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Property Tricksters: Armenia’s Culture Minister and Presidential Adviser Appropriate Yerevan Landmark

Edik Baghdasaryan, Hrant Galstyan

Walk down Abovyan Street in Yerevan, right before you get to Republic Square, and you’ll pass a two-story black touf (volcanic stone) building colloquially known as AOKS. It’s one of the oldest remaining buildings in the Armenian capital.

This being Armenia, one shouldn’t be surprised to learn that two government officials in 2001 finagled the property documents to gain ownership of this state registered landmark.

AOKS is the Russian acronym for the Armenian Society for Friendship and Cultural Relations with Foreign Countries (ASRFC).

The culprits are Armen Smbatyan (adviser to the Armenian president on international cultural-humanitarian cooperation matters), and Armenian Minister of Culture Hasmik Poghosyan.

Armenian government officials and department heads are skilled at processing paperwork to their advantage – after all their bottom line is to make money.

In this case, the original paperwork on the building in question dates back to 1955 when Anton Kochinyan, then Chairman of the Council of Ministers of Soviet Armenia, gave instructions that the building would serve as the headquarters for the ASRFC – an arm of the Soviet foreign ministry.

When Hetq contacted Vladimir Poghosyan, who heads the awkwardly named “Historical Environment and Historical-Cultural Museum Preserves Protection Service' SNCO of the Ministry of Culture of Armenia, he said that the building was no longer state property and thus not under the protection of his agency.

So how did a state landmark wind up as private property?

To clarify the matter, Hetq contacted Arman Sahakyan, who heads the government’s State Property Management Department. Sahakyan responded that the building, located at 3 Abovyan Street, had never been registered with his department and that consequently he knew nothing about it being privatized.

Hetq then wrote to Armenian Prime Minister Hovik Abrahamyan. Our letter was forwarded to the State Committee of the Real Estate Cadastre. The response we received from Ashot Mousayan, a deputy director of this committee contained some interesting details and is a window into how many government agencies had a hand in privatizing the AOKS building.

                                                      Leonid Brezhnev and Anton Kochinyan

Mousayan’s reply says that the 255 square meters of land underneath the building was allocated to a company called Tiflis Ltd. in 1996 and that the company was issued privatization deeds in 2003.

The reply goes on to say that the building and the rest of the space was registered in 2001 under the name of a NGO called the Armenian Association for Cooperation and Cultural Relations with Foreign Countries (AOKS/ASFRC).

Side of the landmark building with a high-rise hotel being built right behind

Armen Smbadyan and Hasmik Poghosyan took a 529 square meter portion of the property and handed it over to an outfit called Local Developers Ltd. The owner, Samvel Mayrabedyan, is now building a high-rise hotel on the property. Land in this area of downtown Yerevan goes for at least US$1,000 a square meter.

This means that Smbadyan and Poghosyan either split $500,000 as payment or were promised apartments of equal value by developer Mayrabedyan.

Front view of AOKS building

The Armenian Association for Cooperation and Cultural Relations with Foreign Countries NGO was founded in 2005, according to the Corporate State Registry of the Ministry of Justice. (Basically, the Soviet era ASRFC was re-registered as an NGO). The founders are listed as none other than Armen Smbadyan and Hasmik Poghosyan. In September 2011, the NGO founded AOKS Ltd. with a capital investment of 50,000 AMD.

In December 2011 the capital of AOKS Ltd. became 201 million AMD.

In August 2012, a company called Ocean Pacific Global Properties Ltd. (OPGP) became the sole shareholder of AOKS. The former is registered in the Virgin Islands.

In 2014, the shareholders changed again and the company is now owned by:

The shareholders of AOKS Ltd. | Create infographics

Gor Davtyan’s name cropped in the 2010 seizure of the Bjni water bottling plant from Khachatur Soukiasyan a businessman who had supported the presidential candidacy of Levon Ter-Petrosyan. The plant was ‘obtained by Ruben Hayrapetyan, then the head of Armenia’s football federation. 

Tiflis Ltd. is also located at 3 Abovyan Street. The company was founded on April 30, 1996. Three days after being registered, the government handed over 255 square meters of space under the building to Tiflis Ltd.

In 2013, 100% of the shares of Tiflis Ltd. were obtained by Vagharshak Hakobyan, son of cultural minister Hasmik Poghosyan. Gor Davtyan also serves as director of Tiflis Ltd.

In 2005, when Armen Smbadyan co-founded the Armenian Association for Cooperation and Cultural Relations with Foreign Countries NGO, he was serving as Armenia’s ambassador to Russia. He had been serving as the old AOKS president since 1997.

Hasmik Poghosyan was the AOKS Council President. In 2006 she was appointed Minister of Culture and Youth Affairs. After her appointment as minister, AOKS began to cooperate on a number of events with Poghosyan’s ministry.

Hetq wrote to Minister Poghosyan, asking how the AOKS building came to be privatized and who were the owners. A. Mouradyan, Acting Head of the Ministry’s Staff, replied that answering such questions was beyond the purview of the ministry. We also wrote to Armen Smbadyan who hasn’t yet replied.

The Black Berry café now operates in the building’s ground floor and roof. The AOKS NGO has since relocated to Saryan Street. The NGO told Hetq that renovation work is underway at the second floor of the Abovyan Street building.

The AOKS building was constructed in 1915 by architect Boris Mehrabyan, who also drew up the master plan for Yerevan (1906-1911).

Dr. Hovhannes Hovhannisyan, who was the Chief Physician at the Yerevan Public Hospital starting in 1895, ordered the construction of the building. After leaving his post in 1911, Hovhannisyan opened the city’s first private surgical hospital with ten beds and an ambulatory annex. In 1915, the hospital was transferred to the ground floor of the new two-story building on Abovyan (then Astafyan Street). Hovhannisyan, a bachelor, lived on the top floor. The good doctor passed away in 1935.

In 1923, the Soviet authorities seized Hovhannisyan’s house and it operated as the Tropics Institute (malaria hospital) until 1944.

In 1944, the building was allocated to the Armenian Society for Friendship and Cultural Relations with Foreign Countries, tasked with developing friendly relations and understanding between the Soviet Union’s workers and the peoples of foreign nations.

The building is registered in the Yerevan registry of historical-cultural landmarks.

Photos: Narek Aleksanyan