Despite its limited resources, Armenia has become a master at geopolitics. What other country in the world can say it maintains good relations with the USA, Russia and Iran? Each international giant has made moves to forge ties. The US has a huge embassy in Yerevan (on 8.9 hectares of land) and USAID and the State Department fund a range of economic and cultural assistance programs. Iran continues to bolster trade ties with Armenia and sign multi-billion dollar energy deals; in June 2015 the two countries signed an agreement to build a third power transmission line that will almost triple electricity exchange between them. Russia, the main energy supplier until now, has upped the ante with a deal to jointly fund a new nuclear reactor at Metsamor to replace the current and outdated nuclear facility located there. The new reactor will be jointly funded by Russian and Armenia; construction is due to commence in 2018. Russia also maintains a military base of 3000 soldiers near Gyumri and posts troops along Armenia’s borders with Turkey and Iran.
But while Armenia shoulders up to the big boys of international trade and energy, it remains mired in old feuds with its neighbours that make the Montagues and the Capulets seem like bosom buddies. Chief among these feuds is that with Azerbaijan. Official fighting between the two countries ended in 1994, but the matter still feels closer to war than peace. A sniper war still brews along the border, with both sides suffering regular casualties. The status quo – with Armenia officially occupying 16% of Azerbaijan and negotiations at a standstill – is likely to last for some time.
The long-simmering argument about the Ottoman Empire's treatment of Armenians between 1915 and 1922 underpins every dealing modern-day Armenia has with its other feuding neighbour, Turkey. The Armenians believe that the events consitute a genocide; the Turks won't accept that label. In 2015 official events in Armenia and across the diaspora marked the centenary of the start of that horrific sequence of events using a powerful slogan: 'I Remember and Demand'. This call for international recognition of what the Armenians consider a genocide was aimed primarily at Turkey, but also at the international community (to date, 24 states have responded positively to Armenia's demand). While the disagreement festers it is unlikely that diplomatic relations between Armenia and Turkey will normalise, meaning that the border will remain closed. An added complication is Karabakh – Turkey is on record as saying that it will only normalise relations with Armenia if the conflict is settled.
On the domestic front, the weakening economy and plummeting standard of living have led to many locals becoming disenchanted with President Serzh Sargsyan, elected for his second five-year term in 2013. In June 2015, the government's announcement of a planned 17% to 22% hike in electricity charges, the third increase in two years, triggered huge street demonstrations in Yerevan. Dubbed 'Electric Yerevan', the protests continued for two weeks before President Sargsyan announced that the electricity hikes – and similar hikes to water distribution charges – would not go ahead in the near future. Cynical locals, many of whom had carried banners at the demonstrations saying 'No to Graft' and 'Stop Corruption', fear that the price hikes will be cross-subsidised through tax increases and that the economic situation of most Armenians will continue to worsen.
The economy certainly is in a fragile state. Armenia posted 3.4% economic growth in 2014, down from 7.1% in 2012. The Russian ruble’s sharp depreciation in December 2014 led to a significant decrease of export from Armenia to Russia, hitting the mineral and agriculture sectors hard and leading to rising unemployment (nearly 18% in 2014). It was estimated that 32% of the population were living below the poverty line in 2014. This is obvious when travelling in rural regions across the country – Yerevan may be relatively prosperous, but Armenians trying to make a living out of agriculture or mining work are doing it very hard indeed.
A Surname Primer
The vast majority of Armenian surnames end in ‘-ian’ or ‘-yan’. The spelling depends on the whether the root ends in a vowel or consonant (Saro + yan = Saroyan or Gregor + ian = Gregorian). The suffix means ‘from’ or ‘of’, either from a town (Marashlian from Marash; Vanetsian from Van), from a parent (Davidian, son of David), from an occupation (Najarian, son of a carpenter; Boyajian, from the Turkish word ‘boyaj’ for someone who dyes fabrics), or from status or personal traits (Melikyan, son of a king; Sinanian, from a Turkish term for a well-endowed gent). Names with the prefix ‘Ter’ mean that a married priest (Ter Hayr) was an ancestor, eg ex-president Levon Ter-Petrossian. Western Armenian names may spell it ‘Der’, as in Der-Bedrossian. There are also families with the suffix ‘-runi’, such as Siruni and Artsruni. These families were once aristocrats.