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By Ruzanna Khachatrian
Armenia’s leading tobacco tycoon confirmed on Friday reports about his plans to expand his cigarette production and sales into neighboring Georgia.

Hrant Vartanian told RFE/RL that he will invest $4 million over the next two years in a cigarette factory which is currently built in Tbilisi by his Grand Tobacco firm and his Georgian business partners. Vartanian said Grand Tobacco will have a controlling 51 stake in the joint venture to be called Best. It will start production operations by the beginning of October, he added.

“The Georgian market is almost twice as big as the Armenian one and I don’t think we will have serious investment risks there,” he said. “If things don’t work out we can always part from ours neighbors and shut down the plant without problems.”

The chain-smoking tycoon, who declared last November that “any cigarette user is sick for life” and endorsed an anti-smoking program launched by the Armenian government, is the principal owner of Grand Tobacco and another local company called International Masis Tobacco. The two companies account for nearly half of cigarette sales in Armenia. Vartanian and his local partners also revived tobacco farming in the country in the late 1990s, using the crop for their own production operations and selling it to Western tobacco firms.

In Vartanian’s words, the Tbilisi plant will be supplied with tobacco leaves grown and processed in Armenia and will produce a variety of cigarettes with Georgian brand names. He said the plant will have some 220 employees and about a third of them, including management and engineering staff, will be from Armenia.
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