The Armenian Weekly Magazine
Dec. 2015: The ARF at 125
After decades of being banned from Soviet Armenia, the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF) re-established its presence in the homeland with the emergence of the Karabagh movement in the late 1980’s. However, the party has since struggled to establish itself as a viable political force that can affect change.
A detailed analysis of the ARF’s activities in post-independence Armenia is not within the scope of this article and is a task best undertaken by students of contemporary history. However, a brief discussion of some key factors that have impacted the party’s trajectory in Armenia will help to understand the current situation, identify shortcomings, and outline a potential role for the future.
The iron curtain that separated the Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic from the international community of nations also drove a wedge between the homeland and a large segment of the Armenian Diaspora, including the ARF and its supporters. The very existence of Armenia as a Soviet entity ran counter to the ARF’s ideology and objectives of a Free, Independent, and United Armenia. At the same time, there was no room for these nationalist ideals in a collective dominated by a Communist ideology where national, ethnic, religious, and other identities had, at least in theory, no place. This irreconcilable clash of ideologies resulted in significant animosity and lack of trust between the ARF on the one hand, and Soviet, including Armenian Soviet, authorities on the other.
Ideological confrontation persisted under the first administration led by the Armenian National Movement and President Levon Ter-Petrosyan, this time driven by opposing approaches to the Armenian Cause (Hai Tahd) and its implications on foreign policy. Ter-Petrosyan went as far as officially banning the ARF on charges of an alleged plot against his administration. It is against this background of complex historical legacies, decades of wide-spread anti-ARF propaganda in Soviet Armenia, and continuing rivalries with the new leaders of Independent Armenia that the ARF attempted to establish itself as a political force in the new Republic.
Compounding these historical and ideological issues have been systemic factors. Widespread corruption, the lack of free and fair elections, and the absence of equality before the law have hampered political processes in Armenia. Elections have been futile in affecting a change of government, and clientalistic relationships have by and large dominated the political sphere, significantly limiting the ability of all non-governing political parties, including the ARF, to act as vehicles of change or even as effective opposition.
These systemic issues have further aggravated a political culture that harbors deep mistrust in political processes and institutions—another challenge the ARF, along with other political parties, have confronted in Armenia. In part due to this intrinsic public mistrust, and in part due to the party’s own policies, the ARF today does not enjoy widespread support in Armenia.
In fact, alongside the external influences discussed above, the ARF’s policies and decision-making processes in Armenia have also been influenced by institutional inertia—a tendency to be more frequently driven by the party’s agenda of advancing the Armenian Cause.
In Armenia, as in the world over, the ARF is at the forefront of the struggle for the recognition and just resolution of the Armenian Genocide. It was one of the leading forces on the ground during the liberation of Nagorno-Karabagh and continues to be an active political player in the autonomous republic. The party is also vocal about the plight of Javakhk Armenians and diasporan communities in need.
These policy priorities are rooted in a nationalist ideology that is foundational to the ARF. Its ultimate objective is the realization of a Free, Independent, and United Armenia, an ideal the party has upheld and advocated against all odds, and for which it deserves much credit. As such, the continued existence and physical security of the homeland is of utmost value and therefore any threats to the contrary are an absolute focal point. What is more, given the hostile environment Armenia finds itself in geographically, the primary and immediate threats to the country’s national security are considered to be external—namely, continued animosity by Turkey and aggression by Azerbaijan. Internal factors, while not discarded, are considered more secondary, taking precedence only when they endanger internal stability, making Armenia further vulnerable to external threats.
A case in point is the ARF’s respective reactions to the 2008 presidential election crisis and the 2009 Armenia-Turkey protocols. The latter resulted in the party leaving the governing coalition out of protest and leading widespread rallies in both Armenia and the diaspora.
This was in sharp contrast to the party’s actions following the presidential elections only a year earlier, when it aligned with the forces in power to restore internal stability and avert a deeper political crisis following the infamous March 1 incidents.
The situation that presented itself after the elections was not without its complexities for the ARF. The party’s own candidate, Vahan Hovhannisyan, had received a meagre 6.1 percent of the vote, while the opposition was led by a tried and tested former president who had a hostile past with the ARF and whose views on issues of paramount importance to the party were well known, as discussed above. Faced with this situation, the ARF chose the “lesser of two evils” and decided to join Serge Sarkisian’s coalition government, despite having run an anti-Sarkisian campaign in the months leading up to the elections, despite widespread allegations of election fraud and, more importantly, despite the use of unjustifiable force by the authorities that resulted in the death of 10 people on March 1—a date that remains one of the blackest pages in the history of the young Armenian Republic.
This comparison sheds important light on the ARF’s values: compromise on the Armenian Cause and internal peace and stability are absolutely non-negotiable.
Yet, in addition to its nationalist roots, the ARF is also a socialist party with the principles of equality and social justice firmly inked in its ideology. The party’s Program (Dzerakir), reaffirmed at its 27th General Assembly in 1998, states: “The ARF’s socialist ideology is to establish such a society, where individuals are liberated from all forms of racial, religious-sectarian, national, political, social, and economic discrimination, pressure, coercion, and abuse.” Furthermore, the Program outlines as an objective the “Strengthening of Armenia’s statehood, the realization of democracy and the rule of law, securing the prosperity of the people, and the establishment of social justice.”
The ideals of social justice and equality against a background of continued oppression of the Armenian population of the Ottoman Empire formed the cornerstone of the renaissance in late-18th century Armenian political thought that eventually led to the birth of the ARF. The party tirelessly advocated for social reforms and security guarantees for the Armenian-populated vilayets by both seeking the intervention of foreign powers and working with reformist elements within the empire.
Later on, in the years following the Armenian Genocide and the Sovietization of Armenia, when the ARF became a primarily diasporan party, it took upon itself the preservation of Armenian cultural identity and the governing of communal life. Externally and in countries that had relatively free environments, the party was a leading force in organizing Armenian political representation and advocating for the community’s interests. Internally, the party was instrumental in establishing cultural and educational institutions as well as addressing the basic needs of some of the most vulnerable segments of the community. The ARF’s sister organization, the Armenian Relief Society (ARS), which was founded by prominent ARF intellectual Edgar Agnouni in 1910, was at the forefront of relief programs for the poor and the elderly and of educational and health initiatives that ensured access to those who could not afford it. These initiatives, while fundamentally charitable in nature, reflected a deep commitment to equality and social justice.
The absence of an independent Armenian statehood during much of the party’s lifespan, however, limited the further development of the principle of social justice in the ARF’s agenda and the opportunity to practice it through social-economic policies on a wider scale. In the early years of the party’s formation, the concept in essence meant demanding equal rights for the oppressed nation vis-à-vis its foreign rulers. The independent Armenian Republic of 1918-20 was too short-lived and too fraught with major crises to offer much practical experience in this regard. In the years of diasporan existence, social justice as a concept was only ever meaningful as caring either for the needs of vulnerable segments of an Armenian community, or the needs and rights of the Armenian community as a whole within the context of the society in which it existed. At the same time, the lack of an independent Armenia also led to a further emphasis on the party’s nationalist agenda of advocating for the Armenian Cause.
The above analysis is not to say that the ARF has overlooked social justice and equality in Armenia. These principles, along with the ideals of democracy and the rule of law, are firmly engrained in the party’s Program, as mentioned above, and have been part of the ARF’s discourse in Armenia since 1990. However, the discourse hasn’t translated into much tangible action in the form of socio-economic policies that can deliver change, even though at various times the party has held a number of key ministerial portfolios including social affairs, education, and agriculture.
A Free, Independent, and United Armenia inherently also means a Strong, Sustainable, and Democratic Armenia—a country where Armenians can live and prosper, free from external dangers but also from internal threats such as poverty, corruption, the lack of rule of law, and social injustice. Without internal guarantees, Armenia is not secure, stable, or sustainable. This is the broad interpretation of Hai Tahd that we as Armenians and the ARF as a party need to embrace today.
The ARF remains the only pan-Armenian political organization with widespread support and following, particularly in large and prosperous diasporan communities. Its power is not vested in the individuals that govern it at any point in time, but rather in its supporters. It has the ideology to uphold social justice, the resources to develop policies, and the legacy to stand-up for the rights of the most vulnerable. Despite the challenging political environment, in Armenia the ARF can and should be a party of the people, for the people, like it has been for so many years in the diaspora.