Ending months of speculation, Russia’s state-controlled energy conglomerate Inter RAO announced on Wednesday the widely anticipated sale of Armenia’s debt-ridden power distribution network to another Russian group owned by an Armenian-born billionaire.
In a joint statement, Inter RAO and Samvel Karapetian’s Tashir Group said they have signed a corresponding deal and are awaiting its approval by the Armenian authorities.
“The deal has already been approved by the Armenian government and will be completed after a decision by [Armenia’s] Public Services Regulatory Commission (PSRC),” read the statement. It did not reveal how much Tashir will pay for the Electric Networks of Armenia (ENA) utility.
The announcement came two weeks after Inter RAO asked the government to allow the ENA’s sale to a Cyprus-registered shell company controlled by Marcuard Heritage, a Swiss asset management group. The government responded by instructing four Armenian ministries as well as the PSRC to scrutinize the deal.
It was not immediately clear whether Marcuard is somehow involved in Inter RAO’s deal with Karapetian. The Zurich-headquartered firm’s chief executive and co-owner, Sinan Bodmer, sits on the governing board of a Russian bank which is part of Tashir.
Russian and Armenian newspapers repeatedly reported earlier this year that Tashir is close to buying the Armenian power grids from the Russian energy giant. The deal appears to have been delayed by this summer’s two-week street protests in Yerevan that were sparked by a further rise in electricity prices in Armenia announced by the PSRC.
The protests forced President Serzh Sarkisian to promise that his government will subsidize the energy tariffs for consumers pending a special international audit of the ENA. He said it will determine whether the price hike is economically justified or is the result of corruption and mismanagement.
The government clarified afterwards, however, that the length of the subsidy will depend instead on a detailed examination of the PSRC’s unpopular decision made in June. In mid-August, it hired the U.S. financial services firm Deloitte & Touche to conduct such an examination.
Deloitte defended the price hike in a 30-page report publicized on Wednesday. It essentially echoed the state regulators’ arguments that higher tariffs are needed to save the loss-making ENA from financial collapse. In particular, it agreed that the Inter RAO subsidiary incurred additional losses last year because of a longer-than-expected stoppage of the Metsamor nuclear plant and a drop in hydropower generation.
No To Plunder, a youth movement that organized the recent protests in Yerevan, was quick to dismiss Deloitte’s findings, standing by its view that consumers are being forced to pay for serious financial abuses within the ENA. The group was at the same careful not to immediately schedule fresh anti-government demonstrations. “We need to discuss this with [energy] experts,” one of its leaders, Maxim Sargsian, told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am).
In their statement clearly timed to coincide with the release of the Deloitte report, Inter RAO and Tashir made clear that Karapetian’s group and the Armenian government will jointly subsidize power supplies for at least one year to ensure that Armenian households remain unaffected by the price hike effective from August 1.
The statement also announced that the new owner will implement an “anti-crisis program” aimed at ending the ENA’s massive losses. This will involve “tighter controls” over the ENA’s finances. Tashir will also embark on a “gradual modernization of the power grids’ equipment,” according to the statement.
The ENA has more than $220 million in outstanding debts to Armenian power plants and commercial banks. Russia’s now defunct Unified Energy Systems group, of which Inter RAO is a successor, paid $73 million to buy it from an obscure British-registered company in 2006. The ENA was profitable until 2011.
Born and raised in Armenia, Karapetian, 50, built his business empire after moving to Russia in the early 1990s. Tashir Group comprises around 200 firms, including about 30 shopping malls and two dozen office buildings and hotels across Russia. With total assets estimated by the “Forbes” magazine at $4.5 billion, he is one of the world’s richest ethnic Armenians.