This is the fourth of a six-part series that I wrote for, the official online source for the Investigative Journalists of Armenia. The English-language editor posted this installment on January 31, 2011. It appears here with only minor changes, including one endnote.



The Regime Presides over Socio-Economic Disaster

by Markar Melkonian


The party of power in Yerevan includes in its platform the statement that “the basis of the Armenian society is a traditional family."* The platform introduces us to a short roster of other marvelous entities, too, including “the Armenian type,” an “Armenian essence,” and spiritual values, all punctuated by invocations of God.

It is probably a mistake to try to make sense of this sort of “traditional family” talk. The function of this rhetoric, after all, is not to convey meaning but to numb brains. Putting the best face on things, though, Armenia’s Republicans deserve credit at least for using the indefinite article—“the basis of A traditional family,” instead of “THE traditional family.”

But which traditional family? It is hard to take seriously the suggestion that the “basis” of Armenia today is the extended patriarchal family of rural Armenia before the 20 th century. This leads to the suspicion that Armenia’s Republicans, perhaps unwittingly, are extolling the nuclear family that thrived in the country’s towns and cities during the Soviet decades.

Although this nuclear version of a traditional family is modern, it still evokes soft-focus pictures of the Armenian hearth (ojax), that little refuge of sympathy and mutual support. Back in the Soviet days, girls and boys were fed, cherished, and educated--and all of this without the threat of hell or the promise of heaven.

But those were the bad old days, before Armenia joined Bosnia and Kyrgyzstan in the exalted club of independent nations. Now that Free Enterprise has returned to Armenia, bread is no longer an entitlement.


Families Face Hard Times

Families, traditional or otherwise, are not doing well in Armenia these days. The self-advertised champions of “traditional family” values preside over a country where even basic postnatal healthcare is beyond the reach of many households; a country where single-parent households have proliferated; where transnational pimping and human trafficking have become growth industries, and where elderly pensioners, reduced to wards of soup kitchens, spend their last years as charity cases, stripped of dignity.

Laura Michael, a member of a charity that works with orphans, recently made the obvious causal connection between post-Soviet poverty and the disintegration of Armenian families: “Fifty percent of the population in Armenia lives in poverty,” she noted, “and often people cannot care for their children due to financial reasons.” (“Inside the Orphanages of Armenia.,” The Armenian Weekly online, Oct. 6, 2010.)

Over the past twenty years, successive administrations in Yerevan have set in motion processes that have gutted public institutions that used to benefit Armenia’s most vulnerable populations.

Privatizations of land, together with “pro-business” tax policies have depopulated the countryside, pushing the rural population off of farms and emptying Armenia’s villages and small towns. The resulting dislocation and unemployment have divided tens of thousands of families in this small country, as husbands, fathers, and sons have sought jobs in Krasnodar, Moscow, and farther afield. In this way, successive post-Soviet regimes have created thousands of abandoned wives, mothers, and children.

Meanwhile, privatization and real estate speculation have pushed housing costs in Yerevan far beyond what many families can afford. Real estate tycoons and developers have pressured poor and working-class residents to sell homes, sometimes at far below market value. (Among other sources, see: Vahan Ishkanyan, “Futile Fight: Angry Property Owners Use Barricades as Last Defense,” ArmeniaNow, September 12, 2005). On Buzand Street and elsewhere, police have evicted longtime homeowners, who could do little more than watch helplessly while bulldozes leveled their flats. When the homeowners have sought legal redress, the courts have almost invariably ruled against them.


Unprotected Children, Underfunded Schools

The same pro-business priorities together with scanty local budgets have hit hard when it comes to funding for preschools and primary and secondary schools. According to a recent UNICEF report, “close to 80 percent of pre-school age children do not attend pre-schools due to poverty and/or absence of pre-school facilities.” ( This is far lower than preschool attendance during the last decades of Soviet Armenia.

Other recent studies have noted growing absenteeism and drop-out rates among primary and secondary-school students. Children in some of Armenia’s poorest families spend their days working in the fields, begging, selling knickknacks on the streets, or collecting recyclables from garbage dumps.

Child labor laws have been weakened, of course. But this is largely irrelevant today, since in any case labor laws are not enforced.

None of this bodes well for Armenia’s economic future, since it has endangered what economists twenty years ago considered to be the country’s main comparative advantage in the new global labor market, namely a cheap but highly educated workforce.

UNICEF reports that in Armenia, “there is shortage of learning and teaching materials at schools.” When it comes to Free Market indoctrination, however, it seems that schools receive the necessary resources. Foreign sponsors bribe underpaid school teachers to adopt “economics textbooks” that bury the realities of exploitation, class rule, and imperialism under a thick layer of free market dogmas and slogans, and that encourage children to blame their parents for their poverty.

The Republican Party’s “pro-family” administration has privatized social security, and now we hear that it proposes to amend the Labor Code, to extend a regular work week from five days to six.

They do this because they can get away with it. And they can get away with it because there are no militant unions in Armenia, and because leftwing parties, for one reason or another, do not fight back in the relentless class struggle that the plutocrats are waging against working-class families.


Who Will Defend Workers, Women, the Poor?

According to the sentimental cliché, the mother is the bulwark of the family. But in Armenia today women are no longer safe on the streets--and too often, they are even less safe in the hearth. The domestic violence case of Greta Bagdasaryan and the beating death of Zaruhi Petrosyan are notable because they are especially brutal instances of a more widespread phenomenon.

According to a survey conducted in 2008 by Amnesty International, women in roughly three out of ten families endured physical abuse, and about two-thirds experienced mental duress. According to a more recent study by the Sociometer center, 75 percent of the 1200 women studied had endured violence at the hands of their husbands. The study also found that in one out of four cases children witnessed the violence. (By comparison, a World Health Organization study puts the number of women physically abused by their partners or ex-partners at 30 per cent in the UK, and 22 per cent in the US. One might think that these figures are bad enough.) Other published studies report similarly alarming figures.

No one is denying that domestic violence existed during the Soviet decades. But there was at least a measure of accountability in the Soviet days. By contrast, in Free Independent Armenia, as in the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, the Cold War victors have relaunched misogyny on a scale that had not existed for decades.

High rates of poverty, unemployment, and alcoholism probably play the big role in Armenia that they have played in other places when it comes to domestic violence. It does not improve things, however, when pervasive free-market propaganda denigrates such values as equality and justice.

Confronted with exploding violence against women, authorities have failed to prevent, investigate and punish perpetrators. Even as the violence has escalated, the range of legal recourse and institutional remedies has narrowed. Armenia’s Criminal Code does not even have a specific law against domestic violence.

* * *

Reviewing the record of Armenia’s self-described champions of traditional family values, one wonders just what it would take to distinguish oneself in their eyes as an enemy of the family. In Armenia as elsewhere, demagogues resort to family-value talk because they typically have nothing good to offer the majority of their citizen-subjects. In the context of privatization and the dismantlement of the social safety net, the official phrase-mongering about family and hearth masks an on-going assault on women, children, and families.

The least Armenia’s workers can do is to stop voting for candidates who keep their families poor and insecure. They could let the gangsters stuff the ballot boxes themselves. A longer-term solution, though, would require laying the groundwork for an organized, militant working-class--one that would put a genuine fear of God into the hearts of Armenia’s rulers.


* The party of power was the Republical Party of Serge Sargsyan, third President of the Third Republic.


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