YEREVAN (RFE/RL)—The wife of the late Karen Demirchian spoke out on Tuesday against the planned opening of a casino at Yerevan’s main sports and concert arena bearing the name of Armenia’s longtime Soviet-era leader.
The sprawling arena commonly known as Hamalir (Complex) was built in 1983, becoming one of the most modern facilities of its kind in the Soviet Union. Demirchian, Soviet Armenia’s top Communist leader from 1974-1988, was instrumental in its expensive construction. This is why it was named after Demirchian shortly after he was assassinated in October 1999, just a few months after becoming parliament speaker.
According to Demirchian’s widow Rima, he cried when Hamalir was seriously damaged by a fire in 1984. “Hamalir was a piece of his soul and his body. It was his brainchild,” she told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am).
The complex consisting of two large halls was sold in 2005 to the Moscow-based construction firm BAMO belonging to an Armenian-born Russian businessman. The Armenian government controversially renationalized it last year, citing BAMO’s failure to repay a $25 million government loan.
The government announced last week that it has decided to sell Hamalir to an obscure private firm for $30 million. It said that the new owner has pledged to invest $100 million in expanding the facility and turning it into a big entertainment center that will have not only concert halls but also a hotel, water park, stores, restaurants and a casino.
The deal has been denounced by some opposition politicians and prominent public figures critical of the government. They have objected, among other things, to the planned casino, citing Hamalir’s proximity to the Tsitsernakabert Armenian genocide memorial.
Rima Demirchian also expressed serious concern over the casino, saying that it would be an affront to her husband’s memory. “I have no doubts that if they open a casino it will become an ugly version of Las Vegas,” she said.
Demirchian said she still hopes that the government will amend the deal to ban any gambling sites at Hamalir. She warned that failure to do so would lead her and other members of the Demirchian family to demand that Hamalir no longer bear the late leader’s name.
“I will remain categorically against the casino,” she stressed. “For all my understanding and respect [for government decisions,] this is an issue on which I will be uncompromising.”
Shortly after Karen Demirchian was gunned down along with seven other officials in a terrorist attack on the Armenian parliament, his younger son Stepan became an opposition politician. He was the main opposition candidate in a 2003 presidential election widely believed to have been rigged in favor of then President Robert Kocharian.
Stepan Demirchian is currently a parliament deputy representing the opposition Armenian National Congress. He has not publicly commented on the Hamalir controversy yet.