ARTASHAT (RFE/RL)–More than a hundred angry farmers in Armenia’s wine-growing Ararat region rallied late Tuesday to protest against a sharp cut in the cost of grapes which they said is planned by wine and brandy companies.
The protesters, who own vineyards in more than a dozen local villages, threatened to block a major highway leading to Yerevan as they demonstrated outside the main government building in the regional capital Artashat. The protest followed rumors that at least one of the wine distilleries has decided to cut the purchasing price to 80 drams (20 U.S. cents) per kilogram from last fall’s level of 110-140 drams.
Agriculture Minister Gerasim Alaverdian acknowledged that the wine-growers’ concerns are not unfounded as he arrived in Artashat for urgent talks with regional administration officials. He said President Serzh Sarkisian will personally deal with the matter in the coming days.
One middle-aged protester said that a representative of the Yerevan-based Noy wine company has told him that the company will buy 15 tons of grape from him for 80 drams per kilogram despite a supply contract that set the price at 130 drams. “If I go to court, they will jail me, not them,” he claimed.
“I won’t sell my grapes for 80 drams,” cried one of his neighbors. “I’d rather dump it into the [river] Arax. Let the Turks take it and distill vodka.”
“They may sell a bottle of cognac for as much as 30,000 drams,” reasoned another wine-grower. “If they buy grapes from us for 80 drams, then why don’t they sell their cognac for 300 drams?”
Several representatives of the protesting farmers were allowed into the administration building to discuss their grievances with Alaverdian. They quoted the minister as saying that Sarkisian will hold a special meeting with wine company executives this weekend and urging the farmers to “stay patient” until then. The crowd reluctantly agreed to disperse after that.
“We need to bring clarity to the matter,” Alaverdian told RFE/RL. “If there was an agreement to take [grapes] for 130 drams then it should be honored.” He said that the farmers will be able to sell their produce and that the only unresolved question is its price.
But some local farmers claimed to be having serious trouble finding wholesale buyers. “The grapes are already ripening but I still don’t know to whom to sell them,” complained one man. “Wherever I go, they refuse to buy it.”
According to Agriculture Ministry projections, domestic production of grapes, a major component of Armenia’s agricultural output, will rise by over 10 percent to at least 205,000 tons this year. Deputy Agriculture Minister Samvel Galstian told RFE/RL earlier this month that more than two-thirds of the forecast harvest will likely be purchased by local alcoholic drinks companies.
The largest of them, the French-owned Yerevan Brandy Company, has already started storing grapes for 120-130 drams per kilogram. Most of its supplies come from another southern region, Armavir.