By Ruzanna Khachatrian and Emil Danielyan
Khachatur Sukiasian, a prominent millionaire businessman, lashed out at the Armenian customs on Friday, saying that its top officials’ extensive business interests preclude free enterprise and fair competition in the country.
Sukiasian, who is also a parliament deputy, pointed the finger at an unspecified deputy chief of the State Customs Committee (SCC) who he claimed owns 11 lucrative businesses and does not tolerate any competition. “When it comes to competition, that person will trump up everything to make life hard for local, Diasporan or Chinese businessmen,” he charged at a roundtable discussion in Yerevan.
“Everyone knows that a particular official imports particular goods and owns particular shops,” he said without naming names. “And it’s clear that if someone else wants to import similar goods, they will be doomed. They will have to get out of business as soon possible in order to save themselves.”
Sukiasian was understood to refer to Gagik Khachatrian, one of the SCC chief Armen Avetisian’s deputies who is believed to be a wealthy individual. Khachatrian’s reported assets include a popular street café in central Yerevan and supermarkets that sell imported food.
Armenian has no legislation regulating conflicts of interest, and it is therefore not illegal for its customs officials to engage in that kind of economic activity. Whether they always stick to the law when levying import duties from goods brought in by themselves or their relatives is doubtful.
The SCC has the reputation of one of the most corrupt government agencies in Armenia, being a major source of complaints by local entrepreneurs. President Robert Kocharian personally blasted Avetisian and other customs chiefs at an extraordinary January 2005 meeting, saying that their failure to act in a “civilized and lawful” manner is hampering economic activity. He also pointed to allegations that they are helping large-scale importers avoid taxes in return for kickbacks.
None of those officials was dismissed as a result, however. Avetisian, who is reportedly close to Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian, continues to be regarded as one of the country’s wealthiest men and raises eyebrows with his extravagant lifestyle.
Khachatrian, Avetisian’s deputy, was already accused of corruption by two top executives of the Royal Armenia coffee importing and processing company who were arrested by the National Security Service in October last year and are still kept in pre-trial detention. Gagik Hakobian, the Royal Armenia chairman, and his deputy Aram Ghazarian were controversially charged with fraud and smuggling after publicly alleging that they had refused to pay bribes to Khachatrian and other customs officials in return for being allowed to evade import taxes.
The company claims to have been driven out of the coffee business for its refusal to engage in the proposed scam. The SCC denies the claims.
(Photolur photo: Khachatur Sukiasian.)