Gyumri: Waiting for promises to be fulfilled

On March 21 the Vardan Adamyan State Theater was packed with nearly 300 people cheering the words of prominent Republicans, including Gyumri mayor Vardan Ghukasyan and the now-deceased Prime Minister Andranik Margaryan.

They were announcing the purchase – with their private money -- of five houses available for a lucky few homeless families displaced by the 1988 earthquake.

“Long life to the kingdom of the mayor,” one woman proclaimed at the event.

Lack of affordable housing, still among the main problems facing many Gyumri residents displaced during the natural disaster, has forced many people to make permanent homes in makeshift conditions. Eighteen years after the disaster, between 3,000 and 5,000 are still living either without their own home in marginalized housing, according to various city and province statistics.

And while political figures are quick to make a few heavily publicized charitable donations during the political season, Gyumri's larger housing problems remain largely unaddressed in the political realm.

Take, for example, Garegin Nzhdeh Street. Here several dormitories have become homes for hundreds. The dormitories, which consist of an old textile factory hostel and temporary housing, built for and handed over to occupants by Russian earthquake aid workers, have been owned by private companies and people have been living in them for years, some even spending money to make improvements. But recently, the companies were forced to put the properties up for auction to settle state tax debts. That will force many people out of their homes onto the street.

When apprised of the problem last fall, (then Minister of Defense) Serzh Sargsyan claimed it was illegal for the buildings to be sold, and promised a Gyumri crowd he would solve the problem. Yet no political action resulted from these promises, and the units today are being sold off one by one.

Gyumri residents are left asking themselves whether to vote for the politicians who do nothing substantial to solve housing problems, or those who offer nothing but a little well-publicized charity during the hot pre-election period.

On Election Day, Gyumri residents will have the chance to elect four positions from among 14 majoritarian candidates.

Which ones have a substantive housing policy for Gyumri? It is a question that also applies to party platforms.

Officially it was announced that no urban housing plans are in prospect by the Republican Party of Armenia.

“The housing hand-over action will continue,” assures a majoritarian candidate and RPA member Sukias Avetisyan, “During the upcoming five years the problems of homeless in Gyumri should reach a closure. The distribution of housing certificates will continue, and if this approach does not justify itself, other solutions will be looked for.”

Opposition Orinats Yerkir party member Samvel Balasanyan, has referred recently to the Law of Gyumri adopted by parliament to cover social issues, such as the housing vouchers issued to Gyumri residents after the earthquake. He wants to introduce amendments of the law that relate to tax privileges and divert state money towards building more affordable housing, not just issuing vouchers like in the past.

“Our party will be addressing the problems of the homeless,” says a majoritarian candidate, Prosperous Armenia member Hambartsum Matevosyan. ”We clearly have a program that will be guiding us in resolving that issue”.

Big words with little action leave many Gyumri voters frustrated, such as 68-year-old Volodya.

“Soon there will be elections; everyone is bustling, giving out presents, making speeches. But will it change the people’s situation, or does it say that ‘power has always belonged to people?’” he says, angrily.

“He who has more money becomes the holder of a post and pushes his business further,” he says. “I have decided for sure – I am not going to the polls. Whether we participate or not they will rig it anyway. Then why go and vote if it doesn’t count?”