More than a hundred employees of a copper smelter in northern Armenia blocked a nearby railway on Wednesday in protest against its recent closure which followed the government’s decision to enforce strict environmental regulations there.
The Soviet-era plant located in the town of Alaverdi was fined $800,000 last fall for exceeding air pollution quotas set by the government in 2005. Citing financial problems, its parent company, Vallex Group, refused to pay the fine and comply with the pollution caps.
As a result, production operations at the Alaverdi plant, the town’s largest employer, were brought to a halt in October. Its more than 500 workers were sent on a four-month leave. They will be receiving two-thirds of their monthly wages until March 1. It remains unclear what will happen to them afterwards.
The situation is compounded by Vallex’s failure to repay a $380 million loan provided by a Russian commercial bank, VTB, about a decade ago. The Liechtenstein-based company invested the money in the Teghut copper and molybdenum deposit also located in the Lori province.
Vallex shut down the Teghut mine and laid off most of the 1,200 people working there in January 2018 because of being unable to refurbish its waste disposal facility. VTB took over the mine in payment for the debt. The creditor may also gain ownership of the Alaverdi plant.
The workers blocking a section of the railway passing through the town demanded urgent government action against the continuing shutdown. They complained that government officials have so far been vague on the future of the smelter and its staff.
“We want our jobs back so that we continue to work and Alaverdi lives on,” one of them told RFE/RL’s Armenian service.
“They keep coming here and holding closed and public discussions but the town is still waiting for an official answer,” said another protester. “For the last four months we haven’t seen anyone seriously dealing with the problem.”
Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian was asked to comment on the situation in Alaverdi during a parliament session in Yerevan on Wednesday. He said that a settlement between Vallex and VTB has been complicated by lawsuits filed by other entities linked to the Alaverdi and Teghut facilities.
“We must help them settle this dispute as soon as possible,” Pashinian said, answering a question from an opposition parliamentarian.
The comments did not satisfy the protesting workers. “The prime minister’s answer amounted to ‘wait, wait indefinitely,’” said one of them. “Let them freeze our debts and we’ll wait. Let them give us another source of income and we’ll wait.”
The protesters refused to unblock the sole railway connecting Armenia to the outside world despite appeals from Lori’s governor, Andrey Ghukasian. “The cause of your problem is not the government,” he told them at the scene.
Ghukasian suggested that the protest may have been organized by Vallex with the aim of clinching more concessions from the government.