“I will not give up my land, I will pour acid on Avag Khachatryan when he comes,” says Sergey Avetisyan, who was a watchman in Hakhtanak (Victory) Park for 37 years. In 1996, when they started cutting down trees in the public park at the Babayan-Azatutian intersection, Sergey Avetisyan had a heart attack. He had taken care of each tree there since 1963. He weeps as he talks about the park. “These are trees planted by Khandjyan. There were trees that four people couldn’t get their arms around. They cut them all down. They were planting trees here through the Demirchyan years. Brezhnev and Demirchyan came to plant trees here. Our children tore up Brezhnev’s but left Demirchyan’s”.
In 1969 Sergey Avetisyan was given a 1,600 square meter plot of land next to his house at29 Arabkir Streetfor temporary use. He paid all taxes for the use of land through 2002. Avetisyan has planted 70 fruit trees there. He and his wife spend all day in the garden, they take care of the trees, cultivate tomatoes, cucumbers and cabbage. Two years ago he learned thatYerevanmayor Robert Nazaryan had decided to award his land to theHratchyaAjaryanUniversity. The rector of the university is Avag Khachatryan, father of former Speaker of Parliament Armen Khachatryan. He has done everything he can to acquire all the yards at29 Arabkir Street, offering deals to the residents. And all of them except for Sergei Avetisyan have struck bargains with Khachatryan. One man was promised that his daughter would get free tuition at Khachatryan’s university, an old woman was paid $200 to buy a tombstone for her husband, a third one got $300, and so on.
It’s hard to say whether Sergey Avetisyan will succeed in saving at least his own garden. He intends to challenge the mayor’s decision in court. As far as the public park is concerned, it seems that the mayor’s office is implementing a clear-cut policy of destroying it. Politicians, army generals, and former and current government officials have cut down trees and built their mansions in the park. Aghvan Nersisyan fromYerevan’s Department of Greenery told us that he waters the trees alongAzatutian Avenueevery day but he is not allowed to water the trees in the park. “They don’t allow us to water them so that the trees will dry up,” he concludes.
Two years ago a plot of land was privatized inHakhtanakPark. Trees there were cut down and today the Golden Palace Hotel stands in their place. Once again, senior officials are among the owners of the complex. State agencies have mounted an unprecedented attack against the green zones ofYerevan. Their aim seems to be total extermination. And in this they have come close to succeeding.
The trees inPushkinPark, located near the President’s Office and the National Assembly building were not watered during the hot summer months. “If this is what goes on before their very eyes you can imagine the situation in other parks. At least one or two people from these institutions come into this park every day. They see what’s going on, but they don’t pay attention,” says an old man sitting on a bench. Active construction work is going on in Oghakadzev (Circle) Park as well. Indeed, it’s hard to call this former green belt a park anymore because of the parade of cafés there.
“I don’t understand it. People have gone crazy,” says a Department of Greenery employee who works in the park. Architect Alexander Tamanyan designed the general layout ofYerevanfor a population of 250,000 with a growth limit of 400,000. But in today’sYerevan, with a population of over a million, the number of green zones, rather than increasing, is decreasing at an incredible speed.
Studies show that as a result of planting between 1928 and 1988, 1,930 hectares ofYerevanwere covered in trees. Green zones made up 11.4% of city land. In 1990-1995, during the energy crisis, 470 hectares of trees were cut down inYerevan, bringing the area covered by trees down to 7.3%. The energy crisis was overcome, but surprisingly, the deforestation has picked up speed. Between 1995 and 2000, an additional 700 hectares of trees were cut down for construction purposes. By 1998 the green zones had fallen to 3.4%. And today, the mayor keeps giving away parkland.
“In fact, today our city doesn’t have green zones; those isolated trees in the parks are powerless to influence the city’s vital functions. Green zones in parks must constitute 75-80% of the total area, pathways and roads 8%, squares 4-8%, and structures 2%. If these standards are not met it means the park as such doesn’t exist,” says the Chairwoman of the Ecological Association, Srbuhi Harutiunyan. The people committed to protectingYerevan’s green zones have not been very effective in their struggle, as they are the first to admit. “Armenians don’t like forests, they don’t like trees-they like stones and concrete,” Harutiunyan explains.
But studies conducted by public health workers show that the incidence of respiratory tract and cardiovascular disease has risen sharply inYerevan. Since the 1990s these diseases have become more prevalent, especially among 25-45 year-olds.
“We are on the road toward the desertification of nature,” says Karine Danielyan, chairwoman of the NGO Toward Sustainable Human Development.
Last June, twelve ecological NGOs organized a demonstration in support ofYerevan’s green zones. Demonstrators marched fromYerevanStateUniversityto the Mayor’s Office, where they were received byYerevan’s chief-architect, Narek Sargisyan. It became clear during their meeting that Sargisyan could do nothing to stop the process of destruction.
“I’m not afraid to say that we have no leverage against people who are a law unto themselves. At this very moment illegal land appropriations are taking place. It is impossible to control these people day and night. It’s painful for me as chief architect, too, to see what’s going on in our city, what’s being built without permission. Meanwhile, we spend weeks and months on every design.” Sargisyan says that they approve one thing, but something completely different gets built, and the relevant city department is unable to control the construction. He maintains that he would be able to take the responsibility for the city’s illegal buildings if a special police force were created.
Regardless of who should solve this problem and how, the fact remains that as a result of parceling off the parkland to government officials, the area of Yerevan that is covered in trees is decreasing, and the notion of the public park is vanishing. “I try to do what I can, but the number of senior officials today is too big. They do this construction and they place themselves above the law,” Sargisyan says.
The chief architect hopes to solve all these problems within the framework of the new master plan forYerevan, which will be adopted in 2006. The plan designates six forest zones and, according to Sargisyan, they are now immune from being parceled off.
“But the problem is more complicated-ifYerevanhad a city council, the councilmen would have to bring this issues up and speak on behalf the residents. Today, we adopt decisions without knowing what the majority of the public think about them,” he explains.
The most popular recreation zone inYerevan, the park surrounding the Opera House, has been transformed into a mass of cafés. “I take a completely different approach to the Opera. I think that it should be a municipal zone. The square should be expanded and merged with Hyusisayin (Northern) Avenue. It’s a huge town-planning issue. In this case, the whole area should be reconstructed. When we finish that project, it will be put up for wide discussion. Some cafés will be pulled down and the problem will be solved,” Sargisyan says.
But clearly, the chief-architect ofYerevanis powerless in the face of officials who place themselves above the law. It’s an open secret which government member controls which caf? in the center ofYerevan. They themselves don’t deny it-indeed they proudly visit their own cafés, but on paper they prefer to mention the names of their mothers-in-law or distant relatives.
The fact is that the city is suffocating. The chief architect’s candid admissions don’t change that, nor do they free anyone from blame. Yerevan’s parks have been seized from the people by government officials-members of the National Assembly, ministers, presidential staffers, army generals, police chiefs -in short, the nation’s elite.