After years of criticism, Armenia’s government has decided to privatize a newly constructed expensive facility with whirlpool bathtubs, restaurants and tennis courts which was meant to serve as a “training center” for its tax officials.
The State Revenue Committee (SRC), which comprises the national tax and customs services, began building the center in the resort town of Dilijan in 2011 and has spent an equivalent of $33 million on it since then.
The sprawling Dilijan complex tucked into a picturesque forest has four lecture auditoriums occupying only a small part of it. They are dwarfed by other, more luxurious facilities serving a different purpose. Those include swimming pools with mosaic tiles, whirlpool bathtubs, gyms, saunas, bars, restaurants, tennis courts and a cinema hall equipped with expensive projection and sound systems.
The SRC has for years defended the expensive construction, saying that thousands of its employees will be educated, trained and retrained there. Critics have dismissed these explanations, saying that Armenia has other, far more urgent needs that require government funding.
They have also decried a lack of transparency in the implementation of the highly controversial project. They argue that the SRC contracted only two private firms to build the Dilijan facility without holding any competitive tenders.
The project is thought to be the brainchild of Gagik Khachatrian, the SRC’s controversial former head who became finance minister in 2014 but was sacked last month in a government reshuffle. Armenian media reports have long linked Khachatrian with a host of lucrative businesses. They have also alleged widespread corruption among tax and customs officials.
Armenia’s current Prime Minister Karapetian indicated his disapproval of the Dilijan center shortly after taking office in September. His cabinet on Thursday formally decided to transfer control of the facility from the SRC to the Department on State Property Management, a government agency tasked with privatizing state assets.
The department confirmed on Friday that the center will be privatized or rented out. In a statement to RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am), it said it will look into these options and submit a recommendation to the government within a month.
Hayk Gevorgian, the economic editor for the “Haykakan Zhamanak” daily which has extensively covered the Dilijan project, suggested that the government will have trouble finding a private buyer willing to pay a large sum for the facility. “I don’t think that if you pay, say, $30 million for that facility you can recoup that sum even in a hundred years,” he said.