By Ruzanna Khachatrian
Court bailiffs postponed on Wednesday the forcible eviction of a family living in an old quarter of Yerevan largely demolished for a massive real estate development after one of its members threatened to burn herself to death.
The dispute comes amid angry protests staged by local residents outside government buildings in the capital on a practically daily basis. They are unhappy with the amount of compensation paid to them for their houses torn down to make space for a new street in downtown Yerevan.
Sveta Hakobian, a mother of two, said she will set herself and her house on fire if officials try to enforce a court ruling ordering her family to accept a government compensation and vacate the property. The eviction was scheduled for Wednesday but was postponed after an intervention from Armenia’s human rights ombudsman, Larisa Alaverdian.
Officials from Alaverdian’s staff arrived at the scene to inform Hakobian of the decision. “Ms. Alaverdian has phoned [the bailiffs] and the eviction has been postponed until the [Yerevan] mayor’s return from vacation,” one of them, Gayane Harutiunian, told the woman.
But Hakobian remained unconvinced. “I want a written statement saying that,” she said. “I may leave the house for a walk with my kids and come back to find it torn down.”
“Everything will be in writing,” Harutiunian assured her.
Yerevan Mayor Yervand Zakharian is currently on vacation and will be back in the office next week. He already received a delegation of protesting residents and, according to them, promised to put the demolitions on hold. However, two families have since been forcibly dislocated from the area. One of their members, a 32-year-old man, is said to have cut his veins and have been hospitalized in the process.
The controversy results from the ongoing construction of a new city thoroughfare called Northern Avenue. Work on the $150 million construction project, the largest in Yerevan’s post-Soviet history, got underway in early 2002 and is slated for completion by the end of 2006. It is mainly funded by foreign private investors.
Northern Avenue is envisaged as a modern boulevard to be lined with shops, office buildings and upmarket housing. It will provide a shortcut from the State Opera House to Republic Square, the Armenian capital’s two main landmarks.
Standing in the new street’s way were small and mostly decrepit houses where about 500 families lived until recently. At least one tenth of them are believed to be involved in the protests, saying that the compensation paid by the state, roughly $240 per square meter, is too low. They say the market value of their land is about $800 and also protest against the government’s decision to levy a 10 percent income tax from the payouts.
Some of the real estate developers have already begun selling apartments and office space in the future buildings, charging between $900 and $1,500 per square meter.
Hakobian’s house, owned by her husband Ararat Tsovian, occupies 54 square meters and has been valuated at $13,200 by a municipal agency managing the Northern Avenue project. The sum will barely allow the family to buy a one bedroom apartment in the city’s outskirts.
The authorities secured the eviction order from the court after the family rejected the deal. They will also have to deal with six other households that similarly refused to sign compensation agreements on government terms.
There are still some two dozen families living in the area.