By Ruzanna Stepanian
The editors of leading Armenian newspapers are concerned about the impending change of ownership at the country’s biggest newspaper distribution agency which they have long blamed for their low circulation.
The owner of the Haymamul agency, Haykaram Mkhitarian, confirmed on Thursday that he is close to selling the bulk of Haymamul assets, including its 200 kiosks across Armenia, to another local businessman. The deal is likely to be sealed next week, he told RFE/RL.
The buyer, Arman Sahakian owns a vodka importing company and a delicacy store in Yerevan. Newspaper reports have claimed that his takeover of Haymamul will effectively place the company at the disposal of Mikael Minasian, Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian’s increasingly influential son-in-law and senior adviser. Some commentators have speculated that Sarkisian is keen to further reduce newspaper sales ahead of next year’s presidential election.
“The concern is that this deal could have not only a commercial but political subtext,” Nikol Pashinian of “Haykakan Zhamanak,” the country’s best-selling daily.
Mkhitarian said he is unaware of Minasian’s possible involvement in the deal and has held talks only with Sahakian. He said he has decided to sell Haymamul just because it is not profitable.
The Armenian print media is overwhelmingly critical of the government and Sarkisian in particular, regularly criticizing them in news reports and commentaries. But with local papers selling between 3,000 and 5,000 copies a day in a country of 3 million, its impact on public opinion is quite limited. TV and radio stations, virtually all of them loyal to the government, are far more accessible for Armenians.
Newspaper editors say that they would have a higher circulation if Haymamul operated efficiently. The agency is notorious for running up substantial debts to newspapers and delaying payment of proceeds from newspaper sales.
Some editors believe that Haymamul is deliberately refusing to accept more newspaper copies to minimize the impact of unfavorable press coverage on the government and its approval rating.
“In effect, Haymamul is doing everything to prevent our newspaper from printing and selling more copies,” charged Armine Ohanian, acting editor of “Zhamanak Yerevan.” “It creates various obstacles to greater newspaper circulation.”
“As a business organization, Haymamul should be interested in higher newspaper sales. But the fact is that they are doing everything against the laws of business,” she said.
“In Armenia the government policy has been to ensure that no political newspaper has a circulation of more than 6,000,” agreed Pashinian.
Haymamul’s Mkhitarian insisted, however, that demand for “Haykakan Zhamanak” and other major papers is low and that his company meets it in full.
Pashinian countered that Haymamul is poorly managed and that nobody has tried to break its de facto monopoly on what he regards as lucrative newspaper distribution. “There are so many oligarchs around,” he told RFE/RL. “Why hasn’t any of them tried to create an alternative newspaper distribution network? Because they understand that this is a political, not a commercial, sphere where you can’t do anything without a political go-ahead.”
“This is the reason why Serzh Sarkisian is being linked with this deal,” claimed the young editor. “Nobody would dare to invest a penny in this sector without Serzh Sarkisian’s go-ahead.”