Garegin Habajian, who goes by the nickname Gagik, operated his own fuel business from his home garage on Davit Bek Street in the Aresh district of Erebuni. One by one, cars would pull up in front alongside an old oak tree that wraps around the frame of a bench missing its wooden seat.
Two oversized funnels made from sheet metal, with long, tapered stems that are inserted into the gasoline tank, were at the ready on the bench. When there were three or more cars waiting in queue, his teenage boys—both of them competing tae kwon do athletes—would run over, funnels in hand, popping off the caps and filling away.
They live modestly in their home that Gagik was born and raised in, and earn an honest living. Nevertheless, the neighbors don’t seem to care.
“The neighbors are scared,” he said. “They say that I have large amounts of gasoline but I don’t. I bring it in the morning, and by evening it’s all gone.”
Habajian has been filling gasoline since 1998. His business is registered with the government and he, like any small business owner, is obliged to pay taxes regularly.
A truck filled a tank in his garage that held one metric ton of gasoline at least once a week. The gasoline was then poured into 5 or 10-gallon water jugs to be transported to the front of the house and filled into vehicles.
Now, because of the latest in a string of lawsuits filed jointly by his immediate neighbors, Habajian loads the jugs in the trunk of an old Latvian hatchback that barely runs. He tells his customers who pull up in front of his garage to follow him 100 meters down the street, stopping in front of a tiny auto parts store where he fills as much gasoline as his clients need.
The issues with his neighbors began in February. When the authorities arrived to inform him of the complaints, he removed his gas tank. Subsequently, the media televised that the tank had been removed.
The government is required to inspect his premises for safety violations; yet despite protests from his neighbors, nothing dangerous was ever determined to have been transpiring while running his business.
Although owning an independent gasoline station in Armenia is indeed possible, the related operational costs and tax payments offset the advantages of running one. The overwhelming majority of cars are fueled by natural gas, which makes the volume of gasoline sales low by comparison.
Most gasoline stations throughout the country are owned and operated by oligarchs who have strong ties to the government. Over 43 percent of the gasoline and diesel fuel market share is controlled by the companies Flash and City Petrol, which own 58 and 59 stations nationwide, respectively.
According to the National Statistics Service, in 2009 Armenia imported 344,510 metric tons of oil products, including fuel, which was a 14 percent decrease from the previous year. From March through December of 2009 alone, 131,500 metric tons of gasoline was sold. In the first half of 2010, an estimated 171,565 metric tons of oil and non-crude oil-based products were imported.
The price of a liter of high-octane gasoline ranges between 360 and 410 dram, or $1 to $1.14, depending on the grade. Habajian sells only high-quality gasoline, free of sediment that is often found in the substandard fuel sold by some stations.
After the tank was removed from his garage, Habajian purchased a gasoline truck and began selling fuel from an alleyway just a few hundred meters away from his home, out of sight from his neighbors. But after only four weeks, due to a new series of complaints, that solution came to an end and he was out of business again.
In another ruling made in his favor, he was allowed once again to fill gasoline from his garage, provided that he sell no more than 500 liters a day (although he averages 200 liters) and he deliver the gasoline himself from the fuel depot daily. Now, he awaits permission from the court to continue selling from his garage.
“My neighbors were claiming that I was selling gasoline by the ton every day. There’s no way I could even hold so much, and the court ruled that I can only sell up to 500 liters daily, anyway. That’s what I’m doing.”
Habajian, 58, was born in Yerevan of Bulgarian Armenian repatriates who moved to Armenia in 1946. Although he can converse like any Yerevaner, he prefers to speak in pure Western Armenian, which he heard while growing up at home.
His grandparents were from the village of Bolu near Istanbul and narrowly escaped being killed. In 1920, they went to a doctor in Istanbul to find treatment for his grandfather who was suffering from a stomach ailment, when his father was only six months old. Two days after they left, the Armenian residents of their village were slaughtered.
“I went there once, it’s a beautiful area,” he said. “They grow wonderful grapes, the soil is very rich.” He and his family went in 1992 by bus. His wife is proficient in Turkish.
Habajian has four children—his two girls are 25 and 23, and the boys are 15 and 13. Both girls are unmarried. His sister, who died last year, lived in the Los Angeles area. A brother lives in France, having emigrated in 1995 in search of work.
Despite the fact that his siblings chose to leave, he has no intention of living outside the country.
“I feel good in Armenia,” he said. “What could I have against the government? No republic stands on its own two feet at once. Did America become what it is overnight? It took over 200 years. We need to go through the problems we face, there’s no other way. But if the government looked after its own people better, they wouldn’t feel so stressed out.”
Because of the ongoing lawsuit he is working at 25 percent of capacity. Once he resumes normal business operations he is confident his customers will return by word of mouth.
If the court decides that he has been working improperly, he would be required to pay a fine equal to $200 and be obliged to find a new means of employment. But he is confident that he will win the lawsuit.
“I have to win in court since I have all the rights to work and have the documents to show that,” he said. “I don’t do anything behind the government’s back.”
“We’ve seen bad days, there were times when we survived on potatoes alone,” he said. “But, thank God, I’ve found my occupation and I have regular customers that I help sincerely, even loaning them gasoline until they can pay me… That’s why they like me.”