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Damaging the immunity of the state

The recent regulations in Armenia contradict the political leadership’s commitments to democratisation and may be damaging to the country’s progress.

April 27, 2020 - Valentina Gevorgyan - Articles and Commentary

Parliament of Armenia Photo: Hovo Hanragitakan (cc) flickr.com

These are difficult times in the world. The pandemic has descended similarly on both countries prepared and unprepared for the shocks. The developments that societies witness today will echo years ahead in states’ economic, social and, importantly, cultural realms. Revitalising health, labour and social affairs will be a challenge. It will also be a challenge to revitalise the societal values, if we lose them amidst the crisis today. Governments around the world have reacted differently to the pandemic by introducing states of emergencies, budget reconfigurations and a range of e-measures targeting different issues on different scales. In certain countries the responses to the pandemic may also be alarming of the possible authoritarian appetites the authorities have.

During the past month, Armenia adopted regulations contradicting the political leaders’ commitment to creating an open and liberal society. Amidst the emerging crisis of the pandemic, the parliament has speedily adopted amendments to the law on NGOs to increase state control over organisational activities. The regulation points to an intention to enter the space of civil society by making the reporting of the content of organisational activities mandatory. This goes beyond the reporting on the usage of financial resources that is typically regulated by the tax authority. NGOs shall also report on the content of their activities. In particular, the purpose and description of the programs they implement, information about the location of activities on the territory of the republic, and activity implementation status.

There have been some questionable justifications for these amendments by the members of parliament, including the one which basically says that in case this regulation was to be adopted by the previous parliament, known for its authoritarian practices, the regulation would be unacceptable. However, by the post-revolutionary government, it is safe to adopt it. Does this mean that the same regulation has different interpretations under different administrations? It means that the danger of the regulation’s abuse, which was present previously, may as well be applied these days. If the regulation would allow room for a different interpretation then, it will be so today. If the text is bad, it is bad. It does not become good under new circumstances. And the environment of civil society cannot be dependent on the text-interpretation intentions of authorities. In fact, what the regulation actually hints at is a lack of understanding of the political role of civic groups and ways in which non-artificial democratic societies function.

Another recent regulation, as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, allows for citizen surveillance mechanisms and gives authorities access to personal data, including the location and phone numbers (contacted by a person via call or text message). A number of details in the regulation remain unclear and contradict its main intention, which is to identify the circle that an infected person has interacted with. The regulation seems unreasonable, if not strange, considering that citizens’ physical interaction with neighbours, shopkeepers and friends may happen without any phone conversation. And the increased phone and text interaction may be an indication that a person is refraining from physical contact. Additionally, according to the law, the personal data collected from citizens shall be destroyed not immediately, but not later than one month after the end of the emergency situation. Instead of harsh and real measures, such as collective speed testing, the government’s concentration on regulations seems inappropriate. To be fair, similar regulations have been adopted in other countries. A brief analysis of states’ responses to COVID-19 puts Armenia in a similar situation to Hungary, Russia and China. This is disappointing, considering Armenia was named as the best country of the year only two years ago, according to The Economist’s 2018 annual “country of the year” award celebrating states’ improvement in moving closer to democracy.

Armenia’s post-revolutionary leadership usually responds to criticism by asserting its legitimacy. This is true. The government becomes legitimate once it is elected in office and the citizens delegate responsibility to it. But in the case it does not behave, the non-delivery may not be explained by using the legitimacy argument. The government’s performance is not only about legitimacy, it may be also about responsibility. Being a legitimate government is not enough. The civil society had a tangible impact on politics prior to the revolution. This came largely as a response to the lack of the legitimacy of the former government, which was recognised by numerous accounts as semi-authoritarian and corrupt. The former government took advantage of the civil society to improve its legitimacy. Today’s regulations that aim to increase the government’s control represent a failure to appreciate the legitimacy of civil society. And so today’s leadership uses its own legitimacy to emerge as a carrier of more control. This raises the question: which is worse, an illegitimate government seeking legitimacy from civil society or a legitimate government disregarding the role of civil society by using the comforts of its own legitimacy?

It is fair to recognise, if not impossible to deny that after the revolution, Armenia witnessed concerning developments in its civil society. And, perhaps now the government seeks protections of its own. However, the government’s quest to minimise risks to itself coming from various sources has actually worked to its detriment, reminding once again of a young and a non-experienced leadership. Among the dangers of the post-revolutionary circumstance is that governments become prone to enthusiastic reforms, and while it may intend to target fraud, it also steps on the democratic forces. The laws adopted do not warrant a democratic crisis per se, and by many may even be justified as a reasonable response to the pandemic. However, they are an indicator of a dangerous tendency that can lead to a crisis. By taking one step forward towards addressing the COVID-19 pandemic, we may actually take two democratic steps back.

Societies after revolutions take interesting turns. The discussed examples of changes in the legislation seem to contradict the political leaderships’ commitments to transparency, openness and synergy for reforms with civil society. April 2020 marks the second anniversary of Armenia’s Velvet Revolution. Why must a revolution, which was won to navigate a new way forward, allow the drop of its governance-related intentions and go back to former practices? The Armenian government is legitimate. Its legitimacy has been the first step on the path to the country’s democratic transformation. But the legitimacy it has is not enough. The government must act with responsibility and be accountable — and importantly so to the civil society, not vice versa.

Beyond doubt, this is the time of hard choices for the governments around the world. A grave first challenge is to fight the pandemic and minimise its spread in the communities. An equal challenge is to respond to the first challenge by not overstepping the democratic values, and not using the pandemic as an opportunity for extending authoritarian rule. In fact, the hardest for the governments may be the choice of values, which serve the foundation for developing relations among different actors within society. Amidst the crazy times of the pandemic a prudent policy making may be a priority for governments, so that in the process of applying measures to improve the immune systems of the citizens not to damage the immunity of the state.

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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