A Russian energy company on Monday denied reports that it is holding negotiations on the sale of Armenia’s troubled power distribution network owned by it amid continuing protests in Yerevan sparked by a controversial rise in electricity prices.
“Right now we are holding no negotiations on the sale of the Electric Networks of Armenia (ENA),” a spokesman for the Inter RAO group told the Interfax news agency.
Citing unnamed sources in Moscow and Yerevan, the Russian daily “Kommersant” reported on Sunday that Inter RAO is negotiating with Russian-Armenian businesspeople interested in buying the ENA. The paper singled out Samvel Karapetian, an Armenia-born billionaire whose Tashir Group conglomerate comprises several regional electric utilities in Russia.
Armenian press reports linked Karapetian with the ENA even before Armenian regulators’ June 17 decision to raise electricity prices by over 17 percent triggered nonstop demonstrations in Yerevan. The tycoon’s representatives in Armenia have not explicitly confirmed his reported interest in the ENA so far.
Armenian Energy Minister Yervand Zakharian indicated last month that Inter RAO would indeed like to sell its loss-making Armenian subsidiary that has run up over $225 million in debt to banks and power plants. For his part, President Serzh Sarkisian said over the weekend that the power network could be nationalized by the Armenian government.
Citing its debts, the ENA requested later in May that regulators raise its tariffs by as much as 40 percent. The Public Services Regulatory Commission (PSRC) agreed to a much more modest price rise, saying that the company needs to be compensated for last year’s depreciation of the Armenian dram, a longer-than-expected stoppage of the Metsamor nuclear power station and decreased output by Armenian hydroelectric plants.
Yet even that price hike was enough to make thousands of mostly young Armenians to take to the streets and demand that the unpopular measure be revoked. They believe that the ENA’s losses result from corruption and inefficiency within the company, rather than the factors cited by the PSRC.
Bowing to the pressure, Sarkisian announced on Saturday that the government will subsidize the energy tariffs and thereby ensure that they remain unchanged for consumers for now. He said the government will also initiate an independent international audit of the ENA to determine whether the company has indeed been mismanaged. Armenians will have to accept the price hike if the ENA is cleared of any wrongdoing, he said.
Davit Harutiunian, the chief of the government staff, told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am) on Monday that audit will most probably be completed before the end of November. He said the auditor will not only inspect the company’s books but also possibly investigate the fraud allegations made by the protesters.
“I already know the answer to [perceived fraud] but think that the public wants to know an independent auditor’s opinion as to whether or not financial abuses were calculated into the tariffs in any way,” said Harutiunian.
The ENA has already been audited by the British firm Ernst & Young in recent years. The latter concluded that the ENA’s 2014 financial statements are by and large accurate.
Gagik Gyulbudaghian, who runs the Armenian branch of another Western consultancy, Grant Thornton, said a more thorough “special audit” could shed more light on the state of ENA finances. Gyulbudaghian said the auditor, which has yet to be chosen by the government, should scrutinize the Russian-owned company’s production costs and other major expenditures and verify whether it has honored its capital investment pledges.