Three weeks ago, in my previous article of April 22, when I offered my views on the solution to the political crisis in Armenia, I could not even imagine how rapidly events in the country would unfold: One day later, Serzh Sargsyan presented his resignation, and two weeks later Nikol Pashinyan rode into 26 Baghramyan Street on a "white horse” as the beloved and literally adored leader, crowned by the people. Armenia entered a new chapter in its history – a chapter full of many positive expectations but also real dangers, and until we undergo this transition period and arrive at a stable democratic destination, the revolution cannot be over and its results absolute and complete.
From the very beginning, the purpose of this revolution has been to establish a modern democracy in the country, free from the oligarchy and the coercion imposed by the law enforcement bodies, from political corruption, systematic humiliation and deprivation of its citizens, from lies and imitations. Therefore, the positive development of the revolution must always have that ultimate objective in mind. Today, when the public is discussing the appointments of the ministers, live announcements made by the new Prime Minister, the continued acts of refusal towards the officials from the previous authorities, it is important that we not lose the focus of our vision, take stock and ask ourselves: Does what is happening take us towards a democratic future or we are staggering or even going backward, distracted by momentary gains? In this sense, it may be helpful to tune down the situational noise for a moment and ask ourselves, why is it that in three decades of independence were we unable to build a democratic country? What has really changed now and what we should do in the near future to move toward sustainable democratic development?
Why did independent Armenia not become a democracy?
It is a well-known fact that the independence of modern Armenia took place not as an ideological and organized historical process but as a spontaneous, essentially mere one year-long movement that coincided with the unprecedented process of dissolution within the Soviet Union. As a result, we had a nominally independent country that lacked many attributes of independence (army, economy, public administration) and most importantly, there was no readiness for independence and an organized ruling elite living with that consciousness. In the course of a few years, the young leaders who came to power in the revolutionary movement, made many mistakes, lost the trust of the population and gradually dropped out of the government, and since 1998, were gradually replaced by people for whom being in power personally was more important than the ideals of freedom, national revival and democracy, the main premises of Armenia's independence. These individuals, who have unequivocally ruled in Armenia for nearly twenty years, managed to consolidate and form both their own system of public administration and well-established ideology within the system.
The basis of this ideology was the philosophy of exploitation formed within our own national environment under the influence of conquerors over centuries (Economist Taron Acemoglu’s coined this Extractive Elite Mentality), at the core of which lies a simple principle: Authority is the main means of monopolizing profits and obtaining public stature, and only those who are ready to serve this principle are admitted to the Club of power. Public prosperity, security, the development of the country, national ideals and justice are all secondary issues, and the elite deals with them only in extreme necessity, insofar as it is required to hold power, while the rest of the time it is imitating public service. This exploitative and imitative activity of the Armenian elite resulted in deep disappointment and a bitter life for the vast majority of the population left standing on the margins, and led them to a massive escape from the Armenian reality. Under the guise of a democratic constitution, the ruling elite was able to create a reality where most people were deprived of any political choice, while the politically active minority, frustrated by electoral institutes, saw the street as the only place to resolve their struggle.
It is painful to realize, however, this system of exploitation got established and managed to maintain power for so many years since it relied on the deepest instincts of a considerable part of our fellow citizens. Systemic corruption, the exploitation of the country’s population and natural resources and the various types of illicit profits derived from it have been and are still the most vital motivators for many individuals, and these people joined various levels of exploitive authorities, since these values was organically embedded in their mindset. On the flipside of the coin was the paternalistic consciousness of the big part of the population, with a consumer-like and passive-aggressive attitude towards government, by which the state is obliged to meet minimum social needs in return for obedience, regardless of the actual value they create through economic activity. Over the past years, the combination of these two dominant mindsets has created a toxic symbiosis on which the authoritarian rule was based. The most striking expression of this were outcomes of national elections when the ruling party garnered the highest votes in the country’s poorest and socially vulnerable communities. In fact, the power of exploiters in our country relied on silent obedience of the most deprived and poor population.
For these two groups of the population, democracy, social and legal justice, and liberalism were fundamentally alien values, albeit for various reasons. If for the elite they were a threat to their public status and their deeply rooted ideas of success, then for the deprived strata of population they were abstract and useless; a "luxury" that would in no way directly affect their miserable lives, which could easily be abandoned in exchange for election bribes and other "crumbs" from the table of riches. Therefore, until we will be able to offer a healthy, comprehensible alternative to the current value system, providing vital motivators for these segments of the population, it will be impossible to change the deep logic of the authoritative system in the long-run - it may survive this revolution and gradually come full circle, as it had already happened in the past with the beginning of 1998 power shift.
Before the Velvet Revolution, the public uprisings, while targeting the current authorities, never raised to the level of a systemic alternative. The Velvet Revolution was the first instance in the last two decades when the exploiters’ authorities retreated under the pressure from the masses and the revolutionary situation in the country now allows for the transformation of the governing system from within. In order to model, what the desired direction is for the continued development of the revolution and how to form a real systemic alternative, it makes sense to concentrate on what has truly changed in the country and what has not as a result of this revolution, and what situation we have today.
How has the revolution changed Armenia?
Public uprisings with small pauses and in different ways have proceeded in Armenia throughout the last ten years, beginning with the failed presidential election of 2008 and up to Sasna Tsrer's capture of the Armenian Police Patrol Regiment in 2016. During these years, though the authorities were able to find tactical solutions to suppress the uprisings, they gradually exhausted its traditional power and political resources, having been forced to sacrifice some of them on every turn. In 2015, in order to prolong their rule, the authorities radically changed the Constitution, theoretically opening the door for the future change of power. In the run-up to the 2017 parliamentary elections, they had to dramatically change their public leadership staff, removing many odious figures from their active roles, and bringing number of young, well-educated and uncorrupted professionals in the government. This evolutionary development of the governing system could have continued if its oligarchic inclination did not try to seek revenge through the prolongation of Serzh Sargsyan’s term, but that is history, and the reality is that the public uprising in 2018 was met by a weakened ruling authority; one without a unified value system, with diverse group motives and lacking cohesion – as a consequence, after a month's conflict, it has exhausted its core resources of political influence, and was forced to yield in order to avoid the final collapse. As a result of the revolution, the unified value code of the once-ruling authority has been heavily damaged, and now its various parts are in search for new sets of values.
At the same time, active society also underwent serious changes. Over the last ten years, a number of important public processes have taken place that has led to the deep transformation and expansion of active society. Since 2014, many young men who had served and took part in real combat action joined the public protests after their demobilization. At the same time, mainly in Yerevan, but also in other parts of the country, a growing middle class has emerged with modern education, liberal views, and, most importantly, sources of income independent of the ruling system. On the background of ongoing emigration, the increase of repatriation rates over the past five years also contributed to this process, with about 35,000 foreign nationals coming to reside in Armenia in 2013-2017; most of them from the western countries, bringing high civic consciousness, formed traditions of public activity, and financial support to back it. Meanwhile, the role of women in society has also grown dramatically. In the face of ongoing emigration of young men, women have become not only an overwhelming majority of the population, but also began to actively engage in public roles that were previously reserved for men, thereby changing the overall profile of the active society.
In 2018, this active society has managed to build a critical mass for the first time and with consistent and assertive leadership, gained quantitative and qualitative advantages over the forces of the ruling system. The problem is, however, that the ruling system, though weary, was not completely destroyed. It not only maintains its influence on the most important structures of the government, namely the National Assembly and the Constitutional Court, but, in the end, still prevails in the consciousness of a considerable part of society. The most prominent example of this is that many of the principal figures of the former system are simply trying to find new political havens for themselves, without a slightest repentance and reassessment of values. Meanwhile, the deprived strata of the population who served as the social base of the ruling system, have quickly switched its paternalistic model of obedience to the former feudal lords, to a new, no less toxic one of unquestionable worship of the revolutionary leader, at the same time mounting exaggerated populist expectations on him.
All this poses a great danger to further democratic development of the revolution. There are many examples in history when revolutions pursuing democratic goals gradually ended up in the trap of populist promises and the impossibility of their realization, pushing their respective countries to totalitarian or authoritarian dictatorships. This happened in Russia in 1917, in Italy in 1923, in Cuba in 1959, in Chile in 1970, etc., and each time revolutionary enthusiasm and optimistic expectations were replaced by internal clashes, bloodshed, and countless losses.
Armenia has gone through the same historical pattern. In our country, as a result of the previous revolution, a new government was formed in 1991 with broad democratic support. Nonetheless in five years’ time it became the antithesis of its own democratic principles and went on to the fatal step of falsifying the presidential elections in 1996, thus opening the door for upcoming authoritarian government. Our generation, having undergone the previous Armenian revolution and seeing its ups and downs, has to mobilize its forces and capabilities to advance the achievements of Velvet Revolution, and prevent it from slipping once again toward authoritarian rule. To this end, it is necessary to clearly define the most important steps that will strengthen the democratic and liberal consciousness among the general population, as well as transform the inner logic of the governing system that has brought about today's crisis.
How to strengthen the democratic achievements of the revolution?
If we want to avoid the destiny of the previous Armenian revolution and strengthen the achievements of the Velvet Revolution toward building a stable democracy, a free, safe and prosperous country, we must start implementing a large package of reforms, consisting of several important, interconnected directions. Tentatively listing those directions below, I expect to launch a wider public debate and bring about a more comprehensive set of ideas:
Constitutional Reforms – On several previous occasions, I’ve had the opportunity to note that the Constitution adopted in 2015 has many dangerous gaps that we have quite literally witnessed these days. These gaps should be corrected. Specifically, it is preferable to re-appoint the President as the Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces in order to ensure their political neutrality and combat readiness in crisis situations, design a more simple mechanism for dissolving the National Assembly, raise the threshold of the constitutional majority in the National Assembly from 3/5 to 2/3 of the MPs, abolish the artificial concept of a stable majority, limit the powers of the Prime Minister, expand the powers of oppositional oversight, etc. All this will allow for a more balanced, mutually complementary political system, and will reduce the risks of power usurpation by any single party.
Electoral Reforms – Under today's constitution, parties play a pivotal role in the governance of the country, and it is important to give them equal chances and create a level playing field for all of them. The previous ruling system, with its various satellite parties, had a tremendous unfair advantage, concentrating most of the country's resources under its purview and using them for political purposes. Today, not much has changed in this regard. It is necessary to reform the Parties law, to limit the possibility of using unrestricted means by individual parties, on the other hand, to guarantee effective government support for the parties that have participated in the nationwide elections and have passed the minimal threshold (perhaps also reducing the threshold itself). At the same time, we must reform electoral legislation, to switch to a purely majoritarian or purely proportionate electoral system, technically minimize the possibility of electoral fraud and drastically increase the responsibility for giving and taking electoral bribes, equating it to dangerous crimes.
Administrative and Judicial Reforms – the public administration system, which has long operated with imitation logic, will also need radical reforms based on increased efficiency, transparency, professional capacity and uninterrupted institutional memory, market-based remuneration, and reduction of excess administrative staff. Some work was already started under the previous government, but now it must gain new momentum; the revolution’s energy should be used to build a state apparatus that can effectively develop and implement impactful public policy, free from systemic corruption and continued waste of state funds. The same is even more crucial for the judicial system, the reform of which has additional difficulties due to the caste protection of the system, so it will require even more resources and continuous public oversight.
Social Reforms – Our analysis shows that the population’s deprivation was a conscious policy by the previous government as a way of protecting the base of its political power, and it was executed through specific instruments of state policy. Today it is important to depart from that perverse toolkit. Specifically, we must increase the authority and transparency of local community governance bodies, encourage entrepreneurial activities and individual initiatives in communities, direct a significant part of the state budget to the development of communities outside Yerevan, support self-employed and unemployed populations and guide them toward modern professions and jobs, establish flexible social support mechanisms that encourage professional training, participation in seasonal works and geographical mobility of the country, etc. These reforms should all have the intention of increasing the number of citizens below the poverty line receiving meaningful motivation to engage in activities, become politically more conscious and responsible, and over the course of time give up the vicious trait of selling their votes. All this, naturally, should take place on the background of inclusive economic growth, which I would reserve for a separate discussion.
Educational Reforms – In recent days, there has been much talk about the fact that the previous ruling system used the public educational system to win elections, strengthen its own power base, and instill paternalistic values in young generation. Today, this logic must be radically changed. The educational system should raise free and decent citizens, able to make their own judgments, free from various party influences, hoard mentality and any form of compulsion. This reform will be challenging and will require many years, since first we must reform the dozens of thousands of educators who train our children. Unfortunately, under the rule of previous authorities, we began to treat teachers as a residual value, depriving them of adequate remuneration, public status, and respective empowerment to unlock their capabilities, and they became the hostage of an authoritarian system. Today we must release the teacher from that compulsion so that they will also free our children and help us to raise free and mature individuals.
All the above is still quite schematic. The reality is much more complicated and will require many tactical political solutions, new elections, political alliances, and reforms that will inevitably bring many new issues on their own. Nevertheless, I consider it important to clearly formulate the key agenda of democratic reforms and start broad public discussions around it. As I have mentioned above, there is a real threat to populist temptation in the development of revolution, and today I put this agenda forward as a public demand for a clear systemic alternative. We should engage in the public discussion of proposed ideas, to develop and complete this agenda, and to support the advancement of the democratic achievement of Velvet Revolution.
Avetik Chalabyan is the Chairman of the Board of Arar Foundation.
These views are his own.