By Ruzanna Stepanian and Anna Saghabalian
The Armenian authorities have prevented the Constitutional Court from ruling on the legality of the ongoing controversial redevelopment in downtown Yerevan by forcing pro-government lawmakers to withdraw support for an opposition petition to the country’s highest judicial body.
The opposition Artarutyun (Justice), which considers the multimillion-dollar construction and the resulting mass evictions of local residents illegal, lodged the appeal on behalf of 32 parliament deputies on February 7. Under Armenia’s recently amended constitution, the Constitution Court has to pass a verdict on any case brought by at least 27 members of the National Assembly.
With Artarutyun holding only 13 parliament seats, the appeal was made possible by more than a dozen deputies affiliated with or loyal to the governing coalition. Prime Minister Andranik Markarian publicly deplored it, pledging to take action against those deputies. Five of them, including a senior member of Markarian’s Republican Party, were quick to withdraw their signatures from the opposition petition.
Artarutyun still had the required minimum of 27 signatures just hours before the Constitutional Court was scheduled to open hearings on the dispute on Tuesday. However, a pro-establishment parliamentarian tipped the balance in the government favor’s when he visited the court early in the morning and asked it to ignore his signature as well. Vladimir Badalian declined a comment when contacted by RFE/RL.
“I was very surprised by Badalian’s last-minute decision because I know he is of the opinion that the constitutional rights of quite a few people in the area were violated,” said Vartan Mkrtchian, an Artarutyun parliamentarian who initiated the ill-fated appeal. Mkrtchian charged that both Badalian and his five other colleagues behaved “immorally” by first lending support to the opposition initiative and then yielding to government pressure.
The dispute revolves around the construction of a Western-style commercial district in central Yerevan in place of old and mainly modest houses that occupied it until recently. The process, which began more than three years ago, has been accompanied by angry protests staged by scores of local residents unhappy with what they see as disproportionately low compensation paid for their properties. Some of them have taken legal action to stop the municipal authorities evicting them from their homes. Virtually all of their lawsuits have been rejected by local courts, however.
Critics of the forced house demolitions, among them Armenia’s former human rights ombudsperson Larisa Alaverdian, say the redevelopment is unconstitutional because it is regulated by government directives rather than laws passed by the parliament. The Armenian constitution guarantees everyone the right to own property, stipulating that it can be confiscated by the state only in “exceptional cases defined by law.”
This clause was at the heart of the attempted Artarutyun appeal to the Constitutional Court. It is not clear whether the Armenian government effectively blocked court hearings on the issue because it feared a verdict unacceptable to it or simply did not want further bad publicity.
Mkrtchian blamed the move on unspecified senior government officials who he said have personally benefited from the redevelopment. “There is a corrupt mafia system that is trying hard to prevent a positive solution to this problem,” he told RFE/RL.
Land and real estate allocations administered by the government in other parts of Yerevan have been no less controversial. Another such dispute came to light on Tuesday when a group of residents of a rundown hostel in one of the city’s northern suburbs staged a protest against the government’s decision to auction off the state-owned building in payment of a $95,000 utility debt to Armenia’s ARG gas operator.
Most of the building’s residents are pensioners, refugees from Azerbaijan and widows and children of men who died during the 1991-94 war in Karabakh. The socially vulnerable families do not own their 16 square-meter rooms and say that a new owner would therefore have the legal right to force them out. They want to be declared the owners of the property in return for a pledge to repay the debt within five years. Protesters said government officials promised to consider the demand and deliver a response within a week.