Samvel Aleksanian, one of Armenia’s richest businessmen close to the government, rallied hundreds of his employees and other supporters on Monday in response to renewed protests against his controversial efforts to redesign Yerevan’s central covered market.
The rally followed weekend clashes between Aleksanian’s loyalists and civic activists who believe that the ongoing redevelopment is illegal.
Built in downtown Yerevan in the 1950s, the agricultural market known locally as Pak Shuka has for decades been one of the city’s major landmarks. It is included on the Armenian Culture Ministry’s list of historical buildings that cannot be redesigned without government permission.
Aleksanian, 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 is in urgent need of renovation. Media reports said, however, that the tycoon plans to replace the entire structure by an expensive residential complex or a supermarket.
The reconstruction was suspended shortly afterwards amid an uproar from prominent Armenian architects and civic groups. But it resumed later in 2012, even though officials from the Culture Ministry and other government agencies admitted that Aleksanian is not allowed to change the market beyond recognition.
Yerevan Mayor Taron Markarian insisted as recently as in June 2013 that the building will continue to serve as a marketplace for farmers and small traders selling fruits and vegetables. However, there have since been growing signs that Pak Shuka will house a big food supermarket. Aleksanian owns one of Armenia’s largest supermarket chains, Yerevan City.
Several dozen mostly young activists resumed their protests outside the construction site late last week in anticipation of the food store’s inauguration reportedly scheduled for the beginning of September. On Saturday, they were confronted by a group of other people, most of them aggressive men. The latter shouted abuse and attacked some of the protesters holding posters denouncing Aleksanian.
Riot police stepped in to prevent more serious violence. Four people, all of them anti-government activists, were briefly detained on the spot.
The activists planned a larger protest outside Pak Shuka on Monday but cancelled it after it emerged that the tycoon, who is also a parliament deputy representing the ruling Republican Party of Armenia, will organize a larger counterdemonstration there.
The crowd of several hundred people chanted “Aleksanian benefactor!” and demanded that he be allowed to turn the redesigned building into a supermarket. “We demand jobs,” read one of big banners held up by them. One angry woman threatened an RFE/RL reporter with violence.
Some of the pro-Aleksanian demonstrators claimed to be unemployed. But others admitted working Yerevan City stores located in other parts of the Armenian capital.