The debate currently raging in Armenia about the future of Prime Minister Pashinyan’s government has brought out the best and worst of a wounded society. Certainly, the political rhetoric is not contributing to the stability of the country as opposition forces seek to remove, through constitutional means, the current government. The good news is that so far, the process reflects the growth of democratic institutions in Armenia as street rallies and calls for early elections reflect the rights granted to all citizens in the system of government. We should be encouraged that despite the anger and frustration, the political system is intact. We should never take that accomplishment for granted, as democracy establishes roots slowly. The Pashinyan government, regardless of the political implications, has a responsibility to enable and defend the civil liberties of the citizenry. This is the great irony for opposition politics in democracies. Those in power must defend the rights of those who seek power. Of course, the opposition has a responsibility to operate within the Constitution and rule of law. This is what allows for peaceful transitions of power in modern democracies. Assuming we all wish to avoid anarchy, when does a government lose its right to govern? In a Constitution Republic, when are vehicles such as early elections, transitional governments or resignations justified? I prefer to depersonalize the issue and look at the responsibility of the government and its ability to deliver its commitments.
During the early years of the development of my political thinking, I was attracted to what I consider a “ground floor” political model or theory. It was simple in its political philosophy and significantly influenced many of the emerging democracies in the late 18th and 19th centuries. The concept is John Locke’s “Theory of Social Contract” developed by the 17th century philosopher. Briefly, Locke argues that in its natural state, mankind possesses individual freedom bound only by “personal power and conscience.” As society becomes more interdependent, individuals surrender some of their freedom to an authority (the government) in return for protecting their remaining rights, providing security and maintaining the social order. The “social contract” maintains that laws and political order are not natural, but created by mankind to serve the benefits of the individuals and is legitimate only to the extent that the government fulfills its responsibility. When the individuals (or citizens in our society) feel that their needs are not being provided, there are mechanisms such as snap elections, early elections, regular elections or in some cases revolutions to re-establish the functional basis of the contract. It is important to note that this philosophy (along with other contributions from Hobbs and Rousseau) are found in the United States Constitution and most of the parliamentary democracies of Europe. Armenia’s political system is also modeled after many of the established western democracies, especially with its transition to a prime minister-based parliamentary system a few years ago.
Quite often in politics we focus on our like or dislike of the perception of the leadership rather than the policies or systems behind the individuals. This can lead to emotional responses influenced by short term events. When examining the effectiveness of a government, I prefer to view it through the “contract.” In 2018, it was clear to a majority of the citizens of Armenia that the contract was broken with the Sargsyan government. Years of corruption and economic and social inequality ripened the mood for change. The change was legitimate because the agreement had been breached. Taxes were paid, and laws were abided by the majority of citizens, yet they did not feel the security and fulfillment for their sacrifices. Nikol Pashinyan was an inexperienced leader at the right time and was swept into power peacefully, primarily on the surge of a broken contract. Before we continue, it must be noted that Pashinyan should always have a place in history as the leader who restored hope to the Armenian people. In its absence, many in our society had become cynical, stopped dreaming and were operating in despair. A new political alignment—My Step—was born. Pashinyan, as predicted by some, found it more difficult to govern than to lead a revolution. This was particularly evident in the area of foreign policy and diplomacy where alliances, relationships and geopolitical positioning are critical. Now as we enter the winter of despair, Pashinyan finds himself in the same position he forced on his predecessor over two and a half years ago: attempting to politically survive with wide calls for his resignation. There are two issues that come with these demands: the legitimacy of the calls for resignation and the process for change. We will confine our comments this week to the former item.
At the bottom of the pyramid of needs for the citizens of Armenia and Artsakh is security. This includes personal property, communal property and safety. With the results of the 45-day war, it is clear that the people are feeling the loss of all three and a great fear of the future. The prevention of such a state is the primary reason that the social contract exists in the relationship between citizens and their government. The presence of such a calamity is a clear indication that the government has not and probably cannot fulfill its responsibility. The contract has been broken. There is no need for insults or riots or lawlessness. The most fundamental pillar of the relationship has been breached as people deal with death, loss of personal property, livelihoods and a general calamity. Many times during his drive towards the revolution and in his days as Prime Minister, Pashinyan has stated the importance of the will of the “people” and the need of a government to serve the needs of the “people.” His “contract” with the people has been articulated during the last two and a half years in government policies and programs. In some ways, Armenia has changed for the better with Pashinyan. The social and economic progress has been impressive, but the national security strategy failed. The reverse could have happened and still the contract would have been compromised. This was the Sargysyan era where security was superficially stable (we now know the problems were extensive), but the poverty level and social injustices were unacceptable. Government has been granted authority by the delegation of individual freedom for collective security and protection of rights. Once it is unable to deliver those commitments, the government has the responsibility to return its authority to the people who granted it through the constitutional process. Sometimes it doesn’t happen that way. A human variable called the retention of power enters the picture. Most governments feel they are always in the best position to lead a nation, even those that have failed and are assuming they deserve a second chance.
To all the people who are in despair over the losses in Artsakh and the resulting feeling of insecurity, the contract is broken. When the country has no diplomatic leverage and is behaving as a defeated nation, the contract has been broken. When the military has been unprepared or unable to defend the borders of Artsakh and Armenia, the contract has been broken. When hope has been replaced with fear, the contract has been broken. Everyone in the Armenian nation recognizes the genocidal and criminal intent of the Turkish alliance, but this is not new information. What was shocking and debilitating for the people was the amateur and ineffective strategy of the government from both a diplomatic negotiation and military perspective. Putin tolerates Pashinyan because he has been weakened and is leading a wounded government. It has been reported that he may call for elections in six months, hoping that he buys time to reduce the emotion of voters and deliver some results that will alter his credibility.
In the meantime, the security of the country continues to be a major issue. The events on the border in Syunik, where brazen Azeris are intimidating Armenians for more territorial gains is a disgrace. The public responses are empty, and the army responds slowly. In the social contract, there are two parties: one is the foundation of the society and the other exists to serve the former. Frequently, it feels like the reverse. This is how the Armenian people feel today, that their government has failed and is simply trying to hold onto power.
It is time for the authority baton to be peacefully passed to a successor government that can re-establish a trusted contract with the citizens. If Pashinyan fears a reactionary return to the past, then he should act now and establish a credible transitional government of trusted and experienced individuals in preparation for a free expression of the will of the people (early elections). Given the parliamentary system of Armenia, the My Step alliance currently controls the prime minister selection, and change must be managed through new parliamentary elections. It is not just Pashinyan who has lost credibility. It is the government itself. If the My Step alliance deserves the support of the people, then it should be through an election. The trauma to the society has been too great for anything less. Finally, we should all be concerned about the corrupt factions seeking a return to power and taking advantage of the void. I trust that the Armenian people will make a decision that they believe is in their best interests. They are not looking to return to corruption. They want progressive leaders who will bring a capability forward that delivers their political, security, economic and social needs. The taste of defeat is bitter. Governments reap the benefits when things go well and must accept the responsibility when the results disappoint. The lure of power must be overcome with a truly patriotic decision to allow the country to move forward. This is not naïve. It is how the people will express their will if given the opportunity. The leader of the Velvet Revolution that restored hope for the citizens of Armenia has that opportunity again. It is a time for all of us to think only about what is best for Armenia. Will we?