By Ruzanna Khachatrian
The Armenian government faced an easy ride on Monday as it won the parliament’s approval of legislative amendments that will create Armenia’s first-ever tax-free economic zone to be run by an Argentine airport tycoon.
Deputies ignored opposition protests to vote overwhelmingly in favor of controversial plans to give Eduardo Eurnekian a one square-kilometer area near Armenia’s main airport which his company will control for the next 30 years. Eurnekian’s Corporacion America will be entitled to issue business licenses to various private firms willing to operate in the tax haven. They will be exempted from profit tax and, in some cases, import duties and value-added tax.
The creation of the “free economic zone” is part of an agreement singed December giving the Argentine company long-term management rights to Zvartnots International Airport. The parliament had already approved the deal despite opposition criticism.
Minority opposition factions boycotted a parliament vote on the package of government amendments in several Armenian laws. One of them, Right and Accord, said they amount to “giving up part of Armenia’s sovereignty.”
A clause allowing Eurnekian to open casinos at the tax-free zone proved to be the most controversial. Under a law on gambling passed by the parliament last year, no casinos were allowed to operate within a 50-kilometer radius of the Armenian capital. The restriction was due to be effective from January 2003. But the lawmakers on Monday approved a government proposal to narrow the restricted area to 10 kilometers, just enough to legalize gambling sites at Zvartnots.
The provision raised the eyebrows of some pro-government deputies as well. The parliamentary faction of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutyun) said it will fight against the change when the legislative package is debated in the second, final reading later this month.
Eurnekian, who himself is of Armenian descent, is expected to arrive in Armenia to formally take over Zvartnots.