By Astghik Bedevian and Shakeh Avoyan
Ignoring vehement protests from the opposition and scores of displaced Yerevan residents, the Armenian government pushed through parliament on Monday a highly controversial bill that empowers it to confiscate private property practically at will.
The bill was passed in the third and final reading over the objections of the National Assembly’s opposition minority that branded it unjust and unconstitutional. The development came after weeks of heated debates on the issue among the country’s leading political parties and civil society representatives.
The adopted law is meant to regulate continuing demolitions of old parts of central Yerevan which has been the scene of a massive redevelopment in recent years. They have sparked angry protests by hundreds of families who have been evicted from their now demolished homes and claim to have not been properly compensated by the state.
The Armenian constitution stipulates that private property can be taken away by the state “only in exceptional cases involving overriding public interests, in a manner defined by law, and with a prior commensurate compensation.” The process has until now been regulated only by government directives, however. Armenia’s Constitutional Court effectively declared it illegal in April, but stopped short of ordering the authorities to return the increasingly expensive land to their former owners.
The bill in question was drafted in response to the court ruling. Its adoption means that the authorities can continue to tear down old houses in the capital and other parts of the country by simply invoking “needs of the public and the state.” The law has been condemned by many displaced families and opposition lawmakers, even though it entitles the owner of a confiscated property to a financial compensation equal to its market value.
The opposition succeeded in late September in thwarting the government’s first attempt to push it through the parliament dominated by President Robert Kocharian’s supporters. But the bill was re-introduced by the government and approved in the first reading last month.
“This law is unconstitutional,” Grigor Harutiunian of the opposition Artarutyun (Justice) alliance, said, appealing to his pro-government colleagues before the vote. Representatives of the two other opposition factions in the parliament, National Unity and Orinats Yerkir, also spoke out against the bill.
However, the opposition calls went unheeded, with 70 members of the 131-strong assembly voting for its final passage. Many of them were confronted and jeered earlier in the day by dozens of angry displaced residents that protested outside the parliament in a further desperate attempt to clinch heftier sums for their lost homes. The protesters, who claim to be victims of government corruption, chanted “Shame! Shame!” as members of the parliament majority made their way into the parliament building.