Yerevan Mayor Hayk Marutian defended on Tuesday his decision to allow the construction of a new restaurant and café in a famous park which was the scene of a three-month standoff between former municipal authorities and environmental activists eight years ago.
Marutian’s predecessor, Taron Markarian, sparked angry protests in early 2012 when he placed a dozen commercial kiosks in the small park located in downtown Yerevan. They were due to be rented out to private entrepreneurs.
Scores of mostly young people demonstrated there on a virtually basis for more than three months in protest against what they saw as further damage to the city’s green areas. They repeatedly clashed with riot police while trying to stop construction work.
The protests ended only after then President Serzh Sarkisian visited the park and publicly told Markarian to remove the kiosks. The decision was hailed as a landmark triumph of growing civic activism in Armenia.
The former authorities refurbished the park, commonly known as Mashtots Park, in the following years. Only one structure, a one-story glass-and-steel café and restaurant built in the early 2000s, was allowed to remain there.
The café was dismantled after the 2018 “Velvet Revolution” which was followed by Marutian’s election as Yerevan mayor. It emerged earlier this year that the new municipal administration allowed its owner to build a new and apparently larger property in its place.
The builders have cut down several trees as a result, triggering an uproar on social media from environment protection and other civic groups in recent days. The latter have demanded that the mayor’s office halt and ban the construction.
Some activists point out that Marutian was among those prominent public figures who voiced support for the 2012 protests at Mashtots Park. The 43-year-old mayor was a popular TV comedian at the time.
Marutian held a news conference on Tuesday to explain his decision which he said was the result of a deal struck with the café owner. In his words, the owner agreed to give up ownership of the 300-square-meter former café in return for renting the same plot of land from the municipality until 2040.
The new café will formally belong to the municipality, stressed Marutian. He also insisted that the trees in question were too old and had to be cut down in any case.
The mayor further defended his failure to organize prior public discussions on the issue. “Discussions are held during elections,” he said. “Then [voters] elect a mayor, who takes over and makes decisions.”
Marutian announced at the same time that work on the new café was suspended earlier in the day because of what he described as violations of the construction permit issued by his office. He said he will decide his further steps after municipal officials “ascertain the number of deviations” from the construction project.