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Tatul Hakobyan

The Azerbaijanis Residing in Armenia Don’t Want to Form an Ethnic Community

“Yezidi minority continues to face problems with regard to land, water and grazing issues,” a Council of Europe report says

On February 13, 2007 the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI) of the Council of Europe published its second report on Armenia stating that progress had been made in a number of fields since its first report of July 8, 2003.

In particular, Armenia ratified Protocol No. 12 to the European Convention on Human Rights, the Armenian authorities have amended the Constitution to provide for equality before the law for everyone under Armenian jurisdiction, adopted a new Criminal Code which sanctions hate crimes, and created a Department of National Minorities and Religious Affairs which is, inter alia , entrusted with promoting minority languages and cultures.

The report appraises positively the amendments to the Law on Refugees aimed at providing for temporary protection of refugees, the adoption of the Law on Alternative Service, and the establishment of an Ombudsman's office. It also stresses, however, that a number of recommendations made in the ECRI's first report have not been implemented, or have only been partially implemented.

“ Although a bill on national minorities has been drafted, some minority representatives and NGOs have not endorsed it as they consider that it would bring little change to the existing situation. No comprehensive body of civil and administrative anti-discrimination provisions has been passed. The Yezidi minority continues to face problems with regard to land, water and grazing issues and some members of this community have still not acquired property titles for their land,” the report reads.

The head of the department on national minorities and religious affairs of the Government of Armenia, Hranush Kharatyan, assesses the report positively in general, but she has a number of reservations related, in particular, to problems faced by Yezidis. Kharatyan thinks it may be possible that the “Yezidis are speculating on the issue” of property titles for their land. She quoted a case in which “no Yezidi community representative appeared at the auction for land though they had been informed in advance. The auction was postponed to allow for their participation. But they didn't come to the second auction either and it was held in their absence.”

Human rights activist Avetik Ishkhanyan stresses that very often Yezidis lose the auctions, which creates tensions between Yezidis who have traditionally been engaged in cattle-breeding and Armenian farmers and businessmen who exploit grazing lands. Ishkhanyan recalled the latest tragic event, when on November 6, 2006 42-year-old resident of the village of Zovuni in the Kotayk Marz Kyaram Avdalyan, a Yezidi, was killed. On December 7, 2006 Avdalyan's mother and her four other sons attempted self-immolation in front of the President's Office. The family of Kyaram Avdalyan insist that the arrested shepherd is innocent and that the real perpetrators of the crime are at large.

The ECRI report has a section entitled “Specific Issues” which also deals with Yezidi issues. It stresses, in particular, that serious problems exist in “the relationship between the police and members of the Yezidi community” and that “there is a degree of insecurity with regard to pasture lands and they [Yezidis] are vulnerable to manifestations of ill will on the part of local authorities in allocating land.”

Ishkhanyan notes that problems related to land privatization are particularly acute in the Zovuni community, which has a mixed population of Yezidis and Armenians. “The Yezidis didn't get lands in the privatization process not because they were Yezidis but because two communities were artificially merged there and one of the communities had not had lands before the merger. However, this doesn't justify the fact that the Yezidis were left out of the process of land privatization. A way should be found to enable all community members to participate in the privatization process; especially so, when they are members of a national minority,” Ishkhanyan says.

According to the 2003 census, national minorities constitute 3 percent of the population of Armenia. The largest national minorities are Yezidis, with a population of 40,000, Russians with a population of 15,000, 3.5 thousand of Assyrians, some 1.5 thousand Ukrainians and Kurds and 1.2 thousand Greeks. The number of Jews is less than a thousand and all other nationalities combined make up about 5 thousand.

The report stresses that a system providing for a greater participation by national minorities in social and political life has not been created yet.

Avetik Ishkhanyan believes that though the national minorities make up two or three percent of the population, ways should be found to ensure their participation in public life and in the system of governance.

“I'm against of providing quotas, for example, in the National Assembly. Conflicts will arise among this two to three percent of the population as to how many seats each community is going to get. The solution might be found elsewhere. In those provinces or communities where the minorities constitute sizable portion of the population their representatives should be appointed to certain positions in regional or community administrations (it can be stipulated by law or by other means). Or programs in their national languages and related to their national cultures should be broadcast on local TV channels in the communities where national minorities are present,” Ishkhanyan says.

Hranush Kharatyan insists that the rights of the national minorities are respected to the same extent as the rights of every citizen of Armenia.

“The state, in general, meets its obligations within its financial capabilities. There is no lack of goodwill or political will in Armenia to encourage the development of cultures of national minorities. The existing problems are not a consequence of the lack of will but of the lack of means,” Kharatyan said.

Every year the Ministry of Culture and Youth together with ethnic communities organizes various festivals, and the state budget allocates ten million drams for educational, cultural and social programs for national minorities. The state also subsidizes ten periodicals for national minorities. In schools where the number of students of other nationalities is great enough (seven or eight students) native language courses open.

Though there is no mention of an “Azerbaijani nationality or community” in the report, there are Azerbaijanis living in Armenia. According to various non-governmental sources, there are some eight thousand Azerbaijanis in our country, including Azerbaijanis who have changed their names.

“Yes, ethnic Azerbaijanis are living live in Armenia. I know many of them but I can't give numbers. Armenia has signed a UN convention according to which the states take an obligation not to publish statistical data related to groups under threat or who consider themselves to be under threat if these groups are not numerous and might face problems. During the census, a number of people described their ethnicity as Azerbaijani. I know some Azerbaijanis who came here with their wives or husbands. Some prefer not to speak out about their ethnic affiliation; others take it more easily. We spoke with some known Azerbaijanis residing in Armenia but they haven't manifested a will to form an ethnic community yet,” Kharatyan said.

The European Commission against Racism and Intolerance also advises amending the L aw on Alternative Service to “enable conscientious objectors to choose to perform non-armed military service or alternative civilian service.”

Ishkhanyan considers this clause to be a well-grounded demand. “Essentially, the institute of alternative service doesn't work in Armenia. The Law is flawed. It doesn't provide for full-fledged civil service. Even the title of the law omits the phrase ‘civil service'. First, alternative service has to be for 42 months, which is too long a period of time. Besides, alternative service is supervised by military agencies – the military police and the office of the military prosecutor. Moreover, when those who perform alternative service get sick they have to undergo a medical treatment in a military hospital. In other words, the service is not civil in its nature,” he says.