Prime Minister Hovik Abrahamian on Wednesday effectively pledged to liberalize lucrative imports of fuel and other essential commodities to Armenia in the face of opposition skepticism about his government’s latest anti-corruption drive.
“There will be equal conditions, equal taxation,” Abrahamian said in the parliament. “Any citizen can import anything they want. There will be no artificial obstacles.”
Abrahamian made the assurances one week after announcing that the government will streamline its expenditures, step up its declared fight against corruption and radically improve the domestic business environment. He linked the move with “new challenges” facing Armenia as a result of the recent escalation of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.
The premier said the Armenian authorities will make tax administration less arbitrary and investigate de facto monopolies owned by wealthy businesspeople close to the ruling establishment. Most of them control imports of fuel and basic foodstuffs to the country.
Opposition parties and independent media outlets responded to the announcement with skepticism, saying that many senior government officials personally benefit from business “oligopolies.” One of those parties, the Armenian National Congress (HAK), rejected Abrahamian’s offer to submit concrete proposals to improve competition and the broader investment climate in the country.
Speaking during the government’s question-and-answer session in the National Assembly, the HAK’s parliamentary leader, Levon Zurabian, argued that the government has blocked anti-trust bills drafted by the HAK in the past.
“You are looking for excuses,” replied Abrahamian. “You all know that we can’t fix the problem with a magic wand.”
Khachatur Kokobelian, another opposition parliamentarian, challenged Abrahamian to explain why gasoline and diesel fuel are considerably cheaper in neighboring Georgia than Armenia. “Don’t you think that this has to do with monopolies and that if this sector is liberalized then the prices will be really market-based?” said Kokobelian.
“I discussed this issue with the president of the republic yesterday,” said Abrahamian. “We will be consistent and will do everything to generate price reductions in the market.”
The government came under fire when it emerged on Tuesday that the Armenian customs service has blocked the import of about 46 metric tons of Russian diesel fuel by a new and relatively small company called Rusarmoil. Heavy trucks carrying it had been held up at Armenia’s main border crossing with Georgia since May 1 on the grounds that the fuel does not meet Armenian quality standards.
The company’s representatives rejected the official explanation, alleging foul play and appealing to Abrahamian and the Russian Embassy in Yerevan for assistance. According to A1plus.am, the Rusarmoil trucks were allowed to cross into Armenia on Wednesday morning.
In what appeared to be a related development, Abrahamian met with several senior government officials later in the day to discuss the situation in the domestic fuel market. A government statement said they explored “possibilities of simplifying procedures” for fuel imports.
“The prime minister stressed the importance of ensuing free and competitive conditions for all business entities active in this sector in a manner defined by law,” said the statement.
The meeting took place shortly before Abrahamian answered lawmakers’ questions on the parliament floor.