Protesters blocked one of the central streets of the capital but the police managed to push them aside, arresting sixteen in the process
The demolishing of cafes located in downtown Yerevan, right next to the opera house, has caused clashes between the police, the owners and cafe employees.
This is the second day that a protest has emerged against the demolition of cafes and restaurants near the Spendiaryan National Academic Opera and Ballet Theatre.
So far, 16 protesters have been arrested.
How the protest emerged
The city authorities began demolishing five cafes in the area near the opera house on 13 March.
Dozens of protesters came out in the early morning on Freedom Square where the cafes are located, demanding an end to the demolition.
Cafe owners and managers said that there were a total of 300 people working there, all of whom will end up without jobs should the cafes be demolished.
“Let them create jobs first, then destroy [the cafes],” said one of the cafe owners.
In response to this statement, the press secretary of the Yerevan City Hall Hakob Karapetyan wrote on his Facebook page:
“The opinion that 300 people will lose their jobs during the demolishing of the cafes is, to put it mildly, exaggerated.”
The situation escalated after cafe employees cut electrical wires in the area to prevent the connection of appliances that would help carry out the demolition work.
The protesters chanted “Shame!”, and demanded that the demolition process be postponed until further discussion.
Viktor Mnatsakanyan, head of the central administrative district of the capital, was on the scene as well. He said that the municipality is not going to compensate the owners of the demolished cafes. He said that one of these cafes leased an area of 100 square metres for only 90 thousand drams per month (less than $200).
“Do you understand what this scanty figure is for the city centre?! Yes, I suppose that the former authorities of Yerevan allowed them to work under such conditions. But we are not responsible for their decisions and actions.”
Mnatsakanyan says that the demolition of these cafes is being carried out to restore the original appearance of the territory, which is adjacent to the building of the opera house: “We are discussing the issue of zoning. We are going to dismantle billboards. In the capital there are certain places that we must protect as one would a shrine. This is just a question of well-being, there are no political or personal issues.”
However, the dismantling process did come to a halt on Wednesday evening. Representatives of the city mayor met with the owners of cafes behind closed doors – but the attempt to reach a compromise failed.
Mnatsakanyan says the cafe owners proposed that the demolition be delayed for five years, but the mayor’s office was unwilling to change its decision:
“The rejection of [plans] to demolish the cafes adjacent to Freedom Square is not being discussed,” said Mnatsakanyan.
On 14 March, clashes between the police and employees of the cafes became especially tense. Protesters tried to block one of the central streets of the capital.
Some sat outside on the street, while others surrounded them. They tried to block the road with garbage cans, but the police did not allow them to do so. Police officers tried for a long time to remove people from the road – one protestor even fell ill.
“Do not destroy our jobs! Do not deprive us of work!” the cafe workers shouted.
Why have city authorities decided to demolish the cafes?
The decision to demolish the cafes and restaurants on Freedom Square was made by city hall as part of a city greening project.
“Eighty years ago, there used to be a park around the National Spendiaryan Theatre, designed by Tamanyan [ed. Yerevan’s first city planner]. A park was set up where spectators could go out during intermissions and walk around the walkways. Over the years, the building of the opera house, which is considered the hallmark of the capital, was surrounded by cafes. Since the beginning of the year, the mayor’s office began the process of restoring and developing the green spaces of Yerevan,” reads the mayor’s statement.
The cafe owners expressed their dissatisfaction with the city hall’s decision in January.
Yerevan Mayor Hayk Marutyan answered that the demolition process would strictly be conducted in accordance with the law:
“The owners of these cafes, of course, have complaints about the demolition of structures located near the building of the Opera and Ballet Theatre, but the decision which was made is not subject to revision.”
On 14 March, the mayor of the city wrote on Facebook:
“Dear citizens of Yerevan, today we are fulfilling our long-term dream: we are freeing up the surrounds of the opera theatre and returning the atmosphere of the centre of culture. Everything is just beginning, this process will continue. I thank all the people of Yerevan for supporting us. Let’s give Yerevan back its cultural look.”
Residents of Yerevan react
Former Chief Architect of Yerevan Mkrtich Minasyan has come out in support of the decision:
“I believe that the chief architect Arthur Meschyan and the Yerevan Mayor’s Office made the right decision in demolishing the cafes.”
Sculptor Tigran Arzumanyan says that in the summer season, when there are many tourists in the capital, it will be possible to open cafes via prefabricated structures in this area, so as not to lose business.
Most of the residents of the capital supported the decision of the city hall. Here’s what they wrote on Facebook:
“Yes, I also like to sit in cafes near the opera. These cafes are part of Yerevan for me as well. I love to meet people there, talk to them. And this is part of the culture of our city. But had they not laid down concrete there, had they not built large cafes several stories tall, and had they worked within the framework of the law and not in a corrupt manner, many would have come out in support of them.”
“They are doing the right thing. We want to live in a pleasant city, a place where it would be nice to walk in the evenings in the centre.”
“[Cafe owners!] In order not to lose your business, you will sell your country.”
But some Yerevan residents were suspicious of the actions of the city authorities.
They do not believe that trees will be planted there again, as underground garages have already been built under the area – their roots will have nowhere to grow. There is also the fear that cafes and restaurants will appear again there.