By Emil Danielyan
President Robert Kocharian granted on Thursday the rank of major-general to a controversial deputy chief of the Armenian customs who has been accused of corruption by businessmen at odds with the government.
A short statement by Kocharian;s office did not explain why Gagik Khachatrian received the “special rank” which has so far been held only by the equally controversial head of the State Customs Committee (SCC), Armen Avetisian.
Khachatrian was a key figure in a corruption scandal that erupted three years ago. Royal Armenia, one of the country’s largest coffee processing and packaging companies, claimed that it is being driven out of business for refusing to engage in a fraud scam with senior SCC officials and Khachatrian in particular. The latter was alleged to have personally offered Royal Armenia to grossly undervalue the price of its imported coffee in return for sharing in the resulting extra profits.
The SCC strongly denied the charges before bringing its own fraud charges against Royal Armenia’s main shareholder, Gagik Hakobian, and deputy director, Aram Ghazarian. The two men were arrested in October 2005. A Yerevan court found the fraud charges baseless and freed them last July. However, Armenia’s Court of Appeals overturned the sensational acquittals last month, sentencing Hakobian and Ghazarian to six and two years in prison respectively.
Khachatrian’s name was also in the news in September 2006 when Khachatur Sukiasian, a millionaire businessman now opposed to Armenia’s leadership, publicly complained that extensive business interests of senior customs officials preclude free enterprise and fair competition in the country. He specifically pointed the finger at Khachatrian, saying that the latter owns over a dozen lucrative businesses and does not tolerate any competition. “When it comes to competition, that person will trump up everything to make life hard for local, Diasporan or Chinese businessmen,” charged Sukiasian.
The SCC’s denial of the tycoon’s accusations did not change its reputation as one of the most corrupt government agencies. Kocharian himself has repeatedly blasted the customs, saying that their failure to act in a “civilized and lawful” manner is hampering economic activity.