By Ruben Meloyan
A leading Armenian commercial bank secured on Friday $15 million in mainly Western loans that will give a moral boost to its embattled owner allied to former President Levon Ter-Petrosian.
David Sukiasian, the chief manager of Armeconombank, said it will use the money to be provided by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) and six European and Asian commercial banks for extending credits to small and medium-sized businesses. He gave few other details of the deal signed behind the closed doors, saying only that the EBRD will contribute one third of the sum and naming the other lenders. Those include Germany’s Commerzbank.
“It is the first time that those famous banks are providing such a sum to an Armenian bank,” Sukiasian told RFE/RL. “This deal reflects their interest in Armenia’s banking system.”
The signing of the loan agreement could hardly come at a better time for Khachatur Sukiasian, a wealthy businessman and the principal owner of Armeconombank and dozens of other, mainly small and medium-sized companies. Sukiasian, who is also a parliament deputy, fell foul of the Armenian government in September shortly after he publicly reaffirmed his long-standing support for Ter-Petrosian and endorsed the latter’s candidature in next February’s presidential election.
Armenian tax authorities launched a financial investigation into companies making up the Sukiasian family’s SIL Group in October. 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 on corresponding charges.
In an interview with RFE/RL last week, Sukiasian reiterated his claims that the accusations were trumped up by the Armenian authorities in retaliation for his strong support for Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian’s main election challenger. The authorities, however, deny any political motives behind the crackdown, saying that it is part of a broader fight against widespread tax evasion in Armenia.
Signaling the government’s intention to widen the crackdown on SIL, Armenian state television implicated Armeconombank on December 4 in an alleged fraud scam involving tax and customs officials as well as top executives of another Sukiasian-owned firm. It said the police arrested four such officials and will likely make more arrests. The tycoon denied any wrongdoing on the part of his bank.
David Sukiasian, who is Khachatur’s cousin, said Armeconombank has not been inspected by tax officials or raided by the police. “It’s business as usual at the bank,” he said. “We continue to attract and distribute funds. Some people are trying to politicize the bank. But that won’t work.”
The EBRD paid $1 million to buy 25 percent of Armeconombank in August 2004. EBRD officials said at the time that chose Armeconombank from among the two dozen local banks because of its Western-style management and financial transparency. An EBRD spokesman said last week that the London-based lending institution continues to trust the bank.
(Photolur photo: Khachatur Sukiasian.)