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Armenia’s enduring appeal to institutional practices

After the revolution, Armenia needs to take advantage of the available civil society expertise to provide informed conceptualisations of reform actions, and the institutional platforms that facilitate public oversight of reforms.

January 20, 2020 - Valentina Gevorgyan - Articles and Commentary

Fifth level of the Yerevan Cascade. "Divers" by David Martin. Photo: Gill M L (cc) flickr.com

A number of countries on the territory of the post-communist world have attained titles describing their lack of effective institutional practices and guarantees. Such regimes are described as hybrid, competitive authoritarian, electoral authoritarian, pseudo- or ambiguous democracies (for a detailed distinction among those, see, for example, Levitsky and Way 2002;Bunce and Wolchik 2011). These countries are democratic in form but authoritarian in governance, and their societies are usually characterised by a lack of public participation mechanisms and failures in conceptualisation of values.

The political thought developed over centuries guides governments in their choices of ideologies and commitments. However, because of the generality of concepts, they can be manipulated, misused and misconceived. For example, the phrases like “democratic institutions” or “democratic transformation” face the challenge of misleading conceptualisations or limited interpretations. Governments subscribe to the established concepts and their meanings, with ambitions to move away from countries’ systemic hybridity to institutional progress. But the reforms and events unfolding in real time necessitate conceptualisations. Otherwise, the long-standing values may as well be abused, accommodated to the conveniences of power and, eventually, detached from state responsibilities.

Armenia’s revolutionary leadership took on responsibilities to shift the former practices and deliver on reforms. That very process needs to be conceptualised and understood. The contents of the documents that facilitate relations between countries and manifest the core of the alliances are usually of the level of generality allowing manoeuvring and convenience of interpretation. The question then is how do general commitments transform into actions? Or how do ideologies become practice? In developed societies, the process of assigning specific definitions to the general commitments is often supported by civil society and the policy community’s expertise.

In November 2017, the European Union and Armenia signed the Comprehensive and Enhanced Partnership Agreement (CEPA) with a binding and broad reform agenda and increased financial support to Armenia. The CEPA promotes intensive cooperation and sets provisions for political, socio-economic and institutional development of Armenia through internal reforms. The agreement covers a number of areas and is dedicated to a transparent and a regular dialogue between different stakeholders, including through the improvement of the legal framework. Under its institutional provisions the agreement sets a Civil Society Platform, which shall include the Armenian and the European Union civil society organisations (CSO) to monitor the document’s implementation. The CEPA is set to empower Armenian civil society by becoming the government’s accountability check.

Systemic changes start from informed and accurate conceptualisations. Following the signing of the agreement, a group of Armenian CSOs and experts, based on their own initiative and years of reform-monitoring and advocacy experience, elaborated the CEPA roadmap with conceptual recommendations in reform priority areas. These include independence of the judiciary, access to justice, transparent and accountable governance and the implementation of a number of fundamental human rights. The document has been presented to the government and the European Union. The Armenian government then prepared and confirmed their own roadmap of actions, and the implementation of the agreement will be conditioned by it.

The national strategic documents and action plans are where governments’ commitments manifest. The roadmap prepared by the government makes references to the implementation of a number of national strategies, including those on human rights, the legal-judicial and anti-corruption reforms. Each document comes with an action plan that outlines the specifics. If governmental institutions choose to conceptualise justice and democracy, the role of the civil society becomes making sure they are on the board of institutional platforms, which are set to facilitate the reforms process. The primary task becomes the understanding of the roadmap actions and assessment of those against area specific commitments vs. public expectations. Ultimately, a process followed by a systematic, including the state budgetary performance monitoring.

Armenia’s former practices of state and society relations were mainly conditioned by the habits of subordination, co-optation or confrontation. Informality has been the main substitute to institutional practices. In the former unpredictable environment, civil society would use the available minor niche of advocacy not to lose any opportunity to claim human rights guarantees. Armenia’s post-revolutionary political environment calls for changes, especially in this regard. Institutional frameworks can be the point of reference for both civil society and the government. The function of society in the new environment may be reliant on the institutional frameworks and the enforcement measures provided, among others, by CEPA in the event of non-implementation.

In the post-revolutionary environment, the state’s achievements will be evaluated based on its ability to adjoin civil society, frame reform actions – based on available research evidence and expertise – and the implementation of those on time. The CSOs’ achievements will be assessed by their ability to take advantage of the institutional arrangements allowing oversight of the reforms by a representative civil society body. The tangible and representative involvement of CSOs in the available institutional platforms overseeing reforms will also strengthen the role of civil society as the intermediary entity between citizens and governmental institutions – an entity usually disregarded in authoritarian, hybrid or populist regimes.

A country’s transformation depends on informed conceptualisations of reforms and their accountable implementation. To dare to change the past and shift from the hybrid form of governance is to opt for reforms. Opting for reforms means framing concrete actions and the delivery of those. Armenia’s democratic transformation is not optional. The revolution was a mandatory appeal to institutional practices. If the Armenian society makes an informed usage of institutional platforms facilitated by agreements and other available mechanisms and the government makes a continuous reference to those for self-reflection, Armenia may finally discard descriptors of the pseudo-, semi- or ambiguous nature.

Post-Soviet societies are searching for ways to shift their policymaking cultures that have been damaged for a number of years from within. The starting point towards a shift may be the development of institutional practices. The shift of culture may start from the informed conceptualisation of problems turned into actions, followed by implementation and civil society monitoring. This could lead to improved public participation and a civilised community that prioritises human rights.

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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