After months of protests by environmental and other civil activists, President Serzh Sarkisian ordered municipal authorities on Tuesday to remove more than a doze kiosks controversially built in a small park in downtown Yerevan.
Sarkisian visited Mashtots Park with Mayor Taron Markarian just two days after the most serious clashes yet between protesters and riot police guarding the state-owned properties.
“You’ve done everything right,” he told Markarian in front of television cameras. “You were right in the sense that you made a temporary decision. In two or three years all this would have to be removed from here. But, my dear Taron, as you can see, this [appearance] is not quite nice.”
“Again, you made the right decision but it would be right if you find a way of dismantling all this,” Sarkisian said. “That would be the appropriate decision.”
The remarks effectively put an end to a more than three-month standoff between dozens of activists and the Yerevan municipality backed by the police. The mostly young people have demonstrated there on a virtually basis in protest against what they see as further damage to the city’s green areas. They have also challenged the legality of the mayor’s decision to use the public area for commercial purposes.
The municipal administration has said all along that the kiosks will stand in Mashtots Park for up to three years and not damage any trees. It has also cited the need to compensate entrepreneurs whose kiosks mainly selling clothing were removed in January from the sidewalk of a major street in the city center. Hundreds of other sidewalk shops were dismantled across Yerevan last year.
The standoff intensified early month when the protesters were joined by a group of prominent public figures trying to tear down the under-construction kiosks. Their attempts led to scuffles with police.
The most violent of those incidents took place on Sunday. Seven protesters were detained on the spot and kept in police custody for several hours. Two of them suffered injuries and required treatment at a hospital.
Sarkisian on Tuesday praised the police for showing restraint in the high-profile dispute. Robert Melkonian, a deputy chief of the Yerevan police who has personally coordinated the police actions in the park, afterwards congratulated environmentalists on what many of them regard as a rare victory against the government.
Some campaigners dismissed Sarkisian’s intervention as a public relations move related to Sunday’s parliamentary elections. But as one of the organizers of the protests, Yeghia Nersisian, told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am), “You can find a lot of political context in all this but I don’t want to do that … I just know one thing: he who fights in good faith always achieves his goal.”
The outcry over the shop construction reflects growing anger among politically active Armenians with the shrinkage of public parks across the city since the late 1990s. 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 organized by environmentalists.