By Hovannes Shoghikian
Yervand Zakharian, Yerevan’s presidentially appointed mayor, indicated on Monday that he may well back an extremely controversial idea to divide the Armenian capital into several small cities.
The idea was floated by the city’s former chief architect, Narek Sargsian, earlier this year. He claimed that Yerevan has grown too big for a small country like Armenia and that its dramatic break-up would improve local self-governance and the lives of its estimated one million residents.
The suggestion was widely brushed aside by politicians, prominent public figures, and media. However, Zakharian indicated that the Armenian government is taking it seriously.
“I can’t say categorically that dividing [Yerevan] into separate cities is totally wrong and that [the Armenian capital] must retain its status,” he told a news conference. “Why? Because there is a need to deepen local self-government a bit. Maybe that will prove justified in a few years time.”
Zakharian is a key member of a government commission tasked with proposing possible changes to the legal status of Yerevan stemming from recently enacted amendments to Armenia’s constitution. One of those amendments stipulates that Yerevan residents, who make up nearly one third of the country’s population, must at last be allowed to elect their mayor, either directly or through an elected city council. It was added to the constitutional package under pressure from the Council of Europe.
Analysts believe that President Robert Kocharian and his predecessor Levon Ter-Petrosian had opposed such elections because they feared that an elected mayor would pose a threat to their sweeping powers. Some of them have suggested that Kocharian is still reluctant to deal with a Yerevan mayor not dependent on the presidential administration and may have himself circulated the idea of splitting up the city for that purpose.
Zakharian could not say just when the commission will come up with relevant proposals or when city residents should expect to elect their mayor or municipal council. He said that regardless of its status and structure, Yerevan will have a single architectural master plan until 2020.
The new plan approved by the government recently calls in particular for the demolition of more old and rundown neighborhoods in central Yerevan. Their residents are already worried that they will not be sufficiently compensated for the loss of their properties, mindful of the experiences of thousands of other people displaced as a result of a massive redevelopment going on in the city center. Many of them feel that financial compensation paid to them was well below the market value of their homes because of what they see as high-level government corruption.
Some have taken legal action and staged angry street protests in a attempt to clinch larger sums from the state. Their efforts proved fruitless despite a recent Constitutional Court ruling that declared the house demolitions illegal.