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By Emil Danielyan
An Armenian business group owned by a fugitive opposition-linked businessman on Friday claimed to be heading for financial ruin because of what it described as a “political vendetta” waged by the government.

The SIL Concern group, which comprises a major commercial bank and a dozen other companies, fell foul of the authorities shortly after its main owner, parliament deputy Khachatur Sukiasian, publicly welcomed former President Levon Ter-Petrosian’s September 2007 return to active politics.

Three of those companies were inspected by tax authorities and charged with evading millions of dollars in taxes late last year. Two of them, a pizza restaurant chain and a printing house, saw their chief executives arrested on corresponding charges.

Another Sukiasian-owned company, the exclusive distributor of Phillip Morris cigarettes in Armenia, went out of business earlier this year, saying that customs officials are refusing to process its imports on government orders. According to SIL, Phillip Morris now sells its cigarettes in the Armenian market through another firm allegedly controlled by President Serzh Sarkisian’s influential son-in-law.

The biggest blow to Sukiasian’s business conglomerate was an October 10 court ruling that upheld tax authorities’ decision to fine one of Armenia’s largest mineral water companies, also part of SIL, 4.2 billion drams ($13.8 million) for alleged tax fraud. Law-enforcement officials were quick to raid the Bjni company’s offices in Charentsavan, an unemployment-stricken town 40 kilometers north of Yerevan, to enforce the ruling. The company, which rejects the tax evasion charges as baseless, stopped its operations, leaving about 500 Charentsavan residents out of work.

The authorities deny any political motives behind the crackdown on Sukiasian-owned businesses, saying that it is part of a broader fight against widespread tax evasion in Armenia. But they have not imposed similar sanctions on other businesses owned by even wealthier tycoons close to the government.

In a written statement, SIL accused the authorities of seeking to “destroy” the companies owned by Sukiasian and his extended family. “With this approach, the current authorities have proved one thing: that those entrepreneurs who will dare not to follow their rules of the game will be strictly and arbitrarily punished,” the statement said. “We are calling on all businessmen to join our initiative and defend our partner, the Sukiasian family, and thereby defend all other entrepreneurs from possible arbitrary actions.”

Sukiasian, who had made a fortune during Ter-Petrosian’s 1991-1998 rule, was among prominent opposition figures who went into hiding following the March 1 clashes in Yerevan between riot police and opposition protesters. He is wanted by the police on charges of organizing the “mass riots” and attempting to stage a coup d’etat.

(Photolur photo: Khachatur Sukiasian.)
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