Teghut II The Players
by Kirk Wallace, AEN Armenia Office Director
My friend Nieri Avanessian, a young Birthright Armenia volunteer, translated for me on the three hour bus trip to Teghut. The transit time provided an opportunity for the event organizers to educate the rest of us on a variety of topics including the unique habitat of Teghut, its flora, fauna and endangered species. They discussed the numerous laws, statutes and conventions being violated and flaunted in the face of the public. There was a lecture, from an archaeologist, concerning the danger the mine posed to ancient ruins and artifacts in the region. We also had a “pep-talk” from Mariam Sudukhyan who has become the face of the movement. Mariam has been on the front line of almost all environmental protests in Armenia and is fearless in pursuit of environmental justice. Mariam, however, is just one player in this unfolding drama. The purpose of this blog is to introduce the rest.
Oligarch is a term freely bantered about in Armenia. These wealthy elites dominate all aspects of Armenian society, from business to government. The Oligarchs control the legislative process through their proxy political parties, the Republican Party and Prosperous Armenia. To call the parties proxies is probably erroneous as there is virtually no distinction between members of parliament and wealthy businessmen. In fact, the Oligarchs, the wealthy elite businessmen and the legislative assemblymen are generally one and the same. These parties maintain a tight grip on the parliament through a variety of means, from outright intimidation to the more subtle buying-off of the opposition. Both the president, Serzh Sargsyan and the prime minister, Tigran Sargsyan (no relation) are members of the majority Republican Party. Personal business interests of the wealthy Armenian businessmen/members of parliament become manifest, regardless of what laws exist that were clearly crafted to prevent just such activities.
Ministers of the Government of the Republic of Armenia
I could spend hours discussing each of the ministers but for brevity’s sake I will limit this entry to one, the Minister of Nature Protection, Aram Harutyunyan. As the name indicates, Mr. Harutyunyan is bound to “protect” nature, for all Armenians. The Ministry of Nature Protection is charged by the Armenian Constitution to protect the resources of the nation for all the people. The Ministry is also charged with ensuring that environmental impact assessments are properly conducted and the strictures of the laws of the Republic of Armenia regarding environmental “expertise” are properly enforced. Concurrently the Ministry is charged with upholding the provisions of the Aarhus Convention and its three pillars of access to justice (these will be discussed in the subsequent blog entry). The ministry website posted the following message (excerpted here) from Mr. Harutyunyan:
Though by the legislation of the RA the environmental activities are under the responsibility of our Ministry, it is impossible to regulate such vital issues without an active participation and assistance of the society.
The main aim of this website is to provide information about the actions and measures that the Ministry of Nature Protection is taking for the regulation of environmental policy and wildlife management problems. Providing the availability of information and to involve the public in the decision-making process in the field of environment is another role of this website.
I look forward to active assistance of the wide sections of the population that are anxious about environmental issues either through website or direct dialogues in order to regulate these vital nature protection problems jointly.
I invite the reader to remember this sentiment about public participation when we visit the Aarhus Convention in an upcoming blog entry.
Vallex is a shadowy entity, as are almost all mining operations in Armenia. Its existence isn’t shadowy; rather, its ownership and shareholders, are. Vallex Group is the mine operator in Teghut through its subsidiary company, the Armenian Copper Program (ACP). Ownership of Vallex is not fully known. What is known is that Valeri Mejlumyan, a Russian citizen by way of Armenia, has 19% ownership in Vallex. The company is registered in Liechtenstein and thus the remaining owners are unknown. There are also persistent rumors in Armenia that a stake of unknown percentage is owned by current RA President Serzh Sargsyan. There is no way, currently, to confirm or refute this rumor as registration in Liechtenstein allows the company to keep company directors and stakeholders unknown to the public.
In regards to the Teghut mine, Vallex, initially, went through the requirements for licensing proscribed by law, making sure they crossed their “t’s” and dotted their “i’s”. Sona Ayvazyan, from Transparency International believes, however, that Vallex ownership and their government allies never expected anyone, or any group, to seriously contest the environmental impact assessement (EIA) or to put up any kind of resistance. (In an interesting aside, according to Sona, Vallex is actually the best mining company in regards to following the laws regarding public hearings and the legal processes required of law.) The EIA was completed by Lernametalurgiai Institute cjsc (LMI), which holds a de facto monopoly on all mining assessments conducted in Armenia. Most telling, however, is that LMI is a fully owned subsidiary of Vallex Group and the Armenian Copper Program. Vallex’s own company conducts its environmental impact assessments, which is a clear conflict of interest.
Courts and Legal System
The Armenian courts have continuously upheld Vallex’s right to exploit the Teghut forest for copper and molybdenum by rejecting suits filed by various NGOs. Three organizations, Transparency International (TI), the Helsinki Citizens Assembly Office in Vanadzor and Ecodar filed suit in the Administrative Court of the RA. The suit was rejected twice after which TI and Ecodar filed suit with the Court of Cassation. Ultimately the Court denied the rights of NGOs to pursue “public rights” and thus rejected the suit. This occurred despite the fact that an earlier ruling found that NGOs were able to pursue public rights.
The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) – Aarhus Centers
According to their website, OSCE is the organization that “contributes to the development of democratic institutions in the country, strengthening civil society, promoting OSCE standards and principles”. They are also the sponsoring organization of the Aarhus Centers that are located throughout Armenia. The Aarhus centers are charged with the responsibility to see that activities, which will impact the environment in some fashion, are conducted in a transparent manner with the participation of the public (more on this in a later blog). The stipulations and requirements of the Aarhus Convention are at the very core of the activists’ resistance to the Teghut mine, and many other ventures.
Transparency International (TI)
TI is a global organization dedicated to fighting against corruption in government and ensuring that legislation, policy making and any other government actions are conducted in an open fashion. TI-Armenia’s Environmental Division is headed by Sona Ayvazyan whom I interviewed for this and other blog entries. Ms. Ayvazyan and TI have been at the forefront of the legal battles against Teghut for years and continue to pursue justice in the European courts as well as the higher Armenian courts.
Save Teghut Coalition
Save Teghut is a coalition of Armenian NGOs, mostly environmental in nature, that seek to halt the construction of the mine. Among the groups involved is the Institute for Democracy and Human Rights (IDHR) headed by Arpine Galfyan. Material from Arpine’s abstract on Teghut is scattered throughout my blog entries. The aforementioned Mariam Sukudhyan is also one of these activists. The Save Teghut activists have been recently energized as a result of their victory at the Trchkan Falls where they prevented a hydro-electric plant from being constructed at the top of Armenia’s tallest waterfall. They have since moved their focus to Teghut and organized, and staged, the demonstration described in these blog entries.
There are other NGOs that have taken an interest in Teghut as well, AEN among them. AEN is interested in educating the Diaspora about all environmental matters in Armenia. Teghut represents an interesting case as it involves endangered species, deforestation, water pollution, and trans-boundary issues with Georgia and Azerbaijan. Speaking strictly for myself, I hope that some of Armenia’s larger and more influential NGOs are working behind the scenes to bring environmental protection to Teghut.
Where does the Diaspora stand on this issue? This is unknown to me. Let AEN know where you stand. Send us a response and let us know.
I learned quite a bit about the activists on our long bus trip. These young people were unfailingly polite, open, patient with my terrible Armenian and a lot of fun. I was, however, reminded of the seriousness of our activities when we picked up a police escort just outside of Alaverdi. The police escorted all three buses through the Debed River Valley and up the road to Teghut. Once there, we were met by approximately two dozen additional law enforcement officials who were ordered to keep the peace between the activists and the mine workers. Looking that day upon the good people, on both sides of the issue, with the police arrayed between us, I feared there would never be a resolution with Vallex and the government officials. I hope my mind changes.
One thing that has become clear to me is that there is no middle ground in this conflict. There is no group, organization, or individual who acts as a mediator between those that want the mine in Teghut and those that do not.
My next entry, Teghut – Part 3, will examine the specific dangers faced by the Teghut ecosystem.