The Malta Philharmonic Orchestra’s Principal Conductor, Armenian Sergey Smbatyan, has been arrested in his home country together with his father, former Armenian ambassador to Israel Armen Smbatyan, and stands accused of fraud against the state.
According to Armenian news reports, the Armenian General Prosecutor’s Office is accusing Smbatyan of defrauding the state to the tune of around €2.3 million.
After the story came out on Sunday morning, MPO acting CEO Christopher Muscat said the orchestra was “suspending its working relationship with Maestro Smbatyan with immediate effect” without prejudice or entering into the particular merits of the case.
According to those reports in the Armenian press, the case has reportedly been under investigation for years and dates back to 2012 when a company prosecutors say is owned by the Smbatyan family, Sochocenter, proposed a project to develop a ‘Book World’ exhibition commemorating the 500th anniversary of printing in Armenia and Yerevan’s title of World Book Capital of that year.
The company, according to reports citing prosecutors’ filings, received a plot of land worth US$170 million in the centre of the capital for the project.
But it instead proceeded, according to the charges being reported, to start building a 17-storey business centre on the site, which raised investigators’ suspicions and led to the eventual charges.
Prosecutors allege the MPO conductor’s father, Armen Smbatyan, had convinced a relative to establish the company in his own name but on his son’s behalf to avoid linking Sergey Smbatyan’s name to it.
It is also alleged that former culture minister Hasmik Poghosyan was in on the act.
Prosecutors reportedly allege that when the mayor of Yerevan forwarded the proposed plan to then culture minister Poghosyan, she knew the end game was to build a non-educational multi-functional building. But did not oppose the machinations, which were eventually approved by the government with her stamp of approval. Poghosyan is also reportedly being investigated for her role in the enterprise.
Contracts signed later omitted the project’s primary obligation of creating a ‘Book World’ and effectively allowed shareholders to register the plot in November 2016 as their own – resulting in alleged damages to the state calculated at close to €2.3 million.
Sergey Smbatyan is the Principal Conductor of the Armenian State Symphony Orchestra and the Malta Philharmonic Orchestra, the latter since 1 January 2022. His appointment at the MPO has since been called into question. He was also appointed as an Armenian National Ambassador of UNICEF last May.