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Armenian Mayor Quits Post, Ruling Party Over State's 'Land Grab'

YEREVAN -- The mayor of a remote Armenian village has resigned in protest at a government decision to transfer large swaths of communal land to a German-owned mining company, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reports.

Kajaran Mayor Rafik Atayan said he was also ending his membership of President Serzh Sarkisian's Republican Party of Armenia (HHK) over what he called the impending "destruction" of his village.

The government decided early this year to give some 181 hectares of land belonging to Kajaran and several other villages in the southeastern Syunik Province to the Zangezur Copper-Molybdenum Combine (ZCMC).

The company plans to extend its open-pit mining operations to the area close to Armenia's border with Iran and Azerbaijan.

Atayan and many other Kajaran residents backed by environmentalists in Yerevan have since been fiercely resisting those plans, saying that the ZCMC would destroy their livelihoods by polluting their water and farm lands.

The village chief has refused to sign an agreement formalizing the land allocation despite strong pressure that he said has been exerted on him by the central and local authorities as well as ZCMC's management.

"I did not and will not sign the agreement. I have tendered my resignation," Atayan told RFE/RL.

"I have appealed to the president, the prime minister, and the parliament speaker," he said. "I have been a party member for 15 years and they know that. My party is now going to destroy my village," he said, explaining his decision to also quit the ruling HHK.

The mayor insisted that mining operations in the area would create an ecological disaster for the village and lead to a mass exodus of its population.

Officials in Yerevan were reluctant to comment on what is a rare public protest by a local community controlled by Sarkisian's party.

"I will speak after we discuss the matter. I have no comment right now," Energy and Natural Resources Minister Armen Movsisian told RFE/RL.

Eduard Sharmazanov, the chief HHK spokesman and a deputy parliament speaker, said that every citizen has the right to decide their party affiliation.

The ZCMC, which is Armenia's largest metallurgical enterprise, is mainly owned by the German metals group Cronimet. Two obscure Armenian firms hold minority stakes in it. One of them reportedly belongs to Maxim Hakobian, the ZCMC chief executive who has considerable political and economic clout in Syunik.

In a statement published by the Yerevan daily "Orakarg" on Wednesday (December 14), Cronimet said it is taking Kajaran residents' concerns seriously and is ready to offer them "beneficial and acceptable solutions." It did not elaborate.

The German ownership group insisted that the planned expansion of the ZCMC's mining operations stems from "a number of agreements" with the Armenian government. That will also boost Armenian exports and "economic stability in the country," it says.

Cronimet also emphasized the fact that its Armenian subsidiary employs over 3,000 people and is currently Armenia's leading corporate taxpayer, having paid 22.5 billion drams ($59 million) in various taxes in the first nine months of this year.

The ZCMC has greatly benefited from a surge in the international prices for nonferrous metals since 2009. Its tax payments to the state budget almost tripled in the first half of 2011.

The company’s plans to expand its operations are also opposed by Armenia’s leading environment protection groups. According to Inga Zarafian of the Ecolur nongovernmental organization, a "huge territory" exploited by the ZCMC is already contaminated with toxic heavy metals.

Zarafian told RFE/RL that the mining giant will wreak havoc on the ecosystems of Kajaran and nearby villages if it is allowed to move closer to them.

Ecolur and other ecologists have long been at loggerheads with Armenia's mining and metallurgical industry, accusing it of operating in utter disregard of ecological standards.

In particular, they have campaigned against plans by another private mining firm to develop Teghut, a massive copper and molybdenum deposit in the northern Lori Province. The government-backed project, if implemented, will lead to the destruction of 357 hectares of rich forest.

The ecologists have enlisted the backing of Serj Tankian -- a prominent Armenian-American rock star -- for their cause. "I think we'll be poisoning our lives by opening up that mine in the Teghut Forest," Tankian said after visiting the area in August.

Base metals and ore concentrates have been the country's top ore export items in recent years. According to official statistics, they accounted for about 60 percent of Armenian exports from Januar to October 2011.

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