The National Assembly of Armenia voted on Oct. 2 to remove former Foreign Affairs Minister and Prosperous Armenia MP Vartan Oskanian’s parliamentary immunity. Oskanian is being accused of money laundering in what is widely perceived to be a political move to impede his return to active politics.
Around the same time, activists from Armenia and the diaspora gathered in New York and then in San Francisco and Los Angeles for the Armenians and Progressive Politics (APP) Conference to discuss a range of issues from foreign policy, to civil society development and the rule of law in Armenia. While the presentations delivered at the conference are yet to be made public, there was a clear call from many of the speakers for the diaspora to be more active in the promotion of democracy in Armenia.
Ironically, the two events couldn’t have coincided better. Two decades on, the disconnect between independent Armenia’s realities and the diaspora’s understanding of these realities is striking.
In the past 21 years, entrenched Soviet legacies of corruption and a lack of respect for basic freedoms and fundamental rights have hindered the democratization of Armenia. A strategic alliance with Russia, a country that faces its own serious challenges when it comes to democracy, has not helped. Some have even argued that the lack of a peaceful resolution of the Nagorno-Karabagh conflict has allowed Armenia’s rulers to cling to power and derailed democratization.
While the challenges for democracy to take root in Armenia have been many, the agents for change have been few.
Some external powers have tried to fill this role, yet have been limited in their ability to drive true change. A case in point is the impact Armenia’s integration into various European structures has had on delivering internal change.
Armenia undertook formal obligations to adopt democratic reforms as part of its membership in the Council of Europe (since 2001), the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (since 1998), as well as cooperation with the European Union particularly under the European Neighborhood Policy starting in the mid 2000’s.
Successive Armenian governments embarked on a series of legislative reforms in the judicial, electoral, human rights, and fundamental freedoms spheres. Constitutional reforms were adopted, election laws were reformed and refined time and again, and legislation relating to freedom of assembly and media freedom, to name a few, were amended in cooperation with experts from these organizations.
In practice, however, legislative reforms have failed to translate into behavioral change. In what democratization experts call cost and benefit calculations by governments, the potential threat posed by putting these reforms into practice has surpassed any benefit that may come out of implementing behavioral change. In other words, when it comes to democratic reform triggered by external pressure, the ruling elites in Armenia have talked the talk but failed to walk the walk.
In recent years civil society and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have emerged as potential change agents in Armenia. NGOs were quick to mushroom in Armenia following the disintegration of the Soviet Union. It has been argued that the Armenian NGO sector has been influenced by the availability of funds from donors who have not only played a role in shaping the issues raised but also the solutions proposed, often resulting in a mismatch with the local context (see Ishkhanian, A. Democracy Building and Civil Society in Post-Soviet Armenia, New York: Routledge, 2008).
While civil society in Armenia faces significant challenges, a number of civic initiatives have been able to rally and maintain enough popular support to register small successes. We have seen examples in the fields of environmental activism (for example, the “Save Teghut” initiative), domestic violence, and the protection of public spaces (the campaign against the demolition of Mashdots Park).
Some of these initiatives have also resonated with the diaspora. Such was the case of the anti-domestic violence initiatives organized in the U.S. following the murder of 20-year old Zaruhi Petrosyan, beaten to death by her husband. By and large, however, the diaspora’s involvement in Armenia’s democratization has remained minimal.
There needs to be a deeper understanding in the diaspora of the serious threats that corruption, the absence of rule of law and accountability, and persistent violations of human rights constitute to the long-term viability of the Armenian state. More than 20 years after Armenia’s independence, it is high time for the diaspora to open its eyes to these realities and reassess its role in bringing change to Armenia.
What can we in the diaspora do? To begin with, we need to start talking about the serious internal issues that threaten Armenia today. We need to start talking about them not in a way that feeds into already well-established stereotypes, but in a way that creates meaningful public discourse and seeks solutions.
Do we have a vision for Armenia? What is it? How do we get there? These are the questions we need to be asking ourselves today as individuals and communities. The imperative for internal reforms in Armenia must become a topic of mainstream concern and discussion in the diaspora if we are to find ways to affect positive change in the country.
The structures and processes by which the diaspora can influence the course of democracy in Armenia is a topic that warrants serious discussion and one we are yet to start. However, in trying to bring change to Armenia, the diaspora can find an important ally in civil society. A generation of young and motivated Armenians who want better for their country exists in Armenia today. Let’s reach out to them, learn from them, empower them. They may become the country’s next leaders.
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the emergence of an independent Armenia, the priority for the diaspora was to provide immediate relief to an impoverished country devastated by an earthquake and a protracted war. Now it is time for the diaspora to re-consider its priorities in Armenia and act as a much needed agent for change in the country.