By Ruben Meloyan
The first auction for an Armenian company owned by an opposition businessman and effectively confiscated by the government ended in failure Monday with no bids submitted by local or foreign investors.
Still, government officials said they will make more attempts to auction off the Bjni mineral water plant in payment for taxes which it allegedly evaded.
Bjni was raided by law-enforcement officers and put up for sale late last year after failing to pay 4.2 billion drams ($13.5 million) in fines imposed by tax authorities. The auction began on January 23 after being briefly suspended by a Yerevan court in late December.
“We have received no proposals,” a spokesman for Armenia’s Service for the Mandatory Execution of Judicial Acts (SMEJA), Ruben Grdzelian, told RFE/RL as the ten-day period for the submission of bids, set by Armenian law, expired on Monday evening.
“In accordance with the law, a repeat auction will be called on February 5,” Grdzelian said, adding that the government’s asking price of about 5 billion drams will be lowered by 10 percent. The price will be cut further if the second auction also attracts no bids, he said. “There is nothing unusual about this,” added the official.
But a Bjni lawyer, Ara Zohrabian, suggested that investors are reluctant to buy a company which many believe was penalized for its owner Khachatur Sukiasian’s political activities. “I think potential buyers had the prudence to understand that an auction held with violations of the law could get them in trouble in the future,” he told RFE/RL.
Bjni is one of a dozen companies making up Sukiasian’s SIL Concern group. Most of them 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. The tycoon was among several Ter-Petrosian associates who went into hiding to escape arrest following the February 2008 presidential election.
Sukiasian and his extended family claim to have been the victims of a “political vendetta” waged against them by the Armenian authorities. But the latter deny any political motives behind the crackdown.
In an open letter to President Serzh Sarkisian and Prime Minister Tigran Sarkisian late last week, the Bjni director, Laert Harutiunian, asked the government to set up an ad hoc commission that would look into the legality of the accusations leveled against the company. He said the commission should comprise government officials, Bjni executives and foreign experts.
“The company is ready to unconditionally accept any conclusions drawn by that commission,” said Zohrabian.
The government is highly unlikely to accept the proposal. Officials may well argue that an Armenian court upheld last October the heavy fines imposed on Bjni.