Owners and employees of several cafes in Yerevan are protesting the decision of the city authorities to dismantle the property located in the vicinity of the Opera House that the municipality believes should be free from commercial facilities.
The dismantling began on March 13 – four weeks after the Yerevan Mayor’s Office formally notified the cafe owners that they should vacate the premises and leave the area.
The demolition work with the use of heavy equipment continued in the area adjacent to Freedom (Theater) Square on Thursday.
A number of employees of the cafes briefly blocked traffic in one of Yerevan’s central streets today as a sign of protest against the actions of the city authorities. “It is inhumane to deprive people of their daily earnings,” said one angry woman who participated in the picket.
Police put a cordon to keep the protesters off the road. Meanwhile, some of the disgruntled cafe workers demanded a meeting with Mayor Hayk Marutian.
Marutian, who became mayor after his political team backed by popular Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian polled over 80 percent in municipal elections last fall, insists that the green zone around the Opera House, one of the landmark buildings in central Yerevan, should not be overburdened with commercial property.
Still late last year the mayor made public a plan to gradually free the area from cafes. City authorities believe that the cafes can be located elsewhere in the city and thus their business will not be affected.
“Today we fulfill our dream of many years as we free the area surrounding the Opera House [from commercial property] and bring back the atmosphere of the cultural hearth,” Marutian said in a Facebook post on Thursday.
The mayor vowed continuous efforts in “recovering Yerevan’s cultural features” and thanked the city’s residents for “being next to the authorities in this matter.” “We feel your support,” Marutian wrote.
Still, the cafe owners believe that the decision to dismantle their property is wrong and unlawful.
“We have a lease contract with the state until 2026… How can we run a business in this country from now on? How can we trust them?” a manager of the Shokoladnitsa cafe told RFE/RL’s Armenian Service.
“Perhaps when the next authorities come some new people will build cafes here again. Who will guarantee that no one will do something else here?” he added.
The cafe owners also said that currently they employ dozens of workers and their continued operation also has social importance.
Prefect of Yerevan’s Kentron administrative district Viktor Mnatsakanian, who met with the cafe owners and employees on Wednesday, later said that there are locations in the city like the Opera House that “must be kept sacred.”
“For many years cafes have become part of Yerevan’s identity. We do understand all this. But this area, which is directly adjacent to the Opera House, must be kept free from cafes. We even want to improve entire Theater Square,” said Mnatsakanian.
The official stressed that the cafes that are being dismantled now were built without proper documentation and are therefore illegal structures.
Opposition Prosperous Armenia Party lawmakers Naira Zohrabian and Arman Abovian arrived at the scene of the dismantling work in the afternoon after what they described as alerts about violence being used against the protesters.
The two lawmakers urged the authorities to exclude violence and engage in dialogue with the cafe owners.
Meanwhile, the police reported that 16 protesters had been detained for “not complying with police officers’ lawful demands.” They were released later on.
At least one protester and one police officer were hurt in the standoff and were briefly hospitalized to be treated for their injuries.
The standoff bewteen protesters and police officers continued in the afternoon, with the dismantling activities halted.