By Ruzanna Stepanian
Nearly three dozen members of Armenia’s parliament asked the Constitutional Court on Tuesday to declare illegal the ongoing commercial redevelopment in downtown Yerevan which has resulted in evictions of hundreds of local residents.
They claim that the large-scale construction which is rapidly changing the city center is proceeding in violation of Armenian citizens’ constitutionally guaranteed right to own property. Their court action, initiated by the opposition Artarutyun (Justice) alliance, is primarily directed against the Armenian government which has sanctioned and enforced the controversial allocations of land to private real estate developers.
“Our main argument is that the government’s decisions contradict the constitution,” said Vartan Mkrtchian, an Artarutyun lawmaker who delivered the appeal to the Constitutional Court. “The constitution stipulates that alienation of property can take place only in exceptional cases defined by law and with appropriate compensation. And yet the government launched the process with its decisions, rather than laws [adopted by parliament].”
The process, which gained momentum last year, has been marred by a series of angry street protests staged by the mainly low-income residents of old houses that are being bulldozed to make room for expensive residential and office buildings. They insist that financial compensation offered to them was set well below the market value of their homes as a result of high-level government corruption. Government officials have denied the accusations, saying that most displaced families are satisfied with the sums paid by the state.
Resistance to the eviction orders has been particularly fierce among residents of one of Yerevan’s disappearing old streets. The authorities deployed special police there last summer to dismantle barricades built by them and help court bailiffs continue the evictions. A human rights lawyer who helped several displaced families file lawsuits to the European Court of Human Rights was arrested last October and is still kept in a maximum-security jail on controversial fraud charges.
The legality and integrity of the process was also questioned by Armenia’s former human rights ombudsperson, Larisa Alaverdian, in a special report last September. Alaverdian appealed to the Constitutional Court shortly before her resignation early last month. Her anticipated successor is unlikely to press the case.
But the Constitutional Court will now have to rule on the appeal signed by 27 of the 131 members of the National Assembly. With Armenia’s recently amended constitution requiring at least 26 signatures and Artarutyun controlling only 13 parliament seats, the suit was made possible by pro-establishment deputies who are also angry with the authorities’ handling of the redevelopment scheme. Among them is at least one member of Prime Minister Andranik Markarian’s Republican Party and three members of parliament speaker Artur Baghdasarian’s Orinats Yerkir Party.
By contrast, no lawmakers representing the third governing party, the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutyun), and the opposition National Unity Party (AMK) of Artashes Geghamian agreed to sign the appeal to the country’s highest court.
The Armenian constitution guarantees everyone the right to own property, stipulating that it can be confiscated by the state only in “exceptional” cases specified by law. The lucrative land allocations and the resulting house demolitions, however, have been regulated by government directives.