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Armenia country profile

24 January 12 11:02 GMT

One of the earliest Christian civilisations, its first churches were founded in the fourth century. In later centuries, it frequently oscillated between Byzantine, Persian, Mongol or Turkish control, as well as periods of independence.

Its rich cultural and architectural heritage combines elements from different traditions. The Armenian language is part of the Indo-European family, but its alphabet is unique.

Divided between the Persians and Ottomans in the 16th century, eastern Armenian territories became part of the Russian Empire in the early 19th century, while the rest stayed within the Ottoman Empire.

Between 1915 and 1917, hundreds of thousands of ethnic Armenians died at the hands of government troops in the Ottoman Empire.

Yerevan wants Turkey, and the world, to recognize the deaths as genocide, and some countries have done so.

However, Turkey says that there was no genocide and that the dead were victims of World War I, and that ethnic Turks also suffered in the conflict.

The governments of the two countries agreed to normalise relations in October 2009, although Turkey has said opening the border will depend on progress on the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute.

An independent Republic of Armenia was proclaimed at the end of the first world war but was short-lived, lasting only until the beginning of the 1920s when the Bolsheviks incorporated it into the Soviet Union.

When Soviet rule collapsed in 1991, Armenia regained independence but retained a Russian military base at Gyumri.

In the mid-1990s the government embarked on an economic reform programme which brought some stability and growth. The country became a member of the Council of Europe in 2001.

Unemployment and poverty remain widespread. Armenia's economic problems are aggravated by a trade blockade imposed by neighbouring Turkey and Azerbaijan since the dispute over Nagorno-Karabakh.

Despite these problems, Armenia's economy experienced several years of double-digit growth before a sharp downturn set in in 2008.

The conflict over the predominantly Armenian-populated region in Azerbaijan overshadowed Armenia's return to independence.

Full-scale war broke out the same year as ethnic Armenians in Karabakh fought for independence, supported by troops and resources from Armenia proper. A ceasefire in place since 1994 has failed to deliver any lasting solution.

Armenia receives most of its gas supply from Russia and, like some other republics of the former Soviet Union, has had to face sharp price rises. Russian gas arrives via a pipeline running through Georgia.

Armenia has a huge diaspora and has always experienced waves of emigration, but the exodus of recent years has caused real alarm. It is estimated that Armenia has lost up to a quarter of its population since independence, as young families seek what they hope will be a better life abroad.

President: Serge Sarkisian

In presidential elections held in February 2008, Prime Minister Serge Sarkisian was declared winner in the first round with 52.9% of the vote. But thousands of opposition supporters took to the streets to protest the poll, which they say was rigged.

Russian President Vladimir Putin congratulated Mr Sarkisian and Europe's main election monitoring body, the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), said the vote had mostly met international standards.

Outgoing President and close ally, Robert Kocharian, handpicked the prime minister to succeed him after Sarkisian's Republican Party swept parliamentary polls in May 2007.

Serge Sarkisian was a Soviet soldier and later worked in the defence-committee of the self-proclaimed Nagorno-Karabakh Republic. He was then appointed Armenia's minister of defence. He had a spell as minister of national security and head of the presidential staff before returning to the defence ministry.

Mr Sarkisian faces the challenge of restarting stalled talks in the dispute over Nagorno-Karabakh. He has also pledged to use his time as leader to improve living standards for the Armenian people.

In 2009, he signed signed a historic deal to re-establish diplomatic ties with Turkey, but the pact broke down when Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan insisted it depended on Armenia resolving its dispute with Azerbaijan first.

Mr Sarkisian was born in Nagorno-Karabakh in 1954.

Television is Armenia's dominant medium. There are more than 40 private TV stations, operating alongside the two public networks. The main Russian TV channels are widely available.

Few Armenians rely on newspapers as their primary source of news. Print runs are small and most publications are owned by wealthy individuals or political parties.

Censorship is prohibited under a 2004 media law. However, libel and defamation are punishable by prison terms and journalists have been sentenced under these laws.

The authorities use "informal pressure" to control broadcasting outlets, Freedom House said in 2010. Violence against journalists is a problem, it added.

There were 1.4 million internet users by June 2010 (InternetWorldStats.com).

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