Armenia is a poor and landlocked country with a worldwide diaspora and a distinctive culture
Occupying the north-western part of the Armenian Highlands, Armenia is almost entirely mountainous: the average elevation is 1,800 metres. The landscape is spectacular, with rushing rivers, deep valleys, and many lakes—the largest of which is Lake Sevana. The land can also be violent. The country is dotted with extinct volcanoes, and an earthquake in 1988 killed more than 25,000 people. But the country has few resources in terms of energy or minerals, and much of the land and water is heavily polluted.
Armenia is one of the world's oldest civilizations and its territory once extended from the Mediterranean in the west to the Caspian Sea in the east. Centuries of conquest and occupation have, however, shrunk it to more modest boundaries.
Even within these the population is fairly concentrated. Two-thirds of Armenians live in towns and cities, with the greatest numbers in the Ararat plain along the south-western border with Turkey. There is also an extensive Armenian diaspora. Around 1.5 million ethnic Armenians live in other parts of the former Soviet Union and 2.5 million more are scattered around the world. The 1988 war with Azerbaijan generated around 250,000 ethnic Armenian refugees from Azerbaijan while ethnic Azeris moved in the other direction. By 2007, there was again a net outflow of people. In 2008 their remittances of over $1 billion were around 10% of GDP.
Armenia's distinctive culture also survived through the Soviet era. Ethnically the country is very homogenous. Most people are Christians—members of the Armenian Apostolic Church, and the Armenian language has retained its own unique alphabet.
During the Soviet era, education and health standards were high, but subsequently deteriorated following sharp cuts in public services. Now around two-thirds of health spending is private.
The Soviet era also transformed Armenia into an industrial economy, but since then heavy industries have suffered a steep decline. One of the more productive areas has been precious stones and gem cutting—based on skilled and low-cost labour, though often using imported diamonds. Other healthier industries in the past few years include energy, telecoms, and chemicals. Gold mining has also benefited from new flows of foreign investment.
Armenia's steep terrain does not make for much productive agriculture and the country has to import a high proportion of its grains and dairy products. Nevertheless, agriculture still employs around one-third of the population, working largely on irrigated land in the Ararat plain where the main crops include potatoes, grapes, and tobacco. Agriculture was boosted by land reform in the 1990s, and most land is now in private hands, though typically in small farms.
The dispute over Nagorno-Karabakh
The economy shrank dramatically in the early 1990s but subsequently grew quite rapidly which helped reduce formerly high levels of unemployment, though around one-quarter of the population still live below the poverty line.
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Armenia became independent in 1991. The new president was the leader of the Pan-Armenian National Movement, Levon Ter-Petrosian, who was elected on a platform of modest reform. Since then political developments have been shaped by the dispute over the Nagorno-Karabakh region of Azerbaijan, which is inhabited by ethnic Armenians. When, in 1992, Nagorno-Karabakh declared its independence, Armenia supplied it with weapons and eventually invaded. Armenia's soldiers had previously been among the élite of the Soviet Army, and in 1993 easily overcame the Azerbaijanis, seizing around 20% of Azerbaijan—including Nagorno-Karabakh. A ceasefire was agreed in 1994 but Armenian troops remain.
Ter-Petrosian was re-elected in 1996, but in 1997 he made the fatal mistake of softening the line on Nagorno-Karabakh. This outraged nationalist sentiment and helped provoke mass defections to the opposition, and in early 1998 forced Ter-Petrosian to resign.
The ensuing presidential election in April 1998 was won by his ex-prime minister Robert Kocharian, also an ex-leader of Nagorno-Karabakh.
On the domestic front, popular discontent with the government took a violent turn in October 1999 when nationalists stormed the parliament, killing the prime minister and seven others. Subsequently, the opposition remained weak and no single leader emerged, which left the field open for Kocharian, to be re-elected in 2003.
In the controversial 2008 election he was replaced by the establishment candidate, Serzh Sargsyan. Ter-Petrosian contested the result and organized protests. Claiming he was organizing a coup, the government clamped down, which resulted in eight deaths. Opposition leaders were imprisoned.
The 2012 parliamentary elections were more peaceful, though still tainted by claims of fraud and vote-rigging. Sargsyan’s Republican Party won again, with 44% of the vote.