Civil activists in Yerevan have vowed to continue their street protests against what they view as an illegal redevelopment of a landmark building in the Armenian capital despite facing a counterdemonstration staged by people claiming to be beneficiaries of the project on Wednesday.
Scores of protesters campaigning for the preservation of architectural monuments in Armenia marched to the indoor market in central Mashtots Boulevard that reopened earlier this week after a controversial renovation carried out by its new owner.
Built in the 1950s, the agricultural market known locally as Pak Shuka has for decades been one of the city’s major landmarks and is on the Armenian Culture Ministry’s list of historical buildings that cannot be redesigned without government permission.
Samvel Aleksanian, a government-linked tycoon who controls lucrative imports of basic foodstuffs to Armenia, secured no such authorization when he began demolishing the building’s arched roof in May last year shortly after privatizing the property. He claimed that it was in urgent need of renovation.
Now while preserving its frontal design the reconstructed building, besides the traditional agricultural market, also hosts a large food store associated with the Yerevan City supermarket chain owned by Aleksanian.
Aleksanian, who is a member of parliament affiliated with the ruling Republican Party of Armenia, has brushed aside criticism, suggesting that the renovation did not affect the architectural value of the building.
He and his supporters insist that the new facility will provide jobs to citizens as well as good customer service to shoppers in the neighborhood that did not have a proper place for trading in agricultural goods for nearly two years.
Scores of Aleksanian supporters, most of them believed to be employees of businesses owned by the lawmaker’s extended family, again staged a counterdemonstration at the site, urging the protesting civil activists to leave the place and stop their campaign.
Hundreds of them already provided a similar show of support for Aleksanian last month, effectively putting the protesters off for several weeks.
Police officers were deployed on the scene to prevent possible clashes between the two rivaling sides. Deputy chief of Yerevan’s police Valeriy Osipian said the counterdemonstration by Alexanian supporters was a “spontaneous” gathering in response to an “unsanctioned” protest by activists.
The sides exchanged accusations, but the standoff ended without an incident.
“God knows who has bribed these people. But they will understand [that Aleksanian has done a good thing],” said one pro-Aleksanian demonstrator, who claimed that they were there for their jobs, while the agenda of the civil activists was unclear.
But activists said today that they were determined to continue their protests despite meeting resistance. Members of the “Let’s Liberate the Monument from the Oligarch” pressure group repeated their demand that the tycoon restore the indoor market in its original architectural form.
Filmmaker Tigran Khzmalian, who campaigns for the preservation of Pak Shuka in its original form, said that they were ready for continuing to resist what they believe is an illegality.
“This is not just a protest, this is our resistance and we carry out this resistance not only by our physical presence but also by calling on all citizens who have dignity to boycott this unlawful [Yerevan] City [supermarket] that our capital is being turned into,” Khzmalian told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am).
Meanwhile, people on the pro-Aleksanian side of the protests said that for two days the influential lawmaker had been distributing bread among people for free. “Why don’t the media mention this? Why don’t they say that philanthropist Aleksanian has given bread to the hungry people?” one woman complained.