Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Armenia Debates Ethnic Rights

Cool reception from Armenia’s tiny minority communities to a draft law designed to help them.
By Zhanna Alexanian

A proposed new law intended to protect the rights of minorities in Armenia has met with a lukewarm response from members of the country’s small ethnic communities even before a first draft is on the table.

When the team of experts designing the law complete their deliberations, which have been going on for two months, the document will be sent for review at the Council of Europe and then submitted to parliament.

Armenia is, in contrast to its south Caucasian neighbours Georgia and Azerbaijan, virtually a mono-ethnic republic in which just 2.2 per cent of the population is not Armenian. However, it is the first country in the region to work on a law on its ethnic minorities.

“I think that passing a law on national minorities may set a positive example for other countries of the region,” said Stepan Safarian, an expert at the Armenian Centre for National and International Studies and a member of the team drafting the law. “It will be important for Armenia in terms of harmonising relations between the majority and the minorities.”

This is not the first attempt to pass such a law. An earlier document was rejected by the minority communities themselves. After that, in January this year, the government formed a new Department for National Minorities and Religion which started drafting a new bill.

“We weren’t obliged to do this, but there was a recommendation,” Hranush Kharatian, head of the minorities department, told IWPR. “The framework convention on national minorities which Armenia signed up to [in 1997] recommends adopting a law in which their rights are defined.”

Armenia’s constitution does not specifically refer to the rights of minorities and they are barely mentioned in laws on education and language. The new law will set out their legal rights in terms of religious practice, education and language and will specifically outlaw discrimination against them.

“On the whole, legislation in Armenia is liberal towards national minorities,” said Kharatian. “But if we have an appropriate law, they will know their rights better. At the end of the day adopting this law signifies the state’s attitude towards its minorities.

“It’s true that the constitution forbids discrimination of any kind, but banning discrimination or violence gives minorities a passive right, whereas this law will above all give them active rights.”

There are more than 20 ethnic minorities in Armenia, chiefly Assyrians, Yezidis, Kurds, Greeks, Jews, Russians and others. In the last Soviet census of 1989, minorities formed 6.7 per cent of the population. But the number has fallen drastically since then, in part because of the mass flight of Armenia’s Azerbaijani population and in part because of emigration.

The team of experts debating the new law includes government figures and scholars. They have studied similar laws from around 20 other countries, and have paid particular attention to the laws of Hungary and Yugoslavia (now Serbia and Montenegro).

However many minority leaders are cool towards the whole project.

“I am not in favour of passing this law, but as the discussion concerns us I am participating in it,” said Irina Gasparian, who represents the Assyrian community. Around 6,000 Assyrians were living in Armenia in 1989, but there are only about 3,400 here now.

Charkaze Mstoyan, chairman of the Kurdistan Committee, is strongly against the law as a matter of principle, because he feels that the act of defining a separate identity for minorities is a form of discrimination in itself.

“Passing a law like this is a form of national persecution and infringes our rights,” he said. “If I am a citizen of the Republic of Armenia, why should I have this label pinned on me?”

“There is a taboo on everything Kurdish here,” continued Mstoyan. “If the president of the country were to declare just once that Kurds or other peoples have lived together with us for centuries, if we were to be mentioned officially, I assure you that the atmosphere in Armenia would change.”

He said that the Kurds and the Yezidis, a Kurdish-speaking but non-Muslim group, were leaving Armenia because of social problems, in particular the poor educational system.

“School buildings are falling down, it’s impossible to hold lessons there. The state has just forgotten about us,” he said.

Another problem for Kurds is bullying when they are conscripted into the army, leading the Kurdish leader to ask aloud, “Will there be a point in the law which stops a member of a minority group being persecuted in the army?… I don’t think so. For members of our community, army service is a tragedy for the whole family. And another thing: will there be a point in the law which allocates university places for Kurdish children?”

Hranush Aratian argued that the law was needed to protect minorities against discrimination from organisations like the nationalist Union of Armenian Aryans. This group is calling on ethnic minorities to leave Armenia, and has called on the Jewish community in Armenia to put pressure on the Israeli government to change its position on the Armenian Genocide of 1915.

Hersch Burstein, chairman of the Mordechai Navi society which represent’s Armenia’s Jewish community of just 300 people, declined to answer IWPR’s questions, saying only that he was not taking part in discussions on the draft law because he was not sufficiently informed about it.

Shavarsh Khachatrian, a specialist in international law and the chief expert in the drafting group, argued that passing the new bill was chiefly in the interests of the ethnic minorities themselves.

“They ought to explain why they reject the need to pass a law like this,” said Khachatrian. “National minorities are a section of society which always get used when tensions are rising, either between states or in anti-government movements. The problems that create the most tension have to do with inter-ethnic relations, and that is why many countries have adopted laws like this one.”

“We do not have minorities with separatist demands,” said Khachatrian. “Historically, our state has not been intolerant towards minorities. I think we have all we need to pass a normal law.

“How this law is used is another matter. That is connected with the way our country is developing. It has retreated from democratic values and is moving towards authoritarianism.”

Zhanna Alexanian is a reporter with in Yerevan.