We take a look at last year’s presidential elections, and what they could mean for the region
Armenia, or Hayastan, for locals, is a contender for the title of oldest Christian nation in the world, and has its own church and script that dates back to the 4th century. In Armenia’s capital city, Yerevan, the national symbol, Mount Ararat, looks majestically over the city—but it is located on the Turkish side of the border. This is a paradox indicative of Armenia’s plight: the country of a shifting prism, the borderlands of the Persian, Ottoman, and Russian empires.
Armenians have populated both sides of the division line, creating security and ethnic friction. During the First World War, the Ottoman Empire the Armenian populations as a security threat and carried out the Armenian Genocide which killed 1.5 million Armenians, mostly in modern-day eastern Turkey. Millions fled, and now Armenia, a country of just over 3 million people, boasts a diaspora of over 8 million in France, Russia, and the United States, in which it is an inordinately influential lobbying group, carrying a surprising amount of sway disproportionate to its population.
Armenia’s present politics and policy can been seen chiefly through the themes of its past—the tragedy of genocide—and borderland legacies that carry on into the present. The Armenian Genocide overshadows the country’s national identity and historical remembrance. Partially because of this, Armenia ardently fought for the self-determination of ethnic Armenians in Azerbaijan during the collapse of the USSR. When the dotted lines that were internal borders of the Communist Empire were turning into hard borders of newly independent republics, the autonomous region of Nagorno-Karabakh, officially part of Azerbaijan but with majority ethnic Armenian population, made the decision to join Armenia.
Armenia backed the separatist region, now named “Republic of Artsakh.” Wrestling over the region and its people led to war over the control of the region, which lasted until 1994 and ended in Armenian victory and a wary ceasefire, but not peace. While Armenia now controls the nominally independent Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh and its surrounding areas, all borders between Armenia and Azerbaijan are closed. Incidents of violence, such as exchange of small gun fire, are daily occurrences. More notable skirmishes with heavy artillery are frequent near the contact line surrounding Karabakh. Further, the border with Turkey is also closed and guarded by the Russian military—attributable to Turkey’s support for Azerbaijan in the conflict piled on top of other grievances over the lack of Turkish recognition of and role in the Armenian Genocide. The result? This already landlocked country is even more shut off from regional partners.
Its politics are on the border as well. It is neither officially authoritarian nor encouragingly democratic. It was ruled by the same leaders—chiefly then-President Serzh Sargasyan and and his party—for nearly 20 years following a violent change of power. In 2018, that government, too, was overthrown in a non-violent exchange that put a political outsider, Nikol Pashinyan, in power when he successfully led public opposition against Sargasyan’s attempt to avoid falling out of power by switching from president to prime minister. This speaks to one of Armenia’s largest assets: its vibrant and active civil society. In 2015, major protests erupted over corruption allegations around the national electricity company, which were violently suppressed by the police; likewise, there were violently suppressed protests in 2008 over contested presidential elections.
Armenia has much to accomplish in reform: it has high levels of corruption, crumbling infrastructure, excessive emigration and brain drain, and it needs modernizing. Its economy heavily leans on agriculture, accounting for over 40% of the workforce, leading to low productivity and efficiency. Armenia’s lethargic modernization is partly due to its myopic focus on the Karabakh clique and the conflict has defined the country’s domestic and foreign relations. Western nations are understandably reluctant to provide military aid to engage in the conflict; Armenia has therefore relied predominantly on Russia for assistance and support, which Russia has eagerly provided in exchange for Armenia’s fidelity to Moscow’s regional integration projects.
This allegiance to Moscow has shut the door to full EU integration for Armenia. Yet, despite the inability to integrate fully, Armenia has flirted with alternative options for a closer relationship with the EU, which Russia has tolerated. Its increasing cooperation brought Armenia to the cusp of an Association Agreement in 2013, at which point Moscow promptly brought its tiny neighbor to heel, cutting subsidies to Armenia and selling an armament worth $1 billion to Armenia’s bitter rival, Azerbaijan. This quickly changed Armenia’s mind, and the country opted to join the Eurasian Economic Union, instead. To date, Armenia relies on Russia selling it arms, which Yerevan manages to buy with Russian loans.
Does Armenia have an alternative to Russia in the region or beyond? Georgia might be one natural partner—the two countries share constructive but somewhat strained relations, sparring over geopolitical orientations and cultural disputes. The country has good relations with Iran and has attempted to capitalize on trade and tourism, with over 100,000 annual Iranian tourists visiting Armenia to partake in its bars, restaurants, strip clubs, and shops serving vices to Iranian visitors in the border areas.
The larger issue in Armenia is not the lack of potential partners but the way in which Armenia itself has closed itself off from alternatives. The recent change of power could bode well for the country’s political trajectory and spark a renaissance to bring the country to much-needed change and development.
|Country Population||2.9 million|
|Largest City (Population)||Yerevan (1 million)|
|2nd Largest City (Population)||Gyumri (122,000)|
|3rd Largest City (Population)||Vanadzor (86,000)|
|4th Largest City (Population)||Vagharshapat (47,000)|
|5th Largest City (Population)||Abovyan (43,500)|
|President (Dates)||Armen Sarkissian (2018-Present)|
|Prime Minister (Dates)||Nikol Pashinyan (2018-Present)|
|Prime Minister||Nikol Pashinyan|
|Freedom House Score (1=Free, 7=Not Free)||4.5|
|Ruling Party||Republican Party|
|Past Presidents (Dates)||Serzh Sargsyan (2008-2013)
Robert Kocharyan (1998-2003)
Levon Ter-Petrosyan (1991-1996)
|Past Prime Ministers (Dates)||Karen Karapetyan (2018, 2016-2018)
Serzh Sargsyan (2018, 2007-2008)
Hovik Abrahamyan (2014-2016)
Tigran Sargsyan (2008-2014)
Andranik Margaryan (2000-2007)
Aram Sargsyan (1999-2000)
Vazgen Sargsyan (1999)
Armen Darbinyan (1998-1999)
Robert Kocharyan (1997-1998)
Armen Sarkissian (1996-1997)
Hrant Bagratyan (1993-1996)
Khosrov Harutyunyan (1992-1993)
Gagik Harutyunyan (1991-1992)
Vazgen Manukyan (1991)
|How Central Banker is Appointed||Appointed by Parliament (6 Year Term)|
|Average Voter Turnout in Last 5 Elections
(% of Total Population)
|10 Major Import Partners
(% of Total Imports)
|Top Exports||Sanctioned by
(and Start Date)
(and Start Date)
|1. Russia (29%)
2. China (11%)
3. Turkey (5.1%)
4. Germany (5.1%)
5. Iran (4.7%)
6. Georgia (4.1%)
7. Italy (3.9%)
8. Ukraine (2.9%)
9. US (2.5%)
10. Belgium-Luxembourg (2.3%)
|1. Russia (19%)
2. Canada (12%)
3. Georgia (7.8%)
4. Bulgaria (7.6%)
5. Iraq (3.2%)
6. Germany (6.4%)
7. China (5.0%)
8. Hong Kong (4.9%)
9. Spain (4.1%)
10. Iran (3.2%)
Metal-Cutting Machine Tools
Forging and Pressing Machines
|Largest Sources of FDI by Country||1. Russia
5. United States
|Largest Ethnic Groups
(% of Total Population)
(% of Total of Population)
|Armenian Apostolic Church (92.5%)
Other Christian (2.3%)
|2||Council of Europe–2001|
Armenia is a multi-party, parliamentary republic where recent constitutional changes have elevated the prime minister’s role as the head of government and as the country’s most important politician. A former dissident, journalist and opposition activist Nikol Pashinyan became the country’s acting prime minister in April 2018, following nationwide public protests. Protesters opposed the sitting president Serzh Sargsyan's attempts to extend his rule past the presidential term limits by increasing the powers of the prime minister in the 2015 referendum and then switching to premiership in March 2018. The parliamentary elections in December 2018 consolidated the legacy of the revolution. The reformist forces of the prime minister Pashinyan gained a sweeping mandate, while the longtime ruling Republican Party did not win a single seat. The country’s politics are in a flux as the new prime minister Pashinyan seeks to transform the country’s politics that have been plagued by oligarchic interests, political corruption and recurring cycle of public protests, which have often been violently dispersed by the authorities.
The war with Azerbaijan over the region of Nagorno-Karabakh has overshadowed post-soviet Armenia’s state-building and domestic politics to this day. The country declared its independence from the Soviet Union in October 1991, but by then the war over Nagorno-Karabakh had already raged on for over three years. The country’s first president, Levon Ter-Petrosyan led the country through the devastating war that killed over 30,000, displaced over a million people but succeeded in bringing the disputed territory and its surrounding areas under Armenian control. Armenia’s economy was decimated by the war and shock of transition from a socialist to market economy. In mid-1990s, the view from Yerevan of the national symbol, Mount Ararat was often clouded in smog as people burnt firewood to heat their homes that were often cut off from electricity and heating because of the crumbling infrastructure.
To ease Armenia’s geopolitical isolation and economic turmoil, the president Ter-Petrosyan was signalling willingness for territorial concessions in the peace negotiations with Azerbaijan in the late 1990s. Ter-Petrosyan opponents quickly seized on the nationalist opposition to concessions and resentments over accusations of electoral fraud to oust the president in 1998. Since then the so-called Nagorno-Karabakh clique dominated Armenian politics until the 2018 revolution. The president Kocharayan, who came to power in 1998 ruled the country until 2008, when his political ally Sergh Sargsyan secured victory in the presidential elections, which were marked by allegations of fraud and subsequent protests, which were violently crushed. Both Kocharayan and Sargsyan are from the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region, and nationalist stances on the conflict were hallmarks of both of them. After the failed Azerbaijani offensive in 2016, public attitudes have become ever more uncompromising. Especially many of the young Armenians, who don’t have a memory of the devastating war, view any territorial concessions in peace negotiations as unacceptable.
Endemic corruption fuelled dissatisfaction against the ruling Republican party and Sargsyan’s rule. Protests against Sargsyan’s attempts to switch from the presidential to premier seat led to a change of power. A longtime opposition politician and journalist Nikol Pashinyan led the nationwide movement, and in the face of mass protests, president Sargsyan agreed to concede and handed the prime minister’s duties to Pashinyan. Tacitly backed by the old guard in the parliament, Pashinyan’s government has rallied public support for anti-corruption reforms and arrests of former official, who briefly included the former president Kocharayan. The post-revolutionary reforms, shift from presidential to parliamentary system, and the approaching parliamentary elections clout the Armenian politics in uncertainty, where it is still unclear how fundamentally the old system will move away from old ills: corruption, low trust public in institutions and cycle of protests and half-hearted reforms.
After the constitutional changes, the post of a prime minister as a head of government is Armenia’s most powerful political office. The premier, elected to his office by the parliament "determines the main directions of policy of the Government, manages the activities of the Government and coordinate the work of the members of the Government,” according to the Armenian constitution. The current prime minister, Nikol Pashinyan assumed office as a result of the street protests. First, despite urges former president Sarsgyan, who was stepping down, the ruling party in the parliament refused to back Pashinyan’s bid to premiership. Only after continued protests and threats of a general strike, the majority of the MPs in the parliament backed Pashinyan. In the spirit of the revolution, Pashinyan filled his cabinet of 3 deputy prime ministers and 17 cabinet ministers mostly with political outsiders, members of the opposition parties and technocrats.
Media, NGOs, and Civil Society
Vibrancy of the civil society has importantly even substituted for the media as the watchdog of those in power. Before the revolution, journalists were often harassed and subject to defamation suits, which the distortions of the judicial process turned into a political tool to limit unfavorable coverage of the ruling party and the president. Especially television media has traditionally been under political control of the ruling regime. But independent and critical media has thrived online. Over 65% of Armenians have internet access, and the reach of the authorities in the online sphere has remained limited.
Democratic principles of governance and separation of powers are embedded in the country’s constitution, but the political processes have remain deeply flawed and dominated by oligarchic interests, political corruption and abuses of power. As a result, the public trust in the country’s political institutions prior to the 2018 revolution was extremely low and marked by cynicism. Of public institutions, only the military and the church enjoy the trust of the majority of the population. Particularly the parliament and the presidency are deeply distrusted by the electorate: in a 2017 survey, over 65 percent of the population told that they distrust both institutions. Limited media freedoms, systemic corruption of the court and the police system further undermine the country’s democratic processes and have enforced an image of Armenia as a country that is neither authoritarian or democratic but stuck in the grey zone of corrupt governance, where informal networks dominate over formal legislation.
The 2018 revolution points to the salient legacy of nationalist mobilization that has been a key feature of Armenian politics since the Nagorno-Karabakh war. Often the government has sought to divert criticisms of the slow pace of reforms by trumping up rhetorics of an outside threat, but the tactic has its limits, as the nationalist mobilization has often empowered the civil society to take to the streets. In opinion polls, majority of Armenians indicate that, in their view, the most important issues facing the country are unemployment and poverty, not the conflict with Azerbaijan, even if the public opinions on the conflict resolution are as uncompromising as those of the country’s leadership.
Armenia is a small country situated between two closed borders to the east and west—Azerbaijan and Turkey—a border with Georgia to the north, and a small slice of border with Iran to the south. Nagorno-Karabakh, the conflict zone in dispute between Azerbaijan and Armenia, also borders Iran, but has no official crossing. Armenia’s foreign policy is driven by its defensive, small-state posturing, its deferential relationship to Russia (the guarantor of its security) the effects of the Nagorno-Karabakh territorial dispute with Azerbaijan, and the pressure of its vociferous diaspora. It has an uneasy alliance with big neighbor Russia, in which Russia clearly has the upper hand: Armenia depends on Russia to uphold the status quo in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict through security guarantees as a member of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), Russian subsidies of the Armenian armed forces, and by hosting Russian soldiers at the base in Gyumri. This asymmetrical relationship of dependence has been especially important since the mid-2000s, when Azerbaijan’s defense budget multiplied in the wake of an uptick in its oil and gas revenues. Armenia’s conflicts with Turkey and Azerbaijan have effectively shut down opportunities for fruitful cooperation, with fighting along the contact line in Nagorno-Karabakh and frequent ceasefire violations along the actual border.
Armenian troops control the surrounding areas that connect Nagorno-Karabakh to the Armenian mainland. The Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh (Astrakh), is formally an independent republic with its own state institutions; so far, Armenia has refrained from formally annexing the territories because of fears of international sanctions. The current Prime Minister Pashinyan promised annexation during the his protests that led to revolution—but he has not repeated the claims after taking office, indicating that domestic pressure is unfavorable to concessions and backtracking on the Nagorno-Karabakh issue.
Armenian transport routes are vulnerable: the main north-south highway from Yerevan to Iran and Nagorno-Karabakh runs for a long stretch only couple miles off the trenches; in the case of a full-scale war, Azerbaijan could easily cut off traffic. One of the three roads connecting Armenia to Georgia is also considered dangerous because parts of the road are exposed to direct line of fire from Azerbaijani military positions; and the border with Turkey—a close Azerbaijani ally—is sharply guarded by Russian soldiers. There have been Nagorno-Karabakh peace negotiations within the framework of the OSCE Minsk group since 1992, co-chaired by Russia, France and the U.S. Azeri President Aliyev and former Armenia President Sargsyan met several times under the auspices of the group, but no significant progress has been made. Azerbaijan has accused the group of anti-Azeri bias because of the large Armenian diasporas in all three of the co-chairs, and it has proposed countries like Germany, Turkey, and Kazakhstan to be granted co-chair status.
Russia has stood by Armenia in defending its right to the territory, and it has used the conflict to keep Armenia to its policy when necessary. In 2013, when faced with a mutually exclusive decision between the EU’s Association Agreement and Russia’s Eurasian Economic Union, Russia pressure brought Armenia to refuse the first and join the second, despite the fact that Armenia has more trade with the EU than the members of the Russian-led group. Russia and Armenia have closely cooperated on trade and energy exchange: Russia gas flows to Armenia—at a specially reduced price—through Georgia.
Apart from trade and policy, Russia and Armenia share a strong military commitment. Both are members of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), from which Armenia derives a large amount of its regional security. Armenia hosts a base of Russian soldiers at Gyumri, and Russian guards assist in securing the closed borders with Turkey and Azerbaijan. To take things a step further, in 2015, the two countries signed an agreement to have a joint air defense system—largely driven by fear that the ceasefire with Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh would not hold; this was followed in 2016 and 2017, with Russia and Armenia agreeing to have troops under joint command.
Russia’s relationship with Armenia is simple and complex: it is the torque for Armenia, the security the small country needs, and its go-to. For most foreign policy decisions, the government in Yerevan must be asking itself—what would Russia think?—and the answer dictates policy. But Russia could be challenged by the new government that has just been swept to power with the revolution, led by a political outsider, uninitiated to the games and whims of Moscow. Or the relationship could be undermined by a thaw in the conflict with Azerbaijan, or a partner worthy of replacing Moscow.
The countries are technically at war, and their border has been marked by a skirmishes, wary ceasefires, exchange of small fire, and incidents over the years. In 2016, due to an Azerbaijani offensive, there were a series of subsequent clashes, in which an estimated 350 military personnel and civilians were killed. Azerbaijan called off the offensive, declaring a ceasefire, and tensions have remained high since. Azerbaijan and its role in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is important in that it allows Russia to play Azerbaijan as a card to keep Armenia in line. Russia has threatened—or completed—weapons and military supply transactions with Baku, and the conflict can distract Armenia when important policy decisions are near. Relations with Azerbaijan are not likely to thaw any time soon, but is important to note what predicament this puts Armenia into, and what foreign policy choices it makes to keep itself one step ahead in its relationship with Azerbaijan.
Though Armenia is a member of the EAEU, it has been able to keep its free trade agreement with Georgia, despite the EAEU ban on re-export of Georgian products to other EAEU states from Armenia without added tariffs—but plenty of vendors have tried to find a way around such terms. This economic transfer is a boon for Georgia, but that comes with a significant trade-off: Armenia’s close relationship with Russia. Russia sponsors Armenia’s military and keeps Armenian foreign policy at its beck and call. Russian troops stationed at the base on Armenia soil have caused a irritation and reprimand from Tbilisi.
It is ironic that Russia supports Armenia in its struggle for Nagorno-Karabakh and yet is the aggressor in Georgia’s struggle with South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Georgia can sympathize with Armenia’s desire to unite the country, but not with Armenia’s ally in cause. There are other similarities and disparities: Georgia and Armenia were both pursing closer ties with the EU, but while Georgia signed its Association Agreement to foster deeper ties, Armenia backed down, and pursued a relationship with Russia in EurAsEC instead. Georgia and Armenia have both had reformist and controversial leaders, and they face many of the same problems of transition. Perhaps the decisive difference is Georgia’s connectivity and Armenia’s isolation. For now, despite their differences, Georgia remains an ally and a connection for Armenia, something that can be invested in for the future benefit of both nations.
Armenia was part of Iran until the 19th century, when it was ceded to Russia when Russia won the Russo-Persian War. A large group of Armenians still reside in Iran, particularly in Tabriz, and Isfahan. They are officially recognized by the country and treated well, as part of a mutual heritage. Many Armenian historical landmarks—including holy sites like monasteries—are also held and treated with respect in Iran. This friendship has developed into a close tourist connection the countries share as well. The two share a visa-free travel arrangement, and there is a flow of citizens across the border: particularly on the Armenian side, bars, restaurants, strip clubs, brothels in Armenia aimed at Iranian clientele.
The two cooperate economically as well: the Iran-Armenia Pipeline brings Iraniana natural gas to Armenia, and there are talks of building infrastructure to transport Iranian gas to Europe through Armenia and Georgia. Armenia and Iran exchange power under the “gas for electricity” deal; and the two countries have spoken of building two hydroelectric plants on the Arax river, located on the Armenian-Iranian border. The tourist highway on Armenia’s southern border hosts a special economic zone with tax breaks and expedited license processes to attract business from Iran. Armenia’s relationship with Iran is deep and diverse—it also has many openings for improvement and further strengthening of ties.
The second reason is Turkey’s ambiguity over the Armenian Genocide, which many in Armenia and the Armenian diaspora around the world take very seriously as a part of their national heritage. The legacy of the genocide looms over and further strains relations between the two nations. Turkey has refused to classify the actions of the Ottoman Empire as a genocide. The diaspora, created as a result of the genocide, are ardent about preventing any rapprochement between the two countries before Turkey accepts guilt for the atrocities. These two issues—both key in Armenia’s understanding of the nation and present trajectory, keep the countries at arm’s length distance.
There was a brief thaw between Armenia and Turkey in 2008–9. The two signed “Zurich protocols” to normalize relations, backed and mediated by the U.S., Russia, France, and the EU. The agreement included a roadmap on opening the border, and establishing diplomatic and trade relations. The heads of state agreed in theory, but the protocols were never ratified or implemented by either side’s parliament. Finally, in March 2018, Armenia declared the agreement null. This was in part due to pressure from the Armenian diaspora, who protested the protocols because of Yerevan’s seeming readiness to make concessions on the question of genocide. In fact, Turkey had protested the burning of Turkish flags on commemoration day, but actual negotiations did not address the legacy of the genocide—but a testament to the strength of the Armenian diaspora in deciding and keeping the status quo between the two foes. The question of relations with Turkey is a hard one: in theory, there is much potential for cooperation between the two nations; in practice, nothing will come to fruition so long as Nagorno-Karabakh remains an active point of dispute and the legacy of genocide lingers.
The European Union
The EU has made attempts to implement norms and goals standard with Europe in Armenia; some programs and institutional changes have taken hold, others have not. In 2013, a EU communication hub opened in Yerevan, part of the infrastructure and investment facilitating ties between the two entities, in that same year, Armenia called off its intention to sign an Association Agreement with the EU, announced instead its intention to join EurAsEC Customs Union, a Russia-led program that was incompatible with EU negotiated agreements. Armenia did this despite the fact that trade with all the EurAsEc members combined—Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan, is still far less that Armenia’s current trade—notwithstanding potential trade—with the EU countries. Herein is the crux of the issue: often, because of Armenia’s reliance on Russia for security, closer cooperation with the EU is forgone at any hint of pressure from Moscow. Russia sees Armenia’s relationship as mutually exclusive: either Russia or the EU, and Moscow leaders ensure Yerevan sees it that way, too. It is likely that Russia would not cut off all trade and relations with Armenia were it to pursue ties with the EU, but Armenia is not willing to see what Russia would be willing to do to make its point.
Notwithstanding Russian pressure, the EU has continued to play a lesser role in Armenian development. In 2017, the two signed a Comprehensive and Enhanced Partnership Agreement (CEPA) and initiated discussion on visa liberalization for Armenian citizens visiting the EU—Eu citizens have been able to travel to Armenia with a visa since 2013. The Armenian politicians and people consider themselves European culturally, and they would like to join the EU someday, seeing their future with Europe rather than Asia. But this begs the question: if the EU and Armenia are to deepen their strategic relationship, how far does it do, and where does Russia fit into the picture?.
The United States
But the diaspora affects other policy agendas, too. Since Armenian independence, about $2 billion in aid is granted annually to the country, mostly towards NGOs and poverty relief. The U.S., like the EU, is a force for change and momentum toward democracy in Armenia. It has tied large amounts of funding to Armenia’s advances in cutting corruption and implementing the rule of law. USAID and the U.S. Department of Agriculture have programs operating in Armenia to promote sustainable local business and development of the private sector. Though there are trade relations between the U.S. and Armenia, they are negligible, and neither country relies on the other for a key product.
The U.S. is highly critical of Armenia’s close relationship with Iran, particularly Armenian arms sales, including anti-tank missiles. In the early 2000s, an Armenian manufacturer sold arms to Iran that the Bush administration claimed were tied to use in Iraq, resulting in the deaths of U.S. soldiers. There was a strong U.S. outcry: the U.S. ambassador to Armenia and even the secretary of state issued warnings and cited possible repercussions. Armenia protested, but eventually, given the evidence presented by the U.S. agreed to future U.S. inspectors in its weapons deals and border security. The U.S. relationship with Armenia is much an older sibling to a younger one: providing aid and supporting its development in democracy and in the private sector, helping defend it against possible aggressors, but offering a stern word when necessary. A vital aspect to the relationship is the Armenian diaspora in the U.S. and its influence in pushing U.S. policy for their home country.
China and Armenia share several exchange programs, including educational and military. The Chinese government also provides the Armenian military with an annual grant of 5 million yuan. There have been some Chinese arms sales to Armenia, and both countries are open to increasing military cooperation. For Armenia, China is a possible offset to Russia, but so far, their cooperation has not reached a level worth either country testing those waters. Still, given China’s increasing activity in Central Asia and the Caucasus, one can expect to see an uptick in interest and engagement from both parties in the coming years.
The situation with Syria is complex: the Armenian government has supported the Assad regime, and several pro-Assad Armenian militias have fought against the Free Syrian Army. Here, too, the importance of the genocide and Nagorno-Karabakh reigns supreme: Syria has recognized the Armenian Genocide, being the second Arab state to do so. This decision led to tensions between Turkey and Syria. Syria has also stood alongside Armenian in its assertion of right to Nagorno-Karabakh. Indeed, Armenia has been accused of settling Syrian refugees in Nagorno-Karabakh, much to the outrage of Turkey and Azerbaijan. Armenia and Syria’s close relationship is unsurprising, given their mutual ally: Russia. Syria reinforces the trend of issues driving Armenia’s policy: the diaspora, the genocide, Nagorno-Karabakh, and Russia.
Armenia is small and poorly situated. It has few natural resources benefits to boast. Two of its four international borders are closed or not observed. Armenia’s foreign policy is grossly overshadowed by its focus on winning the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, though the likelihood of that happening is far from certain. Because of it, the country is almost completely beholden to Moscow. Its relationship with Iran is lackluster, despite a shared border and common interests, and its relationship with Georgia, one of its strongest, is still tenuous. On the plus side, Armenia has a strong and active international diaspora that push the country’s agenda abroad, but this does little to help square things in either the day-to-day or the long term in the regional neighborhood. Rather than an actor, Armenia has become the acted-upon, or the reactor, and it will take time or a great shift of policy to change that status quo.
Armenia is an semi-open, free-market, service-based economy. Its nominal GDP in 2017 was $11.5 billion, up 7.5%; its PPP was $27.21 billion, with a per capita GDP of $9,100 in PPP. In the aftermath of the 2018 revolution, Armenia’s economy entered into a downturn of -4.8% in the third quarter of 2018. After years of growth, it is too early to judge if the political turmoil of last year has only caused a temporary slump or a more lasting turn for the worse. The Armenian economy has grown at a lurching pace, at times showing signs of rapid advancement, followed by steps back to previous numbers or old methods. While it was not deeply affected by the global financial crisis, its economy has contracted with flare-ups in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict with Azerbaijan.
Armenia’s economy is defined by its close ties with Russia, which is Armenia’s security guarantor, its legacies of corruption and state-planned economy inherited from the Soviet Union, and its reliance on neighbors Georgia and Iran to facilitate trade and receptions of goods to overcome its closed borders with Turkey and Azerbaijan.
Key sectors in Armenia are energy, mining, and manufacturing. Growing sectors include precious stone processing, jewelry making, and communication technology. Armenia is a WTO member, but shirked signing a free trade agreement with the EU in favor of an agreement with the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union—the two were mutually exclusive.
The Armenian government could put more effort into modernizing its economic structure and institutions to support and encourage investment and the Armenian economy. Most important, it should strengthen macroeconomic management, improve investment climate, and accelerate privatization, a process lingering on since the collapse of the Soviet Union and that leads to population and investor concern over the transparency of Armenia’s system, particularly given Russia’s influence in the Armenian market. Another ongoing challenge for the Armenian economy is the high level of unemployment, particularly in rural areas. Armenia should be credited for the large strides it has made in bringing its economy out of the command-control of the Soviet Union, but investors and organizations alike should continue to push Armenia to modernize and capitalize on the potential inside the country.
Famed as the most skilled traders of the region, the Armenian salesmanship convinced the French in early 20th century that the local brandy, Ararat, unlike other brandies, deserved to be called cognac. The story goes that hired entourages of socialite, corporate emissaires toured the best hotels and restaurants of Paris, asking if the they could be served the famous Armenian cognac. Bewildered and ashamed to admit ignorance, the local restaurants hiked up Ararat’s sales as the word got around. To this day the Armenian brandy is one of the most valuable of Armenia’s exports and was the staple product of the small, landlocked country in the Soviet period.
Armenia’s transition from socialism to capitalism was overshadowed by two major tragedies of the country’s recent history: the 1988 earthquake and the 1988-1994 war with Azerbaijan over the control of the Nagorno-Karabakh region. The earthquake killed at least 25,000 people, decimated the country’s northern infrastructure and left over half a million homeless. And because of the war with Azerbaijan, the border between the two countries and with Turkey, Azerbaijan’s close ally, remain closed, leaving Armenia dependent on Georgia for access to its main trading partner, Russia, and looking to its southern neighbor, Iran, for new opportunities.
In the mid-1990s, the economic situation in the country was so dire that a visitor to the country’s capital Yerevan often could not see the national symbol, mount Ararat in the horizon, because the view was blocked by a thick layer of smog, as people had no other option than to burn wood for heat in a city that for long periods was without electricity or central heating.
The country managed turn the turmoil of the early 1990s into a steady growth in the second half of the decade, largely due to loans and grants from international organizations like the International Monetary Fund, World Bank, and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. The outside assistance helped the country to stabilize its currency, the Armenian dram, and to develop private business, agriculture, health, transportation, education, and the ongoing rehabilitation in the zones hit by the earthquake zones.
A key concern for international observers has been the Armenian nuclear power plant. The only Soviet nuclear power plant of the region, the station’s two reactors produce 40% of Armenia’s electricity, but is criticised for lacking adequate safety standards, especially for being located in an earthquake prone zone. Despite the appeals of its European partners, the nuclear power station remains open and Armenia has even had plans of building a third reactor with the help of Russia’s Rosatom.
Armenia experienced a period of fast economic growth in the early 2000s, but the economy, reliant on the export of minerals was badly hit by the fall of commodity prices during the global financial crisis. Closely tied to the Russian economy as a member of the Eurasian Economic Union, Armenia’s recovery has been hampered by the poor performance of the Russian economy since the 2014 drop in oil prices and economic sanctions against Russia because of the war in Ukraine. Alongside Russia, Armenia entered into a second economic downturn in 2014, and is still to recover to pre-crisis levels. But as a sign of optimism, the country’s economy grew by impressive 7.5% in 2017.
Structure of the economy and key markets
Major markets in Armenia include mining, construction, energy, industry, retail, services—particularly tourism and financial—and agriculture. Services account for just over half of Armenia’s GDP, while industry (mainly mining) form 28 and agriculture 18% of total production. The agricultural sector continues to employ over 35% of the labor force, highlighting the significance of rural poverty in a country, where many of the over 30%, who live under the poverty line, make the ends meet with sustenance farming.
Just as in geopolitics, in economics the country is closely tied to Russia. In early 2010, Armenia was seeking to build closer ties with the EU, but Russia pressured Armenia into changing course. Cut of subsidies and threats to sell arms to Armenia’s foe, Azerbaijan were enough to convince Yerevan to join the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union in 2015. But the country has not completely abandoned its aspirations to build closer economic ties with Europe. Armenia signed a Comprehensive & Enhanced Partnership Agreement with the European Union in 2017 with the aim of facilitating further joint-projects in the field of development. A downgrade from an actual association agreement that would open the European markets to sectors of the Armenian economy, the Partnership Agreement is, nevertheless, making Armenia into a testing ground of how well the competing European and Eurasian integration projects can coexist.
One of the first tasks undertaken by the reformist government of prime minister Pashinyan after last year’s revolution was to dismantle many of the consumer good monopolies that were set up under the previous government. The import of such basic goods like sugar and bananas were previously granted to pro-government oligarchs, but now Armenia is moving towards more competitive retail markets.
Trade represents about a fifth of Armenia’s economy, but the country is consistently at a negative trade deficit. In 2017, Armenia exported $2.24 billion, up 25.% from 2016. The top five exports from Armenia are copper ore, representing 22% of all exports, gold, with 13% of exports, rolled tobacco, at 9.7%, hard liquor, at 6.9%, and diamonds, representing 5.3% of Armenia’s exports. Its exports are consistently resource-heavy, and the country has not largely unsuccessful at investing in exports beyond this grouping, leaving the export market more vulnerable. In total, mining products account for 63% of the country’s total exports. The most important export trade partners are Russia, Canada, Georgia, Bulgaria, and Iraq, with Russia at a high first.
In 2017, Armenia imported $4.183 billion worth of goods, up 27.8% from 2016. The top five imports include petroleum gas, at 9.6%, refined petroleum, at 5.2%, diamonds, representing 4%of imports, packaged medicaments, with 2.6%, and telephones, at 2.1% of imports. Armenia’s import profile is much more diverse than its export profile, and the trade imbalance, too, supports the notion that Armenia is largely reliant on external products, which can be expensive for the country. The cost is further raised by the lack of available transit routes: because of its closed borders with Turkey and Azerbaijan, Armenia must receive its products through either Iran or Georgia. Armenia imports the majority of its good from Russia, China, Turkey, Germany, and Iran. Again, Russia features highest on the list, representing over double the amount of import goods as the next trade partner on the list, China, Indeed, import trade with Russia represents more than the other four partners put together.
The bloc of EU countries represents 24.3% of Armenia’s trade in 2017, compared to 30% with CIS—Russia and the former Soviet republics. Armenia’s trade with the EU and CIS countries volleys back and forth based on opportunity and the political situation. Both sets of imports and exported goods must travel through Georgia. Interestingly, though Armenia has a closed border with Turkey, it continues to do a miniscule amount of trade with Turkey, transported through Georgian routes.
Armenia’s trade with China is steadily increasing, mostly at a deficit: China is a key provider of goods to Armenia, but has yet to invest in Armenian markets for its own gain—something that might develop in the future. Trade with Iran, too, leaves room for improvement: the two neighbors have hospitable relations, but Armenia’s trade with Iran is nearly on par with that of Turkey—a country with which it has few diplomatic relations and no open border. The trade relationship between Armenia and Iran is mostly energy- or tourist-based, but could be expanded to include more joint investment projects in infrastructure, manufacturing, or interregional development.
Foreign money flow
To piece together its budget, and make up for deficit in both taxation and trade imbalance, the Armenian economy relies on a combination of remittances from Armenians living abroad, foreign direct investment (FDI) and foreign aid. By far, the largest amount of foreign inflow to Armenia is in remittances from the Armenian diaspora—totalling $499.8 million, double its exports and significantly higher than foreign direct investment.
FDI in Armenia has fluctuated over the past years: it was $178.5 million in 2015, $338 million in 2016, and $246 million in 2017, down 27% from 2016 to 2017. Top FDI investors include Germany, the Netherlands, Argentina, and the UK. The highest FDI comes from a company called Lydian International, which is investing heavily in the Armenian gold mining project Amulsar—they have pledged $370 million; so far, the company has invested $108 million from the tax haven Jersey. The country needs to do more to attract FDI, which could include cleaning up its corruption, which still lingers, offering more tax incentives to business, and touting a variety of projects for potential investment.
Apart from FDI, Armenia also relies heavily on other types of foreign inflows—aid from the United States, the EBRD, the World Bank, and other institutions. The U.S. aid is given through the Agency for International Development, whose goal is eradicating poverty through development in the agricultural sector. Another assistance fund is the Millennium Challenge Account, which was established to invest in road and infrastructure development in Armenia. Due to Armenia’s poor governance record, both projects were parsed down. The EU is rising as a key source of funds for Armenia through aid. Much of this aid is tied to performance in governance and corruption, and it is focused on promoting lagging sectors, such as poverty, education, agriculture and investment.
Tax and tariff law
Armenia’s tax laws are very pro-big business, but this can leave smaller- and medium-sized businesses in a lurch. Because the tax system favors giving bigger breaks to the biggest companies, to encourage investment, other companies can end up bearing the brunt of the tax cost. Armenia has seven tax rates: value added tax, profit tax, income tax—which is not flat—land tax, simplified tax, and excise tax. Armenia has a series of tax incentives and free economic zones to promote business and spending. Certain IT companies are exempt from corporate tax on income; Armenian-based companies that operate exclusively in exports are taxed at 5% if the total amount of goods exceeds $83.874 million; 2% if the total amount of goods exceeds $104 million. Income from agricultural products is tax exempt until December 2024.
In the free economic zones, operators are exempt from VAT, profit tax, customs duties, and property tax. One key economic zone is Meghri, at the Iranian border, established to encourage tourism and spending. Two others are Alliance and Meridian: Alliance’s free economic zone focuses on the technological industry; Meridian offers its services primarily to businesses engaged in jewelry, such as watch markers, and diamond cutters. Over the years, value added tax has contributed more to the federal budget than business tax, which has brought the criticism that Armenia is enriching the coffers based on the general population, rather than business, when the latter has benefited disproportionately to the former under the new system. The country would do well to reassess the tax system, simplifying it for users and make filing easier.
Armenia is service-based market economy with a sizable agricultural sector. Its services account for 54.5% of the economy, industry 27.8%, and agriculture 17.7%. After a tough transition to market economy, overshadowed by the war against Azerbaijan and the 1988 earthquake that left 500,000 people homeless, much of Armenia’s economy is comparable to its neighbor, Georgia, despite Georgia receiving much more positive attention and accolades. But this is due in large part to Armenia’s continued battle to modernize its economy and fight against corruption and accusations of state monopolies and a lack of transparency. The effect of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict cannot be underestimated: it has resulted in closed borders with Turkey and Azerbaijan and a political dependence on Russia that is accompanied by an equally strong economic dependance. Its economy draws heavily on foreign aid and remittances from the diaspora abroad. Going forward, the key for Armenia will be diversify: moving away from vulnerable resource-heavy exports and developing a range of trade partners, two things that will certainly benefit the country’s economy in the years to come.
Culture & Society
Armenia is a gorgeously sweeping country, filled with high passion, a robust civil society, and food and wine to match the many personalities found there. The capital, Yerevan, has a bustling cafe scene and nightlife not to be missed. The avenues are broad and ideal for strolling on summer evenings. The central parks offer music and food late into the evening. Armenians are proud of their heritage and happy to share it with those from the region and abroad.
The Caucasian country has its own distinct script and language—though it is in a tug-of-war with Georgia about the origins of Armenian versus Georgian script, and whether the two are tied together. Armenia also lays claim to being the first Christian nation, dating the state religion back to 301 AD. The Armenian Apostolic Church is named for the legend of two founding apostles who established Christianity in the country.
There is also strong legend that Noah’s Arc of the great flood described in the Bible landed on Mount Ararat, the peak of which is visible from the valley of Yerevan. But while the foothills of Ararat are in Armenia, the majority of the mountain rests in Turkey, just out of reach, as the border between the two countries is closed. Some of the best grapes for Armenian wine grow in the fertile soil at Mount Ararat’s base. Armenia’s are delighted to help visitors sample local wine and, of course, cognac.
There are two pervasive stories that punctuate cognac culture in Armenia. The first is that when Ararat, the primary cognac producer of Armenia, was first proffering its product around greater Europe, it highered a group of lovely, socialite-looking women to enter fine dining establishments and cocktail bars and ask to order a snifter of Ararat cognac. When the bewildered hosts were unable to offer the little-known product, the ladies quickly departed, sniffing that it was a disappointment that such a fine-looking establishment did not carry so basic a staple as Armenian Ararat cognac. Whether the PR stunt was successful and the story true, it is a charming portrayal of the pride and cleverness of the Armenian cognac culture.
The second story carries a more somber tone; namely, that a barrel of cognac has been set aside, reserved for a peace deal between Armenia and Azerbaijan on the territorial dispute of Nagorno-Karabakh. Each year with no agreement in site, the cognac in the barrel becomes less and less by natural evaporation. Hopefully, there will be an opportunity to enjoy it before time runs out.
Armenia is also known for its legacy as a retreat for writers and artists during the Soviet era, which continues for romantics into this day. Ossip Mandelstam, for one, spent considerable time at the writer’s retreat on Lake Sevan, which resulted in his Journey to Armenia. Vasiliy Grossman, too, traveled to Armenia to work on a translation piece during his last weeks, and he, too, was captivated by the people, animals, culture, and landscape, which he captured neatly in his Armenian Sketchbook. The Armenian cityscape and countryside has a deep culture of Armenian song and dance, accompanied by food and drink, to keep the wandering traveler fixated to the country.
Outside of the capital, Armenia boasts sweeping plains and dramatic hills and mountains that cut sharply down into gorges and quarries. The region is known for its manufacturing history, and trundling through the countryside in a minibus or train, one can observe long-abandoned rusty equipment and loading and irrigation systems. But while some parts are stuck in the past, other parts of Armenia have pushed forward at full steam.
Armenia is a charming blend of the old and new, heritage and future that easily draws in those who visit or look to the country for inspiration.