By Anush Dashtents
The Armenian authorities Wednesday confirmed reports that Minister for State Property David Vartanian was barred from entering the previous day a state-owned factory in the southern town of Ararat, which is due to be privatized later this year. Vartanian and representatives of a Swiss firm were confronted by angry employees as they tried to make their way into premises of the Ararat Cement company run by former prime minister Aram Sarkisian.
Ministry officials said senior executives from the Swiss company Holsim, which is taking an interest in Ararat Cement, wanted to inspect the factory before making a final decision on whether to participate in its upcoming privatization. Sarkisian, who is increasingly critical of President Robert Kocharian and the current government, is known to be opposed to planned sell-off. He was absent from the country when the incident took place.
Workers at Ararat Cement told RFE/RL that the confrontation turned violent, with Vartanian and his aides pushed and jostled in the ensued brief scuffle. However, a spokesman for the ministry for state property, the government agency overseeing privatization, denied any acts of violence. “They were simply not let in,” said Murad Ter-Stepanian. He claimed that Vartanian was able to visit the factory on Wednesday.
Other ministry sources told RFE/RL that ex-premier Sarkisian, reportedly backed by his employees, is among at least three contenders vying for control of the biggest cement factory in the region. Bids for a controlling stake in Ararat Cement are due to be submitted by June 15, but the deadline will likely be extended, the sources said.
Ararat Cement, beset by serious problems like most of Armenia’s Soviet-era industries, operates at a fraction of its capacity, unable to upgrade its aging equipment and to sell its production abroad in large quantities. The government views privatization as the only remedy for re-vitalizing it.
Ararat Cement is one of 14 large state-run enterprises which the government wants to privatize this year. The fact that it is managed by a government opponent makes the sell-off politically sensitive. Ararat is the home town of Sarkisian and his late brother and predecessor Vazgen, who was gunned down in the 1999 parliament carnage.
The town and surrounding rural areas are seen as a key stronghold of the Yerkrapah Union of Nagorno-Karabakh war veterans, founded by Vazgen Sarkisian in 1995. Many Yerkrapah activists hold Kocharian responsible for what they see as a botched investigation into the parliament killings.
Another major factory put up for sale is run by Stepan Demirchian, leader of the center-left People’s Party of Armenia (HZhK) which also has uneasy relations with the authorities.