Scuffles Over the Opera Café Dismantling: A Sign of the Pains to Come

An image taken when the trees were cut down and the area surrounding Opera was demolished to make way for private businesses. The photo was shared to Facebook by Yerevan city council member Gayaneh Melkom Melkomian.

Last week, the Yerevan Municipality began dismantling several illegal outdoor cafés around the city’s landmark Opera House as part of a bid to return the city’s shrinking green spaces to its residents. This move was not taken lying down. Hundreds of waiters, line cooks, accountants and busboys assembled on Freedom Square to defy the bulldozers. Livestreams of the scuffles with police over the following days have been watched by tens of thousands of people. Though most came out in support of the authorities, this incident led some to ask whether the new authorities were taking things too far.  Either way, this latest episode in Armenia’s struggle to implement rule of law offers a glimpse of difficulties to come

In contrast to confrontations in pre-velvet Armenia, the protesting café owners don’t seem to have garnered much sympathy from the general public. In fact, comments on the livestreams are overwhelmingly sympathetic towards the government’s move, while some people have even shown up to the protest site to show support for the municipality.

In this particular context, café owners have a pretty shallow case. For one, the legality of these cafés is quite dubious. The municipality gave the cafés eviction notices months in advance. The owners hadn’t even bothered to challenge the lease cancellations since they knew that their cafés were in violation of city bylaws on green spaces. Many had cut down trees despite their contracts explicitly denying them the right to do so. The owners insist that they hold government-issued leases entitling them to the public plots until 2025. However, activists have long claimed that these agreements resulted from bribery. Kentron District Head Viktor Mnatsakanyan revealed that some of these establishments pay only about 90 000 AMD ($185) per month in rent. By comparison, rents for similar (but legal) locations in central Yerevan range between 500,000 AMD to 1,500,000 AMD ($1000 to $3000) a month.

The argument that the closures will result in the loss of hundreds of jobs has also been met with skepticism. Representatives from the municipality attempted to meet with the cafés to either help them relocate to legitimate rental properties or help their employees find employment elsewhere. They were met by rocks and other projectiles. One café with a staff of over 100 turned out to have only 12 registered workers.

The cafés around the Opera House act as a visual reminder of the previous administration’s corruption and blatant disregard of urban planning guidelines for years now. According to the Yerevan Public Ecological Center, the Armenian capital has lost up to 40 percent of its green space since 1990. Under the watch of a succession of mayors, parks and green spaces have been gradually covered over by outdoor cafés. Many of these eateries would eventually be upgraded with removable glass walls to keep them operational in the winters, and finally replaced with permanent concrete buildings.

Clamping down on corruption is great, it seems, so long as their own interests are not targeted.

Of course, the oligarch café owners are not the only ones protesting. Some of them may garner more public sympathy. Pawn shop owners, casino operators, street vendors, taxi drivers and other employers engaged in ‘semi-legal’ dealings have all come out on the street to resist the government’s new attempt to bring them into the fold. Clamping down on corruption is great, it seems, so long as their own interests are not targeted.

Centuries of foreign occupation added to seven decades of communism have cultivated a peculiar relationship towards rule of law and democratic governance among Armenians. Upon independence, the borders between the public and private spheres were never accurately drawn. This explains why an ancient highland nation of less than three million souls developed a specialty in decrying the impotence of a bloated and corrupt bureaucratic state, while simultaneously readily participating and even benefiting from it.  

Politicians constantly find themselves conflicted between the interests of the state and those of their family members. Motorists complain about police corruption while offering bribes to officers to avoid the hassle of paying a speeding ticket. People routinely cut in line while grumbling that said lines never get shorter. In the minds of many Armenian voters, there is no inherent contradiction here. Bribes to ‘legalize’ unauthorized extensions to an apartment don’t count as corruption. Only the oligarchs, the logic goes, are corrupt. This may sound like a paradox, but it highlights a deep cultural mistrust for the social contract.

Over a century ago, the German political economist Max Weber highlighted the necessity of a rule-based, rational bureaucratic system for the establishment of stable and economically significant nation-states. For a modern state to function for everybody, rules need to be clear, reasonable and universally enforceable.

the current confrontation reflects the limbo that has trapped Armenia since independence: an untenable balance between the temporary and the permanent, between the legal and illegal

In an odd way, the current confrontation reflects the limbo that has trapped Armenia since independence: an untenable balance between the temporary and the permanent, between the legal and illegal. This uncertain foundation has restrained the country’s democratic and economic potential for decades.

The fact that the authorities enjoyed overwhelming popular support in the destruction of these cafés should come as no surprise. One would be hard pressed to find an Armenian openly opposed to police tearing down illegal cafés owned by some of the country’s most notorious oligarchs. The true test for rule of law, however, will come when the legally conscientious rulings clash with popular opinion.

Armenia’s new administrators find themselves with the unenviable task of reinforcing rule of law and democratic procedures to a nation which has spent the better part of three decades adapting to the legal grey zones. Much money has been invested into developments which were, from the start, built on the shaky groundwork of bribery and untenable promises. Few would have doubted as they poured concrete onto public land that the forces that be would not crack down on them eventually.

The enforcement of law and order is always easy with popular support. But in Armenia, oligarchs are not the only ones to have broken the law, or benefited from corruption. Will those who cheered on the municipality’s bulldozers replicate their enthusiasm when they receive notices to dismantle their unlicensed (and grossly unsafe) building extensions? Will they swallow their complaints when they receive tickets for their obviously illegally parked cars? Will they understand when the revenue service reminds them that even small businesses must record sales and at least pay some modest taxes if they wish to enjoy improved government services? Or will they protest that a tyrannical government has gone too far in depriving them of the creature comforts to which they feel entitled; that they enjoyed through the decades when authorities turned a blind eye?

The Velvet Revolution sold Armenians on the hope of building a democratic and prosperous Armenia. Veterans of the protests are now discovering that change in government is not sufficient without a change in mentality. Citizens and the state must now work together to rewrite the social contract which had been trampled on for so long. For the authorities, this can only come in the form of thoughtful, universal and transparent reform. For the people of Armenia, it means putting their civic duty ahead of personal interest. In the short term, there will be pain: taxes, laws, confusion and so on. But the goal of a strong, economically competitive and democratically mature Armenia is worth the challenge.

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Raffi Elliott

Columnist & Armenia Correspondent
Raffi Elliott is a Canadian-born entrepreneur and occasional journalist who likes to ramble on about socioeconomic and political issues in Armenia. He lives in Yerevan with his family. He also holds a masters degree in International Relations.

3 Comments

  1. Hi Mr. Raffi Elliott,
    I am subscribed to The Armenian Weekly. When was the Opera Cafe built? How old is it?
    I am an author, and a lot of information for the second book of my series is based in Armenia. Why? Because it links events that happened in connection with Mount Ararat and the town of Masis.
    I am a former Research Analyst, and so I like to keep my information accurate even though my book is fiction.
    I have tried to find sources, people, here in California, that I can discuss Armenian culture from 1841 to 1960. Trying to keep my information as real as possible to the history of Armenia.
    I would appreciate any help I can get, including passing the chapters of my book on Armenia to someone to look at before publication. Would you be interested int hat? If not, do you know who might?
    I live in California, my maiden last name is Masis and even though I don’t have a lot of information on my ancestry, my dad, Hector Luis Masis, passed away long ago and only saw him a couple of times since I was a child; my parents were divorced since I was about three years old.

    • Hi Marta.

      The Opera itself was designed and built by Aleksander Tamanyan, the architect who built Yerevan’s Master plan.

      However, the green space around the Opera house has been built over by a number of open-air cafes since the early 2000s. The Municipality has dismantled them last week.

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