Businessman Gagik Tsarukian assured on Wednesday workers of a cement plant owned by him that they will not be laid off for now because he still hopes that the Armenian government will impose tariffs on cement imports from Iran.
The government decided to introduce such tariffs earlier this year, citing mounting losses incurred by Armenian cement manufacturers. An Armenian parliament committee on economic issues watered down a relevant government bill on April 12 to ensure that the extra import duties do not apply to cement clinker, a nodular material developed before the final stage of cement production.
Tsarukian’s Multi Group holding company was quick to notify most of the 1,100 or so employees of the Ararat Tsement plant in writing that they will fired within two months. It said Ararat Tsement would need a fraction of its current workforce to manufacture cement with cheap Iranian clinker.
Hundreds of workers of the plant located about 50 kilometers south of Yerevan went on strike on Monday in protest against the planned layoffs. They also demanded a meeting with Tsarukian.
The tycoon, who also leads the opposition Prosperous Armenia Party (BHK), met with the workers and told them to “tear up and burn” the notices of termination sent to them by the company management.
“I thought, ‘If they [the authorities] don’t care, then I don’t care either,’” he said. “But then I realized that I, as Tsarukian, as the leader of the party … can’t neglect you. I was just outraged by that wrong decision.”
Tsarukian said the BHK’s parliamentary group, the second largest in the National Assembly, will lobby the government and the parliament majority loyal to it to restore the initial version of the cement bill. BHK lawmakers will organize discussions on the issue on Thursday, he said, inviting one of the Ararat Tsement workers, Henrik Khechumian, to take part in them.
Speaking to RFE/RL’s Armenian service afterwards, Khechumian said he will go to the parliament only with several of his colleagues.
Although the workers agreed to suspend their strike, Khechumian did not seem satisfied with Tsarukian’s assurances. “We may find ourselves in the same situation one week later,” he said.
Ararat Tsement, which reportedly accounts for at least 70 percent of cement production in Armenia, is facing an uncertain future amid renewed tensions between the BHK and Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian’s My Step alliance. Earlier this month Tsarukian publicly criticized the government’s economic policies and said many government officials are incompetent.
This was followed by bitter recriminations traded by My Step and the BHK over a transgender activist’s bombshell speech delivered in the Armenian parliament. On April 9 Pashinian accused a senior BHK lawmaker of organizing a “political provocation” against the parliament majority loyal to him. Tsarukian and his associated rejected the accusation.
Tax officials raided a market and pressurized gas stations belonging to Tsarukian in the following days. BHK representatives suggested that the tax audits are politically motivated.
The tycoon denied on Wednesday any political motives behind his initial decision to fire many Ararat Tsement workers.