A company that has long dominated imports of bananas to Armenia insisted on Monday that it did not obstruct stated government efforts to open up the lucrative business to competition.
The State Revenue Committee said on November 21 that it is swiftly acting on Prime Minister Karen Karapetian’s pledge to liberalize imports of key goods controlled by government-linked businesspeople.
The SRC said it has just helped an unidentified entrepreneur import a large quantity of bananas to Armenia from Russia. It said the importer complained to the SRC that other individuals are trying to obstruct their cargo shipment. The government agency, which comprises the national tax and customs services, has still not identified those individuals or specified whether they are customs or tax officials.
Banana imports to Armenia have long been monopolized by the Katrine Group company reputedly controlled by Mihran Poghosian, a man who until recently headed a powerful state body enforcing court rulings. Poghosian has repeatedly denied having any links with the company. Still, he is the chairman of a charitable organization financed by Katrine Group,
Katrine Group’s chief executive, Ricardo Merino, insisted that the company was not behind the import obstruction reported by the SRC. “Of course, we compete,” he told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am). “The bigger our share in the market, the better. But I want to make clear that we are not doing anything extraordinary for that. We just want to provide a better service at a better price.”
“If we are bothering our competitors with this, I am happy with that,” he said.
The SRC claimed, meanwhile, that the retail prices of bananas in Armenia have already fallen by more than 20 percent thanks to its anti-trust measures.
Karapetian vowed to improve the domestic business environment and embark on other economic reforms shortly after he was appointed prime minister in September. He said in October that a new company has entered the lucrative business of fuel imports until now monopolized by a handful of firms.
Hrant Bagratian, an opposition parliamentarian and a former prime minister, sounded a note of caution over the seriousness of the recently reshuffled government’s reform agenda. “It may be serious or it may be just a gimmick,” Bagratian told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am).
“I have been told that there are now more than one importers of sugar and bananas,” he said. “I don’t know whether or not that is the case.”
In Bagratian’s words, one way to measure the extent of the monopolization of the Armenian economy is to look at the share of small and medium-sized enterprises in Gross Domestic Product. “According to official data, it has fallen from 28 percent to 23 percent,” he said. “But this research doesn’t cover 2016. That is why I think it is too early to make judgments about that.”