A Global People

The Modern Republic of Armenia lies in the turbulent south Caucuses. Although the Armenians as a people have existed for thousands of years, they have known the safety of living within peaceful and independent borders at only brief times. In fact, the Armenians have long lived between larger, warring powers and as minorities within larger states. Because of this, they have developed into an exceedingly mobile people; the vast majority of Armenians does not live in Armenia, but rather is scattered across the globe.

armenie25 That the Armenians have maintained a distinct culture despite geographic distances and despite having absorbed so many influences from so many diverse and often dominating cultures is remarkable. It is a feat they have achieved through pride in their language, religious faith, and mountainous homeland.

Today’s Armenia continues to be affected international issues and border disputes, but is also helped by its geostrategic position and by its generous ethnic diaspora which helps support it.

Introduction to Armenia: Geohistory

Armenia is a mountainous, landlocked country slightly smaller than the US state of Maryland. The majority of its population and irrigated agricultural land are concentrated along its southern border. At the northern center of that agricultural land is Armenia’s capital, Yerevan. More than a third of the country’s three-million strong population lives in the capital. The mountains, which make up the majority of the country, are sparsely populated and offer small mineral deposits, which feed the nation’s copper, aluminum, and diamond industries as well mountain agriculture such as grapes, which feeds the nation’s famed cognac production.

Post-Soviet-Conflict-Banner Due to the mountains, Armenia’s rivers are fast moving and, while much of the region’s water originates in Armenia, Armenia itself experiences water shortages during the hot summer months when evaporation is high. Thus, the Armenians have long been skilled in building irrigation, dams, and reservoirs. Armenia’s farmland is fed by rivers that run to Aras River, which flows between Armenia and Turkey and into Azerbaijan. Both Turkey and Azerbaijan are currently imposing a military blockade on Armenia due to the Nagorno-Kabarakh conflict, making the river essentially useless in terms of transportation for Armenia.

Armenia’s dominant feature is Lake Sevan, a large, natural fresh water lake that was once used for transportation and irrigation but, after the Soviets drained much of it, is today mostly used for recreation.

Much of what Armenian culture considers its traditional heartland is today located in Turkey. This includes large amounts of agricultural land and Mount Ararat. This mountain is visible from Yerevan, featured in the center of Armenia’s coat of arms, and the home of the pantheon of gods whose stories are told in Armenian mythology.

Successive invasions and occupations of Armenia by foreign powers encouraged pockets of Armenians to form and move around the area. Due largely to Soviet planning, not all of these pockets were included in the Armenian SSR and thus are not included in today’s Armenia, which retains the same borders.

This map detail shows the dominance of Lake Sevan and the Caucuses in Armenia’s landscape. Transport through much of the country is difficult.

Due to conflicts with its neighbors, Armenia’s only open borders lie with Iran and Georgia, the latter providing the country’s only rail link for freight shipments. That rail, however, also passes through Abkhazia, an unrecognized republic that broke from Georgia and closed its borders with Georgia. So, freight in and out of Armenia usually travels through Georgia’s Black Sea ports in a relatively expensive and inefficient process. Through Georgia, Armenia also receives nearly all of its gas needs via a pipeline from Russia.

Perhaps because of its largely non-functioning borders, Armenia has been forced to rapidly develop a services industry, particularly in IT services, to allow its economy to continue to function. As of 2013, services made up 41% of the economy, more than any other sector (with mining taking 33% and agriculture 25%). Much of the investment and construction needed to make this happen (and to develop Nagorno-Karabakh), is financed through remittances and investments made by the sizeable populations of Armenians living in Russia and the US.

Armenia from Pre-history to the Early 1800s

The Armenians are an inherently international people. Most scholars agree that they likely originated in South Eastern Europe, then migrated to the Caucuses where they mixed linguistically, culturally, and/or genetically with various Caucasian groups as well as various other groups that would later conquer what became the Armenian homelands: Persians, Turks, Greeks, Romans, and, later, the Russians.

Armenians call their country “Hayk” and refer to themselves as “Hayer.” The legend of Hayk, a hero from ca 2500 BC, is told by the 5th century Armenian historian Movses Khorenatsi. Hayk left Babylon (today a city in Iraq and long a major part in Middle Eastern empires) due to the oppressive King Titanid Bel. Hayk settled with his kinsmen at the foot of Mt. Ararat. Hayk named his settlement Haykashen and later killed Titanid Bel in battle. Hayk had a son, Aram, whose name is the root of the exonym Armenia. Armenian tradition traces the heritage of all Armenians back to this family of heroes.

The name “Armenia” was most often used in ancient Persian and Greek sources and thus is still most commonly used in the Western world to refer to the country.

A documentary on Armenia focusing on history and travel.

For centuries after Hayk, the Armenians lived under various rulers including the Hittites and, most importantly, the Kingdom of Urartu (860-590 BCE), from which the Armenians adopted a pantheon of gods, elements of the Armenian language, and began to solidify as a cultural and political entity. Urartu, named for Mount Ararat which sat at its center, is often pointed to by Armenian nationalists as a pivotal time for the formation of the eventual Kingdom Armenia.

That Kingdom would briefly gain independence with the fall of the Seleucid Empire. The Seleucid Empire was a Hellenic state formed from lands originally conquered by Alexander the Great. The Armenian language and culture were deeply influenced by the Seleucids, under whom Armenians served as local rulers. When the Seleucids crumbled under Roman pressure, the Kingdom of Armenia was recognized by Rome an independent political force in 190 BCE.

The Kingdom of Armenia briefly became an empire under Tigranes the Great in the final century BCE. At its height, the Empire covered present day Armenia, parts of Georgia and Azerbaijan, Iran and Iraq, and stretched southwest across Turkey to Syria and the Mediterranean Sea. Tigranes was eventually conquered by Rome, however, in 55 BC and his former Kingdom would spend the next 500 years as a contested border province between Rome and the successive Middle Eastern empires. Because of Tigranes’ ambitious expansion, however, ethnic Armenians migrated throughout the area, most notably the region of Cilicia on the coast of the Mediterranean in what is today south eastern Turkey.

In the late Roman period, Armenia became the first country in the world to formally adopt Christianity as its state religion when King Tiridates III of Armenia converted in 301 AD. This predated the Roman religious tolerance edicts from Galerius and Constantine by 10 and 12 years respectively. That Armenia was first and that it managed to retain its Christianity throughout the centuries despite being surrounded by majority Muslim populations is a key element to the Armenian identity today. The Armenian Orthodox Church remains a major cultural influence among the Armenian people. Churches are found across the globe wherever the people reside.

The Armenian Empire at its height under King Tiridates. Note the placement of the Kingdom of Cilicia at the top of the Mediterranean Sea. Image from Wikipedia.

Rome fell and what had been Armenia was eventually split between the Byzantines and the Persians, with the latter controlling most of what had been the Kingdom of Armenia. Persian influence on Armenia’s language and culture became pronounced during this time.

The rise of the Arab states eventually led to the Byzantine-Arab wars, which ravaged the Armenian homelands. In the chaos, the Armenians united under Ashot I in the 9th century and fought the Emirs. Although full independence was not achieved, Ashot was crowned king and granted considerable autonomy which he used to expand his lands and revitalize the Armenian economy and culture from 862-890 AD.

Armenian autonomy continued until the Arabs began to reassert power in the late 1,000s. Several splinter kingdoms formed during this time, among them the precursor to the modern territory of Nagorno-Karabakh.

Upheavals in the Caucasus over the next 300 years caused by the Byzantines and Seljuk Turks triggered mass migrations away from the Armenian’s traditional homeland south toward the Mediterranean. Many settled across Anatolia (modern day Turkey) with many ending in Cilicia, joining communities of Armenians that had settled there under Tigranes the Great over 1,000 years before. Eventually, the Armenian Kingdom of Cilicia was founded there and prospered through its relations with Western Europe and by serving as a launching site for the Crusades.

The end of Crusades, the arrival and later Islamization of the Mongols, and repeated invasions, particularly from Egypt by the Muslim Mamluks, weakened and broke the Cilician state in 1375. Many of the Armenians there again dispersed, travelling westward and settling is places such as Cyprus, Cairo, Venice, Marseilles, Paris, and Holland.

Although many Armenians migrated, many stayed. In fact, the Armenians retained a majority or significant minority in an area stretching from modern Armenia through central Turkey. Those who stayed behind, however, suffered under numerous invasions. Successive Mongol and Arab rulers ruled over the divided Armenian homeland over the following centuries. Starting in the mid-17th century, the Ottomans would rule the west and the Persians controlled the East. This would be the case until the 19th century.

Those who emigrated tended to be those with the means to so. The Armenians also tended to form cohesive Armenian communities in their new homelands, and to keep in contact with other Armenian communities elsewhere. They also, however, tended to learn the local language and to try integrate. This unique position often led the Armenian to become translators and intermediaries. The international network of Armenians that developed helped many to excel in trade. The international stereotype of the Armenian as a wily businessman reflected a genuine entrepreneurial spirit that permeated Armenian culture. It would also, however, lead to discrimination that closely resembled antisemitism.


Armenia under Russia and the Ottomans

Russia had been pressing towards the Caucasus Mountains for some time, seeking to give their empire a defensible southern anchor by controlling the entirety of the high mountain range. Many Armenians looked on this as an opportunity. The Russians were a Christian nation that had pledged to protect the interests of Christians everywhere. Surely living under the Russian empire would be preferable to living under a Muslim empire?

The Ottoman conquest of Western Armenia meant that much of what is now modern eastern Turkey (shown here) was once populated by Armenian majorities. Map from Wikipedia.

Nicholas I annexed most of what is today modern Armenia from the Persians in 1828. This sparked hope for many Armenians still living in Persia and the Ottoman Empire, and about 50,000 total immigrated into Russian Armenia. Armenia, however, was now a militarized zone bordering Russia’s rivals and it was ruled as such. Little autonomy was granted, Armenian nationalism was distrusted, and an occupying army, led by the harsh General Tsitsianov, remained to rule and defend the new possession. The Russians built the railroad from Georgia at this time to improve transportation and communication. This railroad was also a boon for the local economy, and today represents the main overland transport line out of Armenia.

There are no reliable figures to determine exact populations, but roughly over half of the world’s Armenians were estimated to be residing in the Russian-controlled territory. Another 20 to 40 percent lived in the Ottoman Empire in the eastern regions of Anatolia. The remainder was spread out to other parts of Europe or Africa.

Russian rule did give the Armenians greater access to European thought and to ideas of nationalism. Armenians in both Russia and the Ottoman Empire used the mostly peaceful second half of the 19th century to rebuild their national identity. Although they faced oscillating policies of Russification and more liberal autonomy from Moscow, the Armenians opened schools, their writers modernized the vernacular Armenian language, and the national entrepreneurial spirit was allowed to flourish in many parts of the Russian empire, including in the native Armenian lands.

In the aftermath of WWI, Woodrow Wilson suggested joining many areas populated by Armenians under a single Armenian state. The idea was never implemented. Map from Wikipedia.

The Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF) emerged in 1890, pressing for more autonomy from the Tsar and the Sultan alike. This nationalism was not welcomed by either Russia nor the Ottomans, and the Sultan lashed out particularly harshly. The years 1894-96 saw many Armenians arrested, tortured, and some 300,000 killed.

In the lead-up to World War I, the political structure of the Ottoman Empire shifted radically over a short period. Although more liberal young Turk leaders rose to power, Turkish ultranationalists soon supplanted the progressives and pushed blame on the Armenians for the problems of the aging empire.

After World War I began and the Ottomans aligned with the Central Powers, the Young Turks viewed the Armenians as a tool of the Allies. Suspicion turned violent in late April, 1915 when deportations and executions of Armenians erupted on a massive scale. Many were forced on boats that then sunk into the Mediterranean. Hundreds of thousands of Armenians, young and old, were forced to march from their homes and into the barren wildernesses of Syria. The death toll is estimated anywhere between 600,000 and 1.5 million, a significant portion of the Ottoman Empire’s Armenian population. Most Armenian historians and an increasing portion of the international community now cite this as history’s first modern genocide.

Some Armenians fled abroad, many to Europe or America. Armenians around the world today observe an annual day of mourning in late April, usually April 24th, the day in 1915 when many members of the Armenian intelligentsiya were arrested and later executed. This has proven to bind the Armenian community even closer together despite the borders that may separate them from their homeland.

Following World War I, Armenia experienced a short breath of autonomy when the Allies sought to give them a homeland that would incorporate much of what had been the ancient kingdom of Armenia into an independent state. This would reunite Russian and Ottoman Armenian populations for the first time in centuries. Woodrow Wilson proposed the state it is sometimes referred to as “Wilsonian Armenia.”

A video by Stratfor on the geopolitics of Armenia.

That Armenia was not to be, however. Russian Armenia did declare independence in 1918, after the Tsarist government fell. The Republic of Armenia existed for two years before the Red Army marched into Yerevan, reasserting Russian control. This, with collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the Turkish War of Independence, eventually led the US to drop the demands for Armenia from the treaty negotiations. The treaty itself went largely unratified.

Armenia under the Soviets

The newly formed Soviet Union joined Armenia with Azerbaijan and Georgia to create the Transcaucasian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic until 1936 when they were disjoined into their respective current nations. The soviets had hoped newly independent Turkey would develop into a socialist state and sought close ties. In negotiations with Turkey, the USSR agreed to weaken the Armenian political entity, which Turkey felt might still have aspirations to an independent state including eastern Turkey. The Soviets thus ceded Armenian-populated Karabakh to Azerbaijan.

World War II affected Armenia the least out of the three Caucasian republics, as it did not have the oil reserves of Azerbaijan, nor the industrial capacity of Georgia (although Armenia’s industrial capacity had doubled three times over under the Soviets). The Armenian people did contribute many lives to the Great Patriotic War, with approximately 500,000 Armenians taking part and half of those not returning home. During and after WWII, the USSR practiced population redistribution on a massive scale. Armenians found in Nazi camps and some Armenians in other border regions of the USSR were moved to Central Asia and the South Caucasus, including, sometimes, to Armenia itself.

The thaw that occurred after Stalin’s death lead to more self-governance in Armenia and a revitalization of the Armenian Orthodox Church. Armenia also began to consider ways to rejoin their homelands, asking Moscow to take historically Armenian populated regions from Turkey. Later, following Glasnost in the late 1980s, the Armenian SSR sought to reclaim Karabakh and Nakhichevan through a petition to Moscow. In 1988, demonstrations for and against the petition in Armenia and Azerbaijan broke into ethnic violence, rioting, and spiraling tensions between the two republics.

Azerbaijan, before-after

This topographic map shows Azerbaijan’s effective borders before (top) and after (below) the 1993-1994 war. Note that the loss of this territory eliminates much of a defensible mountainous border that once separated it from its long-time enemy, Armenia. In a wider conflict, this would be a great advantage to Armenia, making the defense of southern Armenia easier (by eliminating a bottleneck and expanding the territory) and make the invasion of eastern Azerbaijan easier.

In December, 1988 a major earthquake hit Northern Armenia, affecting in particular the cheaply-built Soviet housing stock, leaving many homeless in the winter. The Soviets, mired in internal difficulties and a faltering economy, were slow to respond, drawing still more ire from the Armenian SSR.

A group known as Karabakh Committee developed out of growing anti-Moscow sentiment in the late 1980s, and the New Armenian Army, developed largely to defend Armenian interests from Azerbaijan, was formed 1990. As cracks began to form in the USSR, Armenia was one of the first republics to declare independence. The Communist Party peacefully transitioned power to the new leadership when the vote was finally held in 1991, and Armenia democratically elected its first president, Ter-Petrosyan, who would lead for most of the decade.

Armenia from Independence to the Present

War broke out with Azerbaijan in 1992. Although Azerbaijan had a larger military, Armenia had more officers and equipment and emerged victorious. Armenia today officially retains its Soviet borders and the people of Nagorno-Karabakh declare themselves to be an autonomous republic. However, Nagorno-Karabakh is unrecognized by the international community and peace negotiations have been unresolved since 1994.

The war meant that reconstruction of the earthquake-devastated north was hindered for several more years as resources were pulled toward the war effort. Further, both Azerbaijan and its ally Turkey both closed their borders to Armenia. Food which had traditionally come from Turkey halted and oil and gas from Azerbaijan likewise stopped, disrupting the Armenian economy. A new wave of emigration followed, especially as ethnic Armenians displaced from the war flowed into Armenia.

Today’s Armenia faces many challenges and opportunities. Its privatization of agriculture, which it began in 1990 while still a Soviet Republic, was largely successful, placing agriculture back in the hands of family farmers while maintaining production. The main challenge that agriculture faces today is transportation through Armenia’s highly mountainous territory.

A CNN documentary on Armenia focusing on modern civil society and economy.

Mining is being developed by many companies from all over the world including Russia, China, and Europe. While the mining industry is crucial for Armenia’s economy, there is concern about the environmental effects that the mines, many of them open pits, are having on Armenia’s ecology and natural beauty.

A source of major concern is the energy sector. Armenia’s single nuclear power plant was built in 1979 without primary containment structures. Although it was supposed to be decommissioned years ago, it produces more power than any other facility in energy-poor Armenia and thus has been kept active. Hydropower utilizing local  fast running rivers accounts for a significant minority of power generation as do thermal plants powered by natural gas. The gas is imported through a single pipeline from Russia that runs through Georgia. A separate pipeline was built to Iran, but has remained non-operational for many years. Gazprom controls both pipelines and it is rumored that the company wants to prefer Russian gas for as long as possible. However, it’s also possible that US sanctions against Iran have also kept Armenia from demanding that the pipeline be activated.

Like most former Soviet republics, politics in Armenia have been contentious. Armenia’s first president, Levon Ter-Petrosyan, an academic fluent in multiple languages that had led efforts to reunite Nagno-Karbakh with Armenia under the USSR, was elected with great fanfare and public support. He was then accused of rigging his 1996 reelection. Later, when he ran and lost an election, he accused his opponent of wrongdoing. Armenia has had a history of forcibly putting down protests, but despite all this, it remains in the West’s good graces and elections have generally passed OSCE inspections.

Currently, the “Electric Yerevan” movement is holding mass protests against proposed hikes in electricity tariffs. To take the aging nuclear reactor offline, additional investments will be needed to other electricity generation facilities. Currently, Armenia has some of the world’s lowest rates for electricity. However, Armenia’s economy is also still struggling, wages are very low, and the issue has become a flagship for those in the opposition who see the government as corrupt and uncaring.

Armenia on the Global Stage

Today, less than a quarter of Armenians worldwide reside in Armenia. A strong sense of ethnic and national pride means that Armenians in this large diaspora are likely to give back to their homeland, whether it be through the Armenian Orthodox Church or direct investment in local business.

Internationally, Armenia has sought to gain international recognition of the Armenian Genocide. This effort has been gaining force, thanks in large part to the influential diaspora. The nearly half million Armenians in the US carry electoral weight and have convinced most US states to recognize the event although the federal government has not made a formal pronouncement. Russia is home to more than two million Armenians, with many of them in high profile positions – including Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, RT Chief Margarita Simonyan, and opposition politician Gary Kasperov. Russia officially recognized the genocide in 2015.

A map of the Armenian Diaspora. Countries shown in dark red have between 100,000 and 3,000,000.

Armenia’s economy is closely linked with Russia, with Russia being by far the country’s major trading partner. It also relies on Russia for much of its new military equipment, of which it has purchased massive amounts in recent years as an arms race has mounted with Azerbaijan. Russia also provides parts and service for many of the older Soviet-built weapons that Armenia still uses. Thus, despite the historically rocky relationship between Armenia and Russia, Armenia still sees its fortunes as tied, in many ways, to Russia. Armenia joined the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union in 2015 to secure lower gas prices and more opportunities to export their products.

The province of Nagorno-Karabakh is a much more difficult international issue for Armenia. Although the OSCE Minsk Group was created to help resolve the conflict over 20 years ago, relatively little progress has been made. Armenia’s borders are not likely to open, and its economy is not likely to prosper, until that happens.

On the one hand, the current frozen conflict favors Armenia. The mountainous region is de facto controlled by Armenians. But the freeze is not likely to last forever. Currently, there is some hope that a solution may be at hand as shifting interests in the region, especially as Russia finds itself involved in more global events, is now helping push both sides towards resolution. If resolution is not found, the fortunes of war may not be so kind to Armenia a second time around, especially when Azerbaijan’s vast energy-driven economic advantage is taken into account.

With every unknown, one thing remains constant for Armenia: The men, women, and children who make up the Hayer, whether they live in Yerevan, New York, Sydney, Sao Paulo, or Moscow, each know their heritage and will proudly bear it into the coming generations.

About the Author

Josh Wilson

Josh Wilson is the Assistant Director for The School of Russian and Asian Studies (SRAS) and Communications Director for Alinga Consulting Group. In those capacities, he has been managing publications and informative websites covering geopolitics, history, business, economy, and politics in Eurasia since 2003. He is based in Moscow, Russia. For SRAS, he also assists in program development and leads the Home and Abroad and Challenge Grant scholarship writing programs.

Program attended: All Programs

View all posts by: Josh Wilson

Jonathon Rainey

Jonathan Rainey majored in History and English at Francis Marion University in Florence, SC. While at Francis Marion, he was a member of Phi Alpha Theta, National History Honors Society and worked as a reporter for The Patriot, the university's newspaper. Jonathan will be serving as an SRAS Home and Abroad Scholar in Vladivostok for the 2015-2016 school year.

View all posts by: Jonathon Rainey