Senior Programme Manager, European Endowment for Democracy
Since the Velvet Revolution in May 2018, Armenia has continued on its journey towards democracy. While the pace of reforms is criticised, Armenia has succeeded in some areas. To date, elections have been free and fair, courts and cabinet sittings are more transparent, there is more openness for public discussions, and the government has initiated reforms in anti-corruption, justice and law enforcement sector reforms.
At the same time, the situation is increasingly complex. A driving force behind the revolution, social media is now a battleground where the former government and its agents, home-grown and foreign actors, and non-transparent media outlets run smear campaigns, promote fake news, and test manipulations. Broadcast media remains financially non-transparent and mostly serves interests of former government. Due to the rise of disinformation, emotional debate, and lack of think-tanks and policy-making traditions, civil society struggles to discuss policy reforms. Politics is still personality-driven, not based on ideas. Despite the involvement of different minorities and the public role played by women during the revolution, government rhetoric is increasingly conservative. Gender issues are weaponised in the political struggle of the old regime against the new one, while the unresolved conflict around Nagorny Karabakh is exploited in nationalist and defensive discourse. The government lacks a clear agenda, while dialogue between government and civil society is haphazard, relying primarily on personal connections. And while mid-level corruption appeared to have subsided after the revolution, anecdotal evidence suggests that it is creeping back, particularly in the regions as well as in specific sectors such as construction, water resource management, energy.
Many activists are concerned about a potential narrowing of space. Human rights defenders, members of minorities, and journalists report an increase in hate speech, discrimination, and other forms of physical or verbal harassment or attack and inability or unwillingness of law enforcement to address such cases. Such violations have yet to be properly addressed by Armenia’s judicial system, which lacks public trust and which the government wrestles to reform (with this in mind, among other things, a constitutional referendum was set to take place in early April, now postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic). In a recent speech, following a spate of suicides in Armenia’s army, the deputy Minister of Defence accused human rights defenders of making the work of his ministry difficult – in an apparent effort to muzzle critical voices.
Institutionalisation is one of the most pressing needs for both the government and civil society: how the government can strengthen mechanisms to involve citizens and protect their rights, and safeguard space for civil society, and, in parallel, how civil society can strengthen its position as a watchdog and increase civic engagement. Effective communication both by and between the government and civil society represents its own challenge. Yet effective political communication and prioritisation of issues by both government and civil society is essential to break the current gridlock.
Constitutional reform is a current focus of the government, with the reform of the Constitutional Court as an immediate priority, and various high profile anti-corruption cases, including against the former president are underway. Several fundamental reforms are being pushed forward by civil society, including that of media reform, which would help in the struggle against disinformation. Social justice was the driving force of the revolution, with strong public demand for reform in education being a focus, yet the adoption of legislation has been stalled. The Armenian National Assembly also shied away from ratifying the Istanbul Convention that would further protect women from violence, while anti-discrimination legislation discussions lag.
However, while the situation is far from simple, the overall direction remains positive. Civil society continues to be a major driving force in demanding and pushing for change. A number of youth-led activist groups are emerging in the regions that get people involved in local political decisions in a way that has not been done in the past – through anti-cafes, festivals, setting up student groups, campaigning on cultural or environmental issues, and much more. In doing so, they challenge Armenia’s centralized model, unveil the cultural, ethnic and social diversity of the country, while contributing to the process of decentralization that links into the need for social justice – and deeper, more sustained democracy.