YEREVAN (RFE/RL)–Prime Minister Tigran Sargsyan said on Thursday that his government is stepping up its fight against tax fraud in Armenia and, in particular, large companies grossly under-reporting their revenues.
Sarkisian acknowledged that government measures against tax evasion by the wealthiest Armenians taken so far have proved ineffective and stressed the need for a tougher government crackdown.
“We must for the first time see to it that the largest enterprises in the Republic of Armenia come up with public reports,” he told government ministers during a weekly session of his cabinet. “We are criticized for failing to ensure a proper oversight over big business, and I agree with that criticism. It is a great evil for any state when a large enterprise is able to evade their fiscal obligations.”
As part of that drive, he said, some 285 Armenian-based companies with an annual revenue of over 1 billion drams ($2.5 million) will be required to have their financial reports to tax authorities certified by independent auditors starting from this year. The measure stems from a government-drafted bill that was adopted by the National Assembly last year.
The government pushed the law through the parliament after Sarkisian pledged in early 2009 to make big business “the number one target” of the government efforts to improve tax administration. Large and lucrative firms, many of them owned by government-linked individuals, have long been regarded as a key source of tax evasion and the main obstacle to fair business competition in the country.
Some of those businessmen on Thursday criticized the mandatory audits ordered by the government. Gurgen Arsenian, a leading petrol importer, denounced the measure as “unconstitutional.” Arsenian alleged that it will only benefit private auditors and that the Armenian premier and “his cronies” stand to personally gain from their increased profits.
According to official data, Armenia’s 300 largest corporate taxpayers accounted for almost 45 percent of the government’s overall tax revenue last year. An 18 percent drop in their contributions to the state treasury was slightly higher than the nationwide average, suggesting that tax evasion among the rich has yet to decrease.
The prime minister revealed on Thursday that President Serzh Sarkisian, whom opposition politicians have long accused of sponsoring a handful of “oligarchs,” told government bodies in 2008 to also use “analytical” methods of detecting tax fraud. “In the last two years, we have attempted to recruit cadres capable of doing such analytical work,” he said. “But unfortunately, we are not yet satisfied with the work that has been done.”
“Within one month, the Finance Ministry must publish the results of its analytical work that will show, in particular, the large taxpayers’ indicators for 2008 and 2009,” added Prime Minister Sargsyan. “Why? Because there is concern that the main tax burden during the crisis year  fell on small and medium-sized businesses, rather than big business.”
Improved tax collection is a key point of the president’s ambitious reform agenda which was unveiled last November. It also calls for improving the country’s business environment, combating government corruption and strengthening the broader rule of law.
Sargsyan stood by his earlier promise to expose state officials illegally engaging in economic activity. He called for the formation of “ethics commissions” which he said would keep “parliament deputies and ministers” from “directly doing business.”
The premier complained in December that Armenia’s existing laws make it all but impossible for the authorities to punish officials with extensive business interests of dubious origin.