Once upon time the Caucasian kingdom was the world’s first Christian nation. Today the post-Soviet state is struggling with many hardships. Yet, there are people trying hard to make democracy work.
When I was child, people across Europe used to send questions to ‘Radio Yerevan’. These questions, formulated as a joke, always got an answer, starting with “In principle yes...“ or “In principle no..." followed by explanations saying the contrary.
During Communist times, these jokes were a way of challenging the official ‘truth’ and to circumvent the state censorship. I came to think about these jokes, when I recently visited Armenia for the first time.
In my head, the following question arose: “Dear Radio Yerevan is there a democratic future for the Caucasus, this mountainous border region between Europe and Asia?”
I asked this while sitting in a taxi from the airport to downtown Yerevan in the middle of the night – as the direct flights to and from Western Europe were landing and taking off.
And what is the answer?
I came up with two, typical of the fictional broadcaster: “In principle yes, but the leaders of most countries here are not really interested in it....”
Or: “In principle no, but many citizens try their best to make it happen.”
During my brief visit to Armenia, I found out, that this latter answer summarises the challenging situation today for democracy in Armenia – and in surrounding countries. This whole region is somewhat a powder keg, full of geostrategic, oil-driven and cultural clashes and conflicts.
Once upon the time, the Armenian territory was a major player bordering Persia (today Iran), the Ottoman Empire (today Turkey) and Russia.
Today, the territory has shrunk to less than 30,000km2, and most Armenians (more than seven million) now live outside their homelands. Just three million live in Armenia.
The big Armenian diaspora residing in Russia (2.25 million), the US (1.5 million), and France (about half a million) influence the shape of the current republic.
In security terms, Vladimir Putin’s Russia protects Armenia, while American or French concepts of modern democracy inspire Armenians, especially on the local level.
I experienced this while touring the country, stopping in remote villages and bigger cities like Gjumri.
There is a big contrast between strong paternalistic power structures on one side – all main (also local) offices are run by oligarchs – and a growing civil society based in local government entities that empower women and experiment with democratic forms, including so-called micro-referendums.
“With SMS-polling we allow local governments to reach out the citizens and to make them participate in the shaping of their communities,“ explains Natalya Harutyunyan, who coordinates the micro-referendum project at the Ministry of Territorial Administration in Yerevan.
It is just one of many examples, where both official and non-governmental organisations are engaged in a long-term strategy to build democracy from the ground up.
“Citizens have to experience that their participation matters,” says Harutyunyan, adding that “participatory governance has become a very topical issue in the country“.
This text is part of #DearDemocracy, a platform on direct democracy issues, by swissinfo.ch.
In recent years they have therefore started to organise plebiscite-style votes to adapt constitutional frameworks that favour their interests, by deleting term-limits and centralising powers.
The most recent example of such a top-down use of ‘direct democracy’ happened last week in Nagorno-Karabakh, an area which during Soviet times belonged to neighbouring Azerbaijan but is now populated by about 145,000 Armenians.
On February 20, the local government organised a popular vote, which – according to official results – approved a proposal to strengthen the powers of the local governor.
While properly organised and conducted, the ‘referendum’ advanced the arguments of nationalistic forces across the region. The referendum was supported both by Armenians wanting to incorporate Nagorno-Karabakh, and also by people tied to neighbouring Azerbaijan, Iran and Turkey.
In those countries, democracy has been retreat for many years, so any working forms of democracy in Armenia are highly unwelcome.
In addition, populists – and efforts to increase local powers – are bolstered by the instability created because of unresolved military conflicts between several countries, including Armenia and Azerbaijan, Russia and Georgia.
As I departed Armenia, I returned to my fictional question to the equally fictional Radio Yerevan. The answer must be, that the prospects for democracy seem weak, but that there are many people – mostly active citizens at the local level as well some official entities at least in Armenia – that do their very best to bring not just the idea but also the practice of democracy forward.
They deserve our support. Others however, who just want to use the idea of ‘participatory governance’ for their own ends – as recently in Nagorno-Karabakh – needs to be watched closely.