Amid persistent allegations that his government deliberately neglects Gyumri because its residents overwhelmingly voted against his 2013 reelection, President Serzh Sarkisian promised on Friday large-scale funding for repairs of the city’s battered streets.
The move came just two days before a referendum on constitutional changes widely regarded as crucial for Sarkisian’s political future.
The roads in Armenia’s second largest city have been in an increasingly poor condition in the last few years. Most of them are now dotted with deep potholes and thick layers of mud. Some are practically impassable, placing residents of nearby buildings beyond the reach of public transport and taxis.
The Gyumri municipality, whose annual budget is equivalent to only $6.5 million, estimated last December that as much as $80 million is needed for resurfacing the local road infrastructure. With its tacit approval, the city assembly drew up a list of six major streets that were in a particularly urgent need of repairs worth $2.6 million. The Armenian government rejected in 2014 the council’s request to finance the road works, citing a lack of funds.
The rebuff only added to a growing sense among local residents that they are paying the price for Sarkisian’s extremely poor showing in Gyumri during Armenia’s last presidential election held in February 2013. Most of them voted for the main opposition candidate, Raffi Hovannisian, at the time.
In 2013, the central government also effectively froze the protracted construction of new homes for hundreds of Gyumri families still living in temporary shelters 27 years after a catastrophic earthquake that ravaged their city. Government officials have denied any political motives behind these decisions.
Meeting with Gyumri Mayor Samvel Balasanian in Yerevan, Sarkisian said he has “given an instruction to raise 23 million euros” ($25 million) that will be channeled into the local street network. In remarks broadcast by Armenian television, he did not specify the source of funding for the road works.
Nor did the president mention Sunday’s constitutional referendum, saying instead that Gyumri should be in good shape before the reconstruction of a major Armenian highway running through it is complete in 2018. He said “the process” will start as early as on Monday if Balasanian can guarantee efficient use of the funds.
Balasanian thanked Sarkisian for the unexpected aid. He was also shown by state television saying that hundreds of new jobs will be created in the unemployment-stricken city by private businesses next year.