By Hovannes Shoghikian
Khachatur Sukiasian, a rare wealthy businessmen openly supporting Levon Ter-Petrosian, said on Wednesday that he will remain loyal to Armenia’s former president “to the end” despite a widening government crackdown on his businesses.
Armenian tax authorities launched a financial investigation into companies making up the Sukiasian family’s SIL Group in October shortly after he indicated his unwavering support for Ter-Petrosian and the latter’s return to power. Three of those companies were promptly charged with evading millions of dollars in taxes. Two of them, a pizza restaurant chain and a printing house, saw their chief executives arrested as part of a criminal investigation conducted by prosecutors.
In an interview with RFE/RL, Sukiasian reiterated his claims that the accusations were trumped up by the Armenian authorities in retaliation for his strong backing of Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian’s most bitter presidential election challenger. “The reason for this state terror is that I stand alongside Levon Ter-Petrosian,” he said.
Sukiasian, who had become one of Armenia’s wealthiest men during Ter-Petrosian’s rule, made it clear that “nothing” will force him to defect from the ex-president’s camp. “I am prepared for everything,” he said. “I will be by Levon Ter-Petrosian’s side until the end, until our victory.”
A member of parliament, Sukiasian is the only Armenian millionaire businessman who has publicly pledged allegiance to Ter-Petrosian. The vast majority of other “oligarchs” are officially or unofficially affiliated with the governing Republican Party of Armenia (HHK). Sukiasian claimed that many of them privately welcome the ex-president’s political comeback but are not expressing their sympathy in public for fear of losing their businesses.
The Armenian government, meanwhile, denies any political motives behind their actions against SIL Group, saying that other major Armenian companies too have undergone financial inspections of late as part of what they describe as a tougher crackdown on widespread tax evasion.
Signaling the government’s intention to widen the crackdown on SIL, Armenian state television implicated on Tuesday one of Armenia’s largest commercial banks owned by Sukiasian in what it presented as a fraud scam involving tax and customs officials as well as top executives of another Sukiasian-owned firm. The government-controlled H1 TV channel revealed that four employees of the State Tax Service and the State Customs Committee have been arrested on relevant charges. It said more such arrests are imminent.
Sukiasian strongly denied any wrongdoing on the part of Armeconombank, 25 percent of which is owned by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD). “Armeconombank is always happy to process any transaction between physical or legal entities involving a cash transfer or other operations,” he said. “But the bank doesn’t care about the nature of the relationships [between those entities.]”
The tycoon added that SIL Group is preparing to file a libel suit against H1 and to demand as much as 400 million drams ($1.3 million) in compensatory damagers. “That slanderous report can have a long-term impact on our image,” he said.
The EBRD declined to comment on the government allegations, saying only that it continues to trust Armeconombank. “As things stand now, we work with and support the bank,” a regional spokesman for the London-based lending institution told RFE/RL.
Armeconombank remains the sole Armenian commercial bank in which the EBRD holds a significant minority share. Announcing the $1 million share acquisition in August 2004, EBRD officials said they chose Armeconombank from among the two dozen local banks because of its Western-style management and financial transparency.
(Photolur photo: Sukiasian, left, pictured during Ter-Petrosian's November 16 rally in Yerevan.)