Rebuilding Confidence: Echmiadzin residents ponder mayor election in light of city property controversy

Echmiadzin will elect a new mayor on October 16 and campaign passions have recently focused on issues that have a physical, social and spiritual impact on the community.

As the seat of the Armenian Apostolic Church, the town is considered by locals and Diaspora as a “second capital” of sorts – and therefore holding special significance.

It is its sacred place as home of the Holy See that gives Echmiadizin unique recognition, but it is simply its place as “home” to some 65,000 people, that give these voters reasons to worry over recent changes in its makeup.

Specifically, over the past five years, 10 buildings of cultural significance have been privatized, amid allegations that municipal authorities have profited from the sales.

It is these very phenomena that are likely to influence voting, as many residents say they are unhappy with the way Mayor Hrachik Abgaryan has used his position. (Abgaryan has been in office since 2002, and is one of only two mayors Echmiadzin has had since independence, 1991.)

“The two mayors did nothing for Echmiadzin,” says Hamlet Nahatakyan, director of Echmiadzin’s Nersisyan gymnasium. “On the contrary, they sold as much as they could. They don’t have any steady work of which they could be proud. Unauthorized and tasteless buildings, which destroy the architectural appearance of the town, rise up from day to day.”

Along with new buildings there are also rumors about new territories for sale. During the last months the territory near the monument to Komitas in the square of the town and the hall of Music School N 2 were sold.

Voters say they don’t know don’t know whom to elect and whom to trust.

Four candidates, including ex-mayor Yervand Aghvanyan are in the running. Abgaryan is not up for reelection.

Among contenders for the job is Susanna Harutyunyan, who lost her job ¬as a department head at city hall in a dispute with Abgaryan. (Last week Harutyunyan scheduled a TV appearance inviting voters to call in and discuss issues. During the 30 minutes for which the program was scheduled, the electricity in Echmiadzin went out and came back on immediately after the program’s conclusion.)

“At the time when I raised my voice against the sale of libraries, no one was punished. Had it been stopped, the building of the local history museum, the hall of music school N 2, the territory near the monument to Komitas in the square would not have been sold today, but I promise to the residents of Echmiadzin that I will bring everything back to the town,” says Harutyunyan.

Deputy Mayor Artashes Baghdasaryan denies Harutyunyan’s accusation that those buildings were sold.

“The hall of the music school has not been sold. At this moment, it is being restored through the municipality’s efforts. And we indeed received an offer regarding the territory in the vicinity of the Komitas monument, which we rejected. We even discussed the matter with the intellectuals of the town. The area of the monument is inviolable,” he says.

Last year Abgaryan officially told ArmeniaNow the museum of local history was not being sold. Some time later, however, the building was sold.

One mayoral candidate, Yervand Aghvanyan, who was the mayor of Echmiadzin FROM 1996 TO 2002, and city council chairman before that says: “What is happening in Echmiadzin today is only part of the events happening in this country. All this rather should be realized at the top starting from the president.”

According to Harutyunyan, the yards of buildings are sold for little money, children are deprived of playing grounds, the sidewalks in the streets are being taken over.

The deputy mayor says that the mayor’s office simply provides territory where people set up their small businesses. The territories are provided without breaking the town-planning norms.

The part in front of the town’s central department store situated close to the square is surrounded by thick concrete walls today.

Baghdasaryan explains that the territory in front of the department store is an illegally seized territory. It was provided to the owner by a government decision. The mayor’s office has not given its consent till today.

A new two-storied facility is being built in the whole part of the yard of the town’s school N3.

Only eight of Echmiadzin’s 16 kindergartens remain. Deputy Mayor Baghdasaryan said that some of them had been sold still under the previous mayor. Only six of the eight libraries remain.

“We only want to see good yards, have asphalted streets, be protected. Little time remains before the elections, but people still cannot find their bearings. What should these authorities do to make people trust them again,” Nahatakyan says.

Despite the property issues, Armenian Center for National and International Studies Director of Research, political analyst Stepan Safaryan, predicts that local elections in Echmiadzin will pass rather passively.

“Echmiadzin is one of the specific regions of Armenia and everyone knows whose territory it is (referring, without naming Manvel Grigoryan, widely considered the primary “oligarch” of the city),” he says. “I think that 70 percent of voters will not go to the polls in local elections as they do not trust local authorities and feel disgruntled.”

He thinks that only 30 percent will participate, of whom 15 percent will vote “against all” and the remaining 15 percent will be people voting under the influence of administrative resource.