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Armenian civil society’s critical potential on target

Following the Velvet Revolution, Armenian civil society organisations face an increasingly difficult environment.

November 15, 2019 - Valentina Gevorgyan - Articles and Commentary

Demonstrators in front of the public radio in Erevan during the Velvet Revolution. Photo: Avetysyan91 (cc) wikimedia.org

The post-communist world has experienced a wave of revolutions as a result of the clash of values transferred by the Soviet legacy and the emerging societal will to turn the page. Armenia, with conformist policies and corrupt practices similar to other regional counterparts, experienced its share of revolution in April 2018. The Velvet Revolution was entirely directed towards internal reforms and the rehabilitation of institutions. It served as a warning to other authoritarians around the world.

The post-revolutionary environment in Armenia, however, has generated a new challenge. Since the revolution, Armenian civil society organisations (CSOs), with years of monitoring and advocacy experience, have become targets of increasing attacks by a group associated with Armenia’s former regimes and Russia. The pseudo-civil society group’s main strategy is to identify a scapegoat for the loss of power by constructing lies about CSOs.

The group aims to de-legitimise Armenia’s civil society, which plays an essential role in defending human rights and supporting the implementation of government reforms. The de-legitimisation is orchestrated by declamatory labelling and propaganda. The manipulative attacks intend to influence the image of independent and outspoken members of civil society.

Philanthropist George Soros’s name is among the most frequently used by this group. Its main message reads that comprehensive changes in the country of April and May 2018 were possible because of his support. Such reductionist arguments would qualify as fanatically lunatic, had they not been regularly used over the years by other regional authoritarians with the sole aim of closing the space for civil society and clinging to power. A range of unthinkable developments in the country are linked to the Open Society Foundations, making it the overarching force behind all possible developments.

We know there is a problem when democratic values are used to counter human rights and open society standards. A frequent argument to justify attacks is usually the right to pluralism and freedom of expression. The purposeful distortion of facts is presented as an alternative reality. To be reminded of the dangers of such mindset, one can refer to the horrendous forms of the twentieth century.

After these forces lost access to the governmental sector, they now hunt for new engagements. The threats to the revolution’s democratic promise are the intentions of such groups to taint civil society by not only attempting to establish themselves within that domain, but also to spread disinformation that undermines the work of critical voices. These attacks are reminiscent of the 1990s, when there was no other argument to counter the western-supported entities other than labelling them as foreign agents. The paradox of the post-revolutionary developments in Armenia is how the outdated and overused myths can still be found worthy of dissemination among the new generations in the era of technological developments, diverse and open spaces.

It is demeaning that after the revolution, which has changed the political course of the country, Armenia is still bound to fight the challenge of understanding the role of civil society, a subject that is beyond contestation in developed countries. Societies in transition need more information about what civil society is, what it does, and what it can do for democratic progress. Societies in transition need more rational thinking to understand the responsibilities of different societal actors and myths that aim to undermine their critical abilities. This level of thinking is imperative to achieve higher societal standards and not shift backwards to authoritarian beliefs, where criticism is rarely approached for improvement.

The practice shows that such irrational thinking and approaches echoing from the past are what naturally lead societies to resistance. It happens, when the citizens find themselves on the crossroads of older practices and new horizons, forcing each member to seek logical connections between reality and the alternative imagined realities that are wrapped in obsolete myths. Among the main features of a closed regime is the confident refusal of logic, which connects the reasons to reality. A refusal to think is nurtured, organised and eventually imposed to maintain a flexible public mentality for indoctrination of anything, but the critical qualities. Such is a brief guide to preparing a foundation for an authoritarian state.

Armenia’s revolution showcased society’s overwhelming ability to think. That ability to think is now the target by the forces spreading propaganda. There is a need to recognise the actual role of civil society and what it can do for the country’s cultural, political and economic transformation. In developed societies, independent CSOs conduct institutional monitoring and advocate for reforms. In developed countries, the governments and the public need civil society, not vice versa.

The Armenian citizens have to improve their understanding of the role of civil society as a defender of human rights. States have policies on human rights. Defending human rights involves attendance to policy, and above all, monitoring its implementation. If countries do not succeed in exercising human rights protections, civil society comes in to criticise and advocate for change. This is the practice of consolidated democracies, and exactly the reason why CSOs with critical potential and expertise are targeted today in a country that has taken the first step towards progress. Whether it will pass to the next stage will depend on the CSOs’ strategies and responses and how civil society protection mechanisms manifest. If Armenia is to progress further, it cannot afford the luxury of confusing roles. The governmental institutions need to ensure civil society’s safe functioning to defend its critical potential.

The shrinking of space for civil society is a global problem that has not lost its relevance today. Apart from efforts of authoritarians in power, the phenomenon seems to take routes by different actors depending on the circumstance. Today, Armenia’s circumstance necessitates attention. This is a challenging time for the country. And its main challenge, as paradoxically as it may sound, is the confused understanding of foundational concepts for democratic societies. One is the role of civil society. After a nationwide upheaval and a seemingly new road ahead, Armenian civil society and governmental institutions need to have the courage to develop a healthy environment defending its critical voices, not to let the country fail.

Valentina Gevorgyan is Policy Research Fellowship Coordinator at the Open Society Foundations Armenia and Doctoral Researcher in Political Science at the Department of Social Sciences, University of Fribourg.

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