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Ukrainian lessons, Armenian hopes

On the challenges to democratic reforms in post-Maidan Ukraine and post-Velvet Revolution Armenia.

September 19, 2019 - Aram Terzyan - Articles and Commentary

Armenian politician Lena Nazaryan speaks to protesters during the Velvet Revolution of 2018. Photo: Albero (cc) wikimedia.org

The 2018 “Velvet Revolution” in Armenia has renewed interest in the anatomy and implications of post-Soviet revolutions. One of the biggest questions is what are the core challenges to post-revolution state building that could generate huge public backlash against revolutionary governments if not addressed properly.

Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s perplexing rise to the top is a remarkable indicator of public discontent with post-Maidan Ukraine’s political leadership. Even though former President Poroshenko’s government made considerable strides in reshaping war-torn Ukraine’s political and economic landscapes, Ukranians proved unhappy with the pace of economic recovery and lingering corruption. Clearly, changing political leaders does not equate to changing institutions and there is a rocky road ahead for post-revolution societies. Ukraine and Armenia have been long suffering from the effects of oligarchic monopolies, rampant corruption, lack of economic opportunities and weak rule of law, fraught with severe consequences of troubled neighborhoods.

Poroshenko’s political defeat serves as a wake-up call for Pashinyan’s government. The latter will inevitably face the same destiny if it proves unable to implement fundamental reforms.

A great many observers hail post-soviet revolutions as failed ones, given the persistence of authoritarian malpractices of the former regimes. 

A question arises of what the constrainted  post –revolution democratic reforms in Ukraine and how the new Armenian government will address a similar set of challenges.

The first major reason behind post-Maidan Ukraine’s political and economic setbacks has a great deal to do with Russian coercion manifested in the annexation of Crimea and ensuing war around two Russian-controlled breakaway regions. Ukraine has been bound by Russian ‘authoritarian resistance’ and fraught with devastating socio-economic and political consequences of the ongoing volatility injected by Russia. Essentially, Ukraine’s unique status of a “bone of contention” between a constrained EU and assertive Russia  has made its every move towards the EU extremely painful. As a result, instead of throwing its weight behind democracy building, Poroshenko’s government was forced to stand up for the country’s territorial integrity that was endangered by Russia’s military aggression.

Remarkably, Armenia’s former President Serzh Sargsyan frequently cited the Ukranian scenario as an excuse for the country’s decision to join the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU).  He argued that in order to avoid angering Russia and prompting it into Ukranian-style punitive measures, Armenia needed to relinquish its long-desired European foreign policy agenda.

Consistent with his predecessor Sargsyan’s rhetoric and in contrast to his pre-revolution discourse, Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan has confirmed Armenia’s further allegiance to Russia and framed it as the country’s closest ally. Arguably keen to consolidate his power, Pashinyan has refrained from steps that would potentially induce the Kremlin to incite and support a counter-revolutionary movement in Armenia. Notably,  during his first meeting with the Russian President, Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan gave credit to the ‘balanced position’ that Russia took during the internal political crisis and thus implied that Russia has every tool to interfere  in Armenia’s domestic affairs and change the balance of power. Overall, the simmering hostilities with neighboring Azerbaijan and Turkey adversely affect the Armenian government’s ability to implement reforms and further feeds the narrative that a security alliance with Russia is pivotal to building Armenia’s  security resilience.

The second major reason behind the slowdown of democratic reforms in Ukraine and in Armenia is inherently linked to the persistence of the oligarchic systems.

Despite the revolutions, oligarchs seem to have considerably shielded themselves from post-revolution challenges of economic and political reforms. The influence of oligarchic groups has been one of the core features of Ukrainian and Armenian politics since the mid and late 1990s respectively. Even though there have been changes in the balance of power among the biggest oligarchs, many still remain influential and privileged in Ukraine and Armenia. By taking over the key economic assets and media in these countries, oligarchs have been equipped with tools for exerting an oversized influence on incumbents. Even if the new governments strive to diminish oligarchs’ influence, they are not powerful enough to fundamentally reshape the oligarchy-driven  economic and political systems and face the possible repercussions. A full – blown confrontation with oligarchic groups is bound to further destabilise war-suffering Ukraine and potentially intensify a counter-revolutionary movement in Armenia. The oligarchy is entrentched to the point where the vacuum created by the diminishing influence of certain oligarchic groups, such as ones of Renat Akhmetov or Renat Frtash, gets instantly filled by other oligarchs like Ihor Kolomoyskyy.

Similarly, even though Pashinyan contends that there are no oligarchs in Armenia, the most powerful ones, such as Gagik Tsarukyan, Samvel Aleksanyan, and Ruben Hayrapetyan have maintained their prominent positions in the Armenian economy with huge potential for invoking political power.  Major oligarchs have survived seemingly massive anti-corruption campaigns or, at worst, found asylum in “big brother” Russia like Mihran Poghosyan did. Pashinyan’s government well acknowledges the depth of oligarchic influence in Armenia’s monopolised economy and, consistent with Ukranian incumbents, wants to avoid resorting to shock therapy. The repercussions would compound the suffering that corruption, poverty and lack of economic opportunities have inflicted on the Armenian and Ukranian population.  It is highly unlikely that the incumbents will take measures that could somehow deepen the economic crisis and casue their popularity to plummet.

Last, but not least,  systemic and rampant corruption has long condemned Ukraine and Armenia to a vicious circle of underdevelopment, poor governance and inability to implement reforms. Even though Ukraine has improved its ranking on Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index since 2013,  it was still the 120th least corrupt nation out of 175 countries in 2018 .

It is no wonder that the Ukranian, as well as Armenian, post-revolution governments would repeatedly pledge to fight against corruption and eliminate its systemic nature. In 2015, the Ukrainian government set up the National Anti-Corruption Bureau, as well as  the Specialised Anti-Corruption Prosecutor’s Office, to investigate corruption cases and identify corrupt practices of Ukranian officials. Moreover, Poroshenko introduced  the anti-corruption court aimed at rooting out entrenched corruption .

The anti-corruption efforts of the Armenian government prompted it to criminalise illicit enrichment.

Poroshenko’s government  significantly reduced the corruption, particularly in the gas, banking, and government procurement sectors; yet, there was little progress on the fight against judicial corruption.

Even though the judicial reform was hailed by Poroshenko as “the mother of all reforms,”  there was not much to reinforce the government’s pledges of fundamental reforms. In essence, Poroshenko’s steady decline as a political powerhouse is significantly owed to his failure to eradicate corruption.

Similarly, judicial corruption is one of the most harrowing challenges facing Pashinyan’s government. Following the controversial release of President Robert Kocharyan, Pashinyan contended that the judiciary is a remnant of the former corrupt system that would cook up conspiracies against the Armenian people. As a result, he called for a mandatory “vetting” of all judges in all of the courts in the country because of their ties to the previous regime.

On the one hand, such a rhetoric is indicative of the hardships of eliminating a deeply-rooted authoritarian legacy  and building a full-fledged democracy. Yet, on the other hand, there seems to be a tendency to shake off responisibility for possible shortcomings by attributing all possible abuses to the old regime and its lingering influence over law enforcement.

Nevertheless,  there  is no magic bullet for eliminating corruption and much depends on public support for anti-corruption campaigns. Studies show that Ukranian citizens tend to  “condemn” high-level corruption” yet “regard petty corruption as a justifiable evil.”   

In fact, countries with long histories of corruption often face tremendous challenges in eradicating the blight and seem to be locked in an unbreakable cycle of rampant corruption. The culture of corruption permeating every section of society takes a long time to fade away. Therefore, the efforts to root out systemic and rampant corruption and to eliminate the culture of corruption and impunity should be a top priority for the new Ukranian and Armenian governments. Otherwise, there would be no justifiable excuse and revolutionary leaders would inevitably end up in failure and notoriety.  

Aram Terzyan, PhD, is a visiting senior lecturer at UNESCO Chair of Human Rights, Democracy and European Studies of Brusov State University of Languages and Social Sciences and research fellow at Eurasian Research and Analysis Institute.

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