What started with a protest in Yerevan’s Mashtots Park two weeks ago has turned into an “Occupy” style presence in one of the few remaining public green parks in the city. The park is being threatened with a new construction plan approved by the municipality that would build a line of boutiques—an effort to compensate shop owners who lost their properties on Abovyan St. after the city dismantled their stores as part of a “clean-up.” Protesters, however, are refusing to let the space go, holding a round-the-clock vigil to prevent any further construction.
One group, which has dubbed itself “We Are the Guardians of This City,” has garnered the support of almost 4,300 users on Facebook. The planned destruction of the park would, it says, adversely affect the physical and psychological wellbeing of city dwellers. It’s also denounced the quality and aesthetics of the new construction, saying it is “not in harmony with the city’s overall architectural face.” It’s advocated pursuing legal means to stop the project.
Two years ago, Yerevan resident Sofia Manukyan Gagiki learned of the city’s plans to build a trade center and parking lot in place of the park. “It was situated on both sides of Mashtots Ave., near the museum of Yeghishe Charents on one side and Margaryan Hospital on the other, and was quite a filthy place,” Manukyan told the Weekly. The park had long been neglected, with no attempts to clean it or improve its landscape. The fountains that once quenched the thirst of visitors had been removed. Regardless, decades-old trees stood tall. And for Manukyan, it was a lovely oasis at the center of a city “overloaded with buildings.” It just needed some care.
When Manukyan learned of the proposed construction, she was furious, she says. Together with other activists and neighborhood residents, she actively opposed the plan and saved the park from “serving the interests of businesses.”
The battle was far from over, however. “This year we faced the same problem, when the interests of some businesses were classified higher and more important than the interests of the public.”
“It makes me and others quite angry to hear the official argument that building these boutiques will open a new page in the history of the park, making it a cleaner and nicer spot,” she said. “I do not understand why a park should not become a better place after flowers are planted, trees are watered, and benches are placed, but after cafes and shops are opened inside it.”
After protesters flooded the park in early February, the police were summoned to stand guard and keep the protesters at bay.
According to Manukyan, they are protecting an illegal project. “The police are not only going against the youth, but also against the law… One of them even admitted that the construction was illegal! I was amazed at how the policeman could protect an illegal action.”
Some members of Parliament have also voiced their disapproval of the Mashtots construction project. Heritage Party MP Zaruhi Postanjyan was on site on Feb. 17, and was reported as saying that she had “not seen one construction permit posted anywhere.” That same day, protesters blocked construction vehicles from entering the park. Some even lay on the ground, refusing to move.
On Feb. 20, protesters presented a written statement to Yerevan Mayor Taron Margaryan noting the legal violations that have arisen from the project, including laws pertaining to property, land, construction, and the environment.
Around midnight that night, when protesters had left the park, construction restarted and continued until morning, when the standoff resumed.
What the police allowed that night, and the construction companies carried out, was illegal, Manukyan said. “It is forbidden to make noise after midnight,” and it was impossible for protesters to stand guard overnight since it was -12 degrees Celcius (or 10 degrees Fahrenheit).
“The fact that the officials and law enforcement are so careless, not only about the people but also about the law and constitutional rights of people, make me and my friends protest and demand the realization of our rights,” she said.
Meanwhile, Armenian Revolutionary Federation-Dashnaktsutyun (ARF-D) Bureau member and parliamentary bloc chairman Vahan Hovhannesyan, in a letter addressed to Mayor Margaryan, urged authorities to hold a public discussion on the matter and hear citizens’ concerns.
“The construction work that has been realized by the approval of the municipality has caused serious distress among the public, and has given rise to a wave of protests among a number of non-governmental organizations, including environmental ones,” wrote Hovhannesyan. The construction is being carried out on public green land, as designated by the Yerevan City plan, he said, and would affect residents and their interests, as well as the interests of the city on cultural and environmental grounds—as cited in Articles 12, 13, and 14 of Armenian law.
Similarly, on Feb. 21, Heritage Party MPs filed a complaint with the court against the city’s plan.
Construction has stopped for now, but most of the project is complete. Still, activists say they will not back down. Despite the cold and snow, they are ever-present in the park, as they carry flags and posters. Speakers, musicians, and even art shows have given the protest action a bit of a festive atmosphere.
The names of the Mashtots Park store owners remain a mystery. Many believe they are owned by oligarchs; while some claim they belong to Gagik Beglaryan, brother of Yerevan’s former mayor.
Margaryan issued a statement calling on the protesters to tone down their emotions and look at the issue reasonably. According to the mayor, when the shops on Abovyan St. were dismantled, the shop-owners needed adequate compensation. “Important and complicated private property issues cannot be resolved through a personal viewpoint of what justice is,” he was reported as saying.
On Feb. 23, the Public Council of Armenia discussed the matter. Construction was frozen until the legality of the project is determined. Yerevan chief architect Narek Sargsyan said the Mashtots stores were only a temporary two-to-three year solution for the Abovyan St. merchants, reported Hetq. The news agency, however, cast doubt on the temporary nature of the deal as it claimed Eastern Oasis Ltd. held a building permit for the park that expires in 2028.
Opponents find it ironic that the project was dubbed the “[city] Center Greening” project (“Kentron Kanachabatum”). “It is interesting that the… project is engaged not in expanding green spaces and caring for them, but in construction,” noted the group “We Are the Guardians of This City.”
Adamant on blocking the project, the group has vowed to stay on site until the construction is dismantled. It has also called on fellow citizens to join their protest. “Let’s wake up and take a stand for our beloved city and our parks! … This city belongs to us! Let’s make Yerevan a flourishing, highly cultured city!”