In Armenia, calls to remain united in the face of external aggression are shutting down criticism and promoting pro-regime politics, even among the opposition.
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By Anna Zhamakochyan
2016 was a year of tumultuous change and continuous challenges. It was a year of crisis for liberal capitalist democracies in the west, which witnessed the rise of right-wing nationalist political parties and movements. The Brexit referendum and Trump’s electoral victory in the US are only the most conspicuous examples of how populist politicians capitalise on people’s sense of economic insecurity, frustration and the desire to change the status quo. In former Soviet states, where the rise of nationalism was simultaneously a trigger and an outcome of the Soviet collapse, ultra-nationalist discourses and right-wing populism without real politics are all too familiar phenomena.
Of course, localised political events are immediate factors too. In Armenia, the rise of the country’s nationalist discourse of “national unity” was strongly linked with the country’s “united and nationwide” movement for Nagorno-Karabakh during the 1980s and 1990s. This discourse prevents more direct criticism and the discussion of alternatives in favour of the national security status quo. And just as peace talks stutter on, so does the conflict periodically resurge, fuelling this discourse further.
Indeed, the “Four Day War” between Armenia and Azerbaijan in April 2016, which saw incremental territorial changes in favour of Azerbaijan, powered the latest wave of “national unity”. Nine months on, what is really surprising about April 2016 is that it wasn’t only the ruling elite and individuals, groups and media institutions loyal to the regime who promoted national unity. Many independent experts, opposition politicians and those who challenge the ruling regime on many other issues also appealed to it. As the conflict erupted, even independent journalists and news outlets advanced the need for “national unity”.
Given this situation, it seems worth asking: how does the persistence of the discourse of “national unity” obstruct opportunities for socio-political change in Armenia?
“No war, no peace”
On 21 September 2016, the Republic of Armenia celebrated 25 years of independence from the Soviet Union. Armenia’s struggle for independence began in 1988 with the Karabakh Movement, which demanded the transfer of the Nagorno-Karabakh autonomous oblast from the jurisdiction of the Soviet Republic of Azerbaijan to the Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic.
These demands led to interethnic violence and killings in Soviet Azerbaijan and Armenia, which later escalated into a full-scale war. Armenia, Nagorno-Karabakh and Azerbaijan signed a ceasefire in 1994, but, to this day, no peace agreement has been reached. Moreover, the years of closed borders between Armenia and Azerbaijan were years of increasing isolation and mutual mistrust between the two countries’ respective populations. This situation is characterised by many as “no war, no peace”.
Twenty five years after independence and 22 years after the ceasefire, anticipation of a new war has become a part of daily conversation both at home and in public in Armenia. Here, concerns over the war and national security incite the Armenian public to fall into the “national unity” discourse, which is comprised of two, albeit interrelated variants — the “elite” and “resistant/subversive” forms. The “elite” form seeks to keep active subjects away from politicisation by invoking representative, symbolic or ritual actions, whereas the “subversive” variant strives to formulate agency and push subjects to political action.
We can see how this discourse played out in public debates and discussions around the April 2016 escalation as well as the July 2016 Sasna Tsrer siege, in which a nationalist group stormed a police compound in Yerevan and took several hostages in protest at the government’s “defeatist” position over Karabakh.
The paradox of “national unity”
In any crisis or conflict situation, rulers seek to control the activities and initiatives of active groups in society in order to manage and channel their actions towards a pro-stability and obedient “unity”. This channelling limits the opportunities for expressing alternative views and interpretations of events and processes. This is what happened during and after the April conflict.
In the wake of hostilities in April 2016, the Armenian government succeeded in both promoting the message that the war was “natural” and perpetuating the idea of Azerbaijan as the eternal enemy. The “national unity” common sense against the enemy motivated many civic and political activists and opposition groups in Armenia to literally and symbolically enlist in the army.
They did so by indicating their willingness to join the army on their Facebook posts, by changing profile pictures into images with military camouflage and joining other “national unity” initiatives. These groups thus supported the (re)-establishment of the state’s ethno-nationalist securitisation policy, and thus legitimised the ruling elite and existing power structures.
During that time, many civic and political initiatives, which on other issues takes stances in opposition to the government, very quickly aligned themselves with the hegemonic ideology of Armenia’s ruling elites. Subsequently, and even if unintentionally, they legitimated the actions authorised by the regime. These included silencing criticism and engaging in self-censorship (and self-restraint) by many individuals, civil society groups and the media (including independent outlets).
This approach contributed to the prevention or postponement of seeking accountability from state institutions. The status quo was only questioned in very few cases by small, marginal leftist groups. Self-restraint seemed sanctioned, encouraged and understandable regarding not only self-expression, but also access to sources of information.
For instance, apart from the widespread calls to only read official news sourcesduring and after the conflict, people began to voluntarily use an application called FakeKiller. This app blocks Azerbaijani or suspicious websites and posts from appearing in a user’s Facebook feed. As the authors (an IT activist, the editor-in-chief of online media outlet Mediamax.am and a well-known cyber-security activist) openly admit, the app was specifically designed to protect users from so-called “fake information” (including Azerbaijani sites in Armenian language) during wartime.
The wider logic of this app is to control access to sanctioned sources — and to produce obedience among its users. Indeed, the uncritical adoption and use of FakeKiller demonstrates the pervasive and ubiquitous acceptance of the discourse of “national unity” at least among usership of the app. With FakeKiller, responsibility over information usage is handed over to the citizen, who is expected to only use “reliable” sources. Yet no agency is granted to people to analyse information and make decisions on their own — they are expected to block out “fake” sources.
The Armenian state may not have officially imposed limitations on journalists, but “natural” self-censorship was also widespread in the mass media during April 2016. It was even practiced by those who refer to themselves as oppositional or independent journalists. Many journalists publicly acknowledged in interviews and articles that they had to block or to “dose” information about the real situation on the border or the real numbers of dead and wounded soldiers, used Photoshop to alter photographs of the conflict zone or “chose between being a journalist or a citizen”.
Interestingly enough, there is only one reported case from April 2016 when the Armenian authorities threatened and punished the editor of independent media outlet ePress.am for publishing articles with clear anti-war viewpoints. The majority of journalists accepted that they had to protect “national security”, and remained uncritical of official information. In doing so, these journalists shielded the government and state officials from the burden of accountability and having to answer questions in the most heated moment, protecting them from calls for resignation.
Know your place
Though criticism was aired after the escalation, searching questions and accountability were neutralised by numerous symbolic and religious actions (prayers, wishes, Facebook cards with symbolic images, as well as photos of men, women and children in military uniforms). Alongside these actions, you could also witness the glorification of soldiers both living and dead, without any questioning of why they died, in what conditions, as a result of whose inactivity or orders, and under what kind of complex set of policies (or lack of policies) that resulted in the escalation of the conflict in the first place.
The collection of charitable donations was a prominent repertoire in these symbolic actions. Upon first glance, this seemed pragmatic. But these donations also implied accepting the existing need for donations as a starting point, and considered any discussion of the causes as unimportant and untimely. The supporters of charity actions again relied on the “national unity” common sense, arguing for the necessity of protecting borders and lands. They thus rejected those who raise questions about how in fact those lands are owned, who profits from that land and natural resources, who benefits from the existing political situation and so on.
These charitable food collections, as well as some initiatives for supporting the army with logistics, were later evaluated as inadequate and useless by a representative of Nagorno Karabakh authorities, who urged the Armenian diaspora as well as Armenian nationals to donate to a bank account created by them, instead of collecting donations in an uncoordinated manner. This was another effort to co-opt a spontaneous civic mobilisation (even such a problematic one). Oddly, a well experienced opposition political leader in his turn supported (link in Armenian) this initiative of the Nagorno-Karabakh authorities.
Within this dominant “national unity” logic, all the groups of the “nation” necessarily have to take their prescribed and inviolable positions. Opposition parties are supposed to remain in opposition. A citizen’s place is at home (and not in activism or politics), whilst their wallet and body must always be ready for the protection of the “nation” and its borders. On 22 April, for example, two weeks after the conflict, the “We are the owners of our country” initiative organised a rally at the Presidential Administration to demand several officials’ resignation following revelations of state corruption, poor military equipment, irrelevant aid for wounded soldiers and dead soldiers’ families and failed foreign policy. When you watch how the protesters were stopped by police, you can see how a policeman literally asks the protesters to go home to avoid detention.
Likewise, journalism that criticises the authorities is believed to not be a female citizen’s “place”. When a female journalist asked a question to the Chief of Police about the inefficiency of the police’s “invisible” reforms and inappropriate use of state resources, he insulted her, claiming that she was less of a woman for asking such questions. These are the principles of Armenia’s conservative patriarchal authority that defines everybody’s place and size according to their given status, seeks obedience from them and silences subversive activities by invoking “unity”.
The elite national unity discourse not only seeks the obedience of social subjects, but also strives to discipline, silence and co-opt any resistant, disobedient discourses. While patriotism and unity are necessary to keep the oppressed in check, they are also conditions for subordinates to rise up against their oppressors. Though beneficial for Armenia’s authorities, the dream of “national unity” can also become dangerous for elites when they start to be seen as a “real” obstacle to “unity”.
It is in this context that the actions of the Sasna Tsrer in July 2016 became possible and gained support. After the nationalist armed group stormed a police compound in Yerevan, leading to a two-week siege and street protests, patriotic groups, as well as individuals and true believers of “national unity”, saw the Sasna Tsrer situation as an example of the ruling elite’s failure to achieve “unity” and security in practice. The ruling elite thus fell victim to its own trap of “national unity” after Armenia’s real losses were revealed in late April.
It isn’t only the “national unity” discourse, but also the mobilisation it entails (such as volunteer activities or charity fundraising events) that has the potential to question subordination.
The activism of certain civic groups, who began to collect food and medical supplies for Armenian soldiers, became vivid examples of the incompetence and inactivity of state institutions. After the most heated moment of the April 2016 conflict, volunteer behaviour opened a legitimate context in which to criticise corruption by Armenia’s state officials, how they failed in their duties and responsibilities (which included their lack of planning and preparation), and their lack of success in foreign policy and state stability.
Armenia’s opposition failed to capitalise on this opportunity sufficiently, though, precisely because they remained within the confines of the “national unity” framework. Even Levon Ter-Petrosyan, independent Armenia’s first president (and who is known for his non-populist attempts to find a workable peace settlement with Baku), publicly supported president Serzh Sargsyan. Ter-Petrosyan claimed that, in the face of external danger, the country’s internal contradictions should be set aside for the sake of “national unity”, at the same time exhorting the regime to address people’s needs.
Here we can see the restrictive and vicious logic of “national unity” in Armenia, but also the potential for resistance. This discourse necessarily opens a debate about how the “nation” is defined. If, for the elite, the nation is, in fact, themselves, the resistant “unity” disputes that definition. The latter, in turn, proposes the elite to unite with the “people-nation”. This debate leads to the formation of a national identity politics, rather than reflections or actions on socio-economic policies and concessions in favour of peaceful resolution of the Karabakh issue.
In Armenia, political life is mainly caught in the trap of the pathos of “national unity”, which prevents reconsideration of one of the most crucial issues for the progress of Armenia and the region — the issue of establishing peace in Karabakh.
The April 2016 conflict escalation and Sasna Tsrer’s siege may have triggered changes in Sargsyan’s government, but it still ensured further political speculation on the Karabakh issue. For instance, Armenia’s recently formed government arranged to adopt a new mandatory payment on monthly earnings (approximately US$2) to compensate military families whose relatives are wounded or killed defending the border. This policy was criticised in public circles, but adopted by Armenia’s National Assembly after receiving support from several opposition parties.
Many were against this so-called “compensation tax” because of the general lack of trust towards the government, which is viewed as corrupt and as lacking a viable solution to the “no war, no peace” status quo. The only parties who openly resisted this policy and thus uncovered the government’s “eternal war” logic were small groups of leftist activists and Levon Ter-Petrosyan with the members of his centre-right Armenian National Congress party.
In Armenia, the only opportunity to overcome the political speculation over national unity lies in a politics that will consider the interests of social groups and classes, the economic foundations and consequences of state policies. Armenian public life needs to acknowledge that the “eternal war” over Karabakh has been the real source of corruption and regime sustainability, and thus the country’s political and economic degradation.
Will the civic and political activists fighting for regime change be able to reconsider their own approaches towards these common sense concepts and attitudes? Will they be able to question the “natural” power of patriarchal structures and the naturalisation of hostile relations? Or will they remain in the “national unity” trap, trying to change one specific ruling power official or regime rather than fundamentally transforming the power structure? This still remains to be seen.
Anna Zhamakochyan is a Yerevan-based sociologist pursuing her doctoral degree at Yerevan State University. She is also a co-founder of Socioscope, a research-oriented organisation that aims to enhance democracy and human rights in Armenia. Her scholarly interests focus on media criticism, ideological discourse analysis and mechanisms of social change.
This article was originally published by OpenDemocracy and is available by clicking here.
The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of TransConflict.