Cultural situation in Armenia
Cultural Heritage and Civic Engagement


Within the CHOICE project – Cultural Heritage: Opportunity for Improving Civic Engagement, this paper aims to exposit the situation of cultural heritage in Armenia, analyze it in the scope of goals set within the project, also to reflect on possible opportunities that can improve engagement of Armenian civil society into cultural heritage and also draw recommendations for cultural actors towards the same vision.

Despite the fact that Armenia has signed a number of international conventions, there is a very actual question mark asking about the ways how civil society organizations and local communities can get engaged in cultural processes and become active in the field of local development, protection and rehabilitation of cultural heritage and landscape.

In the following three sections of this paper the current cultural situation of Armenia will be discussed with a specific focus on heritage issues. The ball then will be thrown to the middle of the field where there is a border between cultural heritage and civil society. We will try to examine the priority needs and resources of both sides of the field in order to conclude with realistic and feasible recommendations for decision makers, cultural actors and other related stakeholders.


After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the new independent Armenian state faced significant changes in the culture as well. The old Soviet system had been using culture as a tool for ideology and propaganda and the new Republic of Armenia was supposed to destruct the centralized and politicized approach to culture and build a new policy for the new conditions.

The main state authority for culture is the Ministry of Culture which develops and implements the policy of the Armenian Government in culture. It cooperates with regional and local bodies of public administration to ensure the implementation of the state cultural policy. One of the Deputy Ministers of Culture is responsible for structural subdivisions and dedicated units coordinating the sector of historical and cultural heritage.

In the field of cultural heritage the Ministry of Culture deals with the Ministries responsible for Nature Protection, Territorial Administration, Economic Development and Investments, Justice and other state institutions. Collaboration between these bodies in relation to cultural heritage takes place via a number of inter-departmental committees and working groups, among them the Archaeological Interdepartmental Committee, the Interdepartmental Committee for Coordination of Land Schemes for Temporary Use or other committees coordinating the development of urban planning project documentation in RA communities, the licenses for land rental or construction on lands within specially protected nature areas etc.

As a new national state with an ancient culture of several millenniums, for decades the national cultural policy in Armenia has mainly been directed to the preservation and presentation of material cultural heritage and spreading of the national traditional system of values.

The main state regulation – the Law on the Principles of Cultural Legislation, was adopted in 2002, and defines the main principles of the state cultural policy:

  • secure and protect the constitutional right of RA citizens to participate in the cultural life of society;
  • provide cooperation among cultural entities;
  • develop the objectives and the legal basis for the state policies supporting cultural spheres; and
  • provide a legal framework for preservation, presentation and development of the RA cultural values.

The key law that regulates the cultural heritage sphere is the Law on Preservation and Utilisation of Immovable Monuments of History and Culture and of the Historic Environment, which defines historical and cultural monuments and the responsibilities of state governing and local self-governing authorities in the field of monument protection, usage and so on.

The laws themselves were often well-drafted but unfortunately more often they stand as simply un-consulted documents with no practical application. Also, there is another stoned approach to heritage which still keeps the field from development: in Armenia, when talking about heritage, it is mostly meant architecture and not other cultural artefacts inherited from the past. And here lays the main problem of cultural development, the huge obstacle on the way to modernization. Because all the various types of cultural heritage are base for inter-related development programming in contemporary societies, among them – culture and education, culture and social life, culture and industry, culture and employment, culture and development etc.

There are two very specific features in Armenia’s contemporary cultural development – the roles played by the church and the diaspora. On one hand there is the Armenian Apostolic Church as an active cultural player not only in the spiritual sphere but also in relation to the preservation and promotion of Christian heritage. On the other hand there’s the world-spread diaspora being the stimulator for preserving Armenian cultural heritage in their communities and generations, as well as funding the reconstruction of a number of cultural monuments within the homeland. Alongside, there is the new wave of diaspora repatriates who not only act as sponsors for heritage preservation but also become on-site cultural actors with their developed practice and vision.

The recent developments in the approach of the state authorities plant some hope that cultural heritage and related developments are becoming a focus for sustainable economy. The Ministry of Culture indicated that the “protection” of cultural heritage forms part of the Republic of Armenia’s 2014-2025 Strategic Programme of Prospective Development with particular reference to sustaining tangible cultural heritage by preservation and improvement of immovable monuments, museums and libraries to safeguard them for future generations and also to the development of tourism and economic development of the country.

In addition, in 2016 a positive new Strategy and Action Plan for the Protection, Use and Promotion of Historical and Cultural Monuments (Protocol Decree No. 36, September 15, 2016) for the period 2016 – 2020 was approved by the government which aims to develop projects for the protection and use of cultural monuments and also projects for tourism infrastructure development.

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In the SWOT assessment of priority needs of the cultural field, realized by the Regional Monitoring and Capacity Building Unit (RMCBU) in 2013, the considered opinions of all national respondents from all Eastern Partnership countries state that richness and diversity of cultural traditions and heritage (tangible and intangible) has an importance of 27% out of 100% other cultural priorities. Heritage and conservation have understandably been and still are the highest state priority in all these countries and are often related to nation-building and identity formation.

In this regard, if these societies and in this case Armenian population particularly is equipped with enough knowledge and provided with relevant resources and opportunities, sees the impact of the interaction with heritage, then cultural heritage can become the revolutionary effective resource for sustainable development.

As stated in the description of CHOICE, it aims at enhancing civil society’s role and building capacities to develop a heritage-friendly living environment in Belarus, Armenia, Moldova and Ukraine. Before we get to one of the projects sub-granted by CHOICE in Armenia, it is important to have a look at the civic engagement in decision-making processes, a wave that rose in 2010s and keeps targeting cultural heritage issues as well.

In recent years due to the rise of social activism and responsibility among citizens, more and more young activists are engaged in the preservation of cultural heritage and especially the architectural monuments which sometimes are being sacrificed to business demands. There are a number of examples in Yerevan where architectural monuments were preserved or protected only by public pressure (e.g. the open-air hall of the Moscow Cinema which was removed from the state list of protected monuments and where a government decision on its demolition or otherwise has not yet been taken). Other citizens’ initiatives and public advocacy groups have been able to save Mashtots park, in other cases didn’t succeed in their goal but drew high attention of local and even international media and community, such as the “Covered market” or the House of Afrikyans in Yerevan.

Getting to CHOICE projects in Armenia, which were meant to support cultural NGOs and professional associations in organizing innovative projects on preservation and actual interpretation of national cultural heritage, and/or to increase professional capacity, organizational potential, and enforce the role of civil society organizations in shaping local and national cultural environment and cultural policies in their country, we have decided to showcase one of the 6 projects which best explores the face of cultural heritage situation in Armenia, both tangible and intangible.

“Engage Vanadzor” project was initiated and realized by “urbanlab”, a Yerevan-based independent urban think-do-share lab, aiming to promote democratization of urban landscape towards sustainable development in its broader understanding. The project aimed at promoting re-evaluation of Armenia’s 3-rd largest city – Vanadzor’s modern tangible and intangible heritage and advocating its preservation through community engagement.

Being an important and inseparable part of Vanadzor’s cityscape, industrial and modernist architecture and urban design elements were mapped, so was one of the city’s most interesting aspects of urban life – the rock music.

Considering protection of heritage not only an issue for the professionals, the “urbanlab” team combined efforts of both the local community and of the professionals and gave voice to ideas of joint efforts for re-evaluation and protection in a more reachable manner. In order to reach that goal, by the end of the program a rock concert was organized with participation of local bands, as well as from capital Yerevan. The concert was initially intended to be held at an industrial site which was determined as potentially valuable cultural heritage, but based on the negotiations with the private owner and considering some other factors of engaging more participants and gaining more attention, in the end it was held in one of the central squares of Vanadzor.

Other projects of CHOICE in Armenia included revival of exceptional kitchen traditions and specific regional recipes, also projects related to cultural entrepreneurship when the heritage serves not only as a touristic destination, but also empowers the local community to create and activate creative business solutions that can result in sustainable growth of the engaged civic group.

These are just several examples of how cultural organizations and other CSOs can become driving force in urban and rural development and in overall public decision-making, once they responsively adopt their role as facilitators for community inclusion. On the other hand local and regional authorities can play a key role both in protecting cultural heritage and also in managing its intelligent usage.

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If only a few decades ago Armenia could be familiar to someone by Charles Aznavour or Sergei Parajanov, today, the contemporary pop-lover majorities of global world often identify their imagination about Armenia through the American-Armenian pop diva Kim Kardashian. Internally, we cannot deny the huge and maybe the biggest ever reaction of the world and the international media towards Armenia when the latter paid by now the only visit to the homeland of her ancestors. Are we able to rethink the pure moral and ancient identity of ours, which we keep being proud of, but also try to make use of some innovative approaches of globalized trends and give revitalize approaches to identity, history, to our current character as a nation and our future?

Coming to conclusion on the importance of civic engagement in cultural heritage conservation, it is very much important to emphasize that the support given to preservation of past, needs to be balanced with the support for the creativity of the future. It is evident that in order to provide such approach and make it reality, there is an unconditional need of educating a new generation of cultural professionals and providing environment in which new and relevant cultural organizations can be created. Having the freedom of internet and the vast variety of fast developing world, it is a mandatory of our contemporary society to catch up. Any sufficient capacity-building effort in cultural heritage and civic engagement can become a contribution to long-term sustainability of the sphere.

Setting cultural education and professional training programs as a base for recommendations to relevant actors, stakeholders and decision-makers, below are some points that can serve as bricks to be picked up and aligned on that basis. The following are the main needs within which lays the positive change and improvement of the current situation of cultural heritage in Armenia, and they seem to have relevance to all the participant countries of CHOICE. These can be looked at as steps and actions for expected impact:

  • Raising awareness for preservation of tangible and intangible cultural heritage on all levels of society,
  • Promotion and identification of the economic potential of culture and cultural heritage in rural areas,
  • Creation of new use for historic spaces,
  • Promotion of education in cultural heritage and landscape subjects,
  • Facilitation of the processes of social and civic participation in cultural heritage and landscape preservation,
  • Making use of new mechanisms and instruments for participation to foster investments in cultural heritage preservation and revitalization,
  • Development and support of cross-sectoral cooperation in the field of heritage,
  • Provision of smart and inclusive growth of culture as a strategic area for sustainable development,
  • Development of financial assistance tools and funding mechanisms for culture.

Due to experience of developed world, there’s no doubt in the fact that preservation and effective management of historic heritage and the wide circle of cultural tourism activities provide efficient sustainable development of respective communities. And in case the activities and products are generated with the efforts of local economy – the people of that specific cultural landscape, that is the base for increase of employment and development. “Cultural heritage was recognized as a generator for rural revitalization, and rural revitalization was simultaneously seen as a way to safeguard the unique cultural heritage in which Europe traces its roots and identity. In addition, survival of the European rural world was seen as a basic condition for stable and long-term economic development of the whole European community, filling the gap between rural and urban regions”.[1] Worldwide examples have illustrated that cultural heritage becomes both an element and a tool for socio-economic development.

The  civil  society  organizations  can  play  an  important  role  in  community  mobilization and  interaction  as  a  prerequisite  for  preserving  cultural  heritage.  This  role  can  be  enhanced  by  acting  in  partnership  with  public  institutions which  should  be  open,  transparent  and  accountable  towards  interests  groups  and  community  members. In Armenia we have seen particularly the enthusiastic devotion of youth to specific cases or goals and that is another reason to concentrate some closer focus on the new generation of independence. There is an essential need to engage more youth in the promotion of the diversity of cultural expressions and stimulate their creativity to scale up successful programming in creative industries. The decision makers in culture need to be supported in the elaboration and implementation of cultural policy measures and action plans targeting youth and promoting their participation.

On the other hand there is a way huge need of improvement of various partnerships. Sharing of knowledge and good practice on sustainable cultural development is needed in all levels, also with other countries and regions. Co-operation contributes to creativity and added value, and can be a way to meet the challenges of globalization. And CHOICE is a wonderful proof to this.

And of course we all should follow and accommodate modern demands which see the existing buildings or sites in a new use. Many historic buildings can be rehabilitated or upgraded for beneficial touristic use. This can become reality in correlation between public subsidy and private sponsorships and donations. In this regard, private supporters’ motivations to invest in culture should be encouraged via various forms of tax relief.

Going beyond specifics, strengthening the engagement of civil society in the protection of cultural heritage can become a tool not only for economic development, but also for peace and social cohesion.

[1] Tolina Loulanski – “Cultural Heritage in Socio-Economic Development: Local and Global Perspectives”, Environments Journal Volume 34(2) 2006

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