By Ruzanna Stepanian
Disgruntled families whose old houses have been torn down in an ongoing redevelopment in downtown Yerevan on Monday bristled at President Robert Kocharian’s pledge to slightly raise compensations paid to them by his government.
In televised remarks broadcast late Friday, Kocharian announced that the government was wrong to controversially levy a 10 percent income tax from the already modest sums paid to hundreds of displaced families. He said proceeds from the tax, worth about 1.3 billion drams ($3.3 million), will be given back to them in the next few months.
Kocharian’s remark that “the issue will be closed” with the payment of extra cash seems to have angered those former house owners who feel that the compensations offered to them were well bellow the market value of their demolished properties. Vachagan Hakobian, head of a group representing their interests, said it does not represent a fundamental solution to their grievances.
“We are not fighting for 10 percent,” Hakobian told RFE/RL. “We just want the amount of compensation to be revised [upwards] and individuals who committed illegal acts to be punished.”
“They won’t deceive us with that sum. Of course, we will take the cash because it was stolen from us. But we will continue our struggle to the end,” he said.
The pledge of extra money was Kocharian’s first public statement on the controversy surrounding his government’s handling of the redevelopment program that was effectively declared illegal by Armenia’s Constitutional Court in April. Angry evicted residents, backed by human rights activities, opposition politicians and prominent public figures, have for months protested outside his officials residence in the hope of clinching heftier sums.
The Armenian constitution stipulates that private property can be confiscated by the state “only in exceptional cases involving overriding public interests, in a manner defined by law, and with a prior commensurate compensation.” The court backed critics’ argument that the process, marred allegations of high-level corruption, has been regulated only by a government directive and is therefore unconstitutional. Still, it stopped short of ordering the authorities to return the increasingly expensive land to their former owners.
Some of those residents were baffled by the timing Kocharian’s announcement and saw political motives behind it. “Elections are coming up,” one of them, Aleksandr Safian, said. “The president has gone public to present himself in a better light. We don’t believe in fairy tales.”
Another man, Zohrab Vahanian, claimed that the Armenian authorities are worried about lawsuits filed by several disgruntled families to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. “They have realized that we can’t do anything against them only in Armenia and that things work a bit differently there [in Strasbourg,]” he said.
Kocharian’s statement, whatever its motives, is totally irrelevant to Gohar Gharibian and her family that were offered $14,000, barely enough to buy a tiny apartment in a Yerevan suburb, for their now demolished house in the city center. They rejected the sum and now hope for a “just” verdict by the Strasbourg court.
“We didn’t sign any [compensation] agreements,” said Gharibian. “They came and threw us out. Our case is now considered by the European court. That’s why I don’t care about that 10 percent.”