By Anna SaghabalianMayor Yervand Zakharian provoked a strong sense of déjà vu last January when he announced yet another government ban on street trade in Yerevan. Similar decisions by just about each of his predecessors always remained on paper and little suggested that things could be different this time around.
Now, six months on, evidence of the effort’s failure is plain to see. Retail trade in agricultural produce and other foodstuffs, which often fails to meet basic sanitary norms, is as brisk and thriving as it was before the announcement of the latest ban. Especially in the city center where street sidewalks are again filled with vendors peddling fruit and vegetables.
“The January 14 ban lasted for a month,” explained an elderly trader who laid out mushrooms alongside mechanical tools on the ground. “Then little by little they again allowed us to stand here.”
The trader, who refused to give his name, admitted that bribery among municipality officials and especially police helps to keep the business going strong. “It’s like when you throw a bone to a dog,” he said. “It may growl but it won’t bite you after that.”
The vendors, most of them eking out a modest living, say they work on the street for lack of other sources of income and jobs. “My kids are hungry,” said one woman. “I’m therefore right to do this.”
Some of them also argue that their defiance of the mayor’s directives pales in comparison with the illegal self-enrichment of many government officials in Armenia. “Please stay away from my business,” an angry female vendor shouted at a reporter. “You’d better probe the lands illegally sold by the mayor.”
“Whatever they say, they will never fight against street trade,” she added.
Yerevan municipality officials acknowledged back in January that poverty is a key driving force of the illegal practice. “It is also a social problem for some families. We must try to offer them alternatives,” Deputy Mayor Arman Sahakian told RFE/RL at the time.
One of those alternatives is to get the street vendors to move to the city’s half-empty indoors markets. But traders say that they are too poor to pay prohibitive fees charges by the markets owners.
Some have found a way to get around trading regulations by selling goods in underground passes or on stairs leading into them. Those locations are not considered sidewalks and are therefore not covered by the periodical bans on street trade.
Some of the city’s underground passes have long ceased to serve their purpose. They are now clogged up with kiosks selling fast food, clothing, flowers and even cosmetics. Government control of sanitary conditions there is minimal.
Police officers, meanwhile, can still be seen walking the streets of downtown Yerevan supposedly to keep them free of illegal commerce. “Don’t you see that we are enforcing the ban?” one of them told RFE/RL. “You are lying,” he snapped when told that vendors are openly selling produce just a few dozen meters down the street.