By Anna Saghabalian
Four of the last remaining residents of an old neighborhood in downtown Yerevan were on hunger strike for a seventh consecutive day on Wednesday in a last-ditch attempt to avoid forcible eviction from their homes subject to demolition.
The desperate action is the latest in a series of angry protests against a government-sanctioned massive redevelopment going on in the city center. Hundreds of old houses there have already been torn down to make room for expensive apartment and office buildings constructed by private investors.
Many of their owners have protested against the amount of financial compensation offered them by the state, saying that it was set well below the market value of their properties as a result of high-level government corruption. The integrity and legality of the process has also been challenged by Armenia’s Office of Human Rights Defender.
The four hunger strikers, all of them women, live on the city’s rapidly disappearing Buzand Street where resistance to the demolitions has been particularly strong. Dozens of local residents went so far as to build barricades there earlier this year. The authorities had to deploy special police in the neighborhood to break down their resistance.
There are now only several families left on Buzand Street. Nune Vartumian, one of the women refusing food, and her family are huddling in a kitchen as the rest of their modest house has already been bulldozed. Vartumian told RFE/RL that she has been visited by a local doctor and representatives of the Red Cross. “But they said have no right to intervene [in the process] because they are a non-governmental organization,” she said.
Vartumian claimed that the municipal administration was ready to pay the family a meager $200 per square meter of its living space. “If they pay us $1,000-$1,200 we will leave this place quietly,” she said.
Anahit Melkonian, another protester who shares a demolition-threatened home with her daughter-in-law and two small grandchildren, lay in bed and looked too weak to even give interviews. “She is in a very bad condition,” explained the daughter-in-law, Suzan Karajian. “We call an ambulance two or three times a day. But nobody has reacted yet.”
The family is refusing to accept a $13,000 compensation offered for their 42-square-meter house. The sum is barely sufficient for buying a one-room apartment on the outskirts of Yerevan.
The Yerevan municipality has repeatedly denied the allegations of corruption and injustice. It insists that the Buzand Street protesters represent only a small minority of hundreds of dislocated families which it says have been properly compensated.
The Armenian constitution guarantees everyone the right to own property, stipulating that it can be taken away by the state only in “exceptional” cases and with “commensurate compensation” defined by law. Armenia’s outgoing human rights ombudsperson, Larisa Alaverdian, believes that the authorities violated this constitutional provision, arguing that the redevelopment program is proceeding in accordance with government directives, rather than laws adopted by parliament. She condemned the process in a special report issued last September.
In an interview with RFE/RL, Alaverdian stood by the criticism and pledged to take the matter to the Constitutional Court. “I have appealed to the president of the republic earlier this year, drawing his attention to the issue and suggesting that the president apply to the Constitutional Court,” she said. “We received a refusal and assurances that everything is done in accordance with the constitution.”
Alaverdian also expressed concern about the fate of a human rights lawyer who helped Buzand Street residents sue the government and was arrested in October on controversial fraud charges. The lawyer, Vahe Grigorian, and his colleagues insist that the National Security Service, the Armenian successor to the Soviet KGB, “fabricated” the case in retaliation for his activities.
Alaverdian, who will resign her post next month in accordance with the newly amended constitution, said the fact that the NSS has still not completed the investigation suggests that it lacks the evidence to substantiate the accusations leveled against Grigorian. “I am worried about the dragging out of this case,” she said.