Futile Fight: Angry property owners use barricades as last defense against “elite homes for elite guys”

In the late 1920s, Harutyun Muradyan built a house at 23 Buzand Street in Yerevan. He lived there with his family just a few years before going off to fight the “Great Patriotic War”, in which Muradyan died.

Now, when the reshaping of Armenia’s capital is at the expense of family histories, Muradyan’s house itself has become a battleground. It, and others standing in the way of Main Avenue, have become flashpoints of fighting between those who see no difference between progress and persecution, and those for whom the sacrifice of common citizens is an acceptable tradeoff for the enriching of oligarchs.

Last Thursday, Muradyan’s 45 year old grandson, Eduard, watched helplessly as authorities led by “red beret” special police forces evicted 11 members of his family. Eduard Muradyan’s mother, 65-year old Anzheta, climbed to the roof of the building and threatened to throw herself off, before being forced down by police.

The Muradyans say police loaded the family goods into a car and took them away. “We don’t know where they took our things, they even took the schoolbag of our child who was to go to school,” Eduard Muradyan says.

Then bulldozers leveled the two flats, as they have other residences on Buzand, Amiryan, Khobatsi, Pushkin and Tumanyan streets in the center of the capital where “elite” buildings will stand in the place of humble homes.

While making way for development, the machinery employed by men of means is also kicking up dust that will not quickly clear at the epicenter of the latest sociological debate in this country “in transition”.

For the Muradyans, it is a clear case of the rich getting richer at the expense of the poor, who have even less power than money.

Those who agree with the current plans expect a day when a glistening new city center will outshine the cloud that presently hangs over Yerevan’s lesson in the personal price paid for urban renewal. There are plenty opponents, however, who say that the proposed development collides with current Yerevan architecture, rather than compliment it.

In any case, for now, residents feel that they have been taken advantage of and that the (constitutional) legal loophole of “state needs” has become a noose in which their rights as citizens have been strangled.

Some simply do not want to leave their homes, at any cost. Many, meanwhile, are not opposed to development, but are opposed to the relatively low prices developers are offering for the property. (When homeowners were being bought out in preparation for North Avenue, many were satisfied with the prices they were offered. In the path of Main Avenue, however, none have agreed that offers have been fair.)

Within the past few months, dozens of homeowners have been forced to sign contracts and sell out their homes at prices three times below market value.

It is widely believed, and in some cases officially documented, that the money behind the development comes from the familiar names of Armenian and Russian oligarchs – most of whom are either Members of Parliament, or have strong ties with Yerevan’s power regime. (Click to see ArmeniaNow’s previous report “Need” or Greed?.)

In many cases, developers have taken their claims to court, demanding that their offer be accepted. In every case, neither the lower court nor court of appeals has ruled in favor of the homeowners. (Though in one case, the appeals court sent the case back to the lower court, where it is now being heard.)

In the case of the Muradyans, Griar Ltd. (development company) offered $33,700 for the family’s two apartments, totaling about 95 square meters – or, $355 per square meter. To outsiders familiar with the standard of living in Armenia, the amount might seem like a windfall. The reality, though, is that in the city center a square meter of property may sell for as much as three times what the residents were offered. (According to Torgon Hovhannesyan, head of A.S. Real Estate Agency, prices for a square meter of property in the center start $1,000.)

Their house now in ruins, the Muradyans nonetheless refuse to leave Buzand Street. They dine in the street, at night some of the adults continue to sit at the ruins, and the children and other adults sleep in the houses of neighbors and relatives. When it rains they hide under a roof that has been collapsed to the ground.

There are still bruises on Anzheta’s arms, from her encounter with police taking her off the roof, while a bulldozer’s blade was already digging into her home.

“I have dedicated my whole life to this country, I worked for 46 years only to be reduced to a homeless person today,” says Anzheta, age 65. “At least the neighbors understand what it means to be a homeless person and help us.”

(Anzheta turned to the court with a claim that her house was measured to be 6 square meters less than its actual size, the case is at the court now. However, this circumstance did not play a role so that they should not be evicted.)

Observing the current controversy, Yerevan State University sociologist Lyudmilla Harutyunyan told ArmeniaNow that residents of Buzand and other threatened areas had, in vain, pinned their hopes on a leader emerging who would enforce their version of justice. But when the blocks of Harut Muradyan’s house fell, nine other families totaling 55 people awaiting their fate put up barricades in the street.

One of the barricades passed by the ruined house of the Muradyans where they were sitting: “Shouldn’t we sit here, should a car come and go over us?” says Eduard. “What shall we do, we have no other means of struggle.” When builders approach, Anzheta climbs the roof of the demolished house to prevent the rest from being torn down.

“Armenians defended their land with a sword, and we want to defend our house and land,” says Sedrak Baghdasaryan, who expects eviction any day.

Two days later, meeting no resistance, police removed the barricade with bulldozers, however the residents raised a barricade again on September 5. Political figures, students, residents of nearby Koghbatsi Street, who are awaiting the same fate, and those who had already been evicted had come to help them.

“I have come to help my neighbors,” says former Buzand resident Gohar Gharibyan, who was evicted from her apartment on June 23 following a court ruling. She did not sign any contract, however the Bailiff’s Office gave her $14,000 for the 44 square meters of her apartment, which is just enough to buy a one-room apartment in a city outskirt. Now her four-member family rents an apartment outside the center, paying $70 a month. “We didn’t take that money for two months and in August the money was transferred to the Bailiff’s Office. They told us if we didn’t take it, the money would be lost altogether,” Gohar says.

The Gharibyans and several other evicted residents have applied to the European Court of Human Rights.

The following day the police again destroyed the barricade and continue to patrol the area.

Avetik Yeranosyan has lived at 15 Buzand Street for 40 years, from where he and the families of his children – 12 persons – are to be evicted. The territory is being developed by “Vizkon” Ltd., a company directed by Armenia’s former Minister of Ecology.

“They wanted to demolish my house during the Soviet times, I didn’t allow it,” Yeranosyan says. “They retreated. The Soviets collapsed, all my money in the bank was lost, and now they are taking the house that was left to me from my hands.

“They say they are building elite homes for elite guys, who do you think are you to live here? And I say: To hell with the elite guys. For centuries our nation has been a betrayer. Had we been united, we would not have lost our lands and would not be building elite homes for elite guys today.”

Government Ombudswoman Larisa Alverdyan argues that the tenet of law concerning “state needs” is being wrongly applied. She has sent letters to the President and the Chairman of the Court of Cassation. In connection with the latest eviction the court had ruled that the owners and “other persons” be evicted. Those “other persons” are Eduard’s wife’s sister, a refugee from Azerbaijan, Emma Aghajanyan, and her two underage children. In this regard, the Ombudswoman spread an open letter wherein she says: “Emma Aghajanyan was not made part of the judicial process, her name is not mentioned in the court rule altogether and nothing is said about her, but the bailiff evicted her as ‘other persons’ by seizing her by the arm.”

It is said in the letter that similar verdicts are not unique, and that the Court of Cassation is negligent because it allows verdicts to be unchanged although according to the law verdicts should be suspended in relation to the rights and obligations of people who were not made participants of the case.

Zhora Khachatryan, legal advisor to the Ombudswoman, says that legal measures have been exhausted and the barricades have become the only form of defense for the residents: “All the rulings of the court were evidently unfair, the complaints are not investigated, no solution is given. For formal reasons all objections are rejected. Today, the residents are faced with a fact that court rulings must be enforced. The Ombudswoman is now powerless, no matter how many evaluations we give, the interested side says ‘I have a verdict in my hand’. People have no other way, they take the way of resistance.”