Thursday, February 19, 2004

The Moscow Times
Thursday, Feb. 19, 2004. Page 9

Armenian Oligarchs: Goldfish in a Puddle

By Kim Iskyan

Russia has many oligarchs -- not least the 17 Russians who made it onto Forbes magazine's list of the world's 500 richest people. No Armenian national, however, made the grade.

The threshold of wealth to qualify for oligarch status in Armenia is a rounding error for the Russian counterparts of Armenia's moguls. Armenia's annual GDP (which is a lot larger than any individual's fortune in the country) is equivalent to two months' revenue for LUKoil, or the total wealth (as of March 2003) of oil baron Viktor Vekselberg, the fourth-richest
Russian on the Forbes list.

But in Lilliputian Armenia, local oligarchs -- who would barely merit a nod from the maitre d' at Cafe Pushkin -- are veritable Gullivers.

Armenia's oligarchs are easy to spot. They're the guys swaggering down Yerevan's main drag, Abovyan Street (shrink Tverskaya by a factor of 10 and you're getting close), flanked by a bevy of flathead thugs who look like genetically engineered, black-turtleneck-clad KamAZ trucks on legs. The local moguls join the corrupt Nagorny Karabakh generals in building mansions
gaudy enough to make palatial New Russian dachas look like modest middle-class suburban pads by comparison.

They're piloted about town in a Hummer, Bentley or maybe a tinted-window Mercedes sport utility vehicle -- chase car optional.

As in Russia, Armenia's oligarchs have their fingers in a lot of pies. There's the Armenian mini-mogul who, according to the Commission to Protect Economic Competition, in 2002 controlled 96 percent of all sugar imports and 78 percent of all alcohol and spirits imports. Another has a bank, an airline that is perpetually on the verge of bankruptcy, and an offshore company that accounted for more than three-quarters of all gasoline imports. He's often linked to Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisyan, Armenia's gray cardinal, who headed up the president's re-election campaign last year. (It was probably just a coincidence that the quality of gasoline deteriorated -- perhaps because it was being diluted -- right around the time that the campaign needed extra cash.) Then there's the bank-and-real-estate tycoon, the candy-and-tobacco baron, the beer-and-natural gas magnate, the power-and-media industrialist, the my-wife-is-friends-with-Putin's-wife power broker and so on. Some of Armenia's oligarchs are giving something back as parliamentary deputies. (Immunity from prosecution has nothing to do with their desire to serve their country, of course.)

If Russia's oligarchs are sharks in a pond, Armenia's are goldfish in a puddle. But if the puddle is your universe, it's not such a bad life.

Kim Iskyan, a freelance journalist and consultant based in Yerevan, Armenia, contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.

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