Shirinian: The Concept of Civil Society in the ‘Armenian Review’

By Razmig Shirinian

All four articles in the current issue of the “Armenian Review” (Vol. 51) have undertaken the scrupulous task of analyzing the concept of civil society in Armenia and the Armenian Diaspora.

After a brief mention of the constitutive and functional features of a civil society, Armine Ishkanian in her article points out that Armenia has largely been dependent on foreign-based and genetically engineered NGOs rather than organically grown components of civil society, including faith-based organizations, trade unions, and NGOs. Noteworthy here is the idea that democracy is the functional component of civil society. Its understanding should avoid the narrow approach focused solely on formal institutions and, instead, should consider social and economic inequalities and how they affect participation, access, and decision-making. We cannot afford to ignore questions of inclusion, participation, deliberation, and diversity. For an adequate, substantive, and comprehensive conception of democracy, “it is important to look beyond the formal institutions and to focus on the impact of structural inequalities, power relations, and struggles by popular movements.”

Without being trivial, it can be argued that civil society has largely remained marginalized from conflict resolution in former Soviet states. Irina Ghaplanyan makes the point and informs that inter-ethnic conflicts, in the aftermath of Soviet collapse, have led to the “creation of militarized societies and conflict-based political cultures, further slowing democratic development.” Societies in Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Karabagh are disconnected from the process of negotiations and, despite some efforts, could not overcome the difficulties in instigating any citizen-based peacebuilding. The lack of political will also hindered any “détente from below” and maintained the current status quo seemingly providing political dividends to the elites in power.

Eleeza Vorperian Agopian in her article argues that the press media in Armenia, in general, and electronic media, in particular, have extremely limited influence on developing civil society. It is, in fact, disturbing to learn that “in 2008, 5.8 percent of the Armenian population had access to and regularly used the Internet.” No doubt, communication technology is a key component of civil society and Armenia is not advancing adequately. Here, the primary concern is the insufficient infrastructure that explains the digital divide in the country. More disturbing is the absence of “good governance and poor telecommunications laws” that handicap both online media and other forms of electronic media. The absence of good governance also indicates a form of social closure or, as Max Weber describes, a practice by the elite to reduce the chances of the rest of society to benefit from social resources and to experience participation and mobility. Thus, digital divide is also an indication of social inequality and tran
slates to limited social contacts and transactions.

A challenging task is to apply the concept of civil society in the diasporan space. Sossie Kasbarian has undertaken that task using the case of the Melkonian School in Cyprus. Usually, civil society is conceived and considered local, territorial, and authentic. In case of diaspora, it is deterritorialized, global, and mostly virtual. Social interaction in the diaspora is global and is marked by transnational and trans-societal exchanges.

The Melkonian case notwithstanding, it is worth noting that the diaspora entity expresses a common identity of interest among the communities, and the interactions of the communities aim to sustain the imperatives of national identity and homogeneity among the communities. These interactions might also point to a cohesive political behavior with an emphasis on political socialization as a process of maintaining and perpetuating the diaspora political behavior and culture from one community to another. Family ties, school activities, cultural clubs, religious institutions, and social and political organizations with various branches in different parts of the world fill the “diasporic public sphere” and commonly function under tacitly established norms, rules, and principles that guide the behavior of their constituents and provide the tools of this socialization. This process of political socialization, in other words, might be interpreted as wielding a “diasporic” political culture which, in turn, largely con
ditions and determines the political behavior of the whole diaspora.

Having said that, it should also be pointed out that both constitutive and relational knowledge of the Armenian Diaspora is not developed. As an entity, it begs for structural, behavioral, cultural, politically socializing, and even somatologic studies. It begs for holistic interpretations beyond the sum total of its component units whether they are organizations or communities. How, for example, is the diaspora totality conceived? What are its constitutive units? Or, how are the Diaspora Armenians politically socialized? Whether they are “increasingly at home in their Western liberal-democratic states,” or typically in “the ghetto, inward-looking existence,” diasporan organizations (or whatever component units we might choose) need to be further explored both as relational and constitutive knowledge of diaspora civil society.

It might be true that Armenian identity in the diaspora is “wrapped up in history,” but that’s not by choice. It’s a mode of survival deeply imbedded in history and circumstantially determined. To be sure, the Armenian Diaspora has its politics, and that politics is not detached from its history which also seems to be quite dynamic and vibrant. That is, the politics of the Armenian Diaspora can and should be conceived as more of a chronopolitics than geopolitics.

Finally, the possibility that the state can be an integral part of civil society is not considered in these essays. By definition they seem to be dichotomized. However, as states are differentiated from their civil societies, they might also be considered as internally relating to them. States have political authority over societies and thus presuppose them. This civil society-state linkage also suggests that they are mutually constitutive. Moreover, civil societies may have self-organizing qualities, but they may also have emerged as a result of state apparatus built on an education of solidarity, loyalty, advancement of democracy, or even when confronting a common danger from outside. After all, and as Asbed Kotchikian in his opening article calls upon, “the relationship between societal empowerment from below and government accountability from above” invokes closer examination. And, various dimensions of the civil society concept, including those relevant to the stateless societies, are open for debate.

Razmig Shirinian is an instructor of political science at College of the Canyons in California.

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Guest Contributor

Guest contributions to the Armenian Weekly are informative articles or press releases written and submitted by members of the community.

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