Armenian Parliament at its Beginnings

Armenian Parliament at its Beginnings

The Council of Armenia

Some of the most significant bills by the parliament of the First Armenian Republic (1918-1920), put in a historical context.

Text : Tigran Zakaryan


Those who are interested in Armenian history are aware that up until 1918 there was no representative legislative body in the country. A handful of them might also know that the first Armenian parliament which existed from August 1918 till March 1919 was called the Council of Armenia.

The Council was formed amid the chaos of the war when even thinking of holding election would sound ludicrous. Instead the newly and haphazardly formed legislative body came into being having at its core the Tbilisi-based Armenian National Council (hence its name Council) and its membership extended by new delegates added from each faction proportionally as well as representatives from the ethno-religious communities residing in Armenian. Thus it had 46 delegates, of whom 38 were Armenians, six were Muslims, with one Russian and another one Yezidi. The seats of the Armenian delegates were distributed in the following way: the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF) held 18 seats, Armenian National Party (one of the forerunners of the Democratic Liberal (Ramgavar) Party), Social Democratic and Socialist Revolutionary parties (“EsErs”) had six seats each, added by two independent delegates. It is worthwhile to mention that the legislative lacking a clear majority very soon displayed certain differences – particularly in the foreign policy issues – with the government representing the ARF, as a result of which on 4 November 1918 the first Armenian Prime Minister Hovhannes Kajaznuni was tasked to form yet another cabinet.

We have at our disposal a collection of legal acts adopted by the Council of Armenia, which was published in 1919 in Yerevan. A good number of them cannot be considered as law in the strictest sense of the term, since in our days such decrees or directives are issued by the government, by a specific ministry or any other government body, but not by the parliament. Such instances include decisions on issuing specific amounts of money for certain purposes (which was an indication of a lack of a general state budget in that period), adding wages to civil servants, pardoning or commuting prison terms of certain individuals.

Below are represented comments to certain groups of legal acts adopted by the Council of Armenia between August 1918 and February 1919.

 

Fight against hunger and epidemics

The epidemics of contagious diseases – namely typhus and cholera – on one hand and the widespread famine – on the other were just a few of the calamities facing the young republic. The period between the autumn of 1918 and the spring of 1919 was a most disastrous one claiming the lives of some 150,000 people, which – depending on our definition of the borders of Armenia, very much fluid back then – constituted up to a shocking 20 percent of its total population. It did not spare either the political elite of the state, driving the statesman and a main hero of 1918 May battles Aram Manukyan, State Controller Minas Berberyan and others into early graves.

The main victims of this misfortune were mostly the homeless and destitute refugees, who numbered somewhere close to 400,000 throughout the Caucasus, mostly elderly people, women and children.

The government of Armenia spared no effort to channel its meager resources towards fighting the epidemics and famine, in the meantime establishing state supervision over the sale and the prices of such strategically a literally vital goods as potatoes.

 

Collecting weapons from the population and internal pacification

Strengthening the foundations of any newborn state requires ensuring rule of law through means also including coercion, if necessary, in the meantime ruling out violent actions on the part of private individuals or organized groups. All this was a big problem facing the government of the newly independent Armenia.

Interior Minister Aram Manukyan in a speech on 23 August 1918 stated that private individuals were in possession of “huge stocks” of firearms – some 60 to 150 thousand units namely – which the Armenian nascent army badly needed. Manukyan underlined that although previously arming the civilians was important for local self-defense, by that time of relative peace and shaping of the statehood the armed populace was “worthless and unhelpful, moreover, a hindrance to the army”.

The law was adopted but a few days later stipulated that under special conditions and with the special approval by the interior minister a very limited number of civilians would be authorized to carry firearms, for exclusively self-defense purpose.

 

Information and information security

State governance and molding civil society require a serious and meticulous engagement with flows of information, especially when it comes to a newly independent state in the making, which is essentially in a semi-war state.

Based on this kind of considerations the authorities of the newborn Armenia quickly made a decision to establish a “radio station” in Yerevan. It is worth mentioning that in this case by a “radio station” a radiotelegraphic facility is meant, capable of sending and receiving wireless messages, which was of vital importance to the country which was essentially in a blockade.

In the meantime the Council of Armenia, guided by the concern of preventing news leaks – which by the way, have reached epic proportions in Armenia in modern days – made first attempts at regulating media’s rights and responsibilities in accessing to information.

 

Armenia’s finances prefer Dilijan

It turns out that the town of Dilijan became a spot of choice for the finances of Armenia back in 1918 when in September of that year the parliament of the newborn republic passed a resolution on establishing the first ever national treasury of independent Armenia.

Apart from aesthetical preferences, the choice of Dilijan was made, most likely, due to its central location of the de-jure Armenia (which by September 1918 included only a faction of today’s Armenia, confined within borders including the city of Yerevan and surroundings, Kotayk region, the Sevan lake basin, parts of Tavush and Aragatsotn) further solidified by the mountainous terrain surrounding it.

 

Public Works for the Displaced

As mentioned above, the newly independent Armenia was flooded with starving and destitute refugees. Almost all of the political parties represented in the Council of Armenian socialist in their political ideology and it was only normal that under those conditions the government took rigorous measures to fight against famine and provide jobs – and therefore a living – to those people. By the autumn of 1918 decisive measures were taken to ensure the state control over the reserves of such a strategic raw material as cotton and setting up public manufactures for processing the stocks available which would employ the jobless refugees. In the meantime allowances were established for those who were incapacitated or those who were seeking job, but not finding it, in the meantime excluding those who refused jobs offered.

As per a budget estimate annexed to the law on Establishing Weaving Mills for the Needy Refugees approved on 8 October by the Council of Armenia the authorities were to open as many as 37,000 new jobs, chiefly for women.

 

Holidays in Armenia for everybody

As soon as the upheavals of the initial several months of the Armenian Republic’s existence was somewhat settled down the parliament engaged into shaping of the newly established state attributes, including the list of official holidays. It is worth to note that the official statehood was a mandatory non-working day only for a minority of all workers, as the vest majority of them were farmers, others were self-employed artisans who decided their working schedule on their own.

In the long list of holidays one can find not only Armenian Church holidays, but also such days for Orthodox Christians and Shia Muslims, with a staggering number of 15 days marked by the latter group.

The official calendar of holidays also included secular holidays, such as the 1st of May – marked as the Labor Day – which shows that that holiday was marked before the communists came to power in Armenia.

The 1st of August was also an official holiday, marking the beginning of the Armenian parliament, just like the 5th of July marked as the Constitution Day in present Armenia. Interestingly enough there was a “Great Russian Revolution Day”. Now, those who lived in the Soviet Union remember a holiday of “Great October Revolution of 1917” marked – oddly enough – on November 7, while the soviet historiography mentioned the anti-czarist, democratic revolution of 12 March as the “February Revolution” – the sole responsible of this whole confusion in naming being the Russian Orthodox Church which stubbornly refused to shift to Gregorian Calendar, due to which there by the beginning of the 20th century there was a 13-day difference between the calendars in the Russian empire and the rest of the world. There was some logic in marking the “February” revolution in Armenia as it had created an opportunity to start the process of independence and a democratic Russia was potentially a good ally.

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