President Serzh Sarkisian expressed concern on Wednesday at the latest increases in the prices of fuel and some foodstuffs in Armenian, telling his government to look for ways of mitigating their impact on the population.
Speaking at an emergency meeting with senior state officials, Sarkisian also instructed Armenian anti-trust regulators to consider taking “drastic measures” against a small number of companies importing those products to the country.
The prices of petrol and liquefied natural gas, which powers most vehicles in Armenia, rose by roughly 5 percent on January 2 following the entry into force of a new Armenian Tax Code mandating higher excise duties on fuel, tobacco and alcohol. Also, Armenia tax authorities began collecting this month higher customs duties from around 40 types of imported products, including cooking oil, butter and poultry. Butter prices in the country already soared in the course of 2017.
The Yelk alliance, a major opposition group, said on Monday that it will rally supporters in Yerevan on January 19 to protest against the price hikes.
Sarkisian spoke of unnamed forces and individuals trying to “somehow escalate the situation” as he opened the meeting with Deputy Prime Minister Vache Gabrielian, Economy Minister Suren Karayan, the chief of the State Revenue Committee, Vartan Harutiunian, and several other senior officials. He said the government and the supposedly independent State Commission on the Protection of Economic Competition (SCPEC) must scrutinize “economic entities having dominant positions” in consumer goods sectors.
“We have many levers to determine whether the [price] fluctuations in the markets result from objective processes or the greed of businesses,” he said in remarks publicized by his press office.
According to a statement by the office, Sarkisian said the government should look into the situation in the domestic fuel market and decide whether it warrants “drastic measures” by the SCPEC. He told Artak Shaboyan, the head of the anti-trust commission also present at the meeting, to consider taking such measures also against other companies that import wheat and flour.
The lucrative imports of fuel, wheat and other basic foodstuffs to Armenia have long been controlled by a handful of wealthy entrepreneurs close to the government and Sarkisian in particular. Opposition politicians and other critics have long held the president responsible for the existence of these de facto monopolies. Government officials have denied, however, that any sector of the Armenian economy is monopolized.
The price hikes and the fallout from them come ahead of a keenly anticipated announcement by Sarkisian on whether he will become prime minister after completing his final presidential term in April. Prime Minister Karen Karapetian did not attend Wednesday’s meeting at the presidential palace. Karapetian announced through a spokesman earlier that he will be on vacation from January 8-12.