By Nane Atshemian
The Armenian government’s ongoing land allocations in Yerevan sparked a fresh controversy on Tuesday as tenants of an orchard in the city’s northern outskirts protested against its planned sale to wealthy businessmen.
The once barren patch of land stretching along a highway was leased free of charge to about a hundred residents of the nearby Kanaker district 15 years ago. They have since planted there hundreds of fruit trees that now help them make a living.
The government continues to formally own the land and apparently intends to sell much of it to wealthy individuals keen to build gasoline stations and other businesses there. Local residents say a 3,500 square-meter plot of the land have already been sold to private investors.
The deal was declared illegal by a Yerevan court of first instance earlier this year. However, the ruling was later overturned by a higher court.
About 50 tenants gathered outside the government building in the capital to demand a halt to the privatization which hey claimed is accompanied by corrupt practices. “Now whoever pays a bribe gets a plot of land,” charged Ashot Gevorgian, a university professor whose family has grown fruit in the orchard for over a decade.
“I cherish my trees and flowers like my children,” said another protester. “Now they are telling us to get out.”
Organizers of the protest were received by Prime Minister Andranik Markarian and said he promised to look into their grievances. “We hope that the prime minister will indeed pay attention and solve the issue,” one of them said.
The government faced similar protests last year when it announced plans to auction off a much bigger and older orchard near the city center. It eventually agreed to make concessions to some low-income 580 families that have long cultivated the land.
A massive government-sanctioned redevelopment program currently implemented in downtown Yerevan has also stirred controversy. Scores of old houses have been torn down to make room for expensive office and apartment buildings that are being constructed by private real estate developers.
Many of the house owners have complained that the financial compensation paid to them is disproportionately low, accusing senior government officials of cashing in on the lucrative deals. Some of them have likewise taken to the streets to demand more hefty sums.
Owners of the few remaining houses subject to demolition protested Tuesday outside President Robert Kocharian’s residence for a second consecutive day. They said officials from the presidential administration refuse to meet with them. The protest followed a forcible eviction last week of a family that lived in one such house in the city center.
The Armenian authorities insist that the land allocations have been fair and deny corruption allegations.