Happenings at Mashtots Park
by Kirk Wallace, AEN Armenia Office Director
Something remarkable occurred on Monday, February 20th in Mashtot’s Park. Approximately 150 activists broke through a police cordon and temporary barriers to “re-occupy” kiosks being illegally constructed in this public park. This event was remarkable because, once again, environmental activists refused to quit on the concept that the “rule of law” applies to everyone. The activists would simply not quit on the idea that “public” means “of the people”, and not “of the mayor”. As a participant in this action I felt pride in these young people who simply refuse to quit on their country.
The day began peacefully enough. Three hundred activists gathered outside city hall to request that the mayor, Taron Margaryan, meet the activists to discuss events surrounding the park. At issue were the kiosks (mobile home size shops) that were being erected in Mashtot’s Park. These kiosks, formerly located on Abovyan Street, received licenses from the mayor for “temporary” placement in Mashtot’s Park. Members of several local NGO’s objected to this decision on the following grounds:
- The law requires public hearings when construction of this nature is to be conducted. No public hearings were held.
- The law requires an environmental impact assessment (EIA) be conducted. An environmental assessment makes note of the natural elements that will be disrupted or permanently altered. The assessment then recommends mitigations to be carried out by the construction company to minimize the damage. In some cases the predicted damages are too severe and no building would be permitted. In the case of Mashtot’s Park no EIA was conducted.
- The law requires that buildings not be erected within 5 meters of any trees. These kiosks are built surrounding the trees and are as close as one meter. The mayor claims these structures are “temporary” thus the law does not apply. The activists disagree and point to the cement foundations and electrical connections as proof of their “permanence”.
Prior to the demonstration at city hall, there were actions being held on a daily basis at the park. Activists had previously “occupied” one of the kiosks, preventing any construction from taking place. Activists also prevented cement trucks from entering the site by placing themselves in the road and blocking the passage. Police were called in and they removed the protestors from the kiosk and erected metal barriers around the construction site and established a continuous presence on the site. It was this last event that precipitated the demonstration at city hall.
Essentially the mayor refused to meet with the activists who then quickly decided to march back to the park. Once there, events escalated rapidly. The activists ignored the barriers and the police and stormed the kiosks. They removed the metal barriers to the sites as well as the blue tarps paralleling the sidewalk. The construction workers vacated the area, gathering their tools and equipment as they went. Approximately 100 police officers were next called to the scene and we were warned of impending arrest should we remain in the occupied zone. We stayed, they left.
Since this event several things have happened. We left the site when night fell, at which time the police re-established the cordon and the construction workers labored through the night. The following day a hunger strike was declared by one of the activists, additional activists arrived on the scene as the media took an even greater interest in the stand-off. As of today, February 23rd, the city has called a one week halt to further construction in order to hold discussions regarding how to proceed on this issue.
What then is the big picture in regards to Mashtot’s Park? As mentioned above this is very much an issue about the “rule of law”. Laws here are routinely ignored, manipulated and bent to benefit those in power. The corruption is so commonplace that, until recently, citizens simply accepted it as a way of life. With the advent of social media and an increasing connection with the West, Armenian activists are no longer willing to accept the cronyism that infects their government and public institutions. Events such as Trchkan and Mashtot’s Park are examples of this. This new generation endeavors to create a genuine democratic society.
I also believe that Mashtot’s Park is merely the crucible for what is to come. I am speaking of Teghut. The activists at Mashtot’s Park are the activists involved in the Save Teghut movement. I am going to post a 6 part blog on Teghut in the following weeks. Teghut is, in my mind, a game changing event. Teghut is a large mine in Northern Armenia that is being developed and which is being opposed by the Mashtot’s activists. I am going to make the case that the problems in Mashtot’s Park are similar in nature to those of Teghut. Further I am going to make the case that the government of Armenia, specifically President Serzh Sargsyan, must call for an independent and transparent environmental impact assessment (EIA) for the mining operation in Teghut. As you will learn, one has already been conducted by a company called Lernametalurgiai Institute cjsc, or LMI. However, LMI is a fully owned subsidiary of Vallex Group, the corporation that owns and operates the mine at Teghut. The activists want an EIA conducted by a company with no ties to Vallex Group. You will further learn that the mine at Teghut threatens permanent and irreparable damage to the Armenian environment, including species extinction.
Mashtot’s Park is already a victory for justice and the rule of law. Young people have sparked a renewed interest in social consciousness and have provided the first real glimmers of hope in decades. Please follow these unfolding events. Please read the forthcoming series on Teghut. If the government can be convinced to call for a new EIA this will help usher in the type of governance Armenians have been thirsting for.