By Shakeh Avoyan
In a move that is sparking controversy, the Armenian government has unexpectedly transferred buildings accommodating three key ministries to a private company in return for its pledge to build new offices for them.
The Russian-based company International Business Center is to complete the construction of a 10-storey building in downtown Yerevan which began more than ten years ago and stopped shortly after the Soviet collapse. The ministries of culture and sports, science and education and health will move there within a year, officials said on Tuesday.
The deputy minister for state property, Mikael Melkumian, said the barter deal, the first in its kind in Armenia’s history, is worth about $2 million. He said the government sold the three buildings, also located in the city center, at a market price. “This is 30 to 40 percent more than their market value,” he told RFE/RL.
“This is one of our best deals in the last five to six years,” he said, adding that the government will save money by moving three of its major agencies into a single building.
However, the government had called no tenders for the buildings that represent a lucrative real property. The decision to sell them was taken at a cabinet session on May 30 chaired by President Robert Kocharian. A government press release issued after the meeting made no mention of it.
News of the deal was first reported by the independent newspaper “Haykakan Zhamanak” only last week. The pro-Kocharian state television broadcast an extensive report advertising the transfer at the weekend, in an apparent attempt to stave off a public backlash.
Melkumian insisted that the government did call a bidding for the incomplete building and received a “beneficial proposal” from International Business Center (IBC). He said the offer to give away the ministry buildings came from IBC and was approved by the cabinet.
A little known firm reportedly owned by Russia-based ethnic Armenians, IBC privatized three state-run factories last year. The company has said it will turn the former government offices into “business centers.” But its stated plans have so far been short on specifics.
It is still not known whether any top Armenian officials are linked to the company.