Armenia’s former top utility regulator was arrested on Thursday on suspicion of giving privileged treatment to a company allegedly linked to Mikael Minasian, former President Serzh Sarkisian’s fugitive son-in-law.
The Special Investigative Service (SIS) said Robert Nazarian, who headed the Public Services Regulatory Commission (PSRC) from 2003-2018, was taken into custody as part of a criminal investigation into DzoraHEK, a major hydroelectric plant privatized in 2010.
The SIS said that in 2011 Nazarian abused his position to have the PSRC include DzoraHEK on a list of small hydroelectric facilities allowed to sell electricity to the national power grid at a much higher price. As a result, the plant made more than 7 billion drams ($14.5 million) in extra profits over the next eight years, the law-enforcement agency added in a statement.
The statement implied that DzoraHEK received the privileged treatment because it was owned at the time by “individuals linked to former President Serzh Sarkisian’s son-in-law Mikael Minasian.”
The SIS did not formally charge Nazarian with abuse of power yet. It was not clear whether the former PSRC chief, who had also served as mayor of Yerevan from 2001-2003, admitted any wrongdoing.
There was no immediate reaction from Minasian, who left Armenia in late 2018 and is now facing separate corruption charges rejected by him as politically motivated.
The SIS move prompted criticism from lawyers representing Sarkisian. In a joint statement, they accused the investigators of spreading “manipulative information” aimed at discrediting their client.
Armen Ashotian, the deputy chairman of Sarkisian’s Republican Party of Armenia (HHK), alleged, meanwhile, that the SIS arrested Nazarian in a bid to force him to give “false” incriminating testimony against the ex-president. He said that Nazarian refused to implicate Sarkisian in any corrupt practices.
“Robert Nazarian is proving that there have been and there will be unbreakable, ethical and strong guys in Armenia,” Ashotian wrote on Facebook.
The DzoraHEK plant was handed over to the Armenia Defense Ministry in 2001 one year after Serzh Sarkisian was appointed as defense minister. The latter held that post until 2007 and went on to become Armenia’s president in 2008.
In 2010, Sarkisian’s government decided to sell the hydroelectric plant, located in the northern Lori province, to a private company, Dzoraget Hydro, for 3.6 billion drams ($7.5 million). Some Armenian media outlets speculated at the time that the company is controlled by Minasian.
Prosecutors said in May 2019 DzoraHEK was in fact worth an estimated 8 billion drams ($16.8 million). Earlier this year, they indicted Seyran Ohanian, Armenia’s defense minister from 2008 to 2016, over the 26-megawatt facility’s privatization which they said caused “substantial damage” to the state.
Ohanian denied any responsibility for the deal, saying that it was negotiated by the Armenian Energy Ministry and approved by the former government.
In 2016, DzoraHEK was sold to another private company reportedly owned by Russian-Armenian billionaire Samvel Karapetian.