By Narek Galstian
The Armenian government is increasingly embroiled in a fresh high-profile controversy as it prepares to bulldoze another old neighborhood in central Yerevan and sell its lucrative land to private developers.
Residents of the Kozern neighborhood say municipal authorities already told them to get ready for vacating their modest properties in the near future. Dozens of them demonstrated outside President Robert Kocharian’s official residence on Tuesday, urging him to make sure that they get heftier compensation than hundreds of other people already displaced from the city center.
“We will fight to the end,” said Samvel Mkrtchian, a lawyer representing the protesters. He said Kocharian should instruct the government and Prime Minister Andranik Markarian in particular to ensure the fairness and integrity of the process.
Yerevan’s government-appointed mayor, Yervand Zakharian, received a group of Kozern residents a week ago, promising to address their concerns. One of Zakharian’s deputies, Karen Davtian, claimed that angry locals have not allowed him and other municipality officials to “look into the issue on the spot” since then.
Many Kozern residents deeply mistrust the mayor’s office, citing its highly controversial handling of massive redevelopment projects that are already being implemented in downtown Yerevan. Many owners of several hundred houses demolished there as part of the multimillion-dollar effort are unhappy with the amount of compensation paid by the state and have staged regular street protests over the past year.
Some of them joined the Kozern protest to again express their fury with what they see as a process driven by large-scale government corruption. “We demand that somebody from the presidential staff meet us,” said Vachagan Hakobian, the leader of a non-governmental organization representing evicted families. “We don’t need [to see] anyone from the mayor’s office or project implementation office because they have always lied to us.”
“The Constitutional Court has ruled that the whole thing was unconstitutional. So the government must reconsider its decisions,” he added.
The Constitutional Court ruled on April 18 that a 2002 government decision that paved the way for the ongoing construction and the resulting demolitions violated several articles of Armenia’s constitution. But it at the same time stopped short of obligating municipal authorities to give the properties back to their former owners or pay them larger sums.
The Kozern residents facing eviction may find themselves in an even more disadvantaged position than the already evicted families. Unlike the latter, most of them have not been allowed to privatize their homes since the collapse of Communism and might therefore be denied any financial compensation.
Karlen Hakhverdian has lived in the area close to the presidential palace in Yerevan for more than 40 years but is still not considered the legal owner of his modest house. “They are telling me that I must vacate my home and that it will be given to some thick-necked individuals,” he said. “But why should I?”
Officials from Kocharian’s administration, meanwhile, refused to meet organizers of the demonstration. But that did not keep the small crowd from chanting “Kocharian! Kocharian!” as the protest drew to a close.