Government Makes New Bid To Sell ‘Opposition’ Plant

3BE905FE-0561-4595-AFA8-6F8BAA69ADFA_mw270_sYEREVAN (RFE/RL)–The Armenian authorities will make another attempt this week to sell off a mineral water company that was controversially confiscated from a wealthy opposition-linked businessman.

The Bjni mineral water plant belonging to the SIL Concern group of Khachatur Sukiasian and his extended family was already auctioned off by the government early this year after its owners’ failure to pay almost 5.2 billion drams ($13.6 million) in fines imposed for alleged tax evasion.

Armenia’s Administrative Court annulled the auction in March, saying that the authorities can not forcibly sell the company unless it is declared bankrupt by another court. Bjni has since been going through bankruptcy proceedings and facing an uncertain future.

A court-appointed official administering the process said in July that Bjni will be sold off in parts unless SIL comes up with a credible plan to repay its debts. But the official, Arsen Chitchian, told RFE/RL on Tuesday that the plant located in Charentsavan, a small town about 40 kilometers north of Yerevan, has now been put up for tender as a single entity.

Chitchian said the outcome of the tender will be announced on Thursday. He would not specify if the authorities have already received any bids for Bjni, saying only that their minimum asking price remains 5.18 billion drams.

The Sukiasian family, which denies the tax fraud charges as politically motivated, has tried unsuccessfully to have Armenian courts overturn Bjni’s seizure. It took its case to the European Court of Human Rights this summer, demanding as much as 214 million euros ($312 million) in “material and moral” damages from the Armenian government.

Despite the bankruptcy proceedings, the Chitchian-led temporary administration resumed production operations at Bjni around that time. The company has also been able to advertise its production on Armenia’s leading television stations.

SIL issued a statement last week disavowing any responsibility for the mineral water bottled there at present. “The use of that brand is being associated with SIL Concern,” Ara Zohrabian, a senior lawyer for the group, told RFE/RL on Tuesday. “Given that SIL Concern currently has no oversight over the quality of the production, it came up with such a statement to show that if any problems emerge in the future SIL Concern will not be responsible for them.”

“There are no problems with quality whatsoever,” countered Chitchian. “I can’t understand their concerns.”

The bankruptcy administrator also dismissed SIL’s protests against the continuing use of its name on Bjni bottle labels. “I can’t say anything about that because the Bjni plant is continuing its normal operations and has not been liquidated yet,” he said. “So naturally, it should produce bottles with the same labels.”

Bjni and several other companies making up SIL Concern were raided by tax officials and accused of large-scale tax evasion shortly after Khachatur Sukiasian voiced support in September 2007 for former President Levon Ter-Petrosian’s bid to return to power. The tycoon was among several Ter-Petrosian associates who fled the country to escape arrest following the February 2008 presidential election. He surrendered to the police on September 2 and was set free three days later.


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