Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
Main languages: Armenian (97.9%), Kurdish (1%)
Main religions: Armenian Apostolic Christianity (92.6%)
Armenia was always the most ethnically homogeneous of the Soviet republics, a trend reinforced since the onset of Armenia’s conflict with Azerbaijan and the economic hardship following independence.
According to the 2011 Census, more than 98 per cent of the total population of 3 million is ethnically Armenian. Minority groups in the republic include Yezidis (35,308 or 1.2 per cent of the total population), Russians (11,911, 0.4 per cent), Assyrians (2,769, 0.1 per cent), Kurds (2,162, 0.1 per cent), Ukrainians (1,176), and Greeks (900). Armenia’s minorities are scattered across the country, and do not form local majorities in any region or administrative unit.
Prior to the conflict with Azerbaijan, Armenia’s largest minority had been Azeris, accounting for some 186,000 people. This population was displaced to Azerbaijan virtually in its entirety as a result of the conflict. Similarly Armenia received an influx of ethnic Armenian refugees from Azerbaijan. The migration of Russians from Armenia is attributable to the severe economic hardship experienced in the republic following independence and war with Azerbaijan, a factor also encouraging ethnic Armenian migration from the republic.
There is a large Armenian diaspora in the USA, and there are also significant communities in Canada, France, the Middle East, Russia, Georgia and in the secessionist region of Nagorno-Karabakh, a de facto but unrecognized state legally forming part of Azerbaijan. Certainly diaspora contributions to the Armenian economy have increased substantially in recent years, but depopulation remains a serious concern within Armenia itself, with unofficial estimates of the republic’s population significantly lower than official figures.
Yezidis & Kurds
The 2011 Census registered 35,308 Yezidis, a culturally distinct community which practises their own religion. The Yezidi faith contains traces of Islamic, Christian and Zoroastrian religions, and focuses on the worship of the ‘Peacock God’ Melek Taus. The majority of Yezidis live nomadic lives, tending livestock and moving their animals through alpine pasture. A small number have settled in urban areas such as Yerevan.
There were 2,162 Kurds in Armenia at the time of the 2011 Census. Many Sunni Muslim Kurds fell victim to mass expulsion along with the Azeris at the time of the Armenia–Azerbaijan war.
Kurds started arriving in Armenia in 1828, fleeing the Russo-Turkish wars, while many other Kurds settled around 1918. Yezidis were not classified separately from Kurds in Soviet censuses, but since the late 1980s there has been debate in Armenia as to whether Yezidis constitute a separate ethnic group. Many Yezidis within Armenia state that they are. They also believe that the Kurmanji dialect is a separate language from Kurdish. However, all Yezidi religious texts are written in Kurdish and most Yezidi communities in other countries do consider themselves to be Kurdish. The debate has split the Yezidi community in Armenia, with some Yezidis rejecting the disassociation with Kurdish identity proposed by some of their number.
Concern has been expressed that there is inadequate representation of the Kurdish minority at national and local levels. In 1998, Kurdish representatives protested that the electoral system makes no special provision for minority representation, with seats in parliament being awarded strictly according to the territorial principle. They proposed amendments to the electoral law allowing for a Kurdish representative to be elected the Armenian National Assembly. However, the proposals faced the problem that Kurds do not form local majorities in any administrative or electoral district and they were not adopted. Nevertheless, 2017 proved to be a significant year for the political participation of Armenia’s minorities. Following the April elections, there were four minority MP’s in the country’s parliament, including one Yezidi and one Kurd. However, the election process was criticised as the four were required to join established party lists in order to stand for election – raising questions as to how independent they can be.
According to a report prepared for the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in 2004, Yezidis were more likely to suffer lower levels of education than other communities. This was partly because of the poor economic climate, and partly because of the remoteness of many Yezidi villages. Preferential treatment of minorities under the Soviet system has withered away, exacerbating the Yezidis’ marginalization. The situation was reportedly exacerbated by internal disputes over whether Yezidis should be classified separately or as Kurds: the Armenian government faced strong criticism from one part of the community when it considered ratifying Kurmanji as the name of the language spoken by Yezidis in Armenia. However, it ratified both ‘Yezidi’ and ‘Kurdish’ as separate languages under the European Charter for Regional and Minority Languages.
Yezidis have expressed concern that they suffer disproportionate hazing during military service compared to other ethnic groups in Armenia. There have also been reports of bullying of Yezidi children in school and discrimination at the hands of local government and law enforcement officials. Yezidis have also reportedly been disadvantaged in the allocation of privatized land and in the enjoyment of water and grazing rights. Since the early 1990s, Yezidis have migrated to Russia and Germany in search of better lives.
According to Yezidi tradition, girls marry in their early teens. In 2012, there was an attempt by the government to increase the age at which women get could married from 17 to 18 – which is already the age at which men are allowed to marry. Many Yezidi groups protested the move as an attack on their customs. This continues to be an issue of contention as many families ignore the law regardless and have their daughters marry when they are as young as 14. There are some women within the Yezidi community who oppose girls marrying at such a young age, however as it forces them to discontinue their education and enter into lives they may not yet be ready for.
Armenia continues to be overshadowed by the legacy of its bloody conflict with neighbouring Azerbaijan over the region of Nagorno-Karabakh, an area that while legally part of Azerbaijan remains under the effective control of Armenia. The outbreak of conflict in the early 1990s profoundly reshaped Armenia, with its Azeri population – at the time numbering more than 180,000 people and who until then were the largest minority in the country – displaced almost entirely from Armenia following the outbreak of violence along with thousands of Muslim Kurds.
The long-standing conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia has fuelled an increasingly exclusionary form of nationalism that has allowed the growth of widespread xenophobia not only towards their neighbours but also minority groups within their own countries – a development that human rights groups have accused the government of actively encouraging. Politicians and media outlets have also been complicit in the use of hate speech targeting religious minorities, asylum seekers and refugees.
Perhaps the biggest challenge that minorities in Armenia face is their sheer invisibility in society. All minority groups combined make up less than 2 per cent of the Armenian population. This is exacerbated by the fact that no minority group makes up the majority in any part of the country – instead living interspersed throughout Armenia. While recent constitutional amendments have led to four minority representatives being elected to parliament in 2017, all government business continues to be conducted in Armenian. As a result, minorities still face obstacles to participating in decisions that affect their daily lives, at least at the national level. They remain represented mostly at a local governance level.
Education at all levels takes place in Armenian, including the entrance exam to apply for higher education. Most schools throughout the country do not even offer courses to learn minority languages such as Assyrian, Kurdish, or Yezidi. This is mostly due to both a lack of textbooks and skilled teachers. According to the Law on Television and Radio, all broadcasts must be conducted in Armenian. Shows in minority languages are only broadcast on radio for one hour a day and on television for one hour a week. Languages of national minorities are taught in schools located in regions where persons belonging to these minorities live in substantial numbers and efforts have been made to publish text books for teaching Russian, Assyrian, Yezidi and Kurdish as minority languages.
The Republic of Armenia, formerly the Soviet Socialist Republic of Armenia, is situated in the South Caucasus, bordering on Iran to the south, Azerbaijan to the east, Turkey to the west and Georgia to the north. Nakhichevan, situated between Armenia and Turkey, is an autonomous republic under the jurisdiction of Azerbaijan. Armenia provides economic, military and other forms of support to the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, legally part of Azerbaijan. It has direct transport links with Nagorno-Karabakh through the so-called Lachin corridor, a strip of de jure Azerbaijani territory currently under occupation.
Contemporary Armenian identity has been shaped by a history of struggle to maintain a cohesive ethnic identity, in the face of domination by powerful neighbours. In the modern period the vast majority of Armenians found themselves living either under imperial rule in the Ottoman or Russian empires.
The Armenian Genocide
The most important event in modern Armenian history was the series of massacres, forced marches and eradication of Armenian culture in Ottoman Turkey, beginning with the so-called Hamidian massacres in 1895–6 and culminating in the total destruction of the Armenian presence in Anatolia in 1915. Armenians state that some 1.5 million Armenians died as a result. Controversy rages to this day over whether these events should be defined as genocide. Certain western European countries, notably France in 2001, have recognised that these events to constitute genocide. In October 2006 the French National Assembly approved a draft law making it a crime to deny the Armenian genocide (the bill was passed by the Senate in 2012 but was struck down by the Constitutional Council on free speech grounds shortly afterwards). Turkey refuses to define these events as genocide, instead construing them as a military response to Armenian collaboration with belligerent external powers. Turkish officials and historians suggest much lower figures for the numbers of Armenians killed and claim that equal numbers of non-Armenians were killed during that period. Nonetheless, the evidence remains that there are practically no Armenians in Anatolia today.
There is enormous diversity in the range of claims made by Armenians today relating to the Armenian Genocide. Demands for reparations and even territorial revisions are most likely to be found in the diaspora, many of whom are descendants of survivors. However, it is important to acknowledge that the modern Armenian state has renounced any territorial claims on Turkey.
The Soviet Union era and Nagorno-Karabakh
Due to Russia’s comparatively benevolent treatment of Armenians, Russia assumed the role of an external protector in the modern Armenian consciousness. On the whole Armenians thrived in the Soviet Union, enjoying high social mobility and occupying prominent positions within leading Soviet political and military institutions. A high proportion of Armenians acquired the Russian language, yet maintained their own extremely rich national culture. However, the onset of political liberalization under Mikhail Gorbachev brought the issue of Armenians beyond Armenia to the forefront in the Nagorno-Karabakh region (NKAO), an autonomous unit under formal Azerbaijani jurisdiction. Conflict over the control of Nagorno-Karabakh had been latent since the establishment of the Soviet Union, when Karabakh was initially given to the Armenians and then awarded to Azerbaijan for reasons that to this day remain unclear.
In February 1988 the Armenians of Karabakh unilaterally issued a resolution declaring their secession from Azerbaijan and union with Armenia. The conflict quickly escalated into violent attacks on Armenians in the Azerbaijani cities of Baku and Sumqayit. The death toll is disputed but reached into the dozens. A process of mass migration began following cases of physical intimidation and violence towards Azeris from Armenia. There was a corresponding inflow of Armenian refugees from Azerbaijan proper as well as the NKAO, totalling some 400,000. By 1991 the conflict had become a full-scale war, with each side availing itself of Soviet military hardware. However, post-Soviet military assistance was tilted in favour of Armenia, particularly when anti-Moscow factions were in power in Baku. The war ended in a decisive Armenian victory in 1994, with the Armenians of Karabakh (supported by Armenia) taking control not only of Nagorno-Karabakh itself but also occupying in whole or in part seven regions of Azerbaijan surrounding the former NKAO.
Until 1994, the political situation in Armenia itself was relatively stable under the leadership of President Ter-Petrossian of the Armenian National Movement, elected on 17 October 1991 following Armenia’s declaration of independence. However, the country experienced upheavals as a result of the Karabakh conflict and the aftermath of a devastating earthquake which destroyed Leninakan and Spitak on 7 December 1988. This left an estimated 25,000 dead and 500,000 homeless, sparking off a worldwide relief effort coordinated by diaspora Armenians.
The Karabakh conflict had a serious effect both on the Armenian economy and on the population as a whole. From 1989 Armenia was subjected to an economic blockade, imposed first by Azerbaijan and then by Turkey at the end of 1992, further exacerbating the economic situation in Armenia, which was largely dependent on Azerbaijan for energy supplies. As a result of the conflict Armenia lost most of its ethnic diversity, suffered severe economic hardship and saw the supplanting of Armenian political elites by those with Karabakh origins and connections. Armenia was also initially censured by the international community, although in recent years Armenian politicians have pointed to internationally sanctioned moves towards secession in Montenegro and Kosovo and questioned why secession has been deemed acceptable in these cases but not Karabakh.
President Ter-Petrosian was eventually compelled to resign in 1998 after conceding the possibility of compromise on the Karabakh issue and following the 1997 elections, which were conducted in a highly disputed manner. Robert Kocharian, an Armenian from Karabakh and former combatant in the war, took his place. Kocharian’s position was rooted in the assumption that Armenia, with support from the diaspora, could both survive economic isolation and fulfil its goals in Karabakh.
In March 2003, Kocharian was re-elected president in a controversial poll. In response to widespread discontent and protest at the conduct of the elections the constitutional court ruled that Kocharian should submit to a public vote of confidence one year later. The vote never took place and in April 2004 demonstrations in central Yerevan were violently dispersed. In November 2005 a number of constitutional amendments advocated by international organizations in order to improve governance in Armenia were approved in a referendum widely seen as falsified – an example of the paradoxical course of democratization in Armenia.
This culminated in the killing of demonstrators following the 2008 election, when supporters of Ter-Petrosian gathered to protest against the election result. Kocharian, though ineligible for a third term in office, was supporting the candidacy of Serzh Sargsyan and imposed a national state of emergency while he conducted an extensive purge of the opposition. His successor, Sargsyan, took power and was subsequently re-elected in 2013. Sargsyan served as president until 2018 and then attempted to become prime minister; however, massive and peaceful protests led to his resignation within a matter of days. Former prime minister Karen Karapetyan stepped in to become acting prime minister.
Mainly as a result of the conflict with Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh, still unresolved to this day, Armenia found itself relatively isolated in the South Caucasus. Armenia has been excluded from regional economic development plans ranging from the Baku–Tbilisi–Ceyhan oil pipeline and the Baku–Akhalkalaki–Kars highway.
A Coordination Council of National Minorities of the Republic of Armenia was established under the adviser to the President of the Republic of Armenia. The Council aims to provide protection of national minorities, to activate their inter-community relationships, as well as to provide effective solutions to issues of concern such as education and cultural and legal support. The Council is composed of two representatives of each of the 11 ethnic minorities recognized under the Council of Europe’s Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities (FCNM).
In January 2004, the Division for Ethnic Minorities and Religious Affairs was established as part of the Prime Minister’s office. It is the main governing state body that provides expertise on draft legal acts, issues opinions, prepares informational materials about its activity areas, summarizes and analyzes information submitted by public agencies and local self-government authorities for the Minister-Chief of Government Staff’s consideration, and coordinates the work of the National Minorities and Religious Affairs Department. The inefficiency of the Division, and its inability to contribute to the fight against discrimination, are regularly highlighted by international human rights monitoring bodies. There have been several unsuccessful attempts to elaborate a law on national minorities by the government. Generally, international treaty bodies notice that there is no comprehensive anti-discrimination legislation adopted yet and there remains a lack of reliable statistics in this field.
Anti-discrimination legislation did not enter into force in Armenia until constitutional amendments took place in 2015. Despite this legislation, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination expressed concern in its concluding observations of 2017 at the use of hate speech by political figures and the media.
The political participation of Armenia’s minorities took a significant step forward in 2017. Following the April elections, there were four minority MP’s in the country’s parliament: one each from the Assyrian, Kurdish, Russian and Yezidi communities. The election process was criticised as the four were required to align themselves with one of the existing political parties – raising doubts as to how much of an independent voice they can be. The four seats had been set aside by the 2015 constitutional amendments, becoming the first Caucasus country to have ethnic quotas for its parliament.
Minority based and advocacy organisations
- Armenian Assembly of America
- Armenian Centre for National and International Studies
- Armenian Helsinki Committee
- International Centre for Human Development
- Office of the Ombudsman of the Republic of Armenia
Sources and further reading
Abasov, A. and Haroutiun, K., Karabakh Conflict – Variants of Settlement: Concepts and Reality, Baku and Yerevan, Areat/Noyan Tapan, 2006.
Adalian, R.P., Historical Dictionary of Armenia, Lanham, MD, Scarecrow Press, 2002.
Armenian News Network: http://www.groong.com
Article 19, Under Lock and Key: Freedom of Information and the Media in Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia, London, Article 19, 2005.
Broers, L. (ed.), The Limits of Leadership: Elites and Societies in the Nagorny Karabakh Peace Process, Accord 17, London, Conciliation Resources, 2006.
De Waal, T., Black Garden. Armenia and Azerbaijan through Peace and War, New York, New York University Press, 2003.
Helsinki Committee of Armenia, ‘Human rights in Armenia: annual report 2005′, Ditord (Observer), no. 33, March 2006, retrieved July 2007, http://www.armhels.org/index.php?page=ditord&m_id=49
Hovannisian, R.G., The Armenian People from Ancient to Modern Times, vol. 2, Foreign Domination to Statehood: The Fifteenth Century to the Twentieth Century, Basingstoke, Macmillan, 1997.
Human Rights Watch, ‘Cycle of repression: human rights violations in Armenia’, Human Rights Watch Briefing Paper, New York, 4 May 2004.
Investigative Journalists of Armenia: http://www.hetq.am/eng
Krag, H., and Funchthe, L., North Caucasus: Minorities at a Crossroads, London, MRG, 1994.
Libaridian, G.J., Modern Armenia. People, Nation, State, New Brunswick, NJ, Transaction, 2004.
Matveeva, A., The South Caucasus: Nationalism, Conflict and Minorities, London, MRG, 2002.
News and current affairs in Armenia: http://www.armenialiberty.org
News and current affairs in Armenia: http://www.armenianow.com
Poulton, H., Minorities in Southeast Europe: Inclusion and Exclusion, London, MRG, 1998.
Suny, R.G., Looking toward Ararat: Armenia in Modern History. Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 1993.
Walker, C.J. (ed.), Armenia and Karabagh: The Struggle for Unity, London, MRG, 1991.
McDowall, D., The Kurds, London, MRG, 1996.