MINELRES: IWPR: Armenia Debates Ethnic Rights

MINELRES moderator minelres@lists.microlink.lv
Thu Aug 26 20:10:31 2004

Original sender: Institute for War & Peace Reporting <info@iwpr.net>


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 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

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

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 www.ArmeniaNow.com in Yerevan