Yerevan street vendors protest forced removal from Ferdowsi Market

28 June 2017
Pavilions adjacent to houses on Ferdowsi Street (David Stepanyan/OC Media)

On 6 June, the Yerevan City Hall informed the vendors of the clothing market on Ferdowsi Street that construction work would begin there on 15 June. The vendors were asked to move their improvised pavilions to other spots. They remain dissatisfied with the decision and have asked for six months to relocate. The negotiations have so far been fruitless.

[Read in Armenian — Հոդվածը հայերեն կարդացեք]

‘You see, almost all of my assortment is for the summer. I brought it from Turkey a month ago. And what should I do with it now?’ a middle-aged woman working at the Ferdowsi market complained to OC Media.

‘It will already be time to go and buy autumn clothes before I manage to find a new place, transport all my stuff there, settle down, and find customers. Where will I get money from for buying it if I won’t sell the summer clothes? Again, I’ll have to take a new bank loan with a godforsaken interest?’ the woman asks rhetorically.

The workers of the clothing market ask the authorities of Yerevan to give them time to move until the end of the year, saying they need time to sell the goods they already have and to find a new trading spot. They say that the planned removal from the market will put them in a desperate position. The government has promised them places in other markets in Yerevan, but the vendors aren’t planning to concede and continue their protest against the decision of the City Hall.

The entrance to the market (David Stepanyan/OC Media)

The apple of discord

The Ferdowsi clothing market, named after the author of the Persian epic Shahnameh, is located on Ferdowsi Street in the Little Centre of Yerevan. It came to be during the meagre 1990s, when Armenia was hardly hit by an economic crisis following the collapse of the Soviet Union. The market is a street full of improvised shopping pavilions made of wood planks, cellophane, awnings, and other materials.

On the rather chaotic territory of the market one can find everything from needles, fruit, jewellery, and cosmetics, to fashionable T-shirts with crosses, outerwear, and household appliances. In summer, the territory of the impromptu market is more or less passable for buyers and passers-by.

During the rainy season, and especially in winter, Ferdowsi turns into a cesspool, through which people move across the squelching dirt under the rainwater or snow falling from the cellophane roofs and awnings. The market, however, has one main advantage. The prices, especially for clothes, are up to two times lower than in large shopping centres. This, of course, affects the quality of the items sold there, but for those who frequent the Ferdowsi market it’s not the main concern.

Fashionable T-shirts with crosses on the Ferdowsi market (David Stepanyan/OC Media)

Reasons for alienation of property

The territory of Ferdowsi is being alienated for further development for a large investment project under the authorship of the Armenian government. Within the framework of the project, the City Hall is already conducting negotiations with investors and large companies. Potential investors and developers have already been identified, although their names have not yet been made public.

The City Hall has promised to erect a new market on the site of Ferdowsi market in the near future. Its centre will be a square with a diameter of 85 metres, through which several streets will cross. A multi-storey parking lot and other facilities are planned to be built under the square. The authorities are planning to fully preserve the adjacent 19th and 20th century buildings. Modern office and residential buildings will be constructed on the site of demolished single-storey buildings. The authorities expect that the expansion and creation of a new transport hub will significantly improve the congested traffic in the Small Centre of Yerevan.

In order to implement the project, the authorities have recognised Ferdowsi as a zone of priority public interest and offered compensations to the owners of alienated property in accordance with the law ‘On the alienation of property for state and public needs’.

The vendors

People trading in the Ferdowsi market reacted to the City Hall’s decision with hostility and held a rally in front of the Government Building on 10 June. The vendors demand the demolition of the market and the adjacent buildings to be postponed until 1 January 2018. The protesters demanded a meeting with Prime Minister Karen Karapetyan — to no avail. A representative of the government suggested that the vendors continue their protest in front of the City Hall — the initiator of the demolition — yet the vendors continue their protest in front of the Government Building.

In order to transfer their businesses to new places, adapt there, and find a new clientele, the vendors need time, which they do not have. Summer is in full swing and in one month there will be no-one to buy summer clothes. The vendors promise to shut down their businesses by the end of the year, virtually begging the authorities not to bring them to complete ruin.

‘We’ve been working in this market for over twenty years and we pay all the taxes to the state. Everybody knows about the low prices here. That’s why customers who are less wealthy come here. Many people buy their children’s clothes for the new school year here’, vendor Alina Martirosyan told OC Media.

‘The conditions are really disgusting here. No-one can argue about that. But the rent is also very low — between ֏1,000–3,000 ($2–6) a day. During the winter we were all freezing here, and now, when the high season is here we’re supposed to do what, leave? Leave with our goods to, how is it called… Ah, the malls. I can’t do that, because the rent is completely different there. We are talking about thousands of dollars. I would need to get a mortgage or even sell my house’, 57-year-old Rimma Avakyan said.

Rimma Avakyan’s goods won’t be competitive in shopping malls (David Stepanyan/OC Media)

Owners of alienable property

The whole story has one more, perhaps the most interested party — the owners of the houses and territories adjacent to the Ferdowsi market, which are going to be demolished. Some of them have already sold the property to unknown buyers. The others continue to demand a higher price, which they consider more fair.

‘We have heard for the past ten years that this territory is subject to construction under the new plan, yet for all these years we haven’t seen a single construction worker here. Many of us have been deceived and practically forced by promises and threats to sell houses for a price which is very low for this district’, property owner Anahit complained.

According to the owners of the property subject to forcible alienation, the price for which they are selling their houses is the main problem. Ferdowsi Street is located in the centre of Yerevan, near the Republic Square. Although the houses are old, they are expensive by Yerevan standards. The resisting residents are ready to sell the property, but only for a price which is appropriate for the city centre — a thousand or more dollars per square metre.

They believe that the city authorities are first trying to close the market, depriving the residents of adjacent houses of rent and disconnecting communications, and only then proceed to negotiate directly with the tenacious property owners. Under such conditions, they will receive, in the best-case scenario, $500 per square metre. For a square metre of land, such as fruit gardens adjacent to the houses, they might receive $250.

The market’s administration is still trying to rent pavilions out (David Stepanyan/OC Media)

The City Hall

The recently re-elected mayor of Yerevan, Taron Margaryan, told journalists at a specially convened press conference that the Ferdowsi vendors had been informed about the forthcoming closing of the market a year ago. However, the mayor said he was optimistic about resolving the problem exclusively through negotiations, with which he tasked his deputy, Davit Ohanyan. The mayor expressed his readiness to do everything possible to create convenient conditions for Ferdowsi vendors to let them keep their businesses running.

According to him, the authorities of Yerevan in no way intend to deprive the city’s residents who are engaged in trade of profit. The City Hall is conducting negotiations with other clothing markers in order to secure free or affordable trading spots for Ferdowsi vendors.

‘The number of complaints on the unsanitary conditions in this quarter received by the Yerevan City Hall over the past 15 years goes off scale. Everybody knows that. Today, we have the opportunity to solve this problem. There are investors, developers. We want to start to transform this part of our capital quickly’, the mayor told journalists during the press conference.

Margaryan said that the City Hall will continue its attempts to establish a dialogue with the Ferdowsi vendors in order to reach a mutually acceptable consensus. The negotiations haven’t been concluded to date.

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