By Shakeh Avoyan
Courting serious controversy, the Armenian government on Thursday paved the way for the privatization of thousands of old buildings that have been deemed part of the country’s historical and cultural heritage until now.
The move took the form of major changes in the official list of “historical and cultural monuments” that belong to the state and are supposed to be protected by it under a special Armenian law. It has until now included 24,132 properties, most of them old churches, excavated ancient sites, and buildings dating back to the pre-Soviet period.
“That list has been completely revised in accordance with existing legal requirements,” Culture Minister Hasmik Poghosian told reporters after a cabinet meeting. “More than 18,935 monuments were today reaffirmed in the list of monuments that are not subject to alienation.”
Poghosian said private institutions and individuals will be offered to acquire the remaining 5,000 or structures without being allowed to demolish them. She did not release the list of those properties, saying only that it includes unspecified old churches that “can be repaired and serve their purpose.”
Poghosian indicated that the Armenian Apostolic Church will also be offered to become the owner of Yerevan’s massive Saint Gregory the Illuminator cathedral that was built in 2001. The cathedral formally belongs to the state despite being used by the church for religious services.
The government’s decision is likely to prompt more protests from Armenian non-governmental organizations and prominent individuals that have been ringing alarm bells over the rapid disappearance of the few remaining old houses and buildings in central Yerevan, scene of a large-scale government-sanctioned redevelopment.
Late last year, a group of renowned Armenian architects called for the government’s “immediate intervention” in the demolition of historic properties included on the official heritage list. In an open letter to Prime Minister Andranik Markarian, they said at least a dozen such buildings have been torn down by private developers despite a government ban reaffirmed in December 2004.