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Platonic Armenia: a transition to tyranny?

Following the revolution in 2018, Armenians were satisfied that they finally overcame a corrupt regime. After losing a war and experiencing democratic backsliding, the people who brought Pashinyan to power might be the ones bringing him down

January 13, 2021 - Tatevik Hovhannisyan - Articles and Commentary

Anti-government and anti-Pashinyan protests in Yerevan, December 10th 2020. Photo: Cornelius_brandt / Shutterstock

If we follow Plato’s understanding of regime transitions, it appears that Armenia can soon become a ‘tyranny’. This issue can be traced back to the beginning of the ‘Karabakh’ movement and the desire for independence from the Soviet Union.

The Soviet Union was a classic example of a totalitarian regime. It possessed a centralised government that faced little to no opposition, as well as an (at least publicly) obedient citizenry. In relation to Plato’s description of tyranny, it appears that many modern totalitarian regimes have adopted a very similar model of rule.

Despite this, when the pressures of Soviet totalitarianism proved too much to bare, citizens searched for ways to change the system. Starting in Poland with the rise of Solidarity, demonstrations against the region’s communist regimes soon resulted in a domino effect reaching other countries, including Soviet Armenia. Following this, ethnic Armenians also started to demand the independence of the Nagorno-Karabakh (Artsakh) autonomous region from Soviet Azerbaijan.

Both the people and political elite of the ‘Karabakh’ movement expressed their desire to see an ‘aristocrat’ among them become the leader of their newly established country. This was Levon Ter-Petrosyan, the first democratically elected president of Armenia in 1991. He was chosen as he was a prominent scholar, highly intelligent (‘wise’, as Plato would say), spoke six or seven languages, and was able to negotiate and represent his nation well. For a short time, Armenia enjoyed the rule of its ‘wise’ leader, who was even able to give speeches in the UN General Assembly in English. As Plato said, however, a ‘Philosopher King’ will only remain on the throne until “the gold is mixed with copper and the iron with silver, and as a result the balance between virtue and human weaknesses is shifted”.

In keeping with Plato’s outlook, Levon Ter-Petrosyan was eventually removed from the throne by the country’s ‘timocrats’ or ‘warriors’. In the case of Armenia, these soldiers were those who fought in the war in Nagorno-Karabakh in order to make sure that Ter-Petrosyan could not “give back the lands”. This outcome would have been unacceptable for the warriors, as Artsakh represented the base of their power and influence. How could they let him give away their pride – the region for which they had fought without the final status for Nagorno Karabakh? Besides, there was also an ongoing security issue for both Artsakh and Armenia, which was ‘ensured’ by the adjacent regions to Artsakh (until the status of Artsakh will be solved). This issue does not exist any more as the recent Moscow-brokered agreement between Armenia, Azerbaijan and Russia those regions were given back to Azerbaijan. The current situation has created new challenges for Yerevan and the internationally unrecognised Republic of Artsakh.

A ‘timocracy’ often emerges due to the inherent drawbacks of ‘aristocracy’. In reality, a timocratic system represents a combination of both aristocratic and oligarchic elements. Power is crucial in a timocracy, which is strengthened at the expense of virtue. The desire to accumulate property is very typical in this system. The seeds of this type of rule were already planted under Ter-Petrosyan. These later blossomed during the rule of Robert Kocharyan, the second president of Armenia. With warriors in power, strict order and rule is maintained in the country. Subsequently, citizens must become more obedient to their government. Eventually, the warriors’ desire for power grows at such a rate that timocracy gradually turns into an ‘oligarchy’.

Such oligarchic rule was clear during under Kocharyan and it became even stronger under his successor Serzh Sargsyan. In an oligarchy, those who have money become the leaders of the country. As a result, materialism grows and becomes a key part of the oligarchic system. Laws are written to protect the property of those in power and their relatives. During this time, strict measures are taken to protect the property of the oligarchs. In an oligarchy, the society is divided into rich and poor and this social polarisation eventually becomes so clear that one day the society finds itself threatened by revolution. Following this, the ‘democratic’ leader comes to power. In the case of Armenia, this occurred as a result of the “Velvet Revolution” in 2018.

In a democracy power belongs to the people. Despite this, the leaders, who are meant to be the voice of the people, may start doing what they want without consulting the population. This issue is typical in societies where there are no established democratic traditions. During and right after the revolution, the Armenian people were mostly willing to ignore minor violations and infringements by the new leader. After all, Nikol Pashinyan was “their king”. Should the ‘king’ continue to ignore previous promises, however, the people may start to behave in a similar way to their beloved leader of the revolution. Blocking the streets, for example, is a method that has proven to work well in Armenia. This has become a key tactic for various interest groups in the country. For example, importers of right-hand drive vehicles blocked government buildings and organised a demonstration in order to challenge a decree that threatened their business interests. There are many other examples of these protest tactics in the country. Today, Pashinyan has become a victim of his own success. His own revolutionary tactics are now being used against him by people demanding his resignation following the country’s recent capitulation.

According to Plato, “democracy is the son of oligarchy”. If in many cases the oligarch, according to him, has temperate characteristics, the democrat is characterised to have insatiable desires. In Armenia, for example, the oligarchs were earning money by evading taxes, while the revolutionary government justified its own desire to earn money by introducing a bonus system for its “well-deserving” public servants. Or when many oligarchs were found to be smoking marijuana in private, the democratic parliament members started to speak about the necessity of legalising the drug. Whilst this is not necessarily a bad thing, this should not be a priority immediately following the country’s military defeat in Nagorno-Karabakh. Military and civilian captives are still being held by Azerbaijan, their return still remains a crucial issue and many people are homeless and jobless as a consequence of the war. There are more urgent challenges to deal with at the moment!

Democrats are by nature adventurous and this creates the instability that leads them to lose control. This situation can ultimately lead to anarchy. This appears to describe what is happening in Armenia now. After the disgraceful capitulation, Nikol Pashinyan is unable to manage government affairs and has been distracted by micromanagement. Referring to Plato, democrats in an anarchic society are usually afraid of being killed as they soon find themselves with many enemies. After the revolution in 2018, Pashinyan could freely walk the streets. Now, his security in parliament has been strengthened with additional forces from the police. This is an example of how a democratic leader can become a tyrant.

Nikol Pashinyan in 2018. Photo: Ավետիսյան91 wikimedia.org (cc)

The end of the cycle

Pashinyan is not able to run the country because he has spent all his life criticising the previous regime. The ability to criticise government and have an effective opposition is essential to building truly democratic institutions, but not enough to govern. The prime minister should have spent time strengthening state security, enhancing democratic institutions, creating favourable conditions for investment and improving strategic relations in accordance with the country’s geopolitical peculiarities. However, he has shown that he now only acts in accordance with his own desires. He has divided the country into ‘black and white’. He started to abuse the power by violating the principle of independence. For instance, he has publicly ordered the courts to open cases against the officials of previous corrupt regimes and has even demanded that the police and the national security services “hunt” his opponents. Overall, he has turned hatred into a principle of governance and lies into a form of governing. The country’s military capitulation has led to anarchy and no public institution has functioned properly ever since.

This situation can not last for a long time. According to Plato, a new cycle should start with the creation of an aristocracy. Plato’s aristocrat, when updated for modern times, resembles a modern technocrat. Today’s Armenia needs technocrats and it does not matter what political party they represent. This is because both the country’s ‘old’ and ‘new’ political factions include many acceptable politicians. Armenia must put an end to this distorted ‘democracy’ and anarchic regime. The country needs a technocratic government, which will help the country rise from its knees, establish the rule of law and continue on its chosen path to real democracy otherwise it will collapse.

This article was originally published in Armenian in the daily online news outlet Aravot.

Tatevik Hovhannisyan is a political scientist, specialised in political communications and civil society affairs. She is a graduate of the “Hannah Arendt” Promotion at the College of Europe in Natolin, 2019-2020.

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