Agriculture Minister Ignati Arakelian visited on Wednesday a village in the southeastern Vayots Dzor province that has for months been the scene of angry protests by famers demanding payment for their grapes sold to a private winery last year.
The Vedi Alco company still owes residents of Aghavnadzor a total of 140 million drams ($295,000), citing massive losses incurred in Russia, its main export market. The increasingly desperate farmers disrupted classes in the local school, thwarted the work of the village administration and briefly blocked a nearby highway this month in protest against the company’s failure to pay for their grapes.
Arakelian, who was appointed agriculture minister last week, told the farmers that Vedi Alco has finally started clearing its debts. “The government has stepped in and Vedi Alco will fully fulfill its [contractual] obligations very soon,” he said.
Arakelian at the same time urged the Aghavnadzor farmers to refrain from again blocking traffic through the highway leading to the Iranian border. “Do not close roads, you won’t solve any issue in that way,” he said.
Arakelian also responded to the farmers’ complaints that they have trouble finding wholesale buyers for this year’s grape harvest. He suggested that their lower their prices.
“The distilleries need to be able to enter the market with competitive prices [of brandy and wine.] They therefore need cheap agricultural produce, and in order to make agricultural produce cheap you need to work hard, to find a way of growing crops with low production costs. International experts will give you advice,” said the minister, who managed Armenia’s largest brandy company before joining the government.
The villages bristled at the suggestion. “What should I do when production costs are gradually going up for the villagers but artificially going down for the wineries?” complained one of them. He said most buyers are ready to pay only 80-100 drams (roughly 18 U.S. cents) per kilogram of grapes.
Arakelian remained adamant: “I will not ask any businesspeople to buy [grapes] or do something else. It’s business.”
Still, the minister met later in the day with owners and senior executives of liquor firms active in Vayots Dzor. A statement on the meeting issued by the Armenian Agriculture Ministry did not say whether they reached any agreements on this year’s grape purchases.