IWPR: YEREVAN BECOMING A “DESERT”

IWPR CAUCASUS REPORTING SERVICE

No. 243, July 21, 2004

YEREVAN BECOMING A “DESERT”

Officials begin to worry about the systematic elimination of green areas in
the Armenian capital.

By Susanna Petrosian in Yerevan

The construction of an outdoor café in a leafy spot in central Yerevan was
halted last week, in a sign that city officials are beginning to take on the
unchecked building spree that has altered the face of the Armenian capital.

The move has been widely welcomed. “It is a precedent,” said Ruben Torosian,
a prominent former member of parliament. “The fact that finally someone was
stopped from building in the green zone is a positive sign.”

Gohar Oganezova, vice-president of Armenia’s Botanical Association, told
IWPR that “this case can be seen as the first small result of our fight over
many years against construction taking place on Yerevan’s green spaces,”

Before the city authorities had time to issue their ruling, it took workers
less than a day to chop down several old trees as they began clearing space
for the café.

Samvel Danielian, who is head of the architectural and town planning
department at the mayor’s office, promised that the area would be restored
to its former state.

But it is much too late to save large parts of the capital, which have lost
their green spaces forever to a café boom of doubtful legality.
Brash-looking cafes now sprawl across the entire city, depriving local
people of parks and open spaces they used for decades.

“When they cut down all those trees, the café-owners hardly gave a thought
about the future of our children,” said pensioner Arsen Darbinian.

“All the parks in Yerevan have been built over with cafes, and there’s
nowhere for children to play or for us to relax,” said housewife Lilit
Akopian.

Since 1990, the city has lost 40 per cent of its green areas due to new
construction, according to research carried out by three organisations, the
Yerevan Public Ecological Centre, the Centre for Regional Development and
Transparency International.

Thirty-eight environmental groups have banded together to protest about the
loss of green space.

“If illegal construction of various buildings does not stop, Yerevan will
soon become a desert,” warned Armen Dovlatian, leader of the Armenia’s
Socio-Ecological Party, one of the protesting organisations.

Srbui Harutiunian, another prominent environmentalist, said land was being
degraded, landslips were increasing and Yerevan citizens were suffering from
new allergic illnesses as a result of the changes.

But Marzpet Kamalian, deputy head of the state expert commission at the
environment ministry, rejected the charges, saying that the city was not at
risk at all. “The problem of desertification cannot affect Yerevan,” he told
IWPR, asserting that only a rural landscape can turn into a desert.

At the centre of the debate are Yerevan’s Ring Boulevard and the Opera
Garden. Twelve cafes have already been built around the famous Yerevan opera
house and three more are under construction. More than 100 cafes have been
built on the Ring Boulevard, some of them made of stone, although that is
explicitly forbidden by city laws.

Grachia Muradian, who heads the city department for control over town
planning and land use, told IWPR that everything was under control and that
the mayor’s office had stopped the construction of ten cafes in green spaces
this year. Muradian said planning regulations had always been violated in
Yerevan but his office was closely monitoring the situation.

Samvel Danielian, from the same office, told IWPR that the café-owners were
used to getting round regulations by acquiring very small plots of land and
then building outwards, but new city regulations were making it harder and
harder to break the law.

Environmentalists are not impressed and say the city authorities have been
turning a blind eye to blatant infringements of the law.

Detailed reports by the Association of Investigative Journalists in Yerevan
have recorded that the mayor’s office has been closely involved in giving
the green light to building projects.

“The mechanism which the mayor’s office uses is the following: first a plot
of land of 20 cubic metres, which does not need to be sold at auction, is
allocated and then this plot is enlarged with the help of subsequent
directives and decisions,” said Edik Bagdasarian, who heads the
investigative association.

“We can’t say that the law has been broken,” Grigor Melkumian, chief advisor
to the mayor, said in response to this allegation. “All decisions by the
mayor’s office have received state registration. If the decisions were
illegal, they wouldn’t have got state registration.”

But a former mayor, Robert Nazarian, has admitted that, “ninety nine per
cent of buildings in the opera park are illegal and we did not approve those
projects”.

Narek Sarkisian, until recently chief architect for the city, also conceded
that pressure was put on him to approve construction projects. “I tried to
do everything that was within my power, but very high-up are involved and
they believe they are above the law,” said Sarkisian.

If officials at this level are not ultimately responsible, who is? Edik
Bagdasarian points the figure of blame higher up, saying that his
organisation has established that in the Ring Boulevard, the owners of cafes
include four ministers, two generals, a deputy director of the national
security service and three heads of department in the mayor’s office.

The men involved have either denied their involvement or refused to comment.

Yervand Zakharian, who has been mayor of Yerevan for just a year, has
pledged to crack down on the illegal cafes. Many people are very supportive,
but others are waiting to see what happens.

“We’ve been so much deceived that we have to follow very closely what
happens in the green zones,” said Oganezova.


Susanna Petrosian is a journalist with Noyan Tapan news agency.

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