Armenia’s commercial banks have been refusing to open accounts for citizens of Iran and Syria, according to ethnic Armenians from the two Middle Eastern nations living in Yerevan.
Komitas Mirijanian and his family are among hundreds of Syrian Armenians who have moved to Armenia this year to flee escalating violence in Syria. He said on Wednesday that they sold their house and other assets in Syria and planned to deposit the resulting proceeds in an Armenian bank before arriving in their ancestral homeland in late May.
Mirijanian claimed that he applied to two such banks, the local branches of HSBC and the Lebanese Byblos Bank, but was rebuffed by both of them. “They gave no reason,” he told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am). “They just said they can’t open an account now.”
Mirijanian said he had to transfer the money to a bank account of a Yerevan-based friend, who is an Iranian-born Armenian citizen. “The money is now being kept in his name,” he said.
Artin Arakelian, an Iranian Armenian who relocated to Armenia several years ago, told a similar story. He said he was unable to open bank accounts there until gaining Armenian citizenship.
Arakelian said the alleged ban is a serious hurdle to the transfer of capital from Iranian and especially Syrian Armenians. “They are now having problems on both sides: in Armenia and Syria,” he said. “They can’t retrieve cash from Syria. They have to transfer it to Lebanon through some channels and on to Armenia through international banks.”
“The problem is that Armenia’s banking system is not allowed to open accounts for Syrian nationals,” he claimed.
HSBC Bank Armenia, one of the largest in the country, acknowledged serious restrictions in its dealings with potential Syrian and Iranian clients. It said that it is complying with not only Armenian legislation but also international sanctions against Syria and Iran.
In a statement sent to RFE/RL’s Armenian service, the British bank said it is ready to accept personal savings and money for current transactions from Syrian citizens only if they pledge that there will be no further cash inflows from entrepreneurial activity in Syria. The bank said it can also refuse to open accounts if Syrian clients fail to provide detailed information about the origin of their proposed deposits.
The HSBC Group subsidiary also made clear that it opens accounts for only those Iranian citizens that legally reside in a country other than Iran. It attributed this restriction to the international sanctions against the Islamic Republic.
The Central Bank of Armenia (CBA), meanwhile, insisted that Armenian banking legislation places no restrictions on local commercial banks accepting cash from foreigners.
Still, the banks are subject to curbs stemming from an Armenian law aimed at preventing the financing of international terrorism. Armenia enacted the law after the September 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States as part of its pledges to cooperate with Washington in countering the cross-border flow of money to anti-Western terror groups. Both Iran and Syria have long been accused by the U.S. of sponsoring international terrorism.
Bagrat Asatrian, a former CBA governor, suggested that this is the reason why Armenians from those states have trouble opening bank accounts. “The banks are just being careful to avoid trouble,” he told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am).
Asatrian criticized this policy, saying that the authorities in Yerevan should intervene to enable those Diaspora Armenians to keep their savings and other assets in Armenia. “Nobody, no international body can rebuke Armenia for doing that,” he said.
“We are dealing with an extraordinary situation,” added Asatrian. “The lives and properties of some of our compatriots are in danger, and it is incumbent on our authorities to do something about that.”