New Internationalist

Country Profile

Issue 291

Country profile - Armenia

Where is Armenia? These are not the best of times for Armenia. The former Soviet republic, although victorious in the war with neighboring Azerbaijan over the largely Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh, remains economically depressed and politically stagnant. With talks over Karabakh deadlocked and political opposition to President Levon Ter-Petrosian brutally repressed, Armenia’s move toward reform and democracy has stalled.

The Armenians, with a diaspora spread around the world, have an image as perennial victims – of earthquakes, Soviet domination and Turkish massacres. In Karabakh they were victors – but at a high cost. Armenia’s economy, blockaded for years by Turkey and Azerbaijan, is in freefall. Meanwhile, the political spectrum has narrowed to dictatorship, despite Ter-Petrosian’s Soviet past as a dissident.

‘You’ve won the war, now win the peace,’ says a Western diplomat in Yerevan. The country is no longer under siege, and the economic noose has loosened. Petroleum and electricity remain scarce. But trade with Georgia, Russia and most of all, Iran, is booming. Yerevan now boasts new supermarkets, European sports cars and a night-life replete with casinos. The Armenian lobby in the US has done its share too. Their homeland will receive $95 million in US aid this year, little less than the $120 million for all of Russia.

The threats to stability and prosperity come from within. Karabakh is to blame for Armenia’s slow march towards reform. In the waning years of the USSR, the conflict there was driven less by a religious or ethnic divide than a purely political impulse for independence. Armenians see themselves as an ancient Christian people, surrounded by Muslim enemies. The fighting went on for eight years but the 1994 ceasefire is still holding – and having trounced the Azeris and scorched the countryside, the Karabakh Armenians now rule themselves. Amid the ruins of war they are patching up their self-proclaimed republic – measuring just 20 by 40 kilometres, with a population of some 200,000. They get fuel, arms and recruits from their big brothers in Yerevan. But ironically their ‘purified’ Christian state survives on Iranian and Turkish imports. The trucks that deliver food and clothes to Karabakh bear Tehran license plates and signs announcing ‘Allah Is With Us’.

Officially Karabakh exists in a legal limbo – no longer part of Azerbaijan, but separate from Armenia. Unofficially, however, Armenia has annexed the region. Moreover, thanks to Ter-Petrosian’s recent appointment of the Karabakh ‘President’, Robert Kocharian, as Prime Minister of Armenia, Karabakh has again stolen center-stage in Yerevan. The promotion has inflamed regional tensions and threatened to turn international opinion against the Armenians.

But given the growing social discontent, it is a clever, if desperate, move. Criticized for rigging last fall’s election, Ter-Petrosian needed to mend Armenia’s fractured body politic. Karabakh remains the one issue all can agree on and Kocharian will serve as a unifying symbol.

This can only work in the short term. ‘We cannot play the Karabakh card forever,’ concedes a foreign-ministry aide. ‘We must open normal trade routes.’

But it is not merely a matter of trade. ‘It’s about Armenia’s need to clear its conscience,’ says Mikhail Danilyan, a human-rights advocate in Yerevan.

Indeed, during the worst years of the war, the Karabakh forces practised ethnic cleansing long before the Republika Srpska. ‘Armenia will never develop into a truly democratic society,’ predicts Danilyan, ‘until we face the crimes committed in Karabakh.’

Andrew Meier

AT A GLANCE

LEADER: President Levon Ter-Petrosian

ECONOMY: GNP per capita $680 (Russia $2,650; United States $25,880)
Monetary unit: Dram
Armenia’s main trading partner is still Russia but it is dependent for that on land routes through Georgia and Azerbaijan, both of which were ruled out by war until 1994. Energy is a particular problem – imports of oil and gas have now resumed but electricity is currently being supplied by the Medzamor nuclear-power station, which was closed on safety grounds in 1989 and reopened in 1996 out of sheer desperation. Armenia is being connected to the Iranian electricity grid. Armenia was the first ex-Soviet republic to privatize land and has recently been selling off large and medium-sized enterprises under the instruction of the World Bank and the IMF.

PEOPLE: 3.6 million, not including the 200,000 in Nagorno-Karabakh

HEALTH: Infant mortality 26 per 1,000 live births (Canada 6 per 1,000)

CULTURE: Around 96% of the population is Armenian. There are minorities of Azeris, Kurds and Russians.
Religion: broadly runs on ethnic lines – Armenians are Christian (Armenian Orthodox) and Azeris/Kurds Muslim.
Language: Armenian is the official language but some Russian is still spoken.

Sources State of the World’s Children 1997, UNICEF; Europe Review 1997, World of Information; information supplied by the author.

Never previously profiled


STAR RATINGS

[image, unknown] INCOME DISTRIBUTION [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
Very few Armenians are well off; the vast majority struggle to make ends meet.
[image, unknown] LITERACY [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
99%. One of the few healthy legacies of Soviet rule. Although schools have suffered greatly in the post-Soviet collapse, literacy rates remain high.
[image, unknown] SELF-RELIANCE [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
Armenia gets millions of dollars from the Armenian Diaspora and the US Government. But its people make the most of very little.
[image, unknown] FREEDOM [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
How can Armenians be free when political dissent is brutally repressed and the free press stifled?
[image, unknown] POSITION OF WOMEN [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
Nearly all women work. But most employment is restricted to the home.
[image, unknown] LIFE EXPECTANCY [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
73 years. One of the world's oldest peoples, Armenians still have longevity in their favour.


POLITICS

[image, unknown] NI ASSESSMENT [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
Given the regime's distaste for opposition and its protection of clannish interests, most Armenians are left to fend for themselves, often well below the poverty line. Meanwhile, as President Ter-Petrosian clings to his dictatorial power, social unrest continues to threaten political stability.


NI star rating

EXCELLENT
GOOD
FAIR
POOR
APPALLING
[image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
[image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
[image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
[image, unknown] [image, unknown]
[image, unknown]

Go to the contents page Go to the NI home page


This first appeared in our award-winning magazine - to read more, subscribe from just £7

Comments on Country Profile

Leave your comment