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By Atom Markarian

The government Thursday gave its final go-ahead to the privatization of a cement factory in southern Armenia, the biggest in the south Caucasus. Bidding for a majority stake in the Ararat Cement company will formally open in the coming days, Minister for State Property David Vartanian said after a cabinet meeting.

The total value of the company stock, which will serve as the minimum price of its sale, was set at around $6 million. Vartanian said the government will announce winners of the international tender within the next two months.

Several foreign firms, including Switzerland’s Holsim group, have already shown interest in Ararat Cement, hoping to capitalize on its huge export potential. The state-owned factory located in the southern town of Ararat currently operates at only 15 percent of its capacity which equals at least 1.2 million metric tons of cement a year.

The fact that it is run by Aram Sarkisian, a former prime minister and the leader of the opposition Hanrapetutyun party, is giving the privatization process a political dimension. Sarkisian is opposed to the sell-off. Some commentators have speculated that the authorities are keen to strip a political rival of lucrative business. But Vartanian and other senior officials have denied any political motives.

One June 5 Vartanian and senior executives from Holsim were forcibly barred from entering the Ararat Cement premises to inspect the factory. Angry factory workers let them in only the next day.

Ararat Cement is one of 14 large enterprises slated for privatization last year. One of them is run another bitter opponent of President Robert Kocharian, People’s Party leader Stepan Demirchian.

In another decision, the government approved on Thursday the takeover by an American company of the Doghagorts chemical company in Yerevan which produces vehicle tires. The TS-Investment Corporation will pay $1.5 million for a 75 percent stake in Doghagorts.
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