IJEVAN—Officials in Armenia are hoping the enforcement of new legislation designed to criminalize illegal logging will help curb deforestation as tensions rise between locals and police over the widespread practice in the Armenian province of Tavush.
The amendments, which have been approved by the National Assembly, go into effect next week and will enforce heavier penalties and prison time. The new crackdown comes in the wake of increasing tensions between police and locals in Ijevan, where more than a dozen people have been charged with hooliganism amid clashes over unauthorized logging. Eight more were indicted Wednesday.
Armenia’s Investigative Committee announced its decision Monday less than one week after hundreds of locals managed to temporarily stop traffic on the M4 highway, which connects the Armenian capital with the Georgian border and runs through the Tavush capital. The protests took a violent turn last week when the masses began pelting police officers, who were clad in riot gear, with sticks and stones. Eleven officers were hospitalized. Police Chief Valery Osipyan praised officers for demonstrating the sort of professionalism that people have been expecting since the 2018 Velvet Revolution. According to the National Police of Armenia, the situation is now under control.
Newly-appointed Tavush governor Hayk Chobanyan managed to calm tensions and reopen the highway to traffic. Contrary to early reports by the investigative journalism site HETQ.am, the governor did not agree to allow locals to continue logging.
Bishop Bagrat Galstanyan, Prelate for the province of Tavush, stayed at the protest site throughout the entire ordeal. He told the press, “I hope that whatever the outcome, this issue gets solved peacefully and lawfully.” He went on to say that the protesters were trying to express legitimate concerns which the government should at least seriously consider. Galstanyan has been a staple at protests ever since he returned from his time as head of the Apostolic church in Canada. His presence, which he argues is necessary to maintain peace, has been at odds with the church, which historically would not engage in political events.
The crowds have been protesting recent government efforts to clamp down on illegal logging in the province. Tavush is one of Armenia’s most forested regions, often dubbed the “Switzerland of the Caucasus” due to its mountainous landscapes and lush forests. However, the province’s ecosystem has been ravaged over the last two decades by deforestation, mainly due to mining and logging activities. The receding forest has triggered a series of deadly landslides in the region. Environmentalists are also worried about the long term effects on the country’s ecosystem.
Armenia officially lists 11 percent of its territory as forested, though some activists put the number as low as six percent. The tendencies of previous governments to turn a blind eye to illegal deforestation activities have hampered the efforts of some groups like the Armenia Tree Project to combat this trend. Spurred by the total electricity blackouts of the early 1990s, logging gradually shifted from a strict necessity to a profitable, if illegal, business. “Logging is the only way to make ends meet,” argued one of the protesters on camera.
The province of Tavush is among the more economically depressed regions of the country. Instability on the border with Azerbaijan has hurt investment prospects, causing many to pack their bags. While the mining sector has been one of the leading job creators in the region, corrupt management practices and disregard for regulations have caused severe environmental concerns in the area. To make matters worse, several of these mines have recently closed their doors, adding to the province’s unemployment crisis.
Efforts to bring sustainable job creation to the province have met with some success. Donors have contributed to revitalizing infrastructure in border communities. Some groups have offered technical, material and financial assistance to create organic bee-keeping businesses, among other agricultural activities.
Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, for his part, strongly condemned the violence. He wrote on Facebook, “We will immediately dismiss any attempt to strong-arm the government into accepting illegal conditions.” An Ijevan native, the Prime Minister had not been very vocal about the issues of logging in his province while sitting as an opposition MP. However, he has since reaffirmed his determination to deal with the matter, adding “We will stop illegal logging with all determination.”
Some of Pashinyan’s political rivals like Zaruhi Postanjyan, have characterized the protests as a sign of the breakdown of social order. The leader of the fringe party “Yerkir Tzirani” blamed the unrest on the Prime Minister’s alleged-failure to deliver on his promises. Republic Party Leader Aram Sargsyan, on the other hand, defended the government’s response, arguing that the forest’s long-term sustainability trumps immediate economic needs. “I get the impression that everyone knows how to create jobs in Ijevan, except for the Prime Minister, who is from Ijevan,” he wrote on Facebook.
Indeed, the breakout of such protests in the Prime Minister’s hometown has led to some speculation, particularly in Azeri state media, of growing disillusion with the outcome of the Velvet Revolution. However, a new poll conducted by the International Republican Institute shows the Prime Minister continuing to enjoy widespread support among voters one year after the revolution.
Following a meeting with the heads of communities and other relevant authorities from the Tavush province, National Security Service (NSS) director Artur Vanetsyan offered two solutions. He proposed to allow locals to collect wood that has already fallen on the ground for heating and demand that the government aggressively pursue job creation in sustainable economic sectors like eco-tourism.