Alternative names: Khai
Location: Armenia (Caucasus, south-west USSR), other parts of USSR, Turkey, Middle East, N. America, W. Europe, Australia
Population: 4.2 million (USSR census 1979), 4.5 million (est. 1989), approx 1.8 million living in diaspora
% of population: 1.6% (1979 and est. 1989)
Religion: Gregorian Christianity (Apostolic)
Language: Armenian (which has its own distinctive alphabet)

The Armenians share with the Jews one of the most tragic histories of persecution, oppression and diaspora while displaying a rare tenacity for survival and a high degree of national self-awareness. Indeed, the events in the twentieth century that bring to mind the Armenians: the massacres of 1915, terrorism in the 1970s-1980s, the bloody ethnic clashes with Azerbaidjanis (1988/9) and the earthquake (1988) are all tinged with tragedy.

History and background

The Armenians understandably take great pride in their history, for not only was Armenia a great power at the time of Julius Caesar (first century BC), but also it is the oldest extant Christian nation in the world, having been converted by St Gregory in 301 AD. (The Armenian Church developed independently of both Constantinople and Rome and is therefore neither Catholic nor Orthodox.) An important part of the early Byzantine Empire, Armenia was invaded by the Turks in 1064 (the beginning of nearly a millennium of strife between the two peoples). Some Armenians migrated to Cilicia (on the Mediterranean Sea) and others to the Crimea (on the Black Sea) but by the fifteenth century Armenia had been swallowed up by the Ottoman Empire. In the early nineteenth century Eastern Armenia (now Soviet Armenia, just 10% of historical Greater Armenia) was incorporated into the Russian Empire. In the late nineteenth century Armenians formed armed irredentist groups that engaged in terroristic activity. Such activities provoked savage reaction from the Turkish authorities culminating in the 1894-96 massacres (in which it is claimed up to 300,000 Armenians perished) and 1915 massacres (in which up to one-and-a-half million Armenians died) and Turkish Armenia was virtually cleared of its native population. The Armenians’ sense of grievance at the world’s indifference to this national tragedy has passed from generation to generation to this day.

The defeat of the Turks in World War I and the collapse of the Russian Empire in 1917 allowed one of the Armenian irredentist groups — the Dashnaks (Union) — to proclaim an independent Armenian state in 1918. However, the Red Army established Soviet power in November 1920 and this was finally consolidated in 1921. In order to check local nationalism in the region Armenia, Azerbaidjan and Georgia were merged into the Transcaucasian Socialist Federative Soviet Republic, which joined the USSR in 1922. Only in 1936 was the Armenian SSR to emerge as a separate entity. To this day it remains the only Armenian state in the world and thus, in spite of political differences, it retains a special place in the affections of Armenians in the diaspora. By this time the formerly Armenian territory of Nakhichevan (the population of which was overwhelmingly Azer-baidjani) had been attached to Azerbaidjan, as had the Nagorno-Karabakh region (which, although on Azerbaidjani territory was populated mainly by Armenians). The failure of Stalin to wrest back from Turkey the area surrounding Mount Ararat adjoining Armenia was a source of bitter resentment after World War II. From the war there has been a steady stream of Armenian immigrants from Turkey, Iran and Lebanon, causing the Republic’s population to rise by 22% between 1970 and 1979. More recently there has been a reverse flow, mainly to North America (more than 6,000 left in 1980 alone) and the population rose by only a further 8% between 1979 and 1989.

Armenians in the diaspora have taken advantage of the relaxed atmosphere of glasnost to increase links with Soviet Armenians and the international response to the Armenian earthquake in December 1988 played a major role in advancing better East–West relations.

Constitution and law

In theory the Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic (population 3.3 million in 1989) is a sovereign state that has freely joined the USSR federation. In reality it has been hitherto a mere constituent part of the USSR, which controls its foreign affairs, military formations, economic and commercial relations in a highly centralized fashion. Although the Soviet Constitution of 1977 allows for Armenia to elect its own legislative (Supreme Soviet), executive (Council of Ministers), and judiciary (Supreme Court), control is effectively exercised by the centralized

Armenian SSR

and Russian-dominated Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU). As part of the USSR federation, Armenia elects 11 deputies to the Council of Nationalities and three to the Council of the Union in the 542 member Supreme Soviet of the USSR.

The Constitution also allows each Union Republic to secede from the USSR, but the primacy of All-Union legislation effectively invalidates this right. Similarly, the constitutional provision that all citizens of the USSR of different races and nationalities have equal rights has been severely compromised by the domination in the USSR of Slavic (essentially Russian) political, economic and social norms. It could be argued that the Armenians’ assertive national consciousness and high levels of education have mitigated the effects of these policies, they being the only nationality other than the Russians to have schools teaching in their own language outside of their native republic.

Recent developments in political, economic and social rights

Although the Nagorno-Karabakh crisis and the Armenian earthquake disaster have dominated the headlines of late, the movement for national self-assertion in Armenia has developed on a far broader front, encompassing ecological, emigration, religious, and national issues. For example, just before the crisis erupted in Nagorno-Karabakh in February 1988, there were demonstrations in the capital, Yerevan, against the pollution of Lake Sevan, nuclear power plants in the Republic and the effluence from a synthetic rubber factory. At the same time relations with Moscow were soured when Pravda (presumably with the backing of the Politburo) launched an attack on corruption among the Armenian Communist Party leadership.

Armenians are well-placed to co-ordinate policies aimed at national self-determination, for they constitute nearly 90% of the Republic’s population (2.7 million or 66% of all Armenians, 1979), with almost a million more (22.5%) in neighbouring Georgia and Azerbaidjan. More significantly, the Republic has by far the lowest number of Russians (70,000 or 2.3%) in any of the Union Republics (the next lowest is 350,000 in Turkmenistan) and Armenian is firmly established as the main language (only Armenia and Georgia of the Union Republics have retained their distinctive scripts).

The deep-seated grievances against the Turks (and, after the Susha massacres in Nagorno-Karabakh in 1920, the Azerbaidjanis) surfaced following the Sumgait ethnic clashes of February 1988 when 26 Armenians and eight Azerbaidjanis were killed (although it is claimed that hundreds of Armenians died, some in the most grisly circumstances). Massive demonstrations in Moscow and Stepanakert (capital of Nagorno-Karabakh) in March spread to Yerevan in April when the airport was closed. In May the Karabakh Committee was reactivated to press for the return of the enclave to Armenia, but its leaders were subjected to repressions by the central authorities. In June 1988 the Armenian Supreme Soviet voted for the incorporation of the enclave (re-named the Artsakh Autonomous Republic) into Armenia, but the Azerbaidjan Supreme Soviet reversed this and Moscow ruled the Armenian action unconstitutional. Tension remained high throughout the summer and in September the area was put under military control and closed to outsiders. More clashes occurred in November, taking the death toll to over 100 and causing more than 100,000 refugees in each direction as Armenians fled Azerbaidjan and Nakhichevan and Azerbaidjanis quit Armenia and Karabakh.

The terrible earthquake that hit the Leninakan area in December 1988 (with the loss of 25,000 lives) temporarily stopped the violence. The tremendous international response to this tragedy and the genuine gratitude expressed by the Soviet people in general and the Armenians in particular assisted the improvement in relations between East and West.

However, the decision in January 1989 to place the enclave under direct Moscow rule sparked off demonstrations and strikes in Azerbaidjan and a policy of non-compliance in Armenia. The following month saw massive demonstrations in Armenia on the anniversary of the Sumgait clashes. Violence flared again in July 1989, when two Azerbaidjanis were killed in Nagorno-Karabakh and throughout August 1989 there were strikes and nationalist demonstrations in Baku.

In what was regarded by the Armenian community as a positive development, in June 1989 the Turkish government opened the archives of the Ottoman Empire, a move it is hoped that will lead to the full facts of the Armenian massacre being brought to light.

Given the build-up of ethnic, nationalist, economic and cultural grievances in this part of the world, the prospects for a peaceful resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh question do not look bright. The Soviet authorities are caught between the two factions and cannot easily satisfy one without alienating the other.

Migration and diaspora

The Armenian diaspora began effectively in 387 AD when the Romans and Persians carved up Armenia, became a flood in the eleventh century and reached its zenith during the years of the Turkish massacres. The Armenians have not always been fortunate in choosing their places of exile; Beirut, Tehran and Cyprus all having substantial Armenian communities. Many from these regions migrated to Soviet Armenia in the 1970s and were probably amongst those who remigrated to North America in the 1980s.

It is North America that contains the largest Armenian community outside the homeland, estimated at some half-a-million. The American Armenian community was particularly active in organizing relief aid for the victims of the earthquake. On the other hand, the activities of ASALA and other Armenian groups adopting terroristic tactics against Turkish targets in the USA and elsewhere have not been welcomed by all Armenians (although they did oblige Turkey to pull out of the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984 for fear of terrorist attacks on its athletes).

France also has a large Armenian community numbering some quarter of a million and there are still sizeable communities in Turkey, Iran, Syria, Lebanon and Cyprus.

Minorities in Armenia

With 90% of the population of the Republic Armenians, there are fewer minority people in Armenia than in any other Union Republic. Apart from the small numbers of Azerbaidjanis and Russians (see above) there are 51,000 Kurds (1.7%) and 6,000 Assyrians (0.2%).

(See also Armenians of Turkey and the Middle East in Middle East and North Africa; Azerbaidjanis)