By Anna Saghabalian
Yerevan’s vital green belt, which has shrunk dramatically in recent years, suffered further damage on Monday as bulldozers toppled decades-old trees to make room for yet another outdoor café in the Armenian capital.
The start of construction in a small public park off Komitas Avenue, one of the city’s main arteries, was watched by a dozen police officers that were apparently deployed to ensure that it goes ahead unimpeded. But their presence failed to prevent a scuffle between construction workers and the family of an opposition politician protesting against what they denounced as an example of government corruption.
The new business to be built at the scene is the latest addition to a myriad of street cafes and restaurants that have sprung up in virtually every Yerevan park in the last several years. Environmentalists estimate that the café boom has destroyed more than 700 hectares of public parks -- twice the size of the green areas lost during the severe energy crisis of the early 1990s when many residents had to cut trees to heat their homes.
Aramazd Zakarian, a senior member of the opposition Hanrapetutyun party, lives in an apartment building near the Komitas Avenue park along with his wife and teenage children. They said they offered the city authorities two years ago to take care of the park and grow flowers there but were turned down on the grounds that it is the “common property” of local residents. They said the 300 square meters of land were alienated illegally.
But construction workers denied any wrongdoing. “The land was given in line with the law,” one of them told RFE/RL. “The person who privatized it signed a contract with my company.”
Officials at the Yerevan municipality said the property was leased to a city resident identified as Julieta Harutiunian. But it was not clear if she is related to senior government officials or other influential persons. Zakarian claimed that the real owner of the café is a judge.
It is not uncommon for Armenian officials to register their businesses in their relatives’ names and this has been particularly true during the café construction. Most of the street cafes in downtown Yerevan are owned by senior government, law-enforcement and military officials or their cronies. A similar entertainment site located in another park adjacent to Komitas Avenue is reportedly controlled by a senior member of President Robert Kocharian’s staff.
The cafe boom and controversial land allocations that accompanied it reached their climax under Yerevan’s former government-appointed mayor, Robert Nazarian. Speaking at a news conference shortly after his dismissal in 2003, Nazarian admitted that almost all downtown café owners grabbed more land than was allocated to them. He indicated that he could not stop them doing that because of orders from the central government and the presidential administration.
Yerevan’s last untouched green area, known as the Dalma Gardens, was at the center of controversy throughout last year as dozens of low-income tenants growing fruit there protested government plans to gives most of the 530 hectares (1,325 acres) to private real estate developers.