By Ruben Meloyan
Citing an unexpected court order, Armenian judicial authorities have suspended the forcible sale of one of the largest companies belonging to Khachtur Sukiasian, a fugitive millionaire businessman and opposition parliamentarian.
The Bjni mineral water plant was put up for sale recently after failing to pay 4.2 billion drams ($13.5 million) in fines imposed by tax authorities for alleged tax evasion. An Armenian court upheld the hefty penalty on October 10 before security forces raided the company’s premises in the central town of Charentsavan and forced it to halt its operations.
The Armenian Justice Ministry’s Service for the Mandatory Execution of Judicial Acts (SMEJA) decided afterwards to auction off Bjni’s assets in payment for the fines. The electronic auction began on December 19, just days after a lawsuit filed by an obscure construction firm that claims to be owed money by Bjni. The latter said it is unable to pay the unspecified debt and filed for bankruptcy protection.
A civil court in Yerevan granted the request, issuing a relevant injunction. Under Armenian law, that means the company can not be sold off at least until a final court verdict on the case.
As a result, the SMEJA halted the bidding for Bjni late on Tuesday. “The SMEJA will wait until that [civil court] litigation is over,” a spokesman for the law-enforcement agency, Ruben Grdzlian, told RFE/RL. “If Bjni is declared bankrupt we will stop the proceedings altogether. If not, they will resume.”
The Bjni management hopes that the court will stop short of liquidating the company and thereby avert its sale. “If the court declares Bjni bankrupt then may be it will be possible to rescue the company,” one of its lawyers, Ara Zohrabian, told RFE/RL on Wednesday.
Bjni is one of dozen companies making up the SIL Concern group owned by Sukiasian and his extended family. They were inspected by tax officials and charged with evading millions of dollars in taxes shortly after Sukiasian publicly welcomed former President Levon Ter-Petrosian’s September 2007 return to active politics.
Sukiasian, who had made his fortune during Ter-Petrosian’s 1991-1998 rule, went into hiding along with several other opposition figures following the March 1 suppression of the post-election opposition protests in Yerevan. His whereabouts have been unknown ever since.
In an October 31 statement, SIL claimed to be heading for financial ruin because of what it described as a “political vendetta” waged against its owners by the government. 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.
The SMEJA auction attracted no bids for Bjni from local or foreign companies as of late Tuesday. None of Bjni’s domestic competitors has publicly expressed an interest in buying it.
They as well as other the country’s leading business tycoons close to the government might be deterred not only by the SMEJA’s asking price of 4.9 billion ($16 million). Gagik Tsarukian, one of the most powerful “oligarchs” leading the pro-government Prosperous Armenia Party (BHK), implied on Tuesday that it would be morally wrong for them to take away any business assets from their embattled colleague.
“I have been a friend and partner of Khachik Sukiasian and will never participate or advise anyone to participate in that auction,” Tsarukian told RFE/RL.