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Hrant Gadarigian

An Inspection Late in Coming: Yerevan Prosecutor, Post Blast, Wants to Close Surmalu Market

Government Inaction Triggered the Surmalu Market Blast

The Yerevan Municipality wants to close the Surmalu Market, where an explosion killed sixteen and wounded dozens on August 14, to allow inspectors to verify that fire safety violations uncovered in 2021 can be eliminated.

The news comes ten days after the explosion, allegedly caused by a fire at the market that set off a fireworks warehouse there, demolished large sections of the market.

Yerevan Municipality Prosecutor Sevak Hovhannisyan, in a statement released today, writes that he has petitioned the Fire and Technical Safety Inspection Authority (FTSIA), the state agency that inspected the market in the spring of 2021 and found sixteen fire and other safety violations, to visit the market and see that all existing violations are removed before the market can reopen.

Hovhannisyan writes that the FTSIA also found some store owners were selling fireworks.

Following the August 14 blast, the FTSIA said it never checked to see if the violations were fixed because it was “overworked.”

On August 16, Armenian Minister of Emergency Situations Armen Pambukhchyan claimed that four tons of explosive materials were stored at the market operated by Yerevan Canning Factory CJSC.

The question to be asked is when, and how, did Pambukchyan find out that four tons of explosives were stored at the market.

Is this an assumption made by Pambukchyan given the extent of the blast damage? Did he unearth records of what was being stored there before the blast?

If so, he hasn’t divulged any specifics. Neither has the press in Armenia pressed him on the matter.

Hetq subsequently checked the records of Armenia’s Cadastre Committee (CC) to ascertain what companies/individuals were registered as tenants at Yerevan’s Surmalu Market and what type of business they engaged in.

Of the nineteen registered market tenants, one was listed as a business engaged in the production, import or trade of fireworks.

The business is owned by Gohar Arakelyan, a sole proprietor who has been renting space in the market’s administrative building. 

Hovhannisyan also proposes that inspections be conducted at other Yerevan shopping centers to see if fireworks are being stored or sold.

One would think that such inspections should have been launched the day after the Surmalu Market explosion. Evidently, this isn’t the case.

The administrative bureaucracy in Armenia requires that the issue first be discussed before such a logical and urgent measure can be put into action.

Even if enacted, who’s to say that the FTSIA will not drop the ball as it did in 2021.

Various government officials and agencies in Armenia merely go through the motions when enacting decrees and instructions designed to ensure public safety.

One glaring example came on August 18 when Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan confessed, during a government cabinet session, that he never received a report to see if his order regarding explosives was ever conducted.

Pashinyan said that after the August 2020 Beirut port blast he instructed government agencies to collect information about explosives being stored in the country. (The statement, in Armenian, can be accessed here.)

 “The information in this regard is now being summarized, but I will also instruct the State Control Service to carry out a specific study and report to me in full on how the instruction I gave in August 2020 was carried out,” Pashinyan is quoted as saying.

Yes, if Surmalu Market businesses are found to have stored or sold explosive materials in circumstances violating the laws on the books they should be held accountable.

But the idiotic and irresponsible actions of certain individuals or companies doesn't let the government off the hook.

While a government investigation into the August 14 Surmalu Market blast plods on, local and state officials are playing catch up, firing off a bevy of new directives and orders they say are aimed to prevent future such tragedies.

Any government decision to close Surmalu Market, if and when it comes, will be too late for the sixteen who died on August 14.

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