Is Armenia Really Post-Ideological?

On the first of May, as Armenians gathered in the hundreds of thousands in town squares across the country, Nikol Pashinyan stood on the National Assembly floor. During a question period preceding a vote on his candidacy for the Prime Minister’s office, he responded to an accusation by a Republican Party MP that his ‘liberal ideology’ clashed with Armenia’s conservative values. Pashinyan argued that the liberal-conservative paradigm was conceptually meaningless, insisting that Armenia exist in a post-ideological realm.

What it means to be ‘post-ideological’ in Armenia remains unclear. If Armenia’s current political culture serves as any indication, it is perhaps more appropriate to look at the country as ‘pre-ideological’ rather than the latter. Though political parties have long espoused ideologies, experience suggests that personality politics and pragmatism traditionally dominate the Armenian political spectrum rather than dogmatism.

personality politics and pragmatism traditionally dominate the Armenian political spectrum rather than dogmatism.

From a purely utilitarian perspective, however, Pashinyan’s use of the term makes sense. The Velvet Revolution brought together disgruntled citizens from a broad spectrum of political sensibilities, united only by their opposition to the then-current status quo. For Pashinyan to take any firm stance would carry the double risk of alienating a substantial part of his base, while allowing his opponents to pigeonhole him. In other words, this mantra can be understood as ‘pragmatism over ideology.’ It’s about getting things done rather than moralizing.

Pashinyan recently reiterated his post-ideological stance when he distanced himself from the ideologically similar Bright Armenia Party in favor of running on the “My Step” ticket—an umbrella organization made up of a variety of political and civic groups which took part in last spring’s Velvet Revolution.

The Prime Minister must maintain momentum in the run-up to fresh parliamentary elections scheduled for the 9th of December. Though the Velvet Revolution has garnered a lot of global sympathies as well as promises of engagement, political volatility brought about by the delicate ‘cohabitation’ between the revolutionary government and the Republican-dominated Parliament has kept investors watching from the sidelines. Recent courtroom intrigues by the ARF and Prosperous Armenia have convinced Pashinyan of the need to rid himself of untrustworthy allies. To restore investor confidence and push through crucial reforms, Pashinyan will need a cooperative parliament.

Regardless, the unusual coalition of feminists, nationalists, social-democrats, armed-militias, environmentalists, LGBT-rights activists, irredentists and free-market liberals which propelled him to power is likely to implode under the weight of its internal contradictions eventually. The cracks may already be starting to show.

Several weeks ago, Jirair Sefilian, a Lebanese-born Artsakh War veteran turned-fringe government critic attempted to capitalize on the perceived support for the armed insurrection organized by his comrades-in-arms two years ago by launching the Sasna Tsrer party. Though they have pledged their support for the new government as well as the democratic establishment, their uncompromising brand of ultra-nationalism, penchant for military bravado and a deep-rooted suspicion of the State would draw more parallels with the American militia movement than with the rest of Pashinyan’s support base.

On the opposite end of the spectrum are those who hoped the Velvet Revolution would lead to an economic revolution. For these radical activists, many of them too young to remember the Soviet Era, regime change isn’t enough. In their view, political democracy should accompany ‘economic democracy,’ where all citizens would be given the ‘economic means’ to fully participate in democratic life. This faction lobbies for ‘equitable’ redistribution of resources, increased government spending on social welfare, sharp restrictions on the financial system, environmental protection, labor mobilization as well as social justice.

These demands by some of Pashinyan’s more radical supporters may not be easily reconcilable with his promise to kickstart economic growth. Armenia’s tiny consumer base essentially necessitates massive foreign capital injections into the economy to stimulate growth. Attracting foreign direct investment would require sweeping financial deregulation, increased protections for property rights and a fluid labor market—all of which are concessions they might not want to make.

The Republican Party’s participation in the vote has also reignited a looming KulturKampf in the country. Attempting to reinvent themselves as the ‘party of traditional values,’ the Republicans have been clawing away at more conservative elements of Pashinyan’s voter-base by playing the LGBT card. Though the Republican Party has a history of stoking fears of a foreign ‘homosexual-agenda’ to drown out accusations of corruption, they have now weaponized it. Despite dominating parliament for the better part of two decades, the Republicans waited for the month before the election to submit a bill to “ban gay propaganda,” modelled on similar Russian legislation. This motion, along with an earlier proposal to ban gay marriage was withdrawn but did help bring the issue to the forefront of the political discourse.

High-ranking Republican Party lawmakers were also involved in a sustained campaign involving threats of violence which successfully derailed a planned Christian LGBT conference. When pressed on the issue, Pashinyan’s non-answer managed to anger both conservatives as well as LGBT activists.

Despite these dangers, there is little doubt that Pashinyan will survive these pressures long enough to score a significant victory in December. That said, the trend among Armenia’s political class toward gravitating to positions which could be loosely labeled as ‘liberal,’ ‘progressive,’ ‘conservative,’ or ‘nationalist’ may be a testament to the maturity of the Armenian political discourse. The country isn’t moving beyond ideology, as Pashinyan attested, but rather toward it.

With the December 9 election definitively slamming the door on the old ways of doing politics, the stage is being set for a new, more dynamic political arena framed by ideas, not personalities.

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Raffi Elliott

Raffi Elliott is a Canadian-born entrepreneur and occasional journalist who likes to ramble on about socioeconomic and political issues in Armenia. He lives in Yerevan with his family. He also holds a masters degree in International Relations.

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