Sunday, July 17, 2005

Oneworld Has Moved

The Oneworld Multimedia Blog will now be hosted at in order to make use of the added flexibility of WordPress. The site's design is still being implemented but should be finished soon. In order to avoid confusion, readers are advised to always access the Oneworld Multimedia blog at which will always take you to where this blog is.

Saturday, July 16, 2005

Armenia's Telecommunications Developing Steadily

The first report on ICT in Central Asia and the Caucasus has been published. The report focused on the Broadband and Internet market in Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Taijikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. If you want the report, however, it's going to cost you € 421 for a hard copy or € 336 for the electronic version. Still covered some of the main points as they pertain to Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia.

The report notes that Internet services are outside ArmenTel's monopoly. The country's Internet market is small (penetration 7.5%), but has been developing steadily. However, there are still several major obstacles in the way of improved Internet connectivity. Not unexpectedly, these include poor telecom infrastructure; expensive telephone lines; the high cost of computer equipment relative to an average worker's salary; political unrest in some regions of the country, which impedes infrastructure reform and intimidates potential sponsors and donors, and a heavy dependence on international funding, making long-range planning difficult.

A permanent Internet link was established for Azerbaijan in 1995 through the country’s Academy of Science. The country has had dial-up Internet access since 1991. By early 2005, Internet penetration was around 6%. Georgia established a permanent link to the international Internet backbone in 1995, after having had non-permanent, dial-up Internet access since 1991. Internet use remains low (penetration 5%), but the market has shown growth and strong competition between ISPs. There are a handful of broadband services in place.

I've also seen the executive summary of the report which details some interesting facts and information. There are 600,000 fixed line telephone subscribers in Armenia and in neighboring Georgia, mobile phone users exceeded fixed line subscribers in early 2005. In April, for example, there were just 200,000 mobile phone suscribers in Armenia thanks to the ArmenTel monopoly that has now thankfully been broken in this sector at least whereas in Georgia there were over 1 million. The Georgian mobile phone market is now growing at a rate of 40 percent per year.

Nothing compared to Kazakhstan, however. In that country, there are 3.2 million mobile phone subscribers (20 percent penetration) and the market has been growing by 80 percent per year since 2004. Even so, Internet penetration stands at just 5 percent.

Meanwhile, in related news, since Viva Cell emerged in the Armenian market, it's been virtually impossible to call ArmenTel mobile phone subscribers. At the same time, I'm told by a journalist friend that there is now a shortage of handsets available for sale in Armenia and that rumors abound that Kocharian's son wants to allegedly control the market for that commodity.

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Important Note

The Oneworld Multimedia Blog will be moving to a new server by the end of the month. It is unknown yet whether it will be hosted on the Oneworld Multimedia main web site or on a blog service provider. Regardless, the reason for move will be to use the WordPress system and it is advised that all readers of this blog start to access it via the URL.

This way, regardless of where the blog is located, you will always manage to find it.


The War of the Roses

Meanwhile, following on from the recent skirmish on the streets of Tbilisi and fisticuffs in the Georgian Parliament, things are no longer looking so "rosy" in Armenia's northern neighbor. Unfortunately, events that followed a small group of sportsmen running amok after two of their own were place in pre-trial attention, are now being used to detract from pro-democracy movements elsewhere. This is particularly true for Armenia where the state-controlled Public TV had a field day with footage of riot police on the streets of the Georgian capital.

Would that we could be so lucky in Yerevan, however. Last year, in April 2004, it was actually the police beating journalists and smashing their cameras so no footage exists. Two friends, journalists from RFE/RL, were forced to run for their lives and go into hiding as Armenian riot police indiscriminately attacked peaceful protestors largely made up of pensioners and ambushed others as they tried to escape. Nevertheless, the recent events in Georgia didn't do Saakashvili any favors. Already there is talk of growing impatience among western donors and also, rumor that is wife has left him or is about to.
The tiny trigger in this bitter battle between former partners was – oddly, but as it turned out appropriately – a court ruling that consigned two wrestling champions charged with extortion to pre-trial detention. After the court’s decision on 30 June, disgruntled relatives and friends of the detainees rampaged through the courtroom, which was in the same building as Georgia’s Supreme Court. An angry mob then blocked traffic on Tbilisi’s main street, Rustaveli Avenue. The capital’s transport police struggled to restore traffic and the riot police were called in as the crowd ran amok. Dozens were briefly hauled away by the police, but around ten were taken into custody. No one was seriously injured (all accept that point), though some felt the force of the riot police’s batons.


This unpleasant but isolated incident has sent shockwaves through Georgian politics. All major TV stations broadcast the events live and most gave the floor to the opposition, seizing on the “excessive use of force” as an opportunity to attack the government. “A crime against humanity” was the evaluation of the incident by an opposition Republican Party leader Levan Berdzenishvili. Others even compared that the events to the bloodshed of 9 April 1989 when Soviet troops disbanded the peaceful pro-independence rally – an extreme comparison since 20 protestors, mostly women, were killed that day.

So everyone expected the rough and tumble on the streets to produce heated words on the floor of parliament the next day. What Georgians got, though, was even wilder than even the wildest expectations: a spontaneous, free-wheeling fist-fight that left MPs with cuts and bruises. The chief sparring partners were the former partners-in-revolution, the ruling National Movement party and the Republicans. In their more restrained moments, former friends and comrades from the revolution hurled insults at each other, the opposition accusing the ruling party of authoritarianism and the ruling party accusing the opposition of backing criminals.

Anyway, part of the problem as highlighted by this article posted on (although originally published by Transitions Online) is that the "Rose Revolution" that brought the young Saakashvili to power did so in a disproportionate way. Elected by 90 percent of the vote, another necessary ingredient for a democratic society was forgotten -- an effective opposition. Moreover, when many of Georgia's Shevardnadze-era activists migrated into Saakashvili's government, the country's greatest asset -- a vibrant civil society -- was also inadvertently destroyed.
Such a concentration of power has both frustrated the opposition and ensured that much of Georgia’s politics is conducted within the government. Eventually, inner-circle disagreements in the National Movement prompted two factions – the Republicans and the Conservatives – to leave the coalition. More fissures snake through the National Movement, with several leaders competing for influence.


The signs that undivided power and arrogance could prove a problem came swiftly, prompting civil-society leaders to meet Saakashvili in early 2004 to warn him that the disregard shown to the opposition would harm Georgian democracy. “It is time to end the revolution and revert to [steadier] governance” they stated in a joint declaration.
I hope that this lesson is learned by other pro-democracy movements if the new wave of freedom sweeping over the former Soviet space continues. In a sense, this feeds into Christopher Walker's op-ed written for Eurasianet that I posted yesterday. Democracy doesn't just start and end with "revolutions." The process, as in the West, has to continue for some time after so that positive trends are irreversible. A harder task, of course, is going to be to change deep-set mentalities in Armenian, Azerbaijani and Georgian society. Unfortunately, however, that's going to take generations.

The full article can be read online here.

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Lines Being Drawn?

Theoretically, Armenia doesn't face the prospect of "revolution" until the next parliamentary elections scheduled for 2007. However, with local elections set for October and a controversial constitutional referendum due the following month, that's not to say that the political situation in the country doesn't risk becoming more inflamed. In fact, like the parliamentary elections scheduled for November in neighboring Azerbaijan, Armenia faces a very real test of its democratic credentials that will either resolve a lot of issues, or exasperate them.

Local elections have always been a matter of fierce contest between the pro-presidential parties. During the last round held three years ago, the two smaller members of the ruling coalition government, Orinats Yerkir and the ARF-D, accused the larger Republican Party of falsification and bribery. Despite it being considered that whoever controls local government controls the local levers for determining the outcome of parliamentary and presidential elections, the opposition somewhat ironically didn't seem to bother with them at all. And they still don't seem too concerned.

However, this time round, it probably doesn't matter. What is of more interest is whether or not the three coalition parties come to blows or not. The Republican Party have always taken local elections seriously but so too have Orinats Yerkir who now apparently have a strong network of support in the regions. This was said to me by the head of a very significant international organization recently. She also told me that she believed that Artur Baghdasarian, Head of Orinats Yerkir and Speaker of the Armenian National Assembly, would be the next President of the Republic of Armenia.

In fact, Baghdasarian was always considered in the running for succession to Kocharian. Popular with some European diplomats, especially in France, the incumbent President was always said to be grooming the young former HHsh MP for the position. Until that was, the opposition protests last year. Known for his populist approach, and sometimes even compared to an Armenian Saakashvili, Baghdasarian played his cards carefully and neither took the firm pro-presidential line he was expected too although he didn't come out in support of the opposition either.

That was enough, however, to make many analysts think that Kocharian could no longer trust the 36 year old. Now, it is assumed that Kocharian will either try and seek a ruling from the Constitutional Court to seek a third term in office on the basis of a new Constitution that will probably be invoked later in the year or will instead seek to pass power on to his most trusted lieutenant, the Defense Minister, Serzh Sarkisian. Which makes news that Baghdasarian is now speaking out on the constitution ammendments all the more interesting.

According to ArmInfo, as distributed by Groong, Baghdasarian has told reporters that the Armenian President cannot legally run for a third term in office. He has also said that it would be more appropiate if the president did not exercize any new, even if reduced, powers until the election of his successor. On the other hand, Baghdasarian has also stated that the parliament under his control should be able to exercize its new and stronger powers immediately after the new constitution is adopted.
At the same time, he said it would be fair if the incumbent president preserved until 2008 his powers which will be reduced under the constitutional reforms. "The president should exercise the powers with which he was elected," Bagdasaryan said. He also said that the parliament will get new powers after the approval of the constitutional reforms.
Nevertheless, the logic of Baghdasarian's argument that someone elected under one constitution should serve their tenure under the same should probably be the same for deputies in the Armenian National Assembly, especially as new parliamentary elections are scheduled for a year earlier than the next presidential ones. In the meantime, Baghdasarian is said to be on friendly terms with some significant figures in the opposition, including the firebrand radical opposition leader, Aram Z Sarkisian.

In fact, in recent months, the two youthful leaders have even been exchanging mutual compliments.

Which leads us to the question of leadership in Armenia. Unless there was a real shift in public opinion towards pro-government figures like the Defense Minister and also to opposition leaders such as Stepan Demirchian or Artashes Geghamian, both of which who have already failed to live up to public expectations, there are very few that might be able to represent the "change" that many in Georgia and Ukraine thought Saakashvili or Yushchenko represented.

Unlike Aram Z Sarkisian who favors less than democratic means to implement regime change in Armenia and who has too much "baggage" in terms of his assassinated brother, Baghdasarian could potentially represent a middle force able to appease both pro-governmental and pro-opposition political forces in Armenia. Kocharian and Serzh Sarkisian might also feel more secure that after their departure from the political scene, they would not face prosecution for past or alleged misdeeds.

Hard to say, really, but one thing is for sure. With the opposition and Council of Europe thrown into the mix over the constitutional ammendments, the political environment in Armenia is heating up and in 2006 we will enter into the run-up phase for the next parliamentary elections that will determine the next President of the Republic of Armenia. Seems to me that the battle will soon be on. One analyst, David Petrosian from Noyan Tapan, has even said that Artur Baghdasarian was one of the financial supporters behind the Bekum Civic Forum, the closest we have to a pro-democracy movement in Armenia so far.

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Plot to Assassinate Kocharian Uncovered?

The Noyan Tapan news agency, as distributed by Groong, reports that Gagik Grigoryan faces charges under Articles 38, 35 and 305 of the Criminal Code of the republic of Armenia. His crime? He was apparently the mastermind of a plan to assassinate the two highest ranking officials in the country.
Court hearings into an attempt to kill the Armenian president [Robert Kocharyan] and the defence minister [Serzh Sarkisyan] will start on 25 July, Noyan Tapan learnt today from the office of Pargev Oganyan, a judge of the first instance court of Yerevan's Kentron and Nork Marash communities who will preside over the case.
Perhaps as testimony to the state of the media in Armenia, I can't remember any news reports on this quite headline making story before. I remember something about a hoax bomb phone call last month but not a fully-fledged plan to assassinate Kocharian and Sarkisian. If anyone knows more details please post them in the comments section.

Actually, I have to admit that Noyan Tapan are not a bad news agency. Just a pity that they're a subscription only service although during the 2003 Presidential Elections in Armenia they made all their content publicly available for free. That was apparently in the interest of providing information to everyone on that important event and I have to admit, I found their coverage the best.

Friday, July 15, 2005

OSCE Minsk Group in Yerevan

RFE/RL reports on the latest round of shuttle diplomacy to find a lasting solution to the frozen conflict over the disputed mainly-Armenian populated region of Nagorno Karabakh. After visits to Baku, Stepanakert and Yerevan, the OSCE mediators still appear to be "cautiously optimistic" in the run-up to a possible Armenian-Azerbaijani summit next month but serious obstacles remain.
The French, Russian and U.S. diplomats acting under the aegis of the OSCE Minsk Group reiterated after longer-than-planned talks with President Robert Kocharian that the compromise peace deal may be sealed in the course of this year.

“We have made a considerable degree of progress in the past year in discussing these issues between the sides,” the group’s American co-chair, Steven Mann, told a joint news conference in Yerevan. “We still have difficult issues before us, but I believe that objective conditions exist for that type of solution … before the end of the year.”
However, it should be pointed out that while the general atmosphere surrounding this latest drive to end the conflict is more positive than at anytime in the past seven years that I've lived in Armenia, there is still a shroud of secrecy surrounding precise details. That said, there is also more openess than ever before.
Armenian diplomatic sources privy to the peace process told RFE/RL last week that Aliev and Kocharian may well finalize a peace accord that will enable the predominantly Armenian population of Karabakh to determine its status at a referendum to be held within 10-15 years. They claimed that the vote will follow the liberation of all but one of the occupied Azerbaijani districts around Karabakh and the reopening of Armenia’s borders with Azerbaijan and Turkey.

The mediators pointedly refused to confirm or deny the claims, citing the confidentiality of the negotiating process.
With parliamentary elections scheduled for November in Azerbaijan, however, the risk of internal instability stemming from talk of a compromise solution might yet derail the obvious progress acheived so far. In today's press review, talk of a compromise deal that might require Armenia to return six of seven territories outside of Karabakh currently under its control in return for a referendum to be held 10-15 years down the line are already ruffling a few feathers in Armenia.
“The idea of holding a referendum [in Karabakh] within 10 or 15 years is not understandable,” opposition leader Vazgen Manukian tells “Ayb-Fe.” “Why not now but in 10-15 years? I don’t think this is a serious approach to the issue.” Manukian claims that security guarantees allegedly offered to the Armenians by mediators are “absolutely unserious.”

“Ayb-Fe” agrees with Manukian. “It is our right to categorically reject the proposed ‘mutual compromise,’” writes the paper. “By walking away from agreements reached in Paris and Key West Azerbaijan has not lost anything. We too won’t lose from the collapse of that plan. We will lose unless we cause it to collapse.”


“Chorrord Ishkhanutyun” says the main Armenian fear regarding the referendum idea is that Azerbaijanis could eventually become a majority in Karabakh due to their higher birth rate.
Incidentally, Armenia Now also covers the OSCE Minsk Group's visit to Yerevan and takes a more pessimistic tone. Interestingly, despite the urgent need for a solution to the conflict that broke out towards the end of the Soviet era and the fact that many observers consider it to be a major obstacle to democratization in Armenia and Azerbaijan, the visit and the latest round of negotiations didn't even make headline news on the site.

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Karabakh Update

Associated Press (AP) reports that while there is some ground for "cautious optimism" in the latest attempt to resolve the frozen conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the disputed mainly-Armenian populated territory of Nagorno Karabakh, the Russian Co-Chair of the OSCE Minsk Group is less so.
Yuri Merzlyakov, speaking late Wednesday after meeting with officials in Nagorno-Karabakh, said that "the two sides are still very far from reaching an agreement to resolve the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict."

Russian, French and U.S. envoys from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe are trying find a solution to the dispute over the mountainous region, which was seized by ethnic Armenian forces in a war with Azerbaijan in the 1990s.


The international community has become increasingly keen to reduce tensions in this part of the former Soviet Union as energy-rich Azerbaijan and other countries in the region have exploited vast reserves of oil around the Caspian Sea.

About 1 million people were displaced by the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, and their resettlement as well as the future status of the territory are among the major issues to be resolved.
Nevertheless, something seems to be different this time round when compared to the mood that what evident at the time of Key West in 2001. Even so, however, while Armenia talks of the need to make "painful concessions for peace," the situation is not the same, especially with parliamentary elections on the horizon in November.

The OSCE Minsk Group Co-Chairs, having already visited Baku and Stepanakert, are due to meet with the Armenian President, Robert Kocharian, and Foreign Minister, Vartan Oskanian, today and will also hold a press conference. I think that we'll know more then.

Certainly, it would appear that the two sides are closer than they've ever been to establishing the framework and terms of reference for a negotiated peace but on the other hand, there are still many obstacles to overcome.

AP's report can be read online here.

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Worker Rights in Armenia

Hetq Online has published an article illustrating how the concept of worker rights in Armenia do not exist. Of course, many would argue that any form of rights under the law and the constitution are violated on an almost daily basis by the government and employers together. In this story, however, the culprits were the Indian owners of a gold mine and the issue is actually more than just worker's rights. It's actually about the lack of the rule of law in general.

According to Sarah Petrosian, the author of the piece, the Chairman of the Lernagorts Union of the Sotk mine employees went to work and was denied access to the premises. Armen Sahakyan had been absent because of a strike called by workers at the mine and along with 23 others, had been fired as a result. However, according to the law, as Chairman of the Union, he should still have been allowed to enter his former workplace.
However, Article 17 of the Armenian Law on Unions states this provision: “Representatives of leaderships of unions have a right under Armenian law to visit the premises where the members of their unions are employed, for the purposes of observing their working conditions, as provided under the law.” Therefore, Sahakyan contends, even though his employment had been terminated, as a union chairman he was still entitled to enter the premises. Besides, he adds, the letter was not addressed properly, mentioned no formal orders, and was not provided with a proper number, as required by law.
The strike was called in May after workers demanded that their contracts be brought into conformity with Armenian legislation. Their second demand was that a joint commission of workers and management be formed to discuss employment-related matters such as personal safety in a high-risk working environment. The demands were submitted two months before the strike was called. In response, the Indian company terminated contracts with 463 employees and hired another 100 from nearby villages. The former workers were then requested to submit new job applications at two thirds their former salaries.
They fired workers who were receiving salaries of $200 USD, and (re)hired employees who now receive $50 USD.” The present workers say, “On average, they are paying from $100 to $110 per month for drudgery -- just enough for us not to starve so we can continue serving them.”

According to Yevgeni Kojemyakin, Head of the Armenian Union of Miners, Metallurgists and Jewelers, people are not familiar with the laws, and they are simply forced to sign employment contracts which are not in compliance with the Labor Code, and the Law on Compensation, both of which govern this situation.
“The work they do is considered of a high-risk nature. No more than 24 days per month work is allowed, while the workers do 190 hours per month. They work two shifts at Sotk, 12 hours per shift, while the maximum allowed working day is 8 hours. Overtime work is not being compensated, while the law stipulates that overtime work must be compensated at a higher wage rate.”


Over the course of 2004, the Armenian Ombudsman received one hundred thirty claims in cases of employment termination; non- payment or delayed payment for work; uncompensated on –the-job injuries; and professional casualties. The majority of the claims came from the private sector. The Ombudsman’s Report says of this situation, “An analysis of the current situation in labor relations testifies to the en mass violations of employee rights in Armenia, mostly in the private sector. A lack of control in the implementation of labor laws by the relevant Government bodies worsens the situation.”
After official complaints lodged by the Human Rights Ombudsperson with the government, a report is due to be released soon. Meanwhile, the Human Rights Ombudsperson is an attack on her office by the President himself.

The full article can be read online here.

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The Next Wave of Democratization

EurasiaNet has an interesting op-ed on democratization in the post-soviet space. In particular, it focuses on upcoming elections in Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan but the same will be true for Armenia in 2007 when the next parliamentary elections are due. Of course, that's not to say that the West, and the Council of Europe in particular, shouldn't also keep on eye on local elections scheduled for October and the referendum on constitutional amendments in November.
Since the 1991 Soviet collapse, hopes for the institutionalization of democratic systems in the region -- in which free-and-fair elections would enable peaceful transfers of political power – have faded. Instead, an authoritarian trend has taken hold. Incumbents have tried to rig their respective political systems to defend their positions of political supremacy, engineering sham elections in an attempt to give their authority a stamp of popular approval.

To a certain extent, the heavy-handed governing methods found in most former Soviet states are backfiring. Corruption and a lack of political accountability, combined with dreadful social conditions and limited economic opportunities, have fostered an atmosphere ripe for change.


It is crucial that the United States and European Union [along with other interested states] continue their investments in the future success of democratization initiatives in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan. But they must also prepare for the more complex challenges presented by other static and unreformed FSU states. Given the high level of frustration that already exists among the population in so many of these countries, this suggests that far more unpredictable and potentially volatile transitions are in the offing.
The full article can be read online here.

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Kocharian's Constitutional Draft Criticized by Media Groups

After the recent controversy of preparing a draft of constitutional ammendments that satisfies both internal political demands and the Council of Europe, Armenia's leading media associations are now unhappy.
In a joint statement issued late on Wednesday, they said President Robert Kocharian must no longer have the exclusive right to choose members of the National Commission on Television (HRAH) which pulled the plug on the country’s main independent television three years ago. The seven signatories of the statement, among them the Yerevan Press Club and the Armenian Union of Journalists, accused the authorities of reneging on their promises given to the Council of Europe.
The full article can be read online here.

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Hetq Back Online

Hetq Online, one of the publications for which I work is now back online after being taken out by a hacker last Friday. We still don't know who did it and why but personally, I think that it is probably connected to the continung investigation into the trafficking of women and children from Armenia to the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Regardless, here what the Yerevan Press Club had to say:
On the evening of July 8 the server that hosted the web-page of "Investigative Journalists" NGO and is located in the USA went out of order. In the press release of "Investigative Journalists" of July 11 it was stated that the server had been damaged by professionals, but it was so far unclear from where the attack was made. In the interview to "Aravot" daily (July 13, 2005) the head of "Investigative Journalists" Edik Baghdasarian said that the hacking might be related to the publications of a number of journalistic investigations in "Hetq" online newspaper of the organization.
Hetq Onine can once again be accessed at


Karabakh Peace Deal In Sight

RFE/RL once again confirms that this time round, there really is the chance of a peace deal between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the disputed mainly Armenian inhabited territory of Nagorno Karabakh.
“Yes, there is a possibility of a Karabakh settlement in the course of this year,” said Steven Mann, the U.S. co-chair of the OSCE Minsk Group. He added that an agreement will be signed “this year or within the next hundred years,” indicating that the peace process has reached a make-or-break point.
Bernard Fassier, the group’s French co-chair, clarified that the conflicting parties are more likely to sign a framework agreement on “the basic principles” of the peaceful settlement. Both he and Mann stressed that the successful outcome of the negotiations is still not a forgone conclusion.


Senior Armenian government sources have told RFE/RL that the two sides are close to a peace deal that will enable the population of Karabakh to determine its status at a referendum to be held in 10-15 years time. They claimed that the vote will follow the liberation of all but one of the occupied Azerbaijani districts and the reopening of Armenia’s borders with Azerbaijan and Turkey.

Of course, the opposition in both Armenia and Azerbaijan don't like the news:
Some Armenian opposition leaders have already rejected that formula. One of them, Vazgen Manukian, called it “absolutely unacceptable” on Thursday. “We give away those territories and there will be a referendum in 10 or 15 years time,” he told RFE/RL. “What would we gain from that? I don’t know.”

“Karabakh’s status must be determined now, not after 10 or 15 years,” he said. “Armenia and Azerbaijan must declare that they want a referendum to be held in Karabakh now and will accept its results.”

The reported settlement has also been denounced by opposition figures in Azerbaijan who believe that Baku would never stand a chance of winning back Karabakh in that case.
The full article can be read online here.

Meanwhile, RFE/RL also reports that Armenia and Turkey have been holding secret talks in an undisclosed European city in order to "normalize relations." According to RFE/RL and other sources, these talks can also be closely linked to the possibility of an imminent Karabakh peace deal.
Diplomatic sources in Yerevan told RFE/RL last week that Armenia and Azerbaijan have already agreed on the main points of a Karabakh peace accord which they said could be signed by the end of this year or at the beginning of next. They said the lifting of the Turkish blockade is one of those points.
That full article can be read online here.

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Thursday, July 14, 2005

Haloscan commenting and trackback have been added to this blog.

Revolt Brewing Against Culture Minister

RFE/RL reports that another revolt is brewing against the Armenian Minister of Culture, Hovik Hoveyan. After confusing people by suggesting that youth need to learn how to hold a funeral and lamenting the popularity of folk dances because they are a sign of socio-economic hardship, the Minister is now planning to replace the head of the State Dance Ensemble.
The man rumored to be Hoveyan’s choice of ensemble chief is Karen Gevorgian, dean of the Culture Department at the Armenian State Pedagogical University. The minister already tried to appoint him as head of Armenia’s main ballet school last September but had to back down after a three-week strike staged by the school personnel.
Given that Armenians take such pride in their culture, what is it about the position of Culture Minister that seems to attract people of this "callibre" to the post? Hoveyan's predeccessor, Tamara Poghosian, had to leave the position last May because of the public and political backlash against her short-lived tenure.

Of course, the position of Culture Minister has been "given" to Orinats Yerkir and so, that determines who gets appointed (Hoveyan reportedly joined the party a few days before his appointment) but I suppose, like Tamara Poghosian and Ara Aramian, at least these guys have the decency to go when the patience of the public is exhausted.

In case you don't remember, the Minister of Urban Development, Ara Aramian, had no choice but to resign last April after his son started to shoot off guns at a cafe close to where the Armenian President was wining and dining his Georgian counterpart, Mikheil Saakashvili. Aramian was also a member of Orinats Yerkir, one of the three parties in the ruling coalition government.

The news item can be read online here.

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Western Pressure for Democratic Elections in Azerbaijan

Eurasianet also covers Albright's visit to Azerbaijan and then some. Unfortunately, since the U.S. started to talk about "freedom" in this part of the world, many in Armenia took it as a call to "revolution" before getting upset when they discovered that it wasn't. Instead, it was about democracy, the rule of law and international pressure for real democratic change in the run-up to – and also during – elections.
[...] as visiting PACE rapporteur Andreas Gross pointed out on 8 July, the West wants any change to come through the ballot box. "Today, we have to speak about elections," he said. "And those who would like to change anything should engage in elections and not speak about revolution."

Azerbaijan’s government has made several concessions to the opposition ahead of the elections. These include the right to hold peaceful opposition rallies and the release of more than 200 political prisoners since the beginning of the year.

Nevertheless, observers say Azerbaijani leaders appear inclined to block further reforms. They note that parliament on June 28 passed amendments to the country’s electoral law that did not include changes to the makeup of the country’s election commissions. The election commissions are seen as leaning too far in the government’s favor.

Speaking after meetings with the Azerbaijani opposition, Albright highlighted this issue: "There has been a very consistent message, and the message is the necessity for the [Central] Electoral Commission to be a truly independent commission that can help in making clear that the elections are free and fair and open, and a desire for there to be greater diversity in political participation."
Besides, I never saw what happened in Georgia and Ukraine as "revolution." Instead, what happened was that people within those two societies stood up and refused to accept the outcome of falsified elections. People acted within the law and the constitution, although what happened in Georgia is a little more debatable, and because of that, the West monitored procedings and did all it could to prevent the situation from turning nasty.

Basically, you cannot expect democratic forces to come to power through undemocratic means – on both sides of the political divide. I would imagine, therefore, that unless there is a real political and constitutional crisis as a result of the local elections and constitutional referendum in Armenia towards the end of the year, Armenia will be in the same position as Azerbaijan is now, in 2007.

Until then, what happens in November is a good case study to examine for what might happen in Armenia during the 2007 parliamentary elections. The full article can be read online here.

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Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Madeleine Albright In Baku

The Jamestown Foundation's Eurasia Daily Monitor reports that the former U.S. Secretary of State and Chair of the National Democratic Institute visited Baku on Monday and met with politicians, NGOs and the mass media. She was also expected to meet with the Azerbaijani President, Ilham Aliyev. The purpose of the visit was to "discuss the situation in the country ahead of the November 6 parliamentary elections."
The visit of the former high-ranking American official was immediately compared to the visit that former Secretary of State James Baker paid to Tbilisi in the summer of 2003. During that visit Baker convinced then-Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze to change the composition of the election commission, which later led to the Rose Revolution.


Albright herself drew the media's attention to the need for political freedom as a precondition of democratic elections. "If there are no fair election commissions, there will not be free elections," she said. When asked about the future of Azerbaijan, Albright replied that the country has a "happy future, if all the oil revenues are fairly distributed and there is an open market."


The major opposition parties, meanwhile, have united in a joint coalition "Azadliq" (Freedom) and are threatening to stage a "velvet revolution" should the authorities fail to hold free elections. On July 10, they held another street rally in Baku, in which, according to some observers, more than 35,000 people participated. Rallies also took place, for the first time in the past two years, outside of Baku, including the towns of Sumgait, Sabirabad, Gedebey, Sheki, and others.

The Bush administration remains in a difficult situation regarding this crucial election. While the White House urges more democracy around the world, as seen especially in U.S. efforts to reform the Middle East, Azerbaijan has been tied to the United States in a vital strategic cooperation arrangement over energy and security issues, with official Baku even sending peacekeeping troops to Iraq and Afghanistan.

Thus, the pressures from Washington come at a careful pace, after consideration of U.S. national interests in the Caucasus.
The full article can be read online here.

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Chief Architect Defends Yerevan Construction Boom

RFE/RL has an interesting article on the continuing controversy sourrounding the "construction boom" afflicting Yerevan at present. As in Baku, my take is that much of this construction is in violation of the law and represents corruption rather than genuine development. I think this view is shared by most people in Yerevan who are already furious with the disappearance of the city parks. In that case too, corruption is the main culprit.

The process was strongly criticized on June 30 by the chairman of Armenia’s Union of Architects, Mkrtich Minasian, who claimed that the new high-rise buildings emerging in downtown Yerevan are constructed with little government oversight and in violation of the existing safety and architectural norms.

Minasian said they are also at odds with the city center’s masterplan that was designed by Armenia’s most famous architect, Aleksandr Tamanian, during the 1920s and 1930s. It envisaged mainly five-story buildings made of tufa, a light volcanic stone widely used for construction in the mountainous country.

The redevelopment, initiated by President Robert Kocharian five years ago, will essentially yield two new avenues that will run through the heart of the city in place of old and decrepit houses. Danielian admitted that some of the expensive buildings already constructed there look like “monsters.”


Local press reports have identified senior officials in Kocharian’s staff and the government among the owners of those buildings. Danielian refused to comment on this, claiming that he does not know any of the owners personally.

The process has also been marred by allegations of foul play in the compensation of the owners of houses torn down to make room for the new properties. Many of the owners complain that the sums offered by the government are well below the prices of decent apartments in other parts of the city.

One day, the truth will be known and heads will roll. Until then, the full article can be read online here.

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Talking of Minorities

Yezidi, Armenia
© Andrei Liankevich

Last month, the
Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs granted a funding proposal that included support for the Photostory section of the Hetq Online web site. Unfortunately, because of the recent hacking attack, the site is down but that's only temporary. Anyway, the point is that after establishing and maintaining the section for over a year on a shoestring budget -- in fact, without one at all -- we now have the ability to commission and publish work from up and coming young photographers working on Armenian themes.

In the past few days, therefore, I've been scouring the internet and talking to as many people as I can to find out where this new breed of young photographers are. Unfortunately, as with almost everything in Armenia, there are few people who want to cooperate with others and allow them to take the limelight. Of course, key to this regrettable situation is money. Everybody wants it for themselves and certainly don't want it shared around.

Yezidi, Armenia © Andrei Liankevich

Thanks to a young Armenian now in Holland, however, the search is going well. Forever Child pointed me in the direction of a young female photographer in Armenia, Ani (Apples), who I met up with on Monday. Hetq has now commissioned her to shoot new work on the Molokan community in Armenia and also, one on gender issues. There has also been some impressive work from two non-Armenian photographers who until recently were resident in Armenia.

Andrei Liankevich is from Belarus and as part of his Caucasus Media Institute / World Press Photo project, concentrated on the Yezidi minority in Armenia. He sent me some of his work yesterday and it's truly fantastic. Hetq hopes to bring that to you all soon. A friend of Andrei's and also Ani's is Dominichka, a Pole who until last week lived and worked in Armenia. Although we're still discussing story ideas, I'm hoping that she'll consider submitting something on the small Polish community in Yerevan.

There's more but I'll leave that for another time. Meanwhile, life just got interesting again...

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Educating Minority Children

Fioletovo, Lori Region, Republic of Armenia © Onnik Krikorian

By Onnik Krikorian / UNICEF Armenia

FIOLETOVO, Lori Region – It’s not often that you encounter a village that makes you feel like an “outsider” in Armenia but Fioletovo is one of the few that do – in every sense of the word. It’s not that the residents of this ethnically homogenous village made up of Russian Molokans don’t like visitors. It’s simply that their presence is not considered essential for this small community to survive and prosper.
The Molokans are Russians that split from the Russian Orthodox Church in the 17th Century. Fioletovo, a village inhabited by less than 1,500 people, is the largest community outside of Yerevan. Their total population in Armenia, however, stands at just 5,000 although 14 years earlier when independence was declared, there were approximately 12,000 Molokans living in the republic. Since then, most have left.

To call the community “closed” isn’t something of an overstatement. In fact, it’s not too far from the truth. Apart from venturing out of Fioletovo and nearby Lermontovo to sell their famous sauerkraut at market, the village instead resembles a traditional Russian enclave cut off from the rest of Armenia. You might even be forgiven for thinking you had entered a settlement somewhere deep in the heart of Russia.

In fact, many consider the Molokans as something akin to the Amish in the United States.

True, the Molokans use motorized vehicles but otherwise, alcohol is forbidden as is marriage outside the community. And, for the more strict adherents to the faith, so is television. Streets are impeccably clean with every other house sporting a fresh coat of paint. The men wear long beards that haven’t been cut in years while most of the women cover their heads. Their fiercely blonde and blue-eyed children are unable to communicate in any language other than Russian.

And herein lies the problem. As idyllic and refreshing as the scene might be, the situation in terms of education is just the opposite. In fact, according to a recent survey of education in national minority communities by the Hazarashen Armenian Centre of Ethnological Studies, “Molokans continue retaining [their] virtues over education and thus, the inertia of perceiving education as secondary continues.”

Finally, after some delay because of work on a book for UNICEF, the article was completed today, the full text of which is available here.

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Golden Apricot Film Festival

RFE/RL also reports that the renowned Canadian filmmaker of Armenian descent, Atom Egoyan, opened the second annual Golden Apricot Armenian Film Festival in Yerevan yesterday. Egoyan will also head the jury for the main competition.

A related news item in Azg also caught my eye. Another film director from the Diaspora, Robert Gedikyan, has also arrived in Armenia to shoot a film about the "real Armenia and Armenians."
I am well informed and know what's going on in Armenia. I think I have sufficient information about one of the most intolerable phenomena -- corruption," Gedikian says.
Meanwhile, in yesterday's RFE/RL Press Review, a pro-opposition newspaper touches upon this sensitive issue.
“In terms of the number of anti-corruption seminars and activities, Armenia is the first in the world, but that the scale of corruption here doesn’t decrease as a result,” laments “Haykakan Zhamanak.” covered the festival on Friday and I know that journalists from Hetq Online are also attending. Unfortunately, however, the Hetq site is still down.

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Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Opposition leader says "Karabakh Opposed to Phased Peace Deal"

Aram Gaspar Sarkisyan, Opposition Rally, Yerevan, Republic of Armenia © Onnik Krikorian / Oneworld Multimedia

Yesterday, RFE/RL reported that Armenia and Azerbaijan are "close to finalizing a peace deal" over the disputed mainly-Armenian populated territory of Nagorno Karabakh. Today, ArmeniaLiberty reports that a senior opposition figure says that the authorities in Stepanakert are opposed to the idea of a "phased peace deal."
Senior Armenian sources privy to the peace process have told RFE/RL that this formula is at the heart of a peace accord which is likely to be reached by Armenia and Azerbaijan. They said the deal calls for an independence referendum to be held in Karabakh within 10 to 15 years from the liberation of most of the Armenian-occupied lands in Azerbaijan proper and the restoration of economic links between the two neighbors.
A former foreign policy advisor to the Armenian President, Robert Kocharian, Aram Gaspar Sarkisyan says that he has discussed the details of the deal with the leadership of the breakaway and self-declared republic. Sarkisyan, now in opposition to Kocharian, is also reported to have warned that the demographics of Karabakh might change by then.

However, Armen Rustamian, a senior member of the nationalist Armenian Revolutionary Federation - Dashnaktsutiun (ARF-D), is reported to agree with the deal in principle. Dashnaktsutiun is part of the three-party coalition government loyal to Kocharian and appears to hold a surprisingly different view of the proposed peace deal than the opposition in Armenia.
“The main demand of the Armenian side is that the issue of Karabakh’s status be solved in accordance with the Artsakh people’s right to self-determination,” he told RFE/RL. “So we must achieve the realization of that right.”

“But we don’t have the remaining details,” he added. “As they say, the devil is in the details. A few concrete issues must be clarified. For example, the territory on which the referendum is to be held and the electorate that will take part in the vote.
Interestlingly, this seems at odds with the position of the Karabakh wing of the ARF-D. Last month, one of their party activists was reportedly beaten by the Minister of Defense and other high ranking Karabakh military officials after accusing them of cowardice out of their readiness to return territory outside of Karabakh proper in the event of a peace deal.

The full article can be read online here.

According to ArmInfo, the phased peace deal also deals with the issue of the Turkish-Armenian border. In the event of a peace deal, it reports, the border will be opened. Incidentally, as reported by, the OSCE Minsk co-chairs charged with the task of mediating between the two sides are due to arrive in Yerevan tomorrow from where they will also visit Stepanakert.

The mediators have already visited Baku.

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Hetq Attacked by Hacker

A1 Plus reports that one of the publications that I work for, Hetq Online, was indeed hacked on Friday 8 July. The site is still down but we hope that all will be restored soon. My gut feeling is that the reason for the hack was probably Edik Baghdasarian and Ara Manoogian's investigation into the trafficking of women from Armenia to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) but it's only that for now. The location of the hacker, if possible to pinpoint, will probably provide further clues.

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Karabakh Problem discussed in Georgia

A1 Plus reports that a seminar entitled "The Possibilities and Prospects of Karabakh Conflict Settlement" started today in the neighboring Republic of Georgia. The seminar was organized by the International Crisis Group and will continue until 15 July.

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Close (Again) to Karabakh Peace?

Armenian Church Service held in a theatre, Stepanakert, Nagorno Karabakh © Onnik Krikorian / Oneworld Multimedia 1994

RFE/RL reports that Armenia and Azerbaijan
are close to finalizing a peace deal as early as the end of this year. While this sounds too fantastic, rumors to this effect have been circulating around Yerevan since the end of last year. In the spring, high profile public comments from the Armenian President and Defense Minister confirmed Yerevan's position that "painful concessions are necessary for peace" in order to achieve a final solution to the "frozen conflict" over the disputed territory of Nagorno Karabakh.

The details of the proposed peace deal reported here match precisely the rumors that have been circulating since November 2004, and according to RFE/RL, have effectively been confirmed by anonymous sources in the Armenian government.

The high-level sources, speaking on the condition of anonymity, have told RFE/RL that the conflicting parties have already agreed on the key points of a peace deal that could be formalized as early as this year or at the beginning of next. At the heart of it, they say, is the idea of a referendum in which the Karabakh Armenians will decide whether they want to be independent, become a part of Armenia or return under Azerbaijani rule.

Some Armenian and Western officials have hinted at the possibility of such a vote over the past year that has seen major progress toward the resolution of the Karabakh dispute. Presidents Ilham Aliev and Robert Kocharian could build upon it at their next meeting scheduled to take place in the Russian city of Kazan on August 27.

The Armenian sources claimed that the referendum would be held within 10 to 15 years from the signing of a peace agreement and would follow the return of five of the seven occupied Azerbaijani districts around Karabakh. They said the Lachin district, which serves as the shortest overland link between Armenia and Karabakh, would remain under Armenian control, while agreement has yet to be reached on the seventh occupied territory, Kelbajar. The Armenians are ready to pull out of Kelbajar only after a date is set for the referendum, while the Azerbaijani side is demanding its liberation along with the five other districts, the sources said.

Of course, being close to peace and actually getting there are two entirely different things but it has to be said that the feeling among those privy to some of the details have been very optimistic about a peace deal since eary 2005. However, as with the Key West talks held in 2001, it remains to be seen how political forces in Azerbaijan will react to this news – if true – so close to the November Parliamentary Elections. Interestingly, Itar-Tass reports that "political consultations" were held on resolution of the Karabagh conflict in Baku today.

The full news item can be read online here.

On the subject of Lachin, a photo essay I shot there can be found online here as well as photos taken soon after the 1994 ceasefire. There is also an article I wrote for Transitions Online on settlement in Lachin available on my web site.

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Monday, July 11, 2005 Hacked?

It would appear that this weekend, someone hacked into the web site of Hetq Online, one of the publications I work for in Armenia, and it is now temporarily unavailable. Of course, with Edik Baghdasarian's hard hitting investigative journalism, it's no wonder that this would happen. In November, for example, the car belonging to the editor of the Haykakan Zhamanak newspaper, Nikol Pashinian, was firebombed allegedly by MP, oligarch and former arm wrestler, Gagik Tsarukian (AKA Dodi Gago) in probable retaliation against the paper's reprinting of some of Edik's articles.

Of course, the businessman who is considered by some analysts to be a front for the business interests of two senior government officials, denied the allegations.

It's difficult to say what has exactly happened for now until Hetq investigates further but given the high profile investigation into the trafficking of women from Armenia to the United Arab Emirates which also includes allegations that members of the Armenian and UAE government are somehow involved, the "sudden disappearance" of the site comes at an interesting and convenient time. Thankfully, however, many – if not all – of those articles are available on Ara Manoogian's blog over at Martuni or Bust.

In the meantime, I shall be seeing Edik later today and will keep you updated on any new developments.

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The land of tortured souls

Psychiatric patient at home, Chambarak, Gegharkunik Region, Armenia © Onnik Krikorian / Oneworld Multimedia

Yesterday, the UK's The Sunday Times published a harrowing account by author DBC Pierre of reality as it can be experienced in Armenia. Spending time with the Belgium wing of Médecins Sans Frontières, the writer visited the economically depressed border regions of Armenia to look at the situation of the mentally disabled living in already vulnerable communities. Unfortunately, many of the scenes and stories he describes are true.
More than a decade after the announcement of ceasefire, much of Armenia still lives in a state of poverty, her infrastructure in decay. Pensions, when they're paid, amount to little over $6 a month, yet fuel costs approach those in the United States. A young republic for the third time in her history, Armenia has no mineral resources to speak of and relies heavily on diaspora Armenians for support. She struggles to find the tools to clear the mess that the 1980s lobbed into her house. In a world intent on the immediacy of conflict, on the savage, newsworthy glamour of unfolding crises, this forgotten place seems a bitter taste of things to come. The taste of a chronic, festering aftermath.


Not far from the house with the missile sits the border town of Chambarak, comfortably settled into the folds of a high valley. The town is a mixture of rusticity and post-Soviet neglect, an occasional apartment block rising between traditional houses of lava and stone, and smatterings of hay and dung. Some windowsills sport old US Aid tins as flowerpots or buckets, souvenirs of support long gone. A nutty haze of dung smoke hangs over Chambarak, from ubiquitous solid-fuel heaters like large, iron shoe boxes with stovepipes attached. The market building is a vacant shell, attended every day by a crowd of heavily-wrapped men doing nothing and talking about doing nothing. Only one trader is there, selling twigs for broomsticks. 'There used to be nearly 100% employment here,' says a man. 'Now, it's nearly 100% unemployment. Every day there are five funerals, but never a birth.'


© Psychiatric patient at home, Lchashen, Gegharkunik Region, Armenia © Onnik Krikorian / Oneworld Multimedia

Hamest and her husband are mentally retarded. So are their children. And their life's routine after the door closes behind us is one of unthinkable abuse. Hamest's husband often trades their bread for vodka and drinks with other men in the building, often in that tiny room. He regularly beats Hamest, and there is reason to suspect her daughters suffer sexual abuse at the hands of the men. Hamest's mother is dead, and she has lost all contact with the family she knew when she fled Azerbaijan's capital, Baku, in 1990. She is utterly powerless.

MSF provides Hamest with a grant for electricity, and its psychologist tries to convince her to send her adolescent daughter to a boarding facility, away from the horrors of home. But Hamest is afraid she will lose her daughter as well. I retire from the building with questions. Not least, what are the odds of a mentally handicapped couple finding each other, and going on to raise a handicapped family?


I learn that when Hamest's husband is out, ranking soldiers from the local base come to the hostel for sex. The kindlier officers might sometimes leave a bag of pasta, or a loaf of bread, for her troubles. The hostel's inhuman feel palls over me. I'm staying in a Soviet apartment in Chambarak, without running water, and with intermittent power. The snow at its entrance has compacted into grey ice, and a puddle of bright blood - hopefully from a freshly killed animal - gilds its shine. Suddenly, it is relative luxury.


Next day, in nearby Martuni, I meet the region's chief psychiatrist. His office is in a seemingly deserted polyclinic that stands alone in the snow, winds howling through its open concrete foyer. It's bitterly cold inside. No power here either, and the building seems largely empty; only debris and litter are visible through darkened doorways. A nurse ushers us into the office. When Dr Mikayel Kahramanyan arrives, he goes to a cabinet at the back of the room and produces plates of freshly sliced fruit, nuts, chocolate, soft drinks. And brandy. It's 10.30am.


He agrees there are many institutionalised patients who could be released. But he says the country is still dealing with Soviet structures, and with cultural attitudes. In Armenia, a psychiatrist's report is needed to obtain many types of certificate and licence, including a driver's licence. People won't come forward for treatment, as a psychiatric file would blight them for life. Families shun members with psychoses, and if sufferers aren't committed by their families, they eventually come to the attention of police.


I met many people in the southern Caucasus. Maybe, notwithstanding psychoses brought about by the trauma of war and dislocation, there are no more mental disabilities here than anywhere else. But a great stigma is placed on mental disorder here, and it attaches to anyone within reach of a sufferer. Lesser conditions, such as depression and anxiety, are ignored. And this dynamic forms the heart of Van Baelen's project. He has started on the task of de-stigmatisation.

The children of a psychiatric patient at home, Chambarak, Gegharkunik Region, Armenia © Onnik Krikorian / Oneworld Multimedia

The article also details the recent history of Chambarak. If being situated on the border with Azerbaijan wasn't enough thanks to the added problems of landmines, people suffered greatly during the war. As in other border regions of Armenia, such as in north-eastern Tavoush, they still suffer greatly today. I travelled to Chambarak with MSF-Belgium last year as part of my ongoing project on poverty in Armenia which also included a component on mental health. Along with other international organizations, MSF-Belgium is doing something in the border regions of Armenia but not nearly enough simply because finances are lacking.

Now that's somewhere where I would like to see the Diaspora invest its time and resources. For anyone interested, the article also lists details of how you can donate to MSF-Beligium's work in Armenia.Anyway, the full article can be read online here. There are also some related photographs of psychiatric institutions in Armenia in Macromedia Flash format here.

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Any opinions expressed on this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of any publication or organization that he may be working for now, in the past or in the future.