From the 1920s through the 1980s, Moscow ruled Armenia. The capital, Yerevan, may have been a conduit, but nothing more in carrying out the demands of the Kremlin during the decades of the Soviet Republic of Armenia.
After the adoption of the Republic of Armenia Constitution in 1995, local and state government administrations were founded within the country's public administration system.
"For 70 years all decisions were made at one spot—Moscow. The transition was hard but we chose to build a democratic country," says first deputy minister of Territorial Administration of Armenia Vache Terterian. "We created the system of local government which was supposed to meet international standards."
Significant to the development of de-centralized government was the Law on Local Self-Government (LSG), adopted in Armenia in 2002.
Implementing a system in which local authorities were invested with power previously centered in the capital has been a slow adjustment after decades of decision-making from the very top.
Emin Yeritsian, president of the Republican Association of Communities, dealing in LSG-related fundamental issues, says that the inertia of Soviet administration continued during the first years.
"Despite the establishment of an independent country and democracy, the central government still saw its influence in the local government. It wasn't accidental that during the first years of establishment of the system the government often showed distrust towards community leaders. That has stopped today," says Yeritsian.
According to Yeritsian, the government and LSGs are good working partners today.
"The communities are facing increased responsibilities each year and are quite successful in fulfilling them, as experience proves. Since 2002, communities are responsible for tax and public utility payments collection, and they are implementing them successfully by increasing the local budgets," says Yeritsian.
According to the current territorial-administrative division, Armenia consists of 10 provinces (known locally as "marzes"). The provinces are divided into urban and rural communities.
"Despite the shortcomings and faults, we are certain of one thing—local government system—the way it is now—was inevitable, irreplaceable and necessary," says deputy minister Terterian.
Armenia's 1,000 settlements are united into 903 communities, 49 of which are urban and 854 rural. After the Constitutional Referendum in 2005, Armenia's capital Yerevan was also designated as a community. Shirak province has the largest number of communities (119). As of January 1, 2009, the smallest community in Armenia is Upper Shorzha in Gegharkunik province with a population of 24. The largest rural community is Akhuryan village in Shirak province with a population of 10,052.
Learning local leadership
The first local government elections were held in Armenia in 1996. Community leaders and the community council are elected for four years. Local Self-Government authorities implement budgets determined by local means (rather than from central government), as well as projects and programs outlined and financed by the State Budget.
Ashot Giloyan, head of the Local Self-Government department of the Ministry of Territorial Administration, says that today LSGs are self-sufficient. About 10,000 "civil servants" run the LSGs, from which about 3,000 are elected. Those who are elected must attend training in local government administration.
Three major Non Governmental Organizations in Armenia train municipal administrators: the Republican Association of Communities, the Union of Financial Experts of Armenia and Association of Municipal Councilors of Armenia.
Every year hundreds of members of municipal councils are trained by the Association of Municipal Councilors of Armenia NGO.
"Council members change with each election in order to give a training opportunity to new members," says the president of the association Arayik Hovhannisian.
Yeritsian says there is no shortage in professionals in the communities. He adds, though, that there is a need for more project proposals (usually grant-funded) and a need for more young professionals with foreign-language skills who could work with international donors.
Hovhannisian says, too, that the general population is still adjusting to the concept of local administration autonomy. "People are not informed which administrative body to turn to when they have this or that problem. It's a two-way street. The community leader has to cooperate with the residents of the community, hold meetings, receptions and keep in touch with the population."
Mayor of Echmiadzin Karen Grigorian says that often people turn to him with requests that are outside the local authority.
"When we say that it is not our problem, they say, 'I have elected you to solve my problems.'" The mayor says that in such cases his duty becomes lobbying with this or that state office to satisfy the needs of his constituents.
In many communities residents are still surprised (and suspicious) when told they have to pay taxes for the maintenance of, for example, music schools and kindergartens.
"They say: 'Why isn't the state giving you money?' They do not have a clear understanding of the mechanism. People still have Soviet-era dogmas," says Grigorian. "But many come and say: 'I have paid so much, why isn't my issue solved?' It is good that people are trying to oversee even the one dram they have paid."
Terterian says that, naturally, shortcomings and flaws remain to be worked out.
"What is written on paper as a law is wonderful, but the question is how all that is implemented in reality. We have serious problems in applying the law."
He also points out that community work becomes productive and targeted when there is trust between the population and the leader.
"Community leaders have to get publicity. Those communities where there are TV companies or newspapers do so. Things are more difficult with smaller communities," he says.
Mayor Grigorian says that the Etchmiadzin community council sessions are open to the public and announced by flyers posted about town. The City Hall also holds designated days when residents may visit authorities.
Local government is in the focus of a number of international organizations. Starting from the first years of establishment, the system cooperated with the European Union, United Nations Organization, German Technical Assistance Company (GTZ), United States Agency for International Development (USAID), RTI International (one of the world's leading research institutes).
"During the past 10 years communities have made progress. I can't, of course, speak about all of them, but those we have worked with clearly feel that progress," says Samuel Coxon, head of the third phase of USAID contractor RTI's Armenia Local Government Program. "But local government is not a project; it does not have a beginning, mid-cycle and an end. It's a constant, permanent, dynamic process. " Part of the process is to educate residents on the need for self-sufficiency—a concept yet shadowed by the communist ideology.
This summer, RTI and Etchmiadzin municipality co-funded a local heating project at kindergarten No. 6, which is attended by 220 children.
"Until now the kindergarten has been heated by individual gas heaters. Within the framework of this wonderful project we will have a safe central heating system and hot water, so that we can wash the dishes with hot water now," says the director of the kindergarten Svetlanna Abgarian.
Coxon says they have carried out local heating projects in six communities. Thirty two out of the 48 urban communities chose to purchase a garbage truck through co-financing in order to dispose of hard domestic wastes. Nor Hachn and Aparan communities have given preference to a water supply system.
Making a community of the capital
Until this year, the Mayor of Yerevan was appointed by the President. As part of the 2005 referendum, however, the capital city is included in the Local Self-Government scheme (with special provisions that apply to the capital). Under the new arrangement, the city administration belongs to the elected City Council, which, in turn, selects a mayor.
In May of this year the Republican Party of Armenia won the most City Council mandates and named Gagik Beglarian as mayor.
"Yerevan—the capital of all Armenians—becomes one big community with these changes," says Beglarian. "It is in the center of everybody's attention—from a regular citizen to the mayor. It should be noted that one of the positive results of the amendments in the LSG system is that the mayor is accountable to those residents who gave their vote of trust, since the law provides for the city council to express its confidence in the mayor."
Unlike previous local-government elections, when voter turnout tended to be passive, the first Yerevan mayoral election drew 407,745 votes—52.85 percent of registered voters.
LSG expert Hovhannisian sees the turnout as a sign that capital residents understand the concept of building a government from the local level. "Communities are among the most important roots in a country where democratic foundations are being laid," he says.
"During my meetings with Yerevan residents I always say that they have to be most vigilant and careful in municipal elections, since they have to vote for someone who will be in everyday direct contact with the population and its problems and who will be familiar with people's concerns and worries," says Beglarian.
In the capital, citizens are encouraged to participate in local government via the City Hall website www.Yerevan.am. Residents having submitted petitions through the "Our Window" online service of the municipality are given passwords by which they can track the process and results of their petitions.
"Yerevan City Hall and I personally have adopted a transparent way of working since the main purpose of our work is related to people's issues," says Beglarian.
Benefits of local legislation
It is not just the Yerevan municipality that has felt the shift from federalized government.
Since last year, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) has been implementing projects supporting municipal governments in Armenia's provinces.
USAID representative Allen Stansbury says that currently the agency is implementing 47 programs representing about $60 million in assistance.
Commenting on the course of the programs, Stansbury said that "they are proceeding as planned and some have even surpassed the expected level of success." USAID is in direct contact and close cooperation with the Armenian government in the preliminary stage of program preparation. In particular, the government shows assistance in the planning and realization of programs as well as in the selection of contracting organizations.
A program called Community Self-Help Fund is being carried out in Armenia's communities. Within the framework of the program, a number of projects have been selected aimed at restoring and renovating schools, kindergartens, setup of heating systems and gym construction. According to the terms of the program, the given municipal community has to invest at least 20 percent of the program's total budget.
Since implementation of the project, a Soviet-era music school for 150 students in Alaverdi, Lori province, was renovated. The renovation included a refurbished heating system, so that the school which has been closed since independence will soon be reopened.
Despite numerous problems, the social conditions of residents of Vayk, a town in Vayots Dzor, are improving due to the attention given local administrations. As the mayor of Vayk (population 5,800) Harutyun Sargsian says, garbage disposal has been one of the town's major problems. GAZ-51, a garbage-collecting relic of Soviet mechanical engineering, operated in the town and used to break down every other day, so garbage was practically not removed.
However, since October 2008, as a part of USAID's program, a refuse-collector of Russian production has been purchased for $35,000, and things have gotten better. As required by the project terms, 20 percent of the price was paid by the town administration of Vayk.
Sargsian says the town administration has worked out a program for its development by 2013, with a total projected cost of about $171,000.
Through the local administration initiative, the town's central Shahumian Street has been paved and illuminated. Another central street—Yeritasardakan (Youth)—is planned to be paved, and the House of Culture (recreation center) and Arevik football stadium are slated for repair. "Our Clean Town" cleanup project implemented trash removal programs as well as a number of other activities.
"Unemployment remains the most acute problem in the town," says the mayor. As resident Aida Poghosian remarked sarcastically while coming out to empty her garbage into the city truck: "That truck is the only thing that has a job in this city."
The situation of employment is much better in Artashat (population 20,500), in Ararat province, where the town provided jobs while making street improvements (asphalt, lighting) as part of $24,000 USAID-supported local municipality programs.
In general, reforms of the local government-related legislation pave the way for a more stable and developed local government system in the country. The authority of local government bodies is increasing from year to year and today these bodies enjoy some autonomy.
The state's policy of developing strong communities is expected, experts say, to result in a stronger republic.