When anti-government protests swept Armenia's capital, Yerevan, in the spring of 2018, Seda Grigorian was on the streets alongside thousands of like-minded marchers.
After protest leader Nikol Pashinian was made prime minister, he drew cheers of approval from crowds who gathered to hear him speak: The revolution, he vowed, marked the beginning of a new era in which the voices of Armenia’s citizens would be heard, and the years of corruption and trampled rights were over. Several months later, Yerevan Mayor Hayk Marutian was voted into power echoing those sentiments, giving many hope that deeply controversial demolitions of historic buildings, and charmless high-rise developments would end in the city.
Three years after the revolution, Grigorian says her hopes of wholesale change faded as she tailed two plainclothes policemen rifling through her family home on November 6, searching for "a can of red spray paint." The search was part of a criminal investigation sparked by her opposition to a high-rise project in Yerevan.
Grigorian, a media professional, lives in the leafy suburb of Phys-Gorodok in the northwest of Yerevan. The suburb is named after the Soviet-era physics institute it was built around in the 1950s.
Phys-Gorodok is beloved by locals for its park-like green space and is seen as something of an oasis in Armenia's often hectic and fume-clouded capital city.
In February 2021, Armenia's Culture Ministry declared the suburb a "local cultural monument," effectively preserving its unique atmosphere. But shortly afterwards, a section of Phys-Gorod disappeared from the "cultural monument" map exactly in the area where property developers had planned a 12-story building.
Aside from the mysterious redrawing of the cultural-monument map, according to local activists the high rise was planned on public land that had been illegally privatized in the early 2000s.
Arthur Mnatsakanian, deputy director and co-owner of Ratko LLC, the property-development company behind the project, told RFE/RL's Armenian Service that the land was purchased legally and they had the rights to begin construction. They also vow that the development will improve the area. An attempted compromise of building a low-rise building that would better fit the suburb would make it impossible to create a profitable development, Mnatsakanian says.
After vocal protests against the development, the dispute became increasingly bitter and began to attract local media attention. In August 2021, police violently dispersed protesters at the site as construction began.
Then, in early September, graffiti appeared on a temporary fence put up around the construction site. In large red letters, the spray-painted messages included "Public property, free the trees" and "Free the district."
It was that graffiti that led to Grigorian receiving a knock on her door on November 6 as she was home alone. Two men told Grigorian they were from the investigative committee of Armenia and that they had a warrant from a judge to search her apartment.
"They let me read the warrant and said they were looking for a can of red spray paint," Grigorian says.
The warrant stated that CCTV camera footage captured a young woman approaching and possibly spray-painting the fence, "that's why they think it was me."
A spokesman for the investigative committee told RFE/RL that representatives from Ratko had accused Grigorian of vandalizing their property. The spokesman added that "the search of her apartment was necessary and unavoidable; the police are not trying to intimidate her."
But Grigorian calls the search an "obvious" act of pressure from the authorities in the context of Phys-Gorodok locals’ repeated attempts at legal action over the high-rise development.
"There have been three years of struggle for the rights of the citizens to protect their public space, and so far we haven't seen much interest from the responsible authorities to follow up with this case," she says. "But, on the other hand, when this graffiti appeared, the entire police department of this district is working hard to prove that it was me. They are searching my apartment and they are making this the number one case in the framework of the whole issue."
Grigorian says the Phys-Gorodok issue is bitterly disappointing after the hopes of 2018 and the explicit promises made by Yerevan's mayor to increase the city's green spaces.
"To me the revolution was part of a bigger struggle," Grigorian told RFE/RL. "For as long as I remember I have been speaking up for others and myself, being active about the heritage of Yerevan being destroyed or damaged due to construction. After 2018 we were promised that our voices would be counted, yet now we see the opposite picture. We are met with police violence, and being threatened and intimidated with searches in our apartments."
Today she says, "things that the former government wanted to do but would never dare, this government is doing."
A spokesman from Marutian's office told RFE/RL that the mayor was not involved in the removal of the Phys-Gorodok land from the protected "cultural monument" area, saying "we were only informed about it." He also denied the development breaks the mayor's promise to protect green spaces, pointing to a section of Yerevan's Circular Park that has been renovated and will soon be reopened.