Tuesday, May 25, 2004

AGBU 5/22
Page 1

The AGBU-built cold food storage facility in Gumri

Armenian Government Sells $5 Million Food Storage Facility for $150,000

By Hagop Avedikian and Tatul Hagopian

) - On the front entrance of Gumri's cold food storage facility is written, "Built through donations of 35,000 Americans, American-Armenians and the Government of Armenia."

The earthquake of 1988 had demolished the cold storage facility of Gumri and the government of Armenia at the time had asked the Armenian General Benevolent Union (AGBU) to build a new one. By 1992, the AGBU had built one of the best such facilities of the region.
But, the 10,000-ton capacity storage building did not work for long, mainly because of the energy crisis affecting the country. Between 1988 and 2000, the cold storage facility was one of the government properties that were "de-nationalized," or privatized and sold, under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Commerce and Economy.

Minister Garen Jeshmaridian, in his written answer to Azg stated, "I am informing that Gumri's cold storage facility was in the list of de-nationalization program of 1998-2000, but procedures were not initiated. At the same time I am informing that by the decision of the court dated April 18, 2002, the cold storage facility has been declared non-solvent [in Armenia that means not able to pay taxes] and on March 13, 2003, the whole facility was sold by auction to the Gechor company."

The Gechor Company belongs to Parliament member Martin Soukiassian. He paid $150,000 for the facility built through donations by 35,000 people and which is worth $5 million. The facility was built by Intercool, a Danish company, under contract to AGBU.

In 1989, when former AGBU President Louise Manoogian Simone announced in Cyprus the start of work on the cold storage building. Achuk Juknavorian was giving the members there details about the construction, causing high emotions and unprecedented enthusiasm not only among the members there, but also among the Diaspora Armenians. During those hard times, al that mattered to Armenians was helping the people of Gumri. That is why, on a short notice the AGBU was able to raise $5 million. But nobody could have imagined that because of the energy crisis, the storage building would not function. Secondly, because of the blockade, there was not much food to store.

But now, or more precisely in 2003, when the energy crisis was behind us, and when the mood seems favorable to open the border with Turkey, the cold storage facility's importance is looming once again.

There are many other unusual steps in this sale. First of all, why was the storage building listed in the de-nationalization program? Did the government of Armenia inform AGBU leaders of its intention? Since the AGBU had donated the cold storage facility to the government, the government had the moral obligation to inform the AGBU of sale, and the AGBU had the moral obligation to explain it to the 35,000 donors who had funded the construction.

Secondly, what does the phrase "procedures were not initiated" mean? Who was the government waiting for? Did the government anticipate that the facility was going to be auctioned because of tax delinquency, once it became de-nationalized?

Thirdly, who is to blame when taxpayer and the tax collector are the same entity, the government? Why did the ministry not paid the taxes owed to the government by the cold storage facility?

Could it possibly be that the ministry failed to pay the building's taxes so that they could sell it quickly through an auction?

The auction itself remains suspect, as there were no public announcements about it in the newspapers.

We do not know if the government informed AGBU its in intention of selling the facility. The AGBU representative in Armenia refused comment, saying only that the issue is a problem between the AGBU and the government of Armenia. The representative forgets that the building was constructed through the donations of 35,000 people, some from Chicago and Los Angeles, who are calling the offices of Azg, asking about the fate of their donation.

There is a moral issue here. With the help of the government, 35,000 people have donated to the Gechor Company and enriched its new owner. This is an immoral act of the government, which is still seeking the financial help of the Diaspora Armenians. At the same time, with this attitude, the government is putting under suspicion one of the largest and oldest Armenian organizations in front of its donors. And this is not the only case. Many donations during the Soviet Armenia and afterwards to the Armenian government, such as the factory donated by Union of Aintab was mysteriously given away to a Member of Parliament or a gang leader.

After all this, we are still surprised that the diaspora is helping Armenia less and less each year.

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