Diaspora Investors - Easy Prey for Armenia's Authorities?
"I'm going to throw all of you in prison"
These were the words uttered by tax investigator Rafael Mkrtichyan to Nareg Hartounian, a Lebanese-Armenian who founded the Naregatsi Art Institute.
Yes folks, here's yet another story of a diaspora Armenian investor being bullied by officials in Armenia – this time it's the dreaded State Revenue Committee.
A bit in the way of background info on this family and their activities:
The Naregatsi Art Institute was incorporated in 20002 as a non-profit organization. Its stated objective is to serve Armenia's existing cultural heritage through supporting Armenian contemporary artists and creating a forum in which the spirit of art and the common voice can resonate freely.
The Naregatsi Art Institute opened its doors to the public on September 5, 2004 and in Shushi on August 31, 2006. The Shushi branch was housed in a dilapidated building that was rebuilt. Both centers were accessible to the physically disabled. To date, over $2 million has been spent on the two art centers. (www.naregatsi.org).
With their own resources, the Haroutunian family carries out charitable projects in Yerevan, Shushi and Karvatchar.
They have constructed the Knaravan village (north of Karvatchar in the liberated territories) and have populated it with homeless families. It was named in honor of Knar Haroutunian, the family's deceased mother. The project's aim was to build houses for. The tiny community also has a school and a medical unit so that the 15 families can be provided with all the necessary living conditions. The project, costing $550,000, was completed in 2004. (www.knaravan.org)
During the years 2002-2010, the Haroutunian family has contributed over $3 million to charitable works in Armenia and Artsakh.
In September 2010, Nareg also became director of GH Storage Enterprises, a foodstuff importing business started by his father Garabed Haroutunian.
Before Nareg took over the reins of GH Storage Enterprises, the company's executive director was Sevak Artzruni and Artyom Martirosyan was the managing director. Artzruni ran the show and made all the decisions. The Haroutunian family lived in the U.S. and had close ties to the Sevak Artzruni family. It was Artzruni who ran the business for the Haroutunians.
It was the sudden falling out between Nareg Hartounian and Artzruni that prompted the company's warehouse manager to send off a letter to Armenian law enforcement, stating that the company was purposefully avoiding paying taxes.
The man who wrote the letter was Garik Babayan; the brother of Sevak Artzruni's wife. Nareg had fired Garik Babayan from his job two weeks after becoming executive director.
The Kentron and Nork Marash Administrative Court issued a search warrant for the company's premises. The court order said it was to search for goods not duly registered as inventory. The court claimed that 14 million AMD worth of goods were thus concealed out of an import order of 35 million.
The investigator in charge failed to note when such transactions were alleged to have taken place. Had he done so, it would turn out that it was during the tenure of Sevak Artzruni as executive director.
But I'm jumping the gun. Sevak Artzruni served as the legal representative (power of attorney) for the Haroutunian family since 2003. He purchased real estate for them.
GH Storage Enterprises was established in the name of Garabed Haroutunian and in 2009 he and his two sons, Nareg and Saro, signed a document obliging them to pay Sevak Artzruni 25% of their commercial profits derived in Armenia.
On September 23, 2010, Sevak Artzruni signed a document forgoing any further dealings with the Haroutunian family and annulling any prior obligations he had to them.
In the letter, Artzruni cited such factors as "a change in the Haroutunians' attititude and growing lack of confidence" as a reason for his pulling out of any and all contractual arrangements with the family.
Artzruni also mentioned that he expected to be paid the 25% in remuneration for services rendered.
Artzruni naturally failed to mention was the fact that Nareg has noticed that large amounts of cash had gone missing. He demanded some answers from Artzruni.
This is where the story gets more than a bit confusing and multi-layered. Everyone seems to have gotten involved – the courts, cops, tax authorities and a host of other characters.
In the end, Sevak Artzruni sues Garabed Haroutunian and his two sons, demanding that the court make them hand over the 25% profit owed him.
Sevak Artzruni walks around Yerevan flanked with bodyguards.
When he was the executive director of GH Storage Enterprises, Artzruni had the company pay the head of the Police Department’s Division of Personal and Property Protection for the bodyguards.
Photo: Nareg Hartounian (left) and Sevak Artzruni