Prof. Dr. Melanie Sully

Melikyan on Armenia

"Why Participation Matters" was the title of the contribution of our expert from Armenia. Photo of author centre. More info for download here

 Contribution which appeared in our book "Governance and Participation" ed Dr Melanie Sully

WHY PARTICIPATION MATTERS: good governance in Armenia

Gevorg MELIKYAN

Independent Political Analyst, Yerevan, Armenia

 

Armenian President Serz Sargsyan’s, sudden declaration to refuse pre-signing the Association Agreement with the European Union on September 3, 2013 in Moscow and to join the Customs Union (CU), put Armenia in an unpredictable situation both domestically and internationally. With this shift, the implementation of fully-fledged reforms as stipulated by European integration requirements potentially leading to better practices of governance, has also been thrown into doubt.

 

While any government, regardless of the type of the regime in place, is somehow committed to reforming the existing system and making it better for the sake of the country and/or the political elite, Armenia’s aim to improve practices of governance was nourished mostly by a number of obligations vis-à-vis the Euro-Atlantic structures.

Being a country with a Soviet past and having implemented a hybrid system of liberal economy and semi-authoritarian regime as most post-soviet countries did, Armenia’s inherent potential for reforms and good governance was still weak and pointless, lacked courage, and intellectual power, and was shaped by poor or distorted visions about the free economy, the political system, a coherent social structure, an open civil society and non-egocentric ways of governance.

Both the external incentives and rewards and Armenia’s explicit need to diversify its economy (partly destroyed and inefficient for many reasons such as blockades by neighbouring Turkey and Azerbaijan) or at least, its political elite’s sources of revenue, were softly pushing the government towards making some reforms that could be both beneficial and could please external donors. In this context, the Eastern Partnership was an efficient tool and framework for a mutually beneficial cooperation between Armenia and the West.

Keeping power was another incentive for Armenia’s political elite to imitate implementation of reforms or to carry some of them but only to an extent, which could not reduce the ruling party’s control. In non-democratic countries control means everything and is often more important than security, stability and economic growth. Coupled with new policies and more practical and efficient approaches from the West, Armenia’s inherited scarce internal resources for implementing more democracy and better ways of governance could produce better results. However, Armenia’s sudden shift towards CU and official adherence to the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) on October 10, 2014 greatly undermined the likelihood of pursuing the implementation of reforms and pushing the country to more democracy, a stronger economy and inclusive society.

 

Every state is sovereign and is not limited in its actions unless structural constraints take the lead and reduce the maneuverability of the country. Armenia’s maneuverability, as many experts assert, has been significantly impacted by the fact of joining the EEU and created a situation where few options were left in terms of its foreign policy and internal reforms.

Some European programmes are still running in Armenia but with the paradigmatic change in Armenia’s foreign policy, the Euro-Atlantic structures became more reluctant to pay Armenia for its pursuit of reforms partly because of new realities and legal constraints in place, and partly due to fading interest in Armenia by those structures.

Politically and economically, adherence to the CU and the EEU resulted in Armenia drifting from its more or less balanced foreign policy (also known as a policy of complementarity, albeit highly criticized) and economic system pursued for more than two decades to a more polarized policy with unpredictable consequences. The same is true for societal and other spheres. It is obvious that under the EEU, western influence will be significantly reduced (which, in fact, is the main goal of the project) and fewer levers will be left to the European Union to have an impact on Armenia’s politics and economy.

This dramatic shift (although some observers of Russian policy are against this assumption and argue that Armenia will only benefit from moving out of Western influence) may also create a situation where Armenian civil society bears more responsibility and makes its government more accountable. Some may see an oxymoron in these words or even a cognitive dissonance because a more repressive regime cannot allow citizens to act freely by default. However, monopolized ways of governance and limiting freedoms may create a strong reaction by proactive members of the society and lead to a situation where more people will be willing to get involved in processes than expected. The problem is how to increase the number of those active members.

 

For those in democracy studies, it is common sense that individual rights and political and civil freedoms are better respected in democracies than in non-democracies. Countries with meaningful freedom of speech and association, respect for personal and property rights, prohibition of torture and guarantees of equality before the law are overwhelmingly those that have democratic political systems.

Armenia is considered as a pseudo- or semi-democracy and acts accordingly. Systemic problems are endemically present in all fields and spheres. Democratic reforms and improving ways of governance are not something actively sought by the political elite. Neither do the majority of members of civil society for their part seek ways and paths to get involved in decision-making mechanisms and processes.

Those who indigenously value freedoms and democracy-based principles more than ephemeral benefits of non-inclusive ways of governance, but are in a country which does little to encourage a quality democracy, but in one which instead covertly caricatures it, face a dilemma that haunts each and every one of them: to participate or not in socio-political processes and if yes, how?

 

People in countries with weak economies are not always strong enough to make a livelihood for their families and at the same time, be active and strongly engaged citizens. Routine problems make many of them look for existing social opportunities rather than creating new ones or participating in activities that can help others to do so. Instead, they opt to leave the country and seeking (legal or illegal) shelter in many other countries, mostly Russia. The choice of Russia by many shows the extent to which social short-term material benefits prevail over the idea of long-lasting socio-political reforms or hope for systemic changes and the quest for freedoms and democracy.

Covert local propaganda coupled with poor work by some Euro-Atlantic democratic institutions to promote a meaningful democracy on the ground makes many in Armenia depreciate or caricaturize concepts of democracy, human rights, rule of law, tolerance, freedom of speech, equality, justice, etc. This is mostly a psychological phenomenon and has a destructive impact on nation and state-building activities. Societies do not change overnight; ideologies do not fade, they are not switched instantly; and deeply rooted ideals and principles have the power to last in the minds and hearts of their owners, especially when owners of those minds are a majority.

 

The Soviet Legacy

Hate and rejection of western ideals and values have been the primary focus of Soviet spin-doctors’ propaganda, while the fear to raise concerns was also a direct target for control-driven policies. “Democracy is a lie and one should stay out of it”, claim many in the post-Soviet space (and not only) and neither do they believe in the force of participation. Some will argue that the Soviet time is over, and Armenia saw a renaissance of national pride and civil awareness in the late ‘80s and afterwards. However, does this mean the past is no longer a part of the present and that there is a brand-new generation of politicians and decision-makers with ideas absolutely different from those cherished by previous generations? Not really! First, Armenians, fortunately or unfortunately, are very attached to their past in spite of everything. Second, many among contemporary and previous decision-makers had positions during Soviet times or have been somehow involved in the Komsomol (KGB’s covert affiliation) and other Communist/Marxist activities. Some still follow the same Soviet traditions (just check the work of Ministries and other public institutions), and many others (oligarchs) while politically not active during the Soviet period, became wealthy due to the support of the same regime to which they stay fully loyal.

Those from the new generation, from universities and/or young wings of political parties who seem to be intelligent and ambitious and have the potential to replace those in decision-making posts are rapidly offered political or business opportunities where they think they will get more from the system and stay independent, while the reality is that once they are part of it, the system gets more from them and keeps them trapped.

Only a very small group of people are indigenously active and proactive, and want to challenge the overall system and those in it. The rest are quite inert or reluctant to take active part in civic and genuine civil initiatives or be involved in political processes.

 

Armenia needs a generational change in politics and in all other areas, and participation in decision-making processes by putting pressure on policy makers may open a way out of the country’s socio-political stagnation. It is a must for states like Armenia. Change is needed especially in the minds and behaviour of people. Monopolization of the socio-political sphere and weighing down society under heavy propaganda is equally dangerous for everybody because, as was described by an influential oligarch none other than Armenia’s Prime-Minister Hovik Abrahamyan “We are all in the same boat.” Participatory democracy unlike representative democracy, which is easily abused and corrupted in countries with bad practices of governance, is a more effective counterbalance to the regime.

To be implemented, democracy in Armenia needs strong and devoted supporters and those who believe, know and bear real democratic values. Promotion of democracy and reforms is only possible when there is strong domestic support. Democracy is about new approaches and visions especially by those who are accountable for decisions and policies. Armenia lacks this support and such people who can realize it.

 

One should bear in mind that generational change and enhancing participatory and inclusive aspects of democracy and good governance are only valid when it is about quality change and meaningful participation. It is never about formal change of some by others who share similar corrupted “values” and “visions.”

Critical thinking is not something encouraged in education in either families or educational institutions. Instead, visions and values are built around blind obedience, pseudo-patriotic sentiments, and nationalist symbolism and stereotypes where critics and non-consent are qualified as betrayal, hostile and inacceptable.

The system seeks to keep active and knowledgeable members of society away from direct or indirect participation in decision-making processes. Virtually, all spheres are under invisible control by political monopolies and other structures (NGOs, associations, funds, media, etc.) which are formally independent, are still covertly orchestrated by the political elite. The strange thing is that Euro-Atlantic structures never expressed their deep concern over burning issues such as human rights, the lack of democracy and the rule of law. The only phenomenon of migration with a very negative net migration rate speaks volumes regarding systemic problems and the lack of total participation or participation with little or no impact on political processes and social changes.

People need to be heard, appreciated and have recognition. Participation in socio-political processes guarantees a better outcome and is less costly to the government to make reforms. However, any society and government, that willingly or unwillingly ignores this formula of success, creates political chaos, sets a centralized mode of governance, resorts to repressive methods, and loses confidence thus lessening its chances of being reelected.

 

The lack of transparency and opportunities for citizens’ participation in public and political decision-making greatly contributes to public dissatisfaction. In this context, without confidence and trust, the only way for the ruling party to be reelected is to abuse power, to widely use administrative and criminal resources and to push society and especially, its proactive part away from real socio-political processes to fake ones, such as online or offline initiatives, forums, conferences, seminars, camps, focussing on the army’s successes, imitation of reforms etc. Another method to reduce the possible impact of civil society is to divide it into antagonistic groups.

Not surprisingly, conspiracy theories, and myth-based narratives are ubiquitous and very popular in post-Soviet countries and Armenia is no exception. Amateur type “analytical” discussions on past and current foreign policy issues and complex geopolitical developments are an inseparable part of people’s everyday life. Instead of being focused more on domestic affairs such as bad governance, abuse of power, corruption, high taxation, unemployment, the growing gap between rich and poor, migration, poor quality in education, social care, health care, the lack of necessary institutions, a dependent and corrupt judiciary, issues in the army, etc., average citizens waste their precious time and energy on endless and empty discussions on “strategic” and “tactical” analyses, the core causes and implications of historical and current interactions of the super-powers, their hidden agendas, the role of Judeo-Masonic or Anglo-Saxon dark forces in Armenia’s failures etc. People justify this “geopolitical hobby and engagement” by the fact that no one should stay away from political processes. It may be true, but surprisingly, the same people have little courage and level of involvement when it comes to advocating systemic reforms, generational change, participation, implementation of mechanisms of checks and balances and creating an environment where public opinion has a direct or indirect impact on the decision-making process. As stated by an Egyptian intellectual "The biggest problem with conspiracy theories is that they keep us not only from the truth, but also from confronting our faults and problems."

 

A Role for Direct Democracy

The spiral of silence is another problem and contributes to keeping many out of discussions and weakening participation. Through conventional, online and social media, some mainstream opinions tend to become intellectually dominant and push those who perceive their opinion to be in the minority, not to speak up because societal stereotypes threaten individuals with fear of isolation. For a more participative society, it is important for the dominant group not to block others from deliberation and not to impose its intellectual power over others. This refers as well to the dominant opinions inside both the ruling political elite and the opposition.

One of the main questions that arise is how to involve citizens in decision-making processes at least on the legislative level? Laws in Armenia are adopted by the National Assembly where the ruling party has a majority and can practically propose and adopt any bill. If inside the political parties, especially the ruling ones, there was such a notion as internal democracy, one could believe that even in the context of a parliamentarian majority, there could be some debates, discussion and disagreement among its members over at least major issues (i.e. security, foreign policy, economic dependence etc.). However, there is a zero-debate environment in the ruling party, while those in the opposition are a tiny minority and have no influence over decisions in the Parliament. The scandalous ratification of the controversial gas agreement with Russia (2013), the deal allowing Russia to extend its military presence in Armenia for 24 more years (2010), the law on the Accumulative Pension System with a mandatory component (2014), the decision to adhere to the Customs Union to the detriment of the Association Agreement with the EU (2013) are only few examples of cases where public opinion sharply differed from that of decision-makers, but there were no tools to make a difference. The same is true as well with all levels of elections (presidential, parliamentary, and municipal) which have not been free and fair since the first days of Armenia’s third Republic in 1991.

If we abstract ourselves from the political reality in Armenia, and consider that there is a political will to change things, one of the ideas that come to mind is to institutionalize the concept of referendums. Switzerland has successfully implemented the idea of launching referendums by citizens in case its citizens disagree with laws and legislative acts passed or adopted by the legislative. We need to make it a constitutional right of free citizens and give some leverage to them.

The problem of participation in decision-making exists in strong democracies as well because the power, especially a strong political power, has the potential to abuse it if no proper preventive mechanisms are in place. Referendums (initiated by citizens and not by the president upon the approval by the Parliament as stipulated by Armenia’s Constitution) are not an ideal but quite a good tool for citizens to participate and contribute to state-building activities. Instead of boycotting, closing streets, doing sit-ins etc. (which are indeed important) referendums can save time and efforts for the people. One of drawbacks of a referendum is that it is covered by the state budget. In addition, referendums can also be initiated by the same ruling party (through its own people) and with the use of the same administrative and huge financial resources referendums can help them to pass those bills that can create insurmountable tensions during parliamentary debates.

 

Let us not forget that the Ukrainian crisis was partly due to the fact the citizens had a very limited access to decision-making and have been kept away from any means to make a difference. They were ignored and not heard, and the only platform left to Ukrainian society was the street. Ironically, some propaganda-makers both in Russia and in Armenia use the Ukrainian case to convince their respective populations that the crisis was due to Western/American involvement and influence, thus the farther the society is from Euro-Atlantic institutions and their democracies and human rights, the better for it and all generations.

 

No doubt, especially for Armenia, which is a small country, socio-political and other crises should be resolved in a peaceful manner only (unfortunately, the political crisis in the aftermath of the presidential elections in 2008 saw ten people killed during demonstrations). Peace is necessary but not sufficient for efficient core changes, reforms and implementing good practices of governance. More is needed and participation and generational change can greatly complement this endeavour. Participation presupposes responsibility, creates an environment of trust and transparency, reduces risks and enhances social impact. Participation and transparency are number one enemies for those with a closed mind and backward societies. Armenia positions itself as a modern and civilized nation with thousands of years of existence and culture. It is our hope that participation by more people with better visions will become an added value in the Armenian context as it matters greatly for fighting backwardness and pursuing democratic state and nation-building activities.