The Driving Forces and the Political Basis of the Revolution
What is the political basis of the revolutionary movement of April 2018 in Armenia and which social groups were the driving forces for the movement? Is it based on an ideology, set of values, or a rationale? The answers to these questions will determine the form and the content of the new political majority, and whether it will succeed in changing the economic policies of the previous administration. In this brief analysis I will try to address a few key points and discuss some of the challenges facing the new government.
According to the Greek political sociologist Nicos Poulantzas, the state is not separate from society, it is rather a relationship of social forces, or “more precisely the material condensation of such a relationship.” In this regard, it is essential for the new administration to form its agenda without rolling back into the old political structures. It should not be forgotten that over the years a dominant ideology has formed according to which inequality is the acceptable state of society.
The Issues of Political Agenda and Ideology: Expected Threats
Nikol Pashinyan and the Civil Contract party, which is the kernel of the new “temporary” administration, have repeatedly stated that pursuing a political ideology is not the first item on their agenda. Although not having a political ideology in the initial stage may be advantageous, it can pose serious threats in the future.
- What will replace the “Nation-Army” concept and the neoliberal vector?
As we know, the new administration has been skeptical about the “Nation-Army” concept, but perhaps it is a mere reservation. It cannot be denied that unlike the new administration, the Republican Party had a more clear ideological orientation. It was operating on two concepts—neoliberalism, which was aimed towards international organizations, and nationalism-militarism, which was directed towards the subaltern classes, to avoid any resistance against the policies of dispossession. In other words, the “Nation-Army” was a roof over a neoliberal building. In fact, this is a widely used method. For example, Erdogan uses the same approach in Turkey. After eliminating the roof, the Civil Contract will be left with the neoliberal structure, which will have even less legitimacy for the wider population, unless it is replaced by new social justice-based policies. Thus, it is clear that the new government cannot completely avoid the issues of ideology or broader coalitions.
- The rule of law and self-regulating market are not sufficient preconditions
The notion that establishing rule of law and eliminating corruption will resolve the vast majority of problems is overly optimistic. Law in itself reflects the status quo of relations of production. This is the reason why the Constitution of Armenia has already been changed twice to match the people’s rights with the status quo of the moment, thus downgrading them. There are numerous states based on the rule of law in the world where social polarization continues to grow. Therefore, it is necessary to let go of the illusion of achieving results through purely legal or institutional policies. In this sense, Daron Acemoglu’s theory, which the new government is planning to implement, is also deficient. Having a decentralized government will do very little for the regions if there are no investment resources for the existing communities and no new methods of community organizing. Finally, inequality in education remains the biggest challenge.
The recent meeting with the Armenian economists to discuss proposals for the new government was quite sobering. The discussion was mainly dominated by the free-market narratives of the 1990s, which are being questioned in the rest of the world. It is necessary to understand why a villager is desperately aspiring to individual prosperity and not uniting with their fellow villagers to form a union, and thus continues to depend on the good will of oligarchs. Therefore, the new government should entirely replace the existing economic structure.
- External resistance
In the upcoming weeks the new government will meet with several international financial institutions, including the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, etc. There is a high possibility that these institutions will present the new government with the same approaches that were used by the Republican Party. The agenda that these institutions are trying to push forward is exactly what “neoliberal” policies represent. It is not only liberal, but the “neo” prefix describes the “deregulation, privatization, and liberalization agenda” that these institutions are trying to impose. It is up to us to decide the extent to which this agenda is in line with the current challenges Armenia is facing. The social base of the new administration is going to play a crucial role in critically reviewing the aforementioned agenda or in pursuing an independent social policy. We should remember that Nikol Pashinyan’s government came to power due to the hundreds of thousands of people who are eagerly awaiting state and other investments in their social and educational infrastructures.
- Internal resistances
The technocrats who work in the ministries, including the officials of the economic sector, may also become an obstacle for the new government by dissuading the newly appointed officials from making drastic changes and advising them to take the already paved path. We have seen numerous examples in other countries when technocrats reverse revolutionary agendas and return countries to old practices.
- The role of private capital
The previous administration’s policies have resulted in private capital penetrating into the spheres of education, public services, cities’ public spaces, healthcare, etc. In an atmosphere of complete noninterference and spending cuts, the infiltration and growing influence of private capital have created a number of problems in social justice and public solidarity. The most striking examples are the National Education Excellence Program and the market share distribution of insurance services in the healthcare system. The deregulatory power of private capital will continue to prevail unless there are strong labor unions, self-organized civic groups, committees, and new educational platforms that encourage critical thinking.
Needless to say, the lack of political ideology can turn the new government’s actions into a series of isolated measures. In this regard everything must be done to make sure that the newly appointed ministers aren’t left alone after the initial wave of euphoria fades away.
Driving Social Forces
Before addressing the main driving forces of the Revolution, let us look at its origins. In essence, this movement was the logical continuation of other self-organized civic initiatives of the past decade, including “Save Teghut”, “Protect Trchkan Waterfall”, “Occupy Mashtots Park”, “We pay 100 drams”, “I am against”, “Electric Yerevan”, “For development of science”, and others. In other words, the revolutionary movement was the next stage of the qualitative and quantitative growth of these initiatives. It adopted similar methods of struggle while supplementing them with a well-structured and comprehensive political agenda. Hence, these movements share a contextual organic connection.
What kind of ideological orientation did these initiatives have that eventually led to the “My Step” movement? These initiatives were the public’s response to the “privatization, liberalization and deregulation” of the past 20-30 years, and they all shared the theme of social justice. Teghut addressed the issue of fair management of natural resources. Other movements were about preserving public spaces, maintaining fair rates for public services, opposing the privatization of the pension system and the reduction of public education, and disallowing the private sector from making super profits at the expense of the public sector. The most noteworthy in this list is perhaps the “I am against” movement, which struggled against “offshoring” of the pension system, but at a certain point it splintered. The vast majority of the participants began to deny the movement’s social nature and instead tried to define it as a right-wing liberal-conservative initiative introduced by the middle class. Today some of those participants are part of the Yelk (Way Out) Alliance’s neoliberal wing.
Let us address the most active social forces of the revolutionary movement. First and foremost, they were the self-organized student groups, who had long been affected by the Republican Party’s policies and practices. At the same time, they weren’t too constrained by state and patriarchal levers. These student groups were the cultural core of the movement. Other groups included participants from diverse civic initiatives, who joined forces with Pashinyan’s Civil Contract party but were also initiators of spontaneous demonstrations. They involved leftist, feminist, social liberal groups, human rights activists and intellectuals, who were using tactics that were meant to break stereotypes and hierarchical structures. These groups were the pioneers of the cultural revolution.
Indeed, it was the above-mentioned cultural component along with Nikol Pashinyan’s and his supporters’ unwavering commitment that sparked and inflamed the movement. Naturally, the middle class and particularly the small and medium-sized enterprises which were no longer able to function within the old system were also mobilized. Nevertheless, let us not forget that the revolution was made possible because of the hundreds of thousands who joined the movement from the regions and from the suburbs of Yerevan just days before Sargsyan’s resignation. These people are the main victims of poverty, exploitation and disenfranchisement.
The Political Basis of the Revolution
How can Nikol Pashinyan’s party create a political basis that will prevent the reproduction of old structures? Inclusivity in regard to the interests of broader groups is an inevitable precondition. It is essential that the new political basis not only represents the middle class, the progressive student and civic groups, but also the working class of the suburbs and the impoverished rural population. In other words, it’s necessary to pursue the main slogan of the revolution—love and solidarity. It’s imperative to form a large coalition centered around social justice and solidarity that will unite the middle class and the impoverished population around a single agenda. This can become the ideology that will unite people not around xenophobia and the militaristic “Nation-Army” concept, but around freedom and fair distribution and management of public goods—values that are indispensable in building our public sector. However, the above-mentioned groups lack established structures for political self-organization. They are largely used to serve the interests of the oligarchs through “lumpenization.” Left-wing political groups stand the closest to these segments.
How to Build that Basis
Political parties that represent a broad spectrum of social forces are usually comprised of different factions. Although these factions are centered around general ideological principles, they form left and right wings inside their own parties. It is essential that these wings represent ideological factions, instead of uniting around individuals.
The best solution for building an inclusive political basis would be the formation of the following three wings within Pashinyan’s political force (Civil Contract or Yelk Alliance):
- Liberal wing, consisting of members from the Yelk Alliance with liberal and social-liberal views;
- Centrist wing, consisting of conservative democrats, who can take on the networking role of a mediator;
- Left wing, consisting of the left-wing civic groups, who played an indispensable role in the revolution and who would push the social agenda of the broad masses.
The unity of these three ideological factions around Nikol Pashinyan as well as their participation in the upcoming parliamentary elections will ensure more fundamental and long-term legitimacy for the new government, while reinforcing the spirit and values of the revolution. Unlike working solely with technocrats and faithful members of the party, this scenario is more complicated and requires more work. On the other hand, fetishizing the market and merely focusing on the rule of law may further deepen social polarization and create serious problems within a short period of time.
The Republican Party will do everything to maintain its power in cities, villages, schools and in separate economic entities. All the questions and answers between the Republican Party and Nikol Pashinyan specifically aim to bring him into the old discourse, language, practices, and rhetorics of the Republican Party. With some exceptions, so far Pashinyan has been able to avoid this realm. However, if these issues are ignored, the Republican Party will use the nationalist discourse to quickly retaliate against the new government by utilizing the media, economic entities, and social structures that are still under its influence. It is one thing to make revolutionary speeches in the Republic Square but another to be the bearer of the cultural revolution locally in one’s own community. Anti-revolutionary forces, like Yerevan mayor Taron Margaryan and others will continue to cling to the old levers. There is going to be a big temptation to use these levers to serve the new government.
In the recommended three-wing system, forming a left wing with an agenda of social justice will be the most difficult task. Several attempts are being made in this regard. However, the left-wing groups in Armenia are fairly diverse and follow a decentralized mode of operation․ Therefore, their political consolidation will require a great deal of effort and political maturity. In addition, it is also not clear whether the new government, being on the verge of parliamentary elections, is ready to incorporate such a leftist wing, or whether it will prefer to take the easy but precarious road of remaining a homogeneous party.
Ensuring favorable legal and institutional conditions for bringing in transnational or diaspora capital may result in major investments in Armenia. However, without changing the political course of the country, these investments will never cause a breakthrough in social transformation, which was the main purpose of the revolution in the first place. Moreover, they can bring about new inequalities and conflicts.
The former ruling Republican Party has created a localized rigid system. The fact that it is undergoing a crisis does not mean that society will not reject the replacing system which is more civilized but is essentially similar. The redistribution of resources and finances for social justice, equal opportunities and economic democracy will play a decisive role in this issue. Nikol Pashinyan’s political force needs a broad social base to overcome all possible resistances. The revolutionary movement was full of elements of direct democracy—rapidly mobilizing crowds, self-organizing diverse groups, and participatory decision-making. It is important not only to focus on the election process but to maintain these dynamics and continue to utilize the energy emanating from these social forces. Nevertheless, it is also important that the new ruling party has a strong position in the parliament and represents all the political wings and values of the revolution.
 Nicos Poulantzas, State, Power, Socialism, tr. Patrick Camiller (Verso, 2000), 128.
 In this regard the open letters between Armen Grigoryan and Vigen Sargsyan are interesting. These two positions only differ in regard to fair elections, reduced corruption, human rights protection, and a competitive market.
 See Socioscope’s video on the 2015 constitutional amendments at https://youtu.be/s_jRH0JeQWI.
 Daron Acemoglu, James A Robinson, Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity and Poverty, 1st ed. New York: Crown (2012).
 In his Facebook post, Minister of Healthcare Arsen Torosyan wrote, “We have information that the oligarchy of the healthcare system has decided to counteract our anti-corruption steps.” Retrieved from https://www.facebook.com/ATorosyanOfficial/posts/702419576610977.
 Armenia’s pension reforms were based on the Chilean model which was created during Pinochet’s dictatorship. The reform resulted in mass protests in Chile and had to be reconsidered several times. See «Ցույցեր պարտադիր կենսաթոշակայինի դեմ Չիլիում» (Protests Against Mandatory Retirement Accounts in Chile) at http://diskurs.am/2014/02/223/.
 In the course of the movement the term “solidarity” has been sometimes replaced (accidentally or deliberately) by the term “tolerance.” Tolerance is a form of nonparticipation, whereas solidarity implies social responsibility.
 The most striking examples are the contrasts as well as the common points between Nikol Pashinyan’s speech and the content of the May 28 concert in Sardarapat that was organized by the previous administration.
Translated from Armenian by Margo Gevorgyan.
For the Armenian version of this article please click here.
Vahram Soghomonyan (born 1977) is member of editorial board of the Yerevan-based think-tank Political Discourse (diskurs.am), which was founded in 2013 by a group of Armenian social scientists and representatives of civic groups. He studied German Language at the Yerevan State University. From 2002 until 2006 he worked at the Philipps University of Marburg as a member of the “European Integration” research group. His studies are focused on South Caucasus and European integration, changes in the system of values in Armenia and the Karabakh (Artsakh). Since 2010 he has been actively involved in civic initiatives in Armenia (including Mashtots Park Movement). Vahram Soghomonyan is a member of Civic Initiative for Education.
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