This is the first in a series of articles about privatized and abandoned monument-buildings in Yerevan.
Several buildings in the center of Yerevan that hold historical and cultural significance have been abandoned for years –– some for decades. These buildings have owners who, for various reasons, have left them neglected, either partially or completely.
Armenia has over 24,000 monuments that are under government protection, including churches, monasteries, archeological sites and historic buildings. Approximately a thousand of these monuments are located in Yerevan, with a substantial portion, especially in Kentron (downtown district), being historic buildings. According to Armenian law, more than 5,000 listed monuments, which account for 20% of the total, can be privatized.
How can the problem of preserving privatized monument-buildings be addressed? Who is responsible for the current situation and how did the problem emerge?
Which Monuments Can Be Privatized?
Article 35 of the law “On the use and preservation of historical and cultural monuments and historical sites,” passed in 1998, stipulates that the government approves the list of monuments that are not subject to privatization and are considered state property. Another law, “On the historical and cultural stationary monuments that are considered state property and are not subject to privatization,” ratified in 2003, defines the list of such monuments. This includes cave dwellings, fortresses, churches, historical cemeteries, khachkars (cross-stones), bridges, house-museums and many others, which cannot be privatized.
In 2007, the government approved a list of monuments that were not subject to privatization. According to Armenpress, at that time, 18,935 out of the 24,192 registered monuments in Armenia were not subject to privatization. This means that 5,257 monuments could be privately owned, while active churches could only be owned only by the Armenian Apostolic Church.
Who Is Responsible for the Preservation of Privatized Monuments?
As per Article 36 of the law “On the use and preservation of historical and cultural monuments and historical sites,” the monument’s owner is obligated to ensure its preservation by conserving, repairing and restoring it. Additionally, they must keep the surrounding area clear and ensure its accessibility for research and preservation.
The same article stipulates that the owner of the monument must provide a preservation agreement to the authorized body, which in this case is the Ministry of Education, Science, Culture and Sports (MESCS). Furthermore, the owner of the monument is obligated to notify the ministry about any changes in ownership rights and conditions.
Violations of the rules for preservation or use of monuments is punishable by Article 95 of the Code of Administrative Offenses. Citizens who violate these rules are subject to a fine of 50,000-80,000 AMD ($130-$207), while government officials and civil servants face a fine of 150,000-200,000 AMD ($389-$518). Destroying or damaging listed monuments is punishable by a fine or up to five years in prison, according to the articles 301 and 302 of the Criminal Code.
The Reality Is Different
However, enforcement of the law on the preservation of monuments in Armenia is seriously lagging. Over ten years ago, Vladimir Poghosyan, head of the state agency responsible for the preservation of listed monuments and protected sites, noted that preservation agreements of monuments were ineffective. In 2016, architect Sashur Kalashyan stated that almost no monument owner had signed a preservation agreement, and that, “until this issue is resolved, it is pointless to talk about other issues [of monument preservation].” Kalashyan blamed the Ministry of Culture at the time for not enforcing the law, adding that “it’s no secret that for our government, investors are more important than the preservation of historical monuments.” As of 2020, only about a hundred monuments, most of which are church buildings, have a preservation agreement signed, according to Kalashyan.
The Ministry of Education, Science, Culture and Sport (MESCS) told EVN Report that it does not know the precise number of privatized monuments or the number of preservation agreements signed with owners. However, they did mention that efforts are being made in that direction.
Armenian law has mandated preservation agreements for 25 years, but experts note that they have rarely been applied in practice. In 2012, when Yerevan’s iconic Central Market (known as Pak Shuka), a listed monument, was partially destroyed and transformed, experts pointed out that the problem arose due to the absence of a preservation agreement after the building’s sale.
There are cases where a preservation agreement was signed but not enforced. In 2022, Armenian prosecutors discovered that the owner of 36 Aram St. had signed a contract in 2008 that set a date for the restoration of the monument (2009-2010). However the building was subsequently destroyed.
On November 3, 2022, the government approved amendments to two laws that had been passed by parliament in March of the same year. The first amendment requires that ownership certificates contain information about buildings that are listed as monuments, as the ministry believes that many owners are not even aware that their properties are protected, which can cause subsequent problems. The second amendment establishes the format of monument preservation agreements.
Recently, Yerevan’s Deputy Mayor Tigan Avinyan stated at a city hall meeting that the issue of preserving protected buildings should be discussed with the MESCS. He proposed compiling a list of monuments in poor condition and working consistently to restore them. On May 16, the Science, Education, Culture Committee of the National Assembly approved a legislative initiative proposing higher fines for violating the rules of monument preservation. An initiative, proposed by Lilit Galstyan, a member of parliament of the Armenia faction, proposes to increase the fine for violating the rules of preservation or use of monuments from 50-80 thousand AMD to 100-150 thousand AMD for citizens and from 150-200 thousand AMD to 300-350 thousand AMD government officials. In cases of double violation, citizens will be fined 200,000 AMD, while government officials will be fined 400,000 AMD.
The Former Foreign Ministry Building
One of the privatized monument-buildings is the former building of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) located in Yerevan’s Republic Square. Officially called the “Second Government House,” it was built in 1955 based on the design of architects Samvel Safaryan, Rafayel Israelyan and Varazdat Arevshatyan. It has the status of a monument of national significance.
Since the beginning of the 2010s, the press had been reporting that the Kempinski hotel chain and Russian-Armenian businessman Samvel Karapetyan (“Tashir Samo”) were interested in purchasing the building. The building, which covers an area of 14,242 square meters, was eventually sold by the government in 2012 to Tango CJSC, owned by Argentinian-Armenian businessman Eduardo Eurnekian for $51,270,840.
On October 4, 2012, the government approved the privatization of the building. However, then-Prime Minister Tigran Sargsyan did not sign the decision, and on December 27, 2012, a new government decision was issued. This decision stated that the building was to be sold by auction.
Arman Sahakyan, the head of the agency that manages state property, justified the auction, stating that there was public demand for the process to be more transparent. The auction was scheduled for March 5, 2013, but had no participants. Tango’s offer remained.
The government justified the sale of the building based on two factors. First, the building did not meet the requirements of the MFA. Second, the Ministries of Diaspora and Justice had not been provided with designated areas. To address these issues, the government sold the 0.5-hectare plot of land at 3 Vazgen Sargsyan Street directly to Tango’s subsidiary company in July 2012. The Ministry of Justice building had previously been located on this plot of land but had caught fire in February 2008. The buyer was expected to construct a new building on the site for the ministries and hand it over to the state by September 2015.
The decision to sell the building was not welcomed unequivocally by citizens and political parties. Sahakyan, head of the state property management agency, claimed that the market value of one square meter in that part of Yerevan is $1,500-2,000, and the building was sold for $3,600.
In July 2018, Sarhat Petrosyan, who was appointed head of the Cadastre Committee a month later, suggested taking steps to return the building so that it could house ministries and other state bodies in the future. “Regarding the return of the MFA building, I think the state can make an attractive offer to the owner of the building, Mr. Eurnekian, and use it for the public image of New Armenia,” Petrosyan wrote.
The Owner’s Intentions and Obligations
As per the government decision of December 27, 2012, the buyer is legally obligated to make the necessary investments to use the property exclusively as a hotel or related activities after reconstruction.
Despite this precondition, months after selling the building, in September 2013, Eurnekian announced that he had no intention of building a hotel. “The creation of a museum is more likely,” he said.
Five years later, in July 2018, Argentina’s ambassador to Armenia, Gonzalo Urriolabeitia, announced that Eurnekian wants to create a business center in the building.
In January 2019, Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan met with Eurnekian’s cousin, Martin Eurnekian, CEO of Corporation America Airports, to discuss future plans related to the building. In June of that year, during the company’s leadership summit, Martin Eurnekian said that they wanted to use the building in a way that not only serves a business purpose, but also adds value to the city.
It is noteworthy that, according to the government decision made in December 2012, the buyer is obliged to provide the authorized body with a preservation agreement for the monument. Additionally, any changes regarding the purpose and nature of the property’s use must be coordinated with the Ministry of Culture. Modifications to the monument are only permitted with the ministry’s decision and government permission.
However, the Ministry told EVN Report that there is no agreement signed with the owner. In 2017, the state property management agency stated that the preservation of the building’s external appearance was the only condition set for the buyer. The department noted that the investor is not bound by any timeline or special obligation beyond this.
The future of the former MFA building remains uncertain. There have been no recent changes to the almost 70-year-old building, and it is unclear how much longer it can remain intact in its abandoned state. If Eurnekian decides to turn the building into a hotel, as architect and urban planner Sarhat Petrosyan mentioned in an open letter addressed to him, he will need to demolish the entire interior of the building, which is an integral part of the monument. Ultimately, what the Ministry of Education, Science, Culture and Sport will do remains a question without an answer.
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