Mar 142013
 March 14, 2013  Add comments
Reference id  aka Wikileaks id #235119  ?
Subject The Business Of Politics: Leading Enterprises Of Political Elites
Origin Embassy Yerevan (Armenia)
Cable time Tue, 17 Nov 2009 14:00 UTC
Classification CONFIDENTIAL
References 08YEREVAN36909YEREVAN10609YEREVAN36909YEREVAN372
DE RUEHYE #0798/01 3211400
R 171400Z NOV 09
E.O. 12958:
DECL: 11/16/2019
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Classified By: Ambassador Marie L. Yovanovitch, for reasons 1.4 (b/d)
¶1. (C) SUMMARY: The murky ownership of Armenia’s major industry clusters is a hidden driver of Armenian politics and elites’ inter-relationships. Yerevan chatter frequently refers to which prominent political figure owns what prominent economic assets, but it is difficult to get clear and consistent information. One well-connected businessman was recently willing to speak candidly and confidentially about the major economic interests of leading political figures. Broadly speaking, almost all the most lucrative sectors and enterprises are divided into one of two major political/economic pyramids: one headed by President Serzh Sargsian and the other by ex-President Robert Kocharian. Having somewhat broken out of the Kocharian pyramid, parliament speaker Hovik Abrahamian now heads what could become a third major cluster of business enterprises. END SUMMARY
¶2. (C) BACKGROUND AND COMMENT: Armenian politics is winner-take-all, and this very much applies not only to the political spoils, but very often to the leading business and economic spoils as well. This is one reason that Armenian politics have become so implacable. Moreover, one outcome of the 2008 presidential election was the break-down of a tacit “live and let live” pact that had previously allowed some business figures who supported former President Levon Ter-Petrossian (LTP) — most notably by oligarch Khachatur “Grzo” Sukiasian, who controlled the SIL Group of businesses — to continue to hold lucrative interests after Ter-Petrossian’s 1998 ouster. When LTP fell in what amounted to a non-violent palace coup, one of the unspoken deals was that so long as LTP and his business allies kept out of politics and made no trouble for the new regime, they would be left alone. With Grzo’s open support of LTP’s 2008 presidential campaign, all bets were off. The SIL Group has been substantially disassembled, and its most lucrative assets seized and effectively transferred (by rigged court actions) into the hands of loyalists of President Serzh Sargsian (reftels). Business elites are thus deeply intertwined with political power, and vice versa, and each has an incentive to preserve the status quo, fearing that regime change could kick off a new campaign of economic redistribution at the expense of today’s oligarchs. However, other business leaders may have been canny enough not to burn bridges, instead cultivating civil relations across the political divide. Among the interesting comments shared by our interlocutor was that many if not most Armenian business leaders are now actively seeking patronage (“krisha”) relationships in Moscow, as a hedge against local political risk, because they are uncertain how Armenian politics will unfold and they want additional leverage to protect themselves if the local climate turns against them. Some of these Russian “krishas” (is krisha a person or a relationship?) are oligarchs, while others are senior military or security service generals or other Kremlin insiders. END COMMENT
¶3. (C) PIERCING THE ECONOMIC VEIL: Poloff met with a well-connected Armenian business leader, who has political and business relationships across the political spectrum, for a wide-ranging conversation about who owns what among Armenia’s political/economic elite. It was clear that this information is very sensitive. During the conversation, our interlocutor spoke freely and confidently about the latest insider political party intrigues and confidential political dealings to which he was privy. When the conversation turned to oligarchs, monopolies, and business ownership, his body language changed completely: he leaned forward and lowered his voice, and there were certain questions he deferred until a presumed later meeting “outside Yerevan,” a conversation which did not ultimately transpire. It was clear to Poloff that revealing the behind-the-scenes ownership of major industry sectors was considered a higher-octane confidence than the hurly-burly of Armenia’s domestic politics. We consider this contact to be a frank and knowledgeable source, and his information rings true — as well as generally tracking with other fragmentary information we have. That said, this is all based on a single source, who does have his own business and political interests, including an opposition tilt. Nonetheless, we felt it worthwhile to offer Washington analysts this peek behind the veil at the money interests that are an unseen factor in Armenia’s hardball politics.
¶4. (C) Serzh Sargsian had a head start on Kocharian when it came to gaining control of lucrative economic assets. Though
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both men are Karabakhis, Sargsian came to a Yerevan and took up the first of a string of powerful ministerial posts five years earlier than Kocharian, who remained in Nagorno-Karabakh until 1998. In ten years as president, Kocharian caught up to Sargsian and it evolved to the point that most of the dominant business and economic sectors were in some way linked to one of the two of them. With Sargsian’s rise to the presidency, several oligarchs have switched their allegiance to Sargsian.
¶5. (C) Our contact noted that there are really just two oligarchs that are personally loyal to Serzh Sargsian and therefore are reliably in his camp, regardless of the shifting winds of politics: Mikhail Baghdasarov and Nikolai Barsegh. (COMMENT: One presumes that Sargsian’s son-in-law, Mikhail “Misha” Minasian, whose business interests are growing rapidly, would be similarly loyal, but this was not mentioned. Minasian probably does not yet rate “oligarch” status in his own right, and in many cases may simply be the public face of businesses de facto owned by Sargsian. Most leading political figures do not own their businesses or assets in their own names, but control them through intermediaries such as close family members and trusted friends and allies. END COMMENT).
¶6. (C) MIKHAIL BAGDASSAROV: Baghdassarov owns Mika company, which is one of Armenia’s two dominant fuel import wholesalers. Mika is also a chain of gasoline stations and various other petroleum product distribution businesses. Baghdassarov owns the Armenian national airline, Armavia. Baghdassarov also owns one of Armenia’s two major cement factories, Mika Cement, based in the city of Hrazdan.
¶7. (C) NIKOLAI BARSEGH: Barsegh owns the other dominant fuel import company, Flash, which also has its own chain of filling stations. Serzh Sargsian more or less completely controls the import of all kinds of fuel through Baghdassarov and Barsegh. Barsegh also owns Ararat Bank.
¶8. (C) SAMVEL “LFIK SAMO” ALEXANIAN: Lfik Samo is one of those oligarchs who has switched allegiance from Kocharian to Sargsian. He controls flour, wheat, sugar, and poultry imports. He also owns a number of retail chains, notably the growing “Yerevan City” chain of supermarkets. Lfik Samo also controls about 50 percent of Armenia’s imported pharmaceuticals. He has close economic ties to the Prosecutor General. We know from other sources that he personally led his “thugs” through electoral precincts in the Malatia-Sebastia district of Yerevan, in a campaign of electoral intimidation in support of Serzh Sargsian, during last year’s presidential election. Those electoral precincts were also, by the admission of the Central Election Commission Chairman (ref C), the most problematic in the May 31 election for Yerevan Mayor and City Council.
¶9. (C) PROSECUTOR GENERAL: The Prosecutor General, Aghvan Hovsepian, heads a close-knit political/economic grouping known informally as the “Aparan clan,” because its leading members are all Yerevan transplants from the Armenian city of Aparan. The PG and his “Aparantsi” own Shant Television and Shant Dairy, and we are told he holds shares in numerous businesses on Serzh Sargsian’s behalf. Our contact reports that Hovsepian and his Aparan clan may be politically somewhat independent players, but when it comes to business, they are completely in the Sargsian camp, and as noted above work closely with Lfik Samo.
¶10. (C) MISHA MINASIAN: The president’s son-in-law has long owned the booming Jazzve chain of coffee shop/cafes, which has branches throughout Yerevan and in many other locations around Armenia. He also now owns Pares Armenia — the exclusive distributor of Phillip Morris tobacco products in Armenia — after the government deployed the customs service (now the State Revenue Committee) to wrest control of Pares Armenia from Grzo.
¶11. (C) HARUTYUN PAMBUKIAN: Pambukian owns one of the large retail gas station chains, GPS, and also controls a large candy enterprise. He was the campaign manager for Gagik “Chorny Gago” Beglarian, who led the Republican party list in the May 31 Yerevan city council election and was subsequently elected Mayor by the council.
¶12. (C) ALEXANDER “SASHIK” SARGSIAN: Serzh Sargsian’s controversy-prone brother holds large shares in a wide array of big businesses without dominating any one sector in particular. It is said of him, as it is of several Serzh Sargsian intimates, that if you are having problems with the tax police or other authorities, the quickest way to solve it is to turn over a significant stake in your business to Sashik.
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¶13. (C) RUBEN “NEMETZ RUBO” HAYREPETIAN: Nemetz Rubo is one of the more criminally-connected oligarchs in Armenia, and according to our source has been divesting (perhaps involuntarily) from many of his more “legitimate” businesses. He was reputedly connected to the notorious Russian mobster “Yaponchik.” Nemetz Rubo is chairman of the Armenian Football Federation, and formerly held a large stake in the Grand Candy/Grand Tobacco conglomerate, until he was pressured by Sargsian to sell his stake to Hrant Vartanian. He may also be a significant shareholder in the Armenian Development Bank, though our source was less confident of this information. He reportedly owns a casino in Russia. Our source called Nemetz Rubo a drug trafficker.
¶14. (C) HRANT VARTANIAN: Hrant Vartanian, with his son and business partner –and MP–Mikhail, is the wealthiest man in Armenia, we are told. Educated in tobacco cultivation, he controls both the Grand and Masis Tobacco companies, as well as the popular Grand Candy confectionary company that is rapidly expanding its network of products and shops in the capital. He financially supports the local Arya university devoted to Iranian studies, and is reportedly interested in expanding Armenia’s commercial ties with Iran. Formerly he divided his loyalty between Serzh Sargsian and Robert Kocharian, but by now has become purely a Sargsian ally.
¶15. (C) GAGIK “DODI GAGO” TSARUKIAN: The oligarch who is as loyal to Kocharian as Mika Baghdassarov and Nikolai Barsegh are to Sargsian is Gagik “Dodi Gago” Tsarukian, who also heads the Prosperous Armenia political party. (COMMENT: We have heard elsewhere the hypothesis that a considerable portion of Tsarukian’s assets and businesses are in fact Robert Kocharian’s, while Tsarukian is simply the owner of record. Whether or not that is literally true, it seems clear that Tsarukian’s stature would not be as prominent today had it not been for Kocharian’s backing. END COMMENT) Tsarukian owns much of the local alcohol production, mostly through the Yerevan/Noy brandy and wine firm, although the rival Ararat Brandy Company is completely independent — owned by a French conglomerate. Tsarukian owns Armenia’s second major cement plant, Ararat Cement, among other assets in his large portfolio.
¶16. (C) SEDRAK KOCHARIAN: Robert Kocharian’s son Sedrak controls a variety of businesses. He reportedly owns Converse Bank and Ardshinvest Bank (Comment: Converse Bank is officially owned by Argentine billionaire Eduardo Eurnekian, who also owns the company that manages the airports in Yerevan and Gyumri, and who late last year purchased Armenia,s postal service, HayPost. While Eurnekian is believed to be close to Kocharian and it is quite plausible that Kocharian or his son own a stake in Converse Bank, we cannot confirm that either owns it outright. End Comment). Sedrak also holds a one-third partnership (with Deputy Prime Minister Armen Gevorkian and H2 Television owner Samvel Mairopetian also holding a third each) in the de facto monopoly for importing mobile phone handsets and the Toyota distributorship. Armen Gevorkian originally was a Kocharian man, serving as Kocharian’s Chief of Staff, but was subsequently named Deputy Prime Minister under Sargsian. As for Mairopetian, we were left unclear whether he is a Kocharian loyalist or a Serzh Sargsian man cut in on the lucrative deals.
¶17. (C) ANDRANIK MANUKIAN: The former minister of transport and communications, (and a survivor of the 1999 parliamentary shootings, with the scarred face to show it), Manukian was traditionally a Kocharian ally, but more recently has edged closer to the Serzh Sargsian orbit, so perhaps has divided loyalties. Our contact called him “one of the really wealthy” in Armenia, who is always “with the power.” Manukian holds a monopoly on the import and distribution of Russian Lada cars in Armenia — which remains a booming segment of the Armenian car market, as the little cars are cheap to buy, operate, and repair. Manukian also has a share of the Vivacell MTS mobile phone service. He owns the downtown Metropol Hotel, as well as a broad range of smaller businesses. Manukian’s sons control the import of Ford, Nissan, and Renault vehicles, although our contact said the sons have given shares in that business to Serzh Sargsian.
¶18. (C) The parliament speaker controls his own business empire which — formerly part of the Kocharian pyramid — is now increasingly autonomous. Abrahamian is from Armenia’s YEREVAN 00000798 004.2 OF 004 only region which boasts viable, significant-scale agribusiness, and almost wholly owns the sector (through intermediaries, of course). He owns the ArtFood company, which is Armenia’s leading processed food company, and also has a number of alcoholic beverage plants. Abrahamian also owns a sizeable percentage of Armenia’s cultivated land and the produce thereof.
¶19. (C) Our contact told us that Sargsian and Kocharian share a significant amount of revenues from a number of government and business revenue streams. While unclear on how much revenues they share in reality, it is safe to assume that the sources of this revenue stream include customs proceeds, bribes, and other illegal payments. The traffic police agency — infamous for extorting fines from motorists, which are then shared up the hierarchy — was previously controlled by then deputy defense minister and Yerkrapah leader General Manvel Grigorian, who had been Kocharian’s man. But Grigorian all-but-publically switched allegiance to LTP after last year’s election, and was consequently stripped of many of his assets. Now Serzh Sargsian controls the traffic police revenue stream, we are told, while at the same time making a public show of speaking out against such abuses. Sargsian and Kocharian reportedly each have ownership interests in mobile phone operators VivaCell-MTS and Beeline (Armentel).
¶20. (C) We again caution that — aside from our embedded comments — all of the material in this cable is taken from a single individual who has a more oppositional outlook than otherwise, but who is well-connected to both government and opposition figures. He has been a generally informative and reliable interlocutor, but doubtless also has his own axes to grind and in some cases (such as the tax, customs, and police examples) may be exaggerating. That said, all of what we have presented here more or less fits with the prevailing understanding of the intersection between politics and business. We will continue to seek additional sources to corroborate this information for the benefit of Washington analysts.