More than 100 young environmental activists broke through a police cordon on Monday to reoccupy a public park in downtown Yerevan and again halt the controversial construction of several shops there.
The unprecedented action came three days after police used force to drive a smaller number of protesters out of the construction site. It remained cordoned off by riot police over the weekend.
The Yerevan municipality authorized the construction after ordering the shop owners to relocate their businesses mainly selling clothing from large kiosks that stood elsewhere in the city center until last month. They were dismantled along with hundreds of other sidewalk kiosks across the Armenian capital.
Environment protection and other civic groups condemned the choice of a new location for the shops, saying that it would inflict further damage on Yerevan’s green areas that have shrunk significantly over the past decade.
The angry protesters pushed through lines of police officers and metal barriers, chanting “The park is ours!” Joined by several opposition parliamentarians, they stood there until late evening and pledged to thwart the construction on a daily basis.
Robert Melkonian, a deputy chief of the Yerevan police, was quick to arrive at the scene and call the protest illegal, threatening to end it by force. “I can detain those who organized this,” Melkonian told several young activists. “But I don’t want to do that. So get the people out of here so we can talk calmly.”
“This action has ruined everything, it’s not peace anymore,” he said.
Through loudspeakers placed on a police van, the protesters were then given 20 minutes to disperse or face police action. The police avoided using force after the warning was ignored, however.
The activists reoccupied the park after demonstrating outside the Yerevan Mayor’s Office and demanding a meeting with Mayor Taron Markarian. “Taron, come down!” they chanted.
The 33-year-old mayor left it to his chief of staff, Sergei Makarian, to talk to the protesters. “There are much more competent people whose job is to discuss and solve this issue,” Makarian told them. “So please end this show.”
The outcry over the shop construction reflects growing anger among politically active Armenians with the shrinkage of public parks across the city. Virtually all of them are now dotted with cafes, restaurants and other commercial properties. The authorities have until now essentially ignored less vocal and radical forms of protest against Yerevan’s deforestation.