here are persuaded by the spin, and opposition parties hope the court ruling - that the state's recent auction of Khachatur Sukiasian's mineral water factory was invalid - will deter officials from intimidating such high-profile opponents.

Whatever the outcome, observers say the affair highlights an unhealthy connection between politics and big business which they say is ruinous for the country.

As a result of the March 19 Administrative Court judgement, the Bjni water plant may yet be returned to Sukiasian, though he is nowhere to be seen.

Sukiasian has been in hiding since March 2008's bloody clashes between opposition protesters and police, fearing arrest. He was among several allies of former president Levon Ter-Petrosian to have gone to ground.

Sukiasian and his supporters always maintained the confiscation of the Bjni plant was revenge for his close ties to the opposition leader and had nothing to do with tax and ecological offences he is alleged to have committed.

Arman Musinyan, press secretary of the opposition Armenian National Congress, hailed the outcome as a victory against official intolerance.

"The authorities can't get away with all their illegal actions [now]," he said, referring to the court ruling.

Richard Kirakosyan, director of Armenian Centre for National and International Studies, ACNIS, said Sukiasian's recent troubles had put a spotlight onto the dangers awaiting businessmen who ventured into opposition politics.

"Sukiasian's example is most vivid in this respect," he said. "The moment he spoke about his commitment to Levon Ter-Petrosian he was punished and deprived of his own factory.

"The authorities used him in order to show other magnates that they will share the same fate for disobedience - the loss of their businesses, and persecution."

But Armenia's authorities have turned this argument on its head.

Apparently praising the court's decision, they say it undermines the validity of arguments that the businessman is the victim of persecution.

"The court ruling shows that the charges made, that Sukiasian had been experiencing economic pressure, were senseless," Armen Ashotian, deputy of the ruling Republican Party, said.

Prior to the ruling, an investigation found the Bjni had been undervalued at the January auction. Controversially, a pro-government

deputy and businessman, Ruben Hayrapetyan, purchased the factory. He has since pledged to honour the court's decision and surrender control of the company.

Its ultimate fate is unclear, however, for while the auction has been pronounced null and void, Bjni may yet be sold off if it is declared

bankrupt by another court.

Whether they view Sukiasian as a political martyr, or a businessman who simply fell foul of the tax inspectors, experts concur that the whole affair is proof of big business's entanglement with politics.

Even Ashiotian concedes that the economy and big business in Armenia are now very closely interconnected.

"As a rule, it's hard to distinguish the economy and politics from one other," he said, "because political parties cannot function without

financial sources.

"If in the West, the economy is represented in politics more obliquely, here it works a more direct way."

Zoya Tadevosian, lecturer at Yerevan State Economic University, meanwhile describes the dominance of tycoons in the country as

increasingly obvious.

"Since the majority of deputies are involved in big business and the economy is totally monopolistic... we can see that economics and

politics have become intertwined almost 100 per cent," Tadevosian said

The former chairman of the Central Bank, Bagrat Asatrian, says political power and big business have come to form a single entity. The result, said Asatrian, is that "the foundations of a free market economy are becoming shaky".

When there is no competition because the market is controlled by powerful interest groups, ordinary people can only lose out because

prices will be kept high.

Significantly, most smaller businessmen who have spoken on the subject with IWPR, say they avoid expressing commitment to any party - especially the opposition parties.

"Some people may have courage to publicly express their views but no one knows what consequences this may bring," one head of a medium-sized business, who declined to give his name, told IWPR.

"One thing is for sure: here, compared to more democratic and developed countries, anyone involved in business should think twice before criticising the country's leadership.

"Here, this kind of criticism can be misunderstood and in that case you won't escape coming under pressure."

Hrant Vardanyan, a magnate-cum-politician with two sons sitting in parliament on the government side, dismisses stories of persecuted

tycoons. "There are no such problems," he said.

Yet Sukiasian and his brothers still feel they need to remain in hiding, their location - in or outside the country - unknown.

Far from feeling any freer, their father, Albert, recently said he believed they were in more danger than ever.

"We are convinced that the members of our family are in physical danger," he wrote in an open letter sent to rights group and diplomats in Yerevan. "The leading clique won't stop its political persecution."

Sara Khojoian writes for Armenianow Online and IWPR's CCJN project.

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