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Calling for a quality public discourse in Armenia

Public discourse in Armenia today remains beset with problems and the behaviour of the authorities is hardly a role model. If the government does not commit to improving the quality of discourse and its own behaviour, the country may be faced with a long-term challenge affecting other areas of public life.

June 18, 2020 - Valentina Gevorgyan - Articles and Commentary

Aerial view of the National Assembly of Armenia in Yerevan. Photo: Serouj Ourishian (cc) wikimedia.org

Armenia’s political foundations over the past century have remained fraught with difficulty. The transition from Soviet ideology to Armenian independence began as a clear, confident and self-assured process. Despite this, the country’s first three administrations offered no clear ideological leadership, which resulted in a deterioration of societal values. The country’s political forces engaged in unprofessional language and superficial ideologies with lack of structure and political thought. The education system suffered due to sound problems. It is true, therefore, that the new government, which followed the 2018 revolution, has inherited a state faced with many problems, including a deficit of ideas.

Educating the public and encouraging informed public discourse has never been a top priority for the country’s previous leaderships. Armenia’s public sphere has traditionally suffered from high levels of media illiteracy, poor journalism and nationally produced TV programs (and soap operas) of the lowest possible quality, what seemed to be an intentional distortion of public reason and values. However, what appears even more worrying is the increasing acceptance of these tendencies today. Two years after the revolution, Armenia suffers from the same low-quality public discourse, has no agenda to transform, or at least steps to address the issue.

Understanding how to talk to the public has been a concern often identified in studies on Armenian civil society. Prior to the revolution, countering public ignorance by educating society has become an established and an inevitable function of civil society (which was also targeted by disinformation for its committed and courageous goals). But there have been hopes that a change of political leadership would allow for the state to act on its responsibility to encourage high-level societal discourse framed by research and informed by values. Unfortunately, political leadership’s ongoing communication with the public have not lived up to these expectations. In the immediate aftermath of the revolution, various low-level speeches addressing the public directly were, although rather populist, also somewhat justified. Naturally, a new government had just taken power and the public was still very much engaged with the change that it had helped create. However, two years after the revolution, the same style of speech now appears to be a threat to any prospect of long-term public education.

For example, due to a lack of any serious plans to develop ethical dialogue between political groups, ongoing rivalries resulted in shameful images of a fight between parliament members. Also, upon the recent recommendation of the Minister of Justice, Prime Minister Pashinyan refused the implementation of long-planned reforms on transitional justice. During a press-conference that addressed this issue, the leader chose to explain his decision through reference to an “Armenian barbeque”, which, if made quickly, remains well-done on the outside and raw inside. No doubt, there is not a single Armenian who does not know about this concept, but it remains doubtful whether this was the best possible example to communicate to the public. Similarly, new political administration uses degrading language whilst addressing opposition members, lowering the bar of public discourse. This language, however, is now commonly used as a means of achieving political goals, instead of advocating for institutional approaches to reforms. Political partisanship, therefore, remains a widespread problem in Armenia even after the revolution. Saying whatever comes to mind may be acceptable for voters. It may not be so for the elected officials, the ones who the public voted for, and put into office to serve. The serving to public happens by leading with example, whereas what the current appearances of state’s highest authorities and platforms do is the expansion of public degradation.

It may also be an option that the thoughtless actions and reactions of politicians today are the result of the urgency to protect themselves from disinformation, which targets both successes and failures of the new administration. This is a risk. However, when the former political leadership was in power, it has been harshly criticised and blamed for the ignorant inability to improve the political dialogue. It is the time to criticise today’s political leadership, if they deserve so. Because the way the officials address the public at large may not only be a sign of the intention to target people colloquially, so that they understand. It may also be a sign of the intention to keep the public at the very level they are, and through that to extend own power. The strategic purpose of the concerned policy community is to exercise a leadership, which blindly commits to public education and development and raises the bar of the public discourse. Not lowers it for the sake of cheap and short-term media appearances aimed for the party survival. If the current conditions endure, then it is difficult to describe political communication in Armenia as a “discourse”, but simply a means by which politicians secure their own interests.

It is widely accepted, that facts and evidence are often unexciting to many in society. In contrast to this, slang and conspiracies may appear to be more engaging. Helping people to choose facts and reason over disinformation is a universal problem. In Armenia, it appears that civil society will remain responsible for encouraging proper discourse for a long time to come. To some, it may seem unethical to raise the issue of public discourse during the COVID-19 pandemic. To others, raising problems surrounding public discourse remains an issue that is continuously relevant. This is because of its fundamental ability to influence other areas of public life. If political discourse is well informed, it is more likely that citizens will be better educated, and their choice of the rule of law may prevail over the ignorance. More specifically, in relation to the pandemic, such changes may encourage people to choose wearing masks and gloves over arbitrary decisions to not do so. Such arbitrary decisions by individuals showcase low levels of trust towards not only the risks of the pandemic, but the concerns advocated by their government, which addresses public every-day. And especially, when after speeches about alarming country conditions due to the spread of the pandemic, the government members recklessly attend a banquet, without taking any precautionary measures, filled with empty pride and cheap content. These ‘role models’ will only harm attempts to solve the country’s pre-existing problems and hardly help avoid the worst excesses that a crisis like the Covid-19 pandemic may invite.

Two years ago, Armenians demanded a better government. Unfortunately, the leadership today does not offer that. It claims that it is trying to “stay close” to ordinary people. What it is actually doing, is damaging discourse by discouraging any opportunity to develop public education and institutional thinking. Armenian society and the political leadership need to recognise that there is a continuous lack of determination to build a new government, which will refuse partisanship and commit itself to public education. This disregard for proper discourse may prove to be irreversible. As a result, the offered mental economy will be a problem for Armenia’s administrations for years to come. Even today, when the country is fighting the pandemic, improving public discourse may remain a top priority.

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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