Armenia after the revolution: Opportunities and challenges
Armenia now has an historic opportunity to restart its post-Soviet path, but sustainable development will not come easy.
By: Armine Ishkanian
After several weeks of intense protests, on May 8, the Armenian National Assembly elected Nikol Pashinyan to serve as country’s next prime minister by a vote of 59-42. At the heart of this revolution was a rejection of corruption, violence, and the Republican Party of Armenia’s (RPA) failed domestic socioeconomic policies and demands for greater social justice.
Over the past several weeks, Armenians have expressed a strong desire to be rid of the oligarchic system and to implement a more democratic and just system of governance. Pashinyan has spoken about making a break with the past and about the importance of rule of law, human rights, and the need to create a more equitable society, in which everyone is equal before the law. As the euphoric celebrations continue, he now faces the difficult task of developing a programme of action to address the many political, economic, and social issues facing the country (such as 18 percent unemployment; 30 percent poverty; the unresolved conflict; continuing emigration and brain drain; etc.).
An Armenian model of development?
Armenians are now demanding to live in a fairer, more just society, where citizens live with dignity and free from physical and economic violence. In this post-revolutionary period, there is the opportunity to radically rethink the hitherto accepted neoliberal model of development, which relied on privatisation, deregulation, and the apparent abdication by the Armenian government of its responsibilities for ensuring the well-being of its citizens.
I find it useful to draw on the work of the Nobel prize-winning economist Amartya Sen. In his groundbreaking work, Development as Freedom, Sen examined how in a world of unprecedented increase in overall opulence, millions of people in both rich and poor countries are still unfree in that they are denied elementary freedoms and remain imprisoned in one way or another by economic poverty, social deprivation, political tyranny or cultural authoritarianism. Rather than fetishising economic growth and solely focusing on the growth of the gross national product (GNP), Sen maintains that GNP growth should be viewed as a means to expanding the freedoms enjoyed by members of society. He challenges narrow views of development in which political or social freedoms are seen as “not conducive to development” instead arguing that substantive freedoms, including the liberty of political participation, the opportunity to receive education or healthcare, are constituent components of development
To be clear, while knowledge of different economic and social development models and programmes can inform the formulation of development policies in Armenia, there are no readymade solutions. Policymakers in Armenia should be cautious to avoid the mistakes that occurred immediately after the collapse of the Soviet Union, where policy solutions were imported and implemented without due concern for their fit with the local context. It will not suffice to say, as former Prime Minister Karen Karapetyan suggested, “let’s imitate the Singaporean model of development.” The Singapore model relied on the Lee thesis, named after the former prime minister of Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew, which maintains that democracy hurts economic growth and development and that authoritarian rule can be beneficial for growth. Is this the development model Armenians want – ie, to sacrifice democracy and freedom for economic growth? Or would they prefer to create an Armenian model of development? These are discussions which must be had.
To be successful, policies are needed which recognise Armenia’s social, cultural, historical, geostrategic, and geographic specificities. This will mean not only developing new policies and approaches, but also rejecting certain norms and patterns of behaviour. For example, the cultural practice of nepotistic patronage, locally known as “in-laws, acquaintances, relatives” (xnami c’anot’ barekam) dates to the Soviet period but thrived under the Republican Party of Armenia (RPA) government as family members of RPA officials were appointed to positions of power in both the public and private sectors. If the country is to develop in a more sustainable, just and inclusive manner, clientist networks of patronage and cronyism should be tackled as it perpetuates corruption and contributes to the brain drain. But to achieve such changes, one cannot solely rely on top-down policy solutions; it will require the development of new cultural understandings, values, and norms.
New values and practices should also include greater inclusion of women in political life, who, while active in this and past movements, often find themselves relegated to the sidelines afterwards. While in the heady days of the revolution, many talked about love and solidarity, sexist attitudes do not disappear overnight.
Pathways and actors
A question that often accompanies discussions about social development concerns the financing of social spending. There have already been discussions about reforming taxation policies.
Research by tax justice campaigners highlights how different practices, ranging from tax competition to tax avoidance, increase economic inequality, distort economies, and rob countries of much-needed revenues. In one report, the Tax Justice Network found that globally it is estimated that between $21-32 trillion is stashed offshore. Recent reports by both Armenian and international investigative journalists, including the Panama and Paradise Papers respectively, have shown that Armenian oligarchs, public servants, and even an army general have made use of offshore tax havens. While there are ongoing discussions in Armenia about how these assets can be retrieved, it will be difficult, due to lack of access to information and resistance from those offshore account holders, some of whom continue to hold political positions.
Advancing sustainable, just and inclusive development, isn’t simply about the state taking action; the private sector and civil society also have a role to play. The private sector can in theory, although not always in practice in Armenia (ie, due to tax avoidance, creation of monopolies, etc), support development. As for civil society, while some civil society organisations might find it easier to work with a Pashinyan-led government, they should also be cautious about becoming too cosy. Because as international experience ranging from post-apartheid South Africa to the UK under New Labour demonstrates, when civil society actors become too close to the government, they often jeopardise their independence, autonomy, and ability to hold powerful actors to account.
Finally, I do not have space here to adequately examine the potential role of the diaspora, but given that more Armenians live outside the borders of the Republic of Armenia than inside, it is expected they will play a role going forward. And indeed, Pashinyan has expressed his support for diasporic participation not only through investment but also repatriation and participation in state-building and development.
While the post-revolutionary period offers opportunities, there are also many obstacles. The most obvious obstacle to change will be the RPA old guard and oligarchs, as many fear they will play an obstructionist role in upcoming days by rejecting Pashinyan’s proposed programme. A key challenge will also be in addressing concerns around accountability and justice, without that process devolving into political vendettas, which Pashinyan has repeatedly said he is against.
Second, moving from being in opposition to governing means striking the right balance between making political compromises, building alliances, and remaining true to core principles. And already some question the implications of accepting the support of oligarch Gagik Tsarukyan’s Prosperous Armenia Party.
Finally, last but not least, one can never exclude external intervention or interference in the country’s domestic development by different actors (state and non-state). I prefer not to speculate at this juncture at what may or may not happen as much remains unclear, but in the past international organisations, such as the World Bank and IMF have played a role in shaping the current model of development through aid and loan conditionalities.
Armenia now has an historic opportunity to restart its post-Soviet path. Pashinyan intends to act quickly and decisively and many hope that he will be able to achieve his rights and justice-focused programme of action for socioeconomic and political reforms. But nothing is a done deal; soon Pashinyan is to submit his programme to the National Assembly for a vote and it remains to be seen what they will decide.