By Ruzanna Stepanian
In a show of defiance and professional solidarity, dozens of journalists descended on the resort town of Tsaghkadzor Saturday to jointly photograph local plush villas -- an activity that got two of their colleagues in trouble earlier in the week.
The correspondents representing various media outlets, including the state-run Armenian Public Television, found first-hand evidence of damage inflicted on local mountainous forests by real estate development. Many of them were stunned by the luxury of country houses that have sprung up there in recent years.
The villas mostly belong to senior government officials and government-connected tycoons. Some are clustered in an exclusive neighborhood wedged into wooded hills surrounding the town. Among its residents are the deputy chief of the national police, Armen Yeritsian and customs chief Armen Avetisian.
Mkhitar Khachatrian, a photographer with the Photolur agency, was beaten up last Tuesday shortly after taking pictures of the area. Khachatrian and a journalist from the newspaper that commissioned the pictures, Anna Israelian, say the assault was provoked by a man guarding Yeritsian’s mansion.
State prosecutors said on Thursday that they have identified and questioned the man who hit the photojournalist and forced him to surrender the picture storage card of his digital camera. The suspect is believed to work for Levon Sargsian, a pro-government parliamentarian and businessman who also has a villa in the neighborhood.
The criminal investigation followed strong condemnations of the attack voiced by domestic and international media groups.
The large group of journalists from Yerevan entered the neighborhood through a makeshift roadblock apparently set up by the wealthy residents. Several men guarding it did not want to let them in. After an angry verbal exchange the journalists bypassed the barrier to see vast compounds surrounded by high walls. It was clear that many trees were cut down to make space for the construction.
The biggest plot of land in Tsaghkadzor belongs to Gagik Tsarukian, one of Armenia’s richest men. It used to be occupied by a children’s sanatorium which fell into disrepair in the 1990s. Another former children’s resort is owned by Samvel Shahgeldian, the brother of the regional governor. A new road built through the forest now leads to the property.
Tsaghkadzor’s mayor, Garun Mirzoyan, insisted that the housing construction has been legal and has not caused any damage to the forests as he met with the visiting journalists in his office. “We can show you the places where trees have been cut down,” one of them countered.
“I will instruct my subordinates to check [your information] today,” Mirzoyan replied. “If there are any trees that have been cut down we will force them to restore what has been destroyed.”
The total area of lands covered by forests in Armenia has shrunk considerably over the past decade. Much of the damage has been caused by the energy crisis in the early 1990s which forced many people to use wood for heating their homes in the winter. Environmentalists also blame the phenomenon on commercial logging and real estate development.
The shrinkage of green areas has been particularly dramatic in Yerevan where scores of outdoor cafes have mushroomed at the expense of thinning public parks. As in the case of the Tsaghkadzor villas, many of their owners are government officials and other powerful individuals.