Armenia Country Guide

As one of the oldest nations in the world, Armenia occupies a fraction of its ancestral lands. Invaded and subjugated to foreign rule throughout the centuries, many of Armenia’s present day policies have been shaped by unresolved conflict and disputes with its neighbors. As a landlocked country with few natural resources, its full potential for economic development has been frustrated by effective isolation from the surrounding region. More than a million Armenia’s have emigrated to seek better lives abroad.

Millennium Development Goals
In August 2003, the Armenian government finalized its long-awaited Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper (PRSP) which aims to reduce poverty to 19 percent by 2015. According to the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), most of the PRSP’s objectives are in line with achieving the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) which include combating poverty, improving the environment and addressing other pressing social issues.

However, the 2005 MDG progress report produced jointly by the government and UN agencies still considers it unrealistic for Armenia to halve the number of people living in poverty by 2015 compared to 1990 levels. Because of insufficient funding levels and inadequate access to healthcare for the poor, reducing infant and maternal mortality by 2015 might also prove unreachable.

Given the rate of deforestation in Armenia, environmental sustainability is unlikely to be achieved by 2015. New indicators regarding the water level of Lake Sevan have also been added. Access to drinking water is also a concern with 81 percent of rural areas having a centralized water supply according to 2003 data. The figure was 98 percent for urban areas.

Having already achieved universal primary education, MDG goals in this area have been modified to include secondary education. Secondary professional, professional graduate and postgraduate education has also been mentioned of special significance as is improving its general quality.

Gender
The emigration of many men to find work in Russia and elsewhere has resulted in changes to the stereotypical roles of a still largely patriarchal society. The number of women effectively abandoned by their absentee husbands has increased and domestic violence is also a significant problem. International organizations have only recently begun to address this issue after overcoming resistance from within a male-dominated society. The level of unemployment among women is also much higher than for men.

There are also serious concerns over the trafficking of women from Armenia to Turkey and the United Arab Emirates. Reports in local media alleged that government officials are involved in the trade, although no charges have been brought. Non-officials accused of trafficking are usually prosecuted under different articles of the law which carry lesser sentences raising concerns with how seriously the government considers the problem.

Politics
Armenian politics had been largely stable since independence from the Soviet Union was declared in 1991 although there have been sporadic episodes of unrest. Even in October 1999, when several key members of the Government including the Prime Minister were assassinated in the Armenian National Assembly, the situation in the Republic was kept under control. However, street protests against highly flawed presidential elections in 1996 and 2003 did occur, but attempts by the opposition to reenact a “colored revolution” following precedents in Georgia and Ukraine continue to fail.

Parliamentary elections held in May 2007 were greeted as a step forwards by local and international observers who considered them largely in compliance with international standards. Nevertheless, with the ruling Republican party holding an overall parliamentary majority, opposition forces, civil society and others alleged widespread vote buying as well as a general manipulation of the number of votes cast for pro-government parties.

The most recent test of Armenia’s democratic credentials was in February 2008 when the incumbent president, Robert Kocharian, reached the end of his second constitutionally allowed term in office. The parliamentary election held the previous year was largely seen as setting the scene for what many considered a mere formality in transferring power from Kocharian to his long time political ally, the prime minister, Serge Sargsyan.

The return to active politics of Levon Ter-Petrossian, the country’s first president, in September 2007, however, raised the stakes. Supported by a group of small extra-parliamentary political parties opposed to the authorities, Levon Ter-Petrossian’s candidacy in the election was seen by some as the only way to prevent the presidency being handed to Sargsyan. His return, however, also intensified the political climate and polarized society to such an extent that post-election clashes were inevitable.

The election held on 19 February 2008 was initially considered by international observers to have been administered mostly in line with international standards with Sargsyan narrowly avoiding a second round with 52.8 percent of the vote against Ter-Petrossian’s 21.5 percent according to official results. For several days following the disputed vote, a permanent tent camp was established by Ter-Petrossian’s supporters in Yerevan’s central Liberty Square and daily protest demonstrations averaged attendances of 25-30,000 people.

However, as more and more reports of violence, intimidation, ballot-box stuffing and vote-buying surfaced, the international community largely distanced itself from Sargsyan’s victory. Although countries such as France and Russia were quick to congratulate him on his election, others such as the United States and the United Kingdom did not, leading government supporters to allege that foreign powers supported a “colored revolution” in Armenia.

With protest demonstrations a daily occurrence in the capital, tensions between the two sides erupted into violence on 1 March 2008 when police dispersed the tent camp in Liberty Square. About 10,000 opposition supporters assembled close to the French Embassy later in the day, beat off police, and barricaded themselves in with abandoned buses and the carcasses of burned out and wrecked vehicles.

In a night of violence and looting, at least ten people died (eight civilians and two policemen) in street battles between security forces and demonstrators. A 20-day state of emergency was declared with all opposition and media activities severely curtailed. The incident ushered in perhaps the worst political crisis of Armenia’s short history as an independent nation. The Council of Europe has since threatened to suspend the country’s voting rights unless key deman’s are met.

The main requiremen’s are the release dozens of opposition activists detained seemingly for their political activities, an independent, transparent and credible inquiry into the circumstances surrounding the 1 March clashes, and the repeal of significant restrictions on political activity as well as freedom of assembly following the unrest. As of writing (1 June), the government is not considered to have met most of these deman’s although some restrictions have been eased.

Nevertheless, despite stronger criticism of the conduct of the vote and post-election events from the United States, the Organization for Security & Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) only toned down its initial and largely positive assessment of the vote. Its final report released three months later instead said that the election was mostly in line with international standards “in the pre-election period and during voting hours.”

The report noted that the vote was “devalued” by electoral fraud during the vote count and later recounts. Indeed, it says that voting was assessed favorably in 95 percent of polling stations visited and that the count was “bad” or “very bad” in 16 percent of precincts observed. Discrepancies and mistakes were uncovered in most recounts held in seven percent of precincts.

Human Rights
The Republic became largely mono-ethnic after its sizeable Azerbaijani population left the country at the beginning of the Nagorno Karabakh conflict. As a result, Armenia has therefore been spared the internal ethnic separatist movemen’s of the type which have plagued Azerbaijan and Georgia. With over 97 percent of the country ethnically Armenian, the rights of the small ethnic communities which do exist are largely respected or they face the same problems as those of most other citizens.

However, continuing concerns regarding the rights of religious minorities have since been joined by international criticism of the way the authorities handled the 1 March 2008 post-election clashes in Yerevan and the subsequent detention and harassment of opposition activists. So serious is the situation that the U.S. Department of State has stated that $235.65 million dollars to be disbursed under the Millennium Challenges Account (MCA) is now at risk.

Although the constitution provides for the separation of powers and rule of law, the President’s ability to appoint and dismiss judges continues to raise concerns about independence of the judiciary. Other concerns include the trafficking of women and children from Armenia, discrimination against people with disabilities, and the continuing harassment of homosexuals.

Conflict
In 1988, Armenia’s demanded that Nagorno Karabagh, a mainly Christian Armenian-populated territory situated within neighboring Moslem Azerbaijan, be united with Armenia. Pogroms against Armenia’s living in Azerbaijan followed and hundreds of thousands of Armenia’s and Azerbaijanis were forced to flee their respective countries as the conflict between the two Republics erupted into a full scale war in 1991. Approximately 20,000 people died by the time the conflict was put on hold by a ceasefire agreement signed in May 1994.

Over 1 million refugees were created on both sides and ethnic Armenian forces now control 14 percent of what the international community considers Azerbaijani territory, including Nagorno Karabakh. Negotiations to find a lasting peace under the auspices of the Organization for Security and Co-Operation in Europe (OSCE) Minsk Group continue to be held between Armenia and Azerbaijan, but attempts to broker a peace deal have not come to fruition.

Nevertheless, Minsk Group mediators as well as the European Union and the United States still believe that there is the possibility for securing a peace deal although presidential elections in both Armenia and Azerbaijan during 2008 have frustrated efforts. But, with increasingly bellicose rhetoric from Azerbaijan threatening to retake the territory by force, some observers believe that the threat of renewed fighting is very real.

An ally of Azerbaijan in this conflict is Turkey, a country whose ambitions for membership of the European Union may hinge on differing interpretations of history of the First World War. Many European countries consider the mass killing and starvation of 1.5 million Armenia’s under Turkish Ottoman rule to be genocide — a view so far contested by Turkey. Because of conflict with Azerbaijan and the absence of diplomatic relations with Ankara, the Armenian-Turkish border remains closed.

Health
Faced with severe economic difficulties after the collapse of the Soviet Union and an out-dated and over-staffed healthcare system, the Armenian government has been unable to guarantee free healthcare for all. Even though some sections of the population are entitled to free treatment, a system of informal paymen’s exists and as a result a sizeable percentage of the population instead resorts to self- or home-treatment.

Health concerns are mostly limited to reproductive health and multi-drug resistant tuberculosis, with international organizations such as M?decins Sans Fronti?res (MSF) supporting treatment and public health programmes. Infant mortality, which rose significantly in the first years after independence, has started to stabilize in recent years, although overall life expectancy has declined.

The number of those officially registered as HIV-positive stood at 570 as of 31 March 2008. However, international organizations believe that the actual figure is 10 times higher. In December 2004, the United Nations warned that Armenia faces a “potential disaster” if nothing is done to stop its spread. Access to free HIV testing is limited, with only one HIV/AIDS center in the capital.

Education
The education system in Armenia is currently under reform, with a World Bank-initiated process of “optimization” causing some concern. Plans to gradually close the Soviet-era specialized boarding schools for children with disabilities have been put on hold, as they now also accommodate normal children from vulnerable families.

As with the health sector, corruption is rampant throughout the education system, with cases of bribery and gift-giving by students to pass university entrance examinations. In June 2006, the Minister of Education warned that educational standards in Armenia were declining at an alarming rate.

Information and Media
While there is no formal censorship in place, many journalists adhere to the Soviet practice of self-censorship. In particular, as every television station is owned or controlled by political and economic forces close to the government, journalists seldom report news other than that which fulfills state propaganda purposes. A1 Plus, a pro-opposition television station that provided alternative news, was taken off the air in April 2002.

Despite concerns raised by the Council of Europe, the station has failed to win any subsequent tenders for a broadcasting frequency. It now disseminates most of its news via the Internet.

The situation with print media is somewhat better, with a variety of opinions and political views represented. However, circulation is low and mostly confined to the capital, with few newspapers able to attract a readership of over 3,000. Unable to attract sufficient advertising revenue, most papers are therefore reliant on sponsorship from individuals and parties on both sides of the political divide.

Access to the Internet in Armenia is not restricted and international organizations are equipping schools with computers and connections. Most government agencies have their own websites, financed by the international donor community, and several critical pro-opposition media outlets have migrated online – unable to disseminate alternative viewpoints through the broadcast media.

Despite the general situation, however, all media was censored and some Internet sites blocked during the 20 day state of emergency introduced following the 1 March post-election clashes between security services and opposition supporters. Even so, blogs were allowed to function and became the main source of information from inside the country during the same period.

Nevertheless, in spite of the preponderance of internet cafes, the main obstacle to wider internet usage is financial and linked to the legally enforced telecommunications monopoly, ArmenTel (Beeline). However, the monopoly on mobile communication was broken in 2005 with the emergence of a second company, Viva Cell, into the domestic market. The Greek OTE company also sold its controlling share in ArmenTel in early 2007 and the situation has started to improve since.

Even so, Armenia’still lags years behind its two South Caucasus neighbours, Azerbaijan and Georgia, where internet use costs less and where the number of mobile phone subscribers and type of services is significantly higher.

Economy
The Armenian economy is considered one of the most liberal in the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). Despite a record of strong economic growth, underpinned by remittances from the large overseas Armenian diaspora, 34 percent of the population lived below the national poverty line in 2007. The informal economy accounts for as much as 60% of GDP, which impacts tax revenue and the state’s financial capacity to improve public services.

An economic blockade by Azerbaijan and Turkey as a result of the unresolved conflict over Nagorno Karabakh poses another barrier to sustainable economic development. In recent years, the Armenian Government has also turned its attention towards promoting tourism, but the necessary infrastructure remains lacking in the regions. There are also concerns that rather than promoting community-based tourism, existing infrastructure caters mainly to elite and business travelers.

Growth has been registered in other sectors of the economy such as IT, diamonds and construction, but the appreciation of the Armenian dram against the U.S. dollar continues to hit that part of the population reliant on remittances from abroad. In recent months, increases in prices of food worldwide have also started to affect Armenia.

Environment
Armenia is a largely mountainous country with few natural resources. At the height of an energy crisis brought on by the economic blockade, many people resorted to firewood to heat their homes, resulting in rapid deforestation. The situation was ameliorated somewhat in 1995, when the Medzamor Nuclear Reactor situated near the Turkish border was reactivated after it had been closed in the wake of the devastating 1988 earthquake. Although the European Union has repeatedly requested that the nuclear reactor be shut, the government has refused, citing the lack of alternative energy sources.

Deforestation continues at an alarming rate, mainly as a result of illegal export of timber by government-connected businessman and military officials to Europe and beyond. Desertification affects several areas, including Yerevan, where government officials have destroyed parks and other green areas, often illegally, to build cafes, restaurants and luxurious mansions. In the summer of 2005, environmentalists, including representatives of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), warned that new plans to exploit protected forests and nature reserves will result in even more illegal logging and hunting.

Onnik Krikorian is a freelance journalist and photographer from the United Kingdom living and working in the Republic of Armenia for a variety of publications and organizations. He also maintains a blog from Armenia. Photos: ? Onnik Krikorian / Oneworld Multimedia

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