End of Mashtots Park Saga?: President orders dismantling of controversial park kiosks during campaigning tour

In what was likely a pre-election publicity stunt, on May 1 President Serzh Sargsyan visited the Yerevan park that has been a point of environmental protests in the past three months and urged the city mayor, Taron Margaryan, accompanying him on the trip to get the “ugly pavilions” dismantled.

“You did everything right, made the right decision on the temporary placement of pavilions. In fact, it all was supposed to be dismantled within two or three years. But, my dear Taron, you can see yourself that this is not so nice, and it would be nice to find a way to dismantle it. That would be the right decision,” said President Sargsyan, who is also the leader of the ruling Republican Party of Armenia (RPA), now leading his political force’s campaign ahead of the May 6 parliamentary elections. (Mayor Margaryan is also a senior member of the party and high on the RPA proportional list). The comments appeared on the presidential website along with video provided to television companies.

It is more than 80 days that environmental activists have been regularly on protest in the park off Yerevan’s central Mashtots Boulevard trying to prevent the construction of trading pavilions that had earlier been dismantled from the sidewalk of another downtown street as part of the program of the mayor’s office aimed at removing illegal shops and kiosks from city streets.

A month ago, well-known scholars jointed the young activists, setting up 10 so-called “Dismantling Brigades” that since then have three times attempted to dismantle the pavilions by themselves but each encountered heavy police cordons. The last such attempt was made on April 29 and it turned nasty as clashes between activists and police resulted in some light injuries on both sides, with seven activists briefly detained.

The dismantlers vowed to make the next attempt on May 6, Election Day. It is this circumstance that many say proved decisive for Sargsyan to visit the site and urge the mayor to end the strife.

Meanwhile, the public organizations dealing with the problem of the Mashtots Park issued a statement saying that the responsibility for the illegal installation of the shops is on the mayor of Yerevan and that power in the city must be returned to its citizens. They also called for the condemnation of what they believe to be police misconduct, instead of calling it achievement and thanking police officers for their service (which Sargsyan did on his trip to the park).

“Serzh Sargsyan did not address the rights of Armenian citizens and the protection of the prevailing public interest in any way,” protesters’ said in their statement, demanding that the decision on construction in the party be officially recognized as null and void.

The mayor’s office has not presented any documents that would confirm the right to construction in what is public area or the right to ownership of the kiosks. Moreover, there was some talk about some of the pavilions belonging to Mayor Margaryan himself. The Council of Elders, which is authorized to make such decisions, has not shown any document either. In this regard, MPs representing the opposition Heritage party have sued the mayor’s office.

Member of the first dismantling brigade, blogger Armen Hovhannisyan, who was briefly detained during the Sunday action, said that such issues are resolved with the participation of representative bodies and within the framework of the law. He wondered why there was a need to change the decision a couple of days before the elections. They should have waited for the decision of the court, he said.

Meanwhile, RPA spokesman Eduard Sharmazanov has already spurned the talk of critics that the U-turn in the Mashtots standoff is a campaign ploy.

“Any issue that has a serious public resonance is also the issue of the head of state,” Sharmazanov told RFE/RL’s Armenian Service.