By Ruzanna Khachatrian
The Armenian government went to great lengths Tuesday to push through the parliament an agreement giving an Argentine company control of the country’s main airport for the next 30 years.
Opposition deputies expressed their anger at the government’s failure to publicize the deal. Some lawmakers, who claimed to have obtained its full text, said the handover of Zvartnots international airport to the Aeropuertos Argentina group was agreed last year on highly unfavorable terms.
The Argentine company, which is owned by ethnic Armenian billionaire Eduardo Eurnekian, has pledged to invest $50 million to bring the Soviet-era airport into conformity with international standards. It is due to expand Zvartnots’s runway and build a new flight terminal in the next three years.
The management contract signed with Eurnekian last December was included in a government bill on aviation which was submitted to the National Assembly late last month. The bill’s passage in the first reading amounted to the agreement’s endorsement by the parliament.
The opposition minority argued that the lawmakers should not rubber-stamp the draft legislation without knowing details of the airport deal. Its position was backed by some pro-government factions.
“We too believe that it is inadmissible that nobody is familiar with the text of the agreement,” said Vahan Hovannisian of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutyun). “Those who are familiar with it are giving alarming information.”
Opposition deputies who got hold of the agreement copies claimed that Aeropuertos Argentina, which runs 33 airports across South America, is not bound by any investment commitments. “There is not a single word about the amount and timetable of the investments,” said Arshak Sadoyan, a bitter detractor of successive Armenian governments.
Sadoyan and his allies also revealed that Eurnekian’s company will be entitled to unilaterally extending the lease agreement and will enjoy a legal monopoly on servicing all flights beyond Russia and other former Soviet republics.
Justice Minister David Harutiunian, who personally negotiated the deal, confirmed that no Armenian airport except Zvartnots will be allowed to handle flights beyond the Commonwealth of Independent States. Harutiunian said the controversial measure is essential for attracting much-needed investments into the Armenian aviation sector. He also warned that the fierce resistance shown by the opposition could scare off Eurnekian and scuttle the deal.
The aviation bill was eventually approved by 66 members of the 131-strong assembly. An alternative opposition legislation regulating the sector received 47 votes and was defeated.
Aeropuertos Argentina is expected to formally take over Zvartnots on May 25. President Robert Kocharian, who has developed a close personal rapport with Eurnekian, has said the takeover will solve many of Armenia’s aviation woes.