Three months after Occupy Wall Street protesters were kicked out of New York City's Zuccotti Park, the Occupy movement has lost much of its momentum. However, the Occupy spirit has made a comeback in one rather surprising place: Yerevan, the capital of Armenia.
For a month now, environmental activists have occupied Mashtots Park in a bid to save it from construction. The city had recently begun to relocate a number of stores in Mashtots, one of Yerevan's last public parks. The identities of the stores’ owners remain unknown; the protesters, however, claim they are oligarchs with friends in high places. They also consider the construction work underway in the park to be a violation of environmental and building laws.
After several weeks of occupying the park, during which they educated locals about the park’s transformation and met with local political and cultural figures, the “Occupy Mashtots Park” protesters could finally claim victory on Thursday: the city announced it was freezing construction work. The protesters are now waiting for the stores that have already been built to be torn down.
Protesters in Mashtots Park. Video published on YouTube by epressam.
"Mashtots is one of the very last public parks in the city"
Bayandur Pogosyan lives in Yeravan. He slept in the park for several weeks with other members of Occupy Mashtots Park and became one of the faces of the movement by going on a hunger strike.
Bayandur Pogosyan in Mashtots Park.
“Saving Mashtots Park is a huge deal for Yerevan because it’s one of the very last public parks in the city. When Armenia became independent [from Russia in 1991], many parks became private. The new owners added cafés and stores, eating into the green space. The authorities let this happen. Today, private security guards can stop anyone they want from going into these private parks.
Our movement was launched in early February by both environmental activists and people who live near the park. There were just a few dozen of us at first, but this soon grew into several hundred. We stayed in the park around the clock. On Tuesday night, however, city officials told us they were freezing construction. They said they wanted to take some time to think. But as soon as I got home, I heard that construction had started up again during the night.
Construction work in Mashtots Park in the middle of the night. Video published on YouTube by a1plusnews.
"We’ll continue to occupy the park until the stores are torn down"
That’s when I decided to go on a hunger strike. I had planned not to eat for eight days, but my strike only lasted five hours, because the police assured us on Wednesday that the construction would truly stop. The next day, the city council confirmed this. [On Thursday, the Public Council of Armenia, a group of politicians and public figures, asked Yerevan’s city council to stop construction until the project’s legality could be firmly established.] This construction freeze is a major victory, but now we’re waiting for the city to order the destruction of the stores that have already been built. I think we reached this first victory because the authorities wanted to avoid too much publicity, especially outside the country.
We have good reasons to believe this construction work was illegal. At the very beginning of our protest, we asked to see several public documents, notably construction permits. A week later, authorities showed us documents with additional notes in pen all over them. Nowhere in these documents was the crucial question of environmental impact even mentioned.
The most mysterious aspect of this whole story is the identity of the store owners. We have never been able to meet them – they’ve never come to the park. [According to some local media, these stores belong to Gagik Beglaryan, who is the brother of Yerevan’s former mayor.] Still, we made a “statue” in the park to represent these oligarchs [below] to remind them that they are not above the law.
We wanted to create a citizens’ movement rather than a political movement. And it worked – while we did receive visits from politicians, our biggest supporters were intellectuals, artists, writers and musicians. Occupying the park helped us create a real sense of community: we organised concerts, film screenings, debates… We’ll continue to occupy the park until the stores are torn down, and even after that we plan to continue holding events and welcoming visitors.”
Police officers watching the construction work in Mashtots Park. Photos published on Google+ by Bayandur Pogosyan.
Activists set up tents and built shelters in the park. Photos published on Google+ by Bayandur Pogosyan.