Armenia debates ethnic rights

Institute for War & Peace Reporting
Aug 25 2004


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

By Zhanna Alexanian in Yerevan

A proposed new law intended to protect the rights of minorities in
Armenia has met with a lukewarm response from members of the
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

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
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
[in 1997] recommends adopting a law in which their rights are

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
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
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
Soviet census of 1989, minorities formed 6.7 per cent of the
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
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
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
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
army service is a tragedy for the whole family. And another thing:
will there be a point in the law which allocates university places
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
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
answer IWPR’s questions, saying only that he was not taking part in
discussions on the draft law because he was not sufficiently informed

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
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
and is moving towards authoritarianism.”

Zhanna Alexanian is a reporter with in Yerevan