Armenia is a mountainous, landlocked country with a total population comparable to any major European or American city. It has no coastline, and two of its neighbours have closed their borders to it. Historically, the last one hundred years have been extremely harsh to Armenia and the Armenian people. Geographically, the country seems destined to remain a marginalised and rather underdeveloped post-Soviet state. This article will focus on the geopolitics of Armenia and how it makes what Armenia is today.
- Population: 3,056,382
- Size: 29,743 square kilometres
- AKA: Republic of Armenia
- Capital City: Yerevan
- Official Language: Armenian
Sources for figures: CIA World Factbook.
Armenia is located in the Caucasus Mountains, with Turkey to its west, Georgia to the north, Azerbaijan to the east, and Iran to the south. Due to Armenia’s strained relationships with its western and eastern neighbours, the only way to actually enter the country overland right now is through Georgia or Iran. Despite these political constraints, Armenia is a beautiful, mountainous country with a remarkable history stretching back over 4000 years. As the world’s first and longest surviving Christian state, there are a remarkable amount of monasteries and cathedrals, such as the Etchmiadzin Cathedral, dating to around 303 CE.
Armenians are the dominant ethnicity in Armenia, making up 98.1% of the population. Other ethnic groups currently living in Armenia include Yazidi Kurds, Russians and Greeks. There was once a sizeable Azeri minority, but following the Nagorno-Karabakh War in the early 1990s, most Azeris fled to Azerbaijan. Armenians as an ethnic group have existed for millennia, with Ancient Greek and Persian written sources referencing the Armenian people around 400-500 BC. The primary religion is Christianity, with most Armenians being followers the Armenian Church, otherwise known as the Armenian Apostolic Church. Armenia was the first state to ever adopt Christianity as its religion. The vast majority of Armenians speak the Armenian language, an Indo-European language written in a unique writing system, which was developed in the fourth century CE.
Like many other former Soviet republics, Armenia suffered from low birthrates and mass emigration throughout the 1990s and 2000s. The population of Armenia in 1991 numbered around 3.6 million, but has since fallen to roughly 3 million. A declining population is a serious issue for any state, however emigration has fallen in recent years, and the total fertility rate has been steadily rising since the early 2000s. Armenia’s population may well begin to grow again in the near future.
A noteworthy aspect of the Armenian people is that there are more Armenians living outside of Armenia than in Armenia itself. Following the Armenian genocide, many Armenians fled to places such as Europe, the United States and Australia. There remain large diaspora communities, particularly in California. The city of Glendale, Los Angeles, is home to one of the largest Armenian communities outside of Armenia, numbering around 65,000. Russia too is home to a large Armenian community.
It’s difficult to discuss Armenia without talking about mountains. One of the primary national symbols of Armenia is a mountain, namely Mt. Ararat. Unfortunately, Mt. Ararat is now located outside the borders of the contemporary Armenian state. The notion of this national icon now being located in Turkey, whilst remaining visible from Armenia’s capital, Yerevan, seems a fitting symbol for Armenia in the 21st century. Armenia is a country condemned by its tragic past and geography, and these two factors are certainly entwined.
Landlocked countries can be successful. Switzerland is a good example. However, there are many factors that make Switzerland a successful state. There is the fact that Switzerland has often sat between Empires and States far greater than its own, yet managed to maintain amiable relationships with most of them. Its neutral political status combined with a strong army has ensured its territorial integrity. Language and religion have also made Switzerland a much more fluid and dynamic part of central European culture and business in the past few centuries.
Right now, landlocked Armenia has none of these benefits. Aside from Turkey, its neighbours are not very wealthy or developed, plus its relations with these neighbours are difficult at best, and violent at worst. Armenia spent the majority of the 20th century in relative isolation, as part of the Soviet Union. It has a unique language and traditionally Christian culture which stands out from its mostly Islamic neighbours. Georgia is its most culturally similar neighbour, but is a state with its own internal issues and divisions, which also affect Armenia. Even geographically, Armenia lacks the resources of a country such as Switzerland. The mighty Rhine river has its source in Switzerland, which then flows through France, Germany and the Netherlands before exiting into the North Sea. Armenia has access to rivers but none of them are capable of handling the kind of industry or shipping that the Rhine manages. The Aras is Armenia’s largest river, flowing from Turkey through Armenia and eventually into Azerbaijan before emptying into the Caspian Sea.
Let’s move on to Armenia’s difficult relationships with its neighbours. A good place to start is the year 1914, when the First World War was about to start, and the Turkish Ottoman Empire had already began to disintegrate. During the 19th century, the Ottoman Empire experienced a wave of nationalism and independence movements. These movements existed primarily in the Balkans, but by 1914 they had taken root in the Southern and Western parts of the Empire too. Nearly all ethnic Armenians lived within the Ottoman Empire, and during the war, many fought alongside the Russians in the hope of an independent Armenian state. At the same time, Ottoman forces sought to relocate Armenians, as well as ethnic Assyrians and Greeks, away from the Turkish heartlands of central Anatolia. Forced marches through the deserts of Syria, executions of Armenian intellectuals and mass starvation were not uncommon. Millions ultimately perished and the entire episode is now widely known as the Armenian Genocide.
The Armenian people traditionally inhabited an area known as the Armenian highlands, which runs down the central-western region of Anatolia. Following the founding of the Turkish republic during the aftermath of the First World War, the vast majority of this territory became part of the new Turkish republic. Due to the death and chaos caused by population transfers and the Armenian genocide, this traditionally Armenian area had been lost. The remaining Armenian state was quickly invaded by the Soviet Union following the war and incorporated into the USSR. It remained part of the Soviet Union until its dissolution in the early 1990s. Unfortunately, the collapse of a much larger state would once again mean bloodshed for Armenia.
With the end of the Soviet Union, the republics of the Caucasus Mountains, Georgia, Azerbaijan and Armenia, all declared independence. However, this area was and still is a mess of demography with many different ethnic groups living amongst the various twisting valleys and mountain ranges of the Caucasus. In Azerbaijan, there was traditionally a large ethnic Armenian population, particularly in the west. Tensions had been running high there, and there were clashes between ethnic Azeris (the primary ethnicity of Azerbaijan) and Armenians through the 1980s. This eventually escalated to a full-blown military conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan, with Armenia supporting a secessionist region of Azerbaijan known as Nagorno-Karabakh. The war ended in 1994 with a ceasefire agreement, and the primarily Armenian populated Nagorno-Karabakh region has ran its affairs separately from Azerbaijan ever since. It’s exact political status is somewhat unclear, as it is officially still part of Azerbaijan, yet is, for all intents and purposes, an independent republic with extremely close ties to Armenia.
The situation in the Nagorno-Karabakh region is one of the reasons behind its tense relationship with Turkey as well as Azerbaijan. Turkey and Azerbaijan share a very close relationship, which is not surprising given their similar (Turkic) ethnic and linguistic backgrounds. The two countries developed close ties immediately following the fall of the Soviet Union. In 1993, during the height of the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan, Turkey suspended all diplomatic ties with Armenia and sealed the border. The dispute, coupled with historical resentment over Turkey’s failure to officially acknowledge the Armenian Genocide, has lead to Armenia having essentially no formal relationship with either of its Turkic neighbours.
Armenia would be a geographically isolated country at the best of times, but its diplomatic relationships have isolated it even further. Armenia has one primary ally, Russia, and is reliant upon Moscow economically and militarily. This close relationship with Armenia benefits Russia in a number of ways. It guarantees a Russian military presence in the Caucasus mountain range, an area traditionally part of the Russian sphere of influence, firstly during the Russian Empire and then the Soviet Union. From Armenia, Russia can project its military power not only into the former Soviet republics, but also Turkey and Iran. Additionally, Russian business interests run deep in Armenia, particularly in the lucrative energy sector. Today, the Russian language remains widely spoken in Armenia.
Despite Soviet-drawn borders arguably being a large reason for the various territorial disputes in the Caucasus region, the Russian military presence in Armenia ensures that neither Turkey nor Azerbaijan wish to further escalate their disputes with Armenia. Whilst this Russian presence currently acts a stabilizing force for the region and benefits Armenia, it does damage Armenian relations with yet another one of its neighbours.
Georgia and Russia have had a difficult relationship since the end of the Soviet Union, with Russia supporting two separatist regions within Georgia. Following the 2008 war between Georgia and Russia over the breakaway South-Ossetia region, Russia closed its land border with Georgia, severely damaging the Georgian economy. Despite Georgia and Armenia’s cultural ties (both are historically Christian nations in a largely Islamic region) Armenia’s alliance with and dependency on Russia means that it has a limited relationship with Georgia. Although one would expect these countries to be neighbours with mutually beneficial diplomatic and economic relations, external factors currently limit this relationship and its potential benefits.
Surprisingly, Armenia has a relatively healthy and useful relationship with its southern neighbour, Iran. Despite their cultural and linguistic differences, Iran has historically had close ties with both Armenia and the Armenian people, and Armenians are a recognised ethnic and religious minority in the Islamic republic. Contemporary Armenia was for a long time a part of the Persian Empire, until it was annexed by the Russian Empire in 1828. Today, Iran is a major energy exporter to Armenia, and has acted as a mediator between Armenia and Azerbaijan during diplomatic discussions over the future of the Nagorno-Karabakh territory.
Economically, contemporary Armenia is a country that still suffers from the after-effects of the USSR. The Armenian economy underwent dramatic changes throughout the 1990s as it shifted away from a centrally planned economy to a more liberal and market-based system. Mining, agriculture and tourism have become important industries since then, and investment from the Armenian diaspora also plays an important role in economic development. Visitors from the Armenian diaspora make up a large proportion of the 500,000+ people who visit Armenia every year. Despite achieving rapid economic growth since gaining independence, Armenia is very much reliant upon other states for its resources and energy requirements, and is easily effected by external economic issues. In 2009, the Armenian economy contracted by 14% during the height of the global financial crisis. However, the economic situation has since improved and growth remains steady. Overall, Armenia’s small size and rugged terrain, coupled with its issues with its neighbours, means its economic development will likely remain modest for the foreseeable future.
Geopolitically, Armenia is an interesting country, yet one that is limited by its geography and its diplomacy. A successful and prosperous Armenia would likely have to normalise relations with Azerbaijan and Turkey, potentially turn away from Russian energy and focus on developing its own renewable energy sources. However, nationalistic pride on all sides, ongoing territorial disputes and vested economic interests ensure that is little chance of any of this happening any time soon. That said, Armenia is a country with a rich and vibrant history, beautiful landscapes, and is enjoying a sustained period of independent statehood and self-governance for the first time in centuries.