This interview originally appeared on the Armenian Weekly Podcast, Episode 1.
Karine Vann: I’m Karine Vann and today on our show, I’m going to be speaking with Dr. Irina Ghaplanyan. She’s a political analyst, and she’s the author of a recent book,”Post-Soviet Armenia: The New National Elite and the New National Narrative.” Welcome to the first pilot episode of The Armenian Weekly Podcast, Irina.
Irina Ghaplanyan: Thank you so much.
K.V.: So, just for clarity, you started writing this book as you were doing the research portion of your doctorate at Cambridge, is that correct?
K.V.: And how many years were you studying this?
I.G.: Well, the time-frame that I took as the focus of my study was from the Independence Day of Armenia. It took me quite some years to do research, because beyond just media coverage of those years (which took also archival work because I looked back into early nineties), I also used interviews, with open and closed questions, I compiled the questionnaire and I met with close to 50 different political leaders, both past and present.
K.V.: And the timing of your book is so interesting. It was released at the end of 2017, right?
K.V.: It seems just in the last few weeks that have been so incredibly transformative for Armenia that it’s already become outdated.
I.G.: Absolutely, what makes me happy though is that in the epilogue of the last chapter, in some form, I predict that this is going to happen.
K.V.: I actually wanted to bring that up. There is really no better place to start this interview than the end of your book because the last two or three lines are quite striking. I’ll just read the last sentence: “…the ‘bubble of barons’ is, however, soon to busrt, as unlike the hardware of Berlin Walls of Iron Curtains of the late 1980s, this time around the fall of these regimes is only a #Twitter click away.” It’s interesting you chose to end the book on that note because the role of social media in this movement has been very important and it’s also a little ironic because twitter is the only platform that Nikol Pashinyan doesn’t use.
I.G.: Well, you know, he’s not active on Twitter, but let’s also not forget that there were a lot of important hashtags used throughout the whole movement that very, very quickly became viral and engaging. So I think that’s an important aspect to mention there. But another fascinating aspect of this movement, which has now been dubbed as a “Velvet Revolution,” is the fact that the media has played a fundamentally critical role, as some analysts are recounting that this has been a “livestreamed” revolution, where journalists, at the expense of their safety and physical security, were out there almost every waking minute of the movement to make sure that they were airing it live to not only Armenians in Armenia, but to the entire transnation of Armenians throughout the world.
K.V.: Yeah, and at the Weekly, we’re a Diasporan newspaper and we are based in Boston and it’s almost alarming how we were able to tune in so viscerally to these events taking place in Yerevan.
I.G.: Undoubtedly, many of these civil disobediences and mass movements across the world have been dramatically changed due to social and digital media, but I would say the level of the media’s involvement with social media in this movement is unprecedented.
K.V.: Do you think that the events of Electric Yerevan, perhaps that media coverage wasn’t there? Or else it might have been more effective?
I.G.: I think that media has also learned its lessons and has become more engaged, more professional. And I have seen media grow dramatically in the way it covers events in the past few years in Armenia. And just a number of very anecdotal incidents in this past month in Armenia, show just how engaged media is and how it makes the viewers engaged. I’m sure you’ve come across the people mentioning names of Ashot and Ira in the course of the events. I don’t know if you are familiar, but Ashot was a so-called “police officer” whom one of the protesters called out when the Baghramyan street was all barbed when police forces with shields were protecting the government building. And one protester stood in the front line and started calling on “Ashot,” supposedly a policeman who stood on the front line of the police forces and he was calling him out saying, “You need to move to our side. Your grandma is here. Are you going to use force against your grandma?”
He goes on for a good three or four minutes, and this was recorded live, aired live, and then it was played a number of times on various platforms. And “Ashot” became the symbolic police officer who is part of the people, but who is on the other side. And this whole exchange became a symbolic incident showing that the police are part of the people. And that symbolic incident intertwined very effectively with Nikol Pashinyan’s continuous discourse, that “We love you, we know you’re part of us, we thank you for your duty.” He has reiterated that, I would say, hundreds of times, every day. And I think that played a very dramatic and very powerful role in the way events unfolded later. Which we did not see with Electric Yerevan, when there were clear divisions involved, where “these are the police, and these are the protesters.”
K.V.: Before we get into a summary of your findings, just a summary of the current political situation prior to this Velvet Revolution, and a summary of the political parties in Armenia and how they got there.
I.G.: Sure, well, you know, serendipitously, I was in California in the very early days when the movement started and I was giving a lecture, currently I’m doing research on Diaspora, I was giving a lecture on Diaspora-Armenia relations, and I was also doing a presentation of the book and during Q&A I was asked about what I predict in the next two to three weeks, and to speak very honestly, I said, “I don’t think that our civil society is strong enough, mature enough to understand that they need to take charge of the current political reality in Armenia and take it back, and as much as I want to be wrong, I don’t think that these current protests will bring out on the streets the critical mass that is needed to bring about political change.” I couldn’t be more wrong and I’m so happy that I was.
Now, reflecting on the current political party, as a political scientist, for me, studying the Republican Party of Armenia (RPA) has been a very interesting journey because it has seen so many transformations over the past 25 years in Armenia, that I think there has to be a separate study done by a group of political scientists or someone who wants to really understand the animal, if you will, that the RPA is. The founders of the Republican Party were very prominent politicians back in the early nineties such as Ashot Navasardyan and they had a very true and popular following back then, and RPA up until, even late nineties election, weren’t strong enough and they were always part of some type of coalition.
That dramatically changed when Robert Kocharyan came to power. Although he was never a part of any political party, he ensured the strengthening of the Republican Party in the course of his two terms. Then when Serge Sarkisian came to power, obviously the Republican party gained its momentum and control over not only parliament, but also the government. And we also saw the merging of the financial and economic elite and even military elite into the Republican Party. So then RPA became—and I reflect on this in my book a number of times—a replica if you will of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and in many respects I called it a “partocracy” where there is so much concentration of power and the penetration of the Republican Party into the administrative institutes, into the financial institutes, into the business and economy is so deep that we have been witnessing for the past five to seven years a true partocracy .
But in addition to that there are other elements that are reminiscent of the Communist Party and that how very often, we’d see that the RPA would literally force—and I’m saying that with all confidence because in my interviews with a number of RPA members, they have told me about this “You’re with us or you’re against us” rhetoric that was used by the RPA—and that element, even the symbolic elements, how all the RPA members were encouraged to wear their pins, in many respects it was very reminiscent of the Communist Party in the way it controlled the entire government.
And because of this monopolization of political power of a single party, we have witnessed time and again the way political opposition could not gather strength, could not gather momentum. So that’s why we’ve seen that in the last 10 years, the RPA continued to grow and strengthen, whereas other political parties did not. However, there were as I call them satellite political parties that were always there to strengthen the RPA or to create coalitions or to pass important legislative pieces that were beneficial to the RPA. With that alignment of powers, this further reduced the strength and potential growth of political opposition, both parliamentary and non-parliamentary.
If we talk about the Prosperous Armenia Party (PAP), or Bargavach Hayastan, it also has a very interesting history in the sense that even when you look at the authorship of the ideology of the party and the timeline of creating it, it’s completely different from the RPA because the roots of the RPA I would venture to say go back to 1960s, because the founders of the RPA were actually very active young men in the 1960s, who were then persecuted by the communist government and were jailed for their national views and ideas to fight for an independent Armenia. So the RPA is a completely different entity when we try to compare it to the PAP, which is the Bargavach Hayastan, the founder of which is Gagik Tsarukyan, who is more known as a prominent Armenian businessmen and some call him an oligarch rather than a politician.
That, in many senses, defines that political party—that connection with the business, that connection with Tsarukyan, more than its ideology, than its team. And it’s important to mention, in many respects, we forget to talk about how individualized the political parties and political reality in Armenia really is, meaning that, very often, political parties such as RPA or PAP or even Heritage, which was the party of Raffi Hovannisian, are very much not known by their ideologies, by what they espouse, or by their teams, but more by the individuals who are considered the backbone of these parties.
And today what we’re witnessing in Armenia is, with the resignation of Serge Sarkisian, it will be the ultimate litmus test for the RPA to prove that it has managed to build institutions over the past 25 years as opposed to being centered on a single individual—Serge Sarkisian. And I think a lot of parties have proven that they didn’t stand that test.
K.V.: What are your thoughts on why this movement is taking place now? Because as you mentioned, you predicted a couple weeks ago that Armenia’s civil society is quite weak at this time, and I think a lot of us that have come to be affiliated with the country, have come to know the country, were kind of on the same page about that. What kinds of events have made this possible, that we might have missed?
I.G.: Yes I think that’s a great question. I think there are a number of reasons. First of all, and I was in fact, in my previous assessments of the situation in Armenia, I said I think that what we would have to see is a generational change in the country. That’s why my book is called Post-Soviet Armenia, because we have not been able to shed the legacy of the Soviet era. If we just look at the demographics of the early protesters, you would see that these are young students aged 17 to 25, who are born in an independent Armenia, who didn’t have the by-products of Soviet mentality, if you will. Although, I will say that I have had an opportunity to communicate with members of the young branch of the RPA and in many respects, they reminded me of the communist era komsomol. So, I was worried as to what extent our next generation will be able to be free of our immediate history and that is the Soviet era.
I also want to commend Pashinyan for the timing of this movement. Although we know that Pashinyan has done protests a number of times before that didn’t achieve the minimum results, but this time, the timing was very well-chosen and also the messaging was very well-chosen. The timing was very well done in the sense that we were in a power vacuum of sorts where Serge Sarkisian resigned, he was no more a president, and there was a president inaugurated and appointed, but we had still to see a transition into the parliamentary government. That was a perfect timing with a perfect messaging. You know, the key slogan of the entire process was #MerzhirSerzhin, which is “Reject Serge.” Those young people were largely rejected by their government and the government and by the RPA. And if you just do a scan of different universities, institutes, and schools in Armenia, you’ll see that a majority of them have principles who are of members of the RPA, rectors who are members of the RPA, student unions that are controlled by RPA members. If you are not part of these institutions, these unions, these communities, then you are rejected. Just like Nikol Pashinyan was rejected by his university when he voiced the corruption that was happening there.
K.V.: Prior to this, had you seen Pashinyan as a major character?
I.G.: You know, frankly speaking, I wouldn’t say that I saw him as one who could rally so much support and rally such massive crowds of people. But I was definitely impressed from day one that I met him with the passion and perseverance that he had in his character to fight for the right things. And I wouldn’t hide I was always a fan of his speeches in the parliament. Unlike many other politicians that were in the opposition block, Nikol has always had the guts to speak the truth and to speak it straight and and directly to the perpetrators.
K.V.: Have you been observing the reaction of the Diaspora to all this? Or have you been primarily focused on following events?
I.G.: No, I certainly have been following the reactions of the Diaspora, particularly because now my research is focused on Diaspora and Diaspora-relations. I think we have a lot of work to do in providing the necessary information—whether it’s in English or French or whatever language is necessary—to bring more info to the Diaspora about ANC, which was the Armenian National Congress that formed as a result of the movement back in 2008 and that Nikol Pashinyan was a party of, but also the information that Nikol Pashinyan did part ways with Levon Ter-Petrosyan at some point, when he realized that their views on a lot of political issues do not align. Politics is organic and politicians are organic. They constantly evolve and politics constantly changes and what I can certainly say about Levon Ter-Petrosyan and some of his immediate surroundings—some of them have remained the same. When I interviewed them a few years back, they articulated the same views as they had in the nineties which is, so to speak, not very commendable, because political realities change and attitudes should change, as well. Whereas with Nikol, he as a politician, as an individual as well, both personally and professionally, has grown tremendously since the 1990s and I think what he had succeeded in doing today is a true testament of how he has matured.
K.V.: You had a lot of interviews and I think what I found most striking is how every one of them is unhappy with the system that they are a part of and in many ways work to sustain. For example, I’ll just reference one of your interviews with Naira Zohrabyan, who is the parliamentarian for Gagik Tsarukyan’s party. She’s, “critical of the luxury lifestyle that many members of parliament currently lead.” And it’s just amazing to me that a member of a party essentially led by an oligarch is saying this. So what’s your take on the contradictory nature of their interview content?
I.G.: I love this question, because in many respects it reflects the many elements in Armenian political discourse that are often hidden. And also the element of the lack of maturity of society in general, not just civil society. The thing is that Tsarukyan has been very popular amongst the people, especially because he has a lot of agricultural businesses. He has been very popular because he gives out a lot of money, he gives out a lot of donations, and he does a lot of philanthropy work. And unfortunately, people have not matured enough to tie this, the fact that an oligarchs has to stop monopolizing certain industries, has to start paying taxes, if he is in business, he should not pursue political office. All of these things. In light of the political reality in Armenia, Tsarukyan was the more popular guy because, first of all, he lives outside of Yerevan. He lives in the outskirts. He is closer to the people. He travels a lot to the village areas where they do farm business and agriculture. So he had been seen as this people’s person. I recall when we were doing an analysis of the possible political outcomes, we were saying that we need to understand the reality in Armenia that there’s a certain percentage of our population that likes Tsarukyan, and not because he’s a politician or an oligarch, but because he’s a likable guy who goes around and does donations and gives money and gifts to people. Unfortunately, that’s awful in all reality because of the level of poverty in the country. And how these very people have raped the state budget and raped the economy and then they turn around and do these charitable donations and money gifts to people, to village heads and different communities, etc. So, in that respect, you know, even the members of his political party boast the fact that Tsarukyan is popular with the people, yet they are part and parcel of this problem.
K.V.: Let’s talk about the way this revolution has been covered by the state television.
I.G.: [Laughs] Well let’s say it wasn’t covered by the state television. Or, it was largely censored from day one, the way public radio treated the protesters and the way public television tried to completely ignore what was happening on the streets. Well, people weren’t watching television anymore, they were out on the streets. And I think there was a point where they realized that they were becoming irrelevant to the reality in Armenia and they started to catch on gradually.
K.V.: What are your thoughts on the role media plays in the Diaspora and the role it plays in Armenia and what do you think needs to happen to foster bridges between those two media platforms?
I.G.: Media in Armenia has had a really fascinating timeline of evolution. I don’t know if you’ve had an opportunity to dive a little bit into the media world of 1990s, but some of the media outlets, you couldn’t even call those yellow press. You know, that was insane. But that was something you could see happen all throughout the post-Soviet space, where all of a sudden, there was no censorship by the government. And the media outlets that sprung up like mushrooms went into wild uncontrolled articulation of reality and conspiracy theories. And then what is interesting is that almost simultaneously, what happened in Russia, happened in Armenia. When Kocharyan came to power in Armenia and when Putin came to power in Russia, which was respectively 1999 and 2000, you saw a dramatic change where you saw the media getting censored, where you saw a lot of opposition media going a more almost underground, and when you saw fringe type of media completely die out from the media world. And then we had persecutions of journalists in Armenia in late 1990s and early 2000s, the same we’ve witnessed in Russia.
And I would venture to say that it was thanks to various international organizations that have pressured Armenia to be more open and media friendly that we saw certain reforms and more openness towards media. But that also happened because government had gradually acquired almost total control over the most prominent media outlets, especially television, which by then, became the main source of information for the majority of Armenia’s population. And because of that privatization if you will of the media outlets in Aremnia by the government, the room for a more open media became possible, the one that wasn’t aired necessarily, but the one that was available online and in print. And I think that was the period when we saw CivilNet appear. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty has been airing for years in Armenia. It continues to be one of the most free and alternative sources of information for Armenia’s population. Such was also A1+, which lost its television license, I believe it was under Kocharyan, so then they went online. So we saw a lot of ups and downs in Armenia with media. But today, it’s ranked by a number of international organizations, it’s doing significantly better than neighboring Azerbaijan and Russia up north.
K.V.: What are ways that the Diaspora could facilitate or complement the work that journalists are doing on the ground?
I.G.: Now about media in the Diaspora, I think what would be an evolutionary step and what would have been welcome to see happen in the media, and i think we’ve been witnessing this over the last few years, is less partisanship. And if we recall, a lot of Diaspora media outlets have been more partisan than we would like them to be.