By Shakeh Avoyan
In the frankest yet public expression of grievances, leaders of Armenia’s small ethnic minorities deplored their status on Thursday, saying that they are not represented in the country’s government and are often neglected by the latter.
Representatives of organizations uniting Yezidi Kurds, Greeks, Russians, Jews and other ethnic groups vented their frustration on a pro-government parliamentarian who stated that non-Armenians should not expect “greenhouse conditions” in Armenia. The remark, made at a Yerevan seminar on problems facing the minorities, angered the participants.
“We don’t need to live in a greenhouse,” said a leader of the Yezidi community.
“This is a humiliating and offensive attitude towards us,” charged Rimma Varzhapetian of the tiny Jewish community. “We are not asking for anything and have no expectations.”
The seminar, sponsored by the Council of Europe, proceeded with little debate until a parliament deputy from the governing Republican Party (HHK), Vazgen Khachikian, said that the Armenian authorities must not reserve any legislative seats for the ethnic minorities that make up less than three percent of the country’s population. The idea has been advocated in the past by some of their leaders.
“Let them get elected like Armenians under the proportional and majoritarian systems,” Khachikian said.
Hasan Hasanian, a Yezidi leader, countered angrily that Armenia’s electoral system is deeply flawed. “We know that we will never get any seats in the National Assembly because such elections and such presidents are being elected,” he said, hinting at Armenia’s political culture of electoral fraud.
Khachikian’s remarks prompted Hasanian and other minority leaders to express their broader unhappiness with the protection of cultural and religious rights of their nationalities in Armenia. Varzhapetian, for example, complained that the authorities are refusing to return two plots of land in Yerevan and the town of Sevan that used to have synagogues torn down by the Soviet authorities in the 1930s. She said the Jewish community, which numbers several hundred people, would like to rebuild the worship sites.
A representative of Armenia’s Greek minority cited similar problems, saying that the authorities have reneged on their promise to allocate land for the construction of a Greek Orthodox church in the capital.
Armenia is believed to be the most homogenous of the former Soviet republics. It became even more mono-ethnic after the 1988 outbreak of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict which led to the forced out-migration of its ethnic Azerbaijani population and an even more massive exodus of Armenians from Azerbaijan.
While the remaining minorities rarely report instances of overt discrimination, they often complain about difficulties with receiving education in their native languages. This problem was highlighted in a May 2002 report by a Council of Europe body monitoring protection of national minorities in member countries.
The Armenian cabinet, meanwhile, discussed on Thursday the possibility of creating a department within its staff that would deal with minority issues. Some participants of the heated seminar sounded skeptical about the idea.
“Who knows what kind of a body that will be?” said Olha Parkhomenko of the Ukrainian community. “Did they consult with us? Did they take our opinion into consideration? We don’t know.”