Armenia is an exciting country to be living in right now for a number of reasons. It is a treasure trove for political scientists with its rapid developments, unexpected turns, actions and counteractions, textbook examples and bold innovations, public participation, electoral politics, leadership, elite formation and so on and so forth. There are so many things to talk about, so many things to hope for or fear for, to read, to watch, to ponder, to celebrate, to regret, to cheer for or cringe about. The life of a political scientist in Armenia has taken on a whole new level of complexity, excitement and challenge since the dramatic events of Spring 2018.
When people ask me how I feel about the “Velvet Revolution” and the current situation, my usual answer is: 70/30. I am 70 percent hopeful and optimistic, 30 percent concerned. I often choose to focus on the 30 percent, because I consider it to be my responsibility as a scholar and a critical thinker. Someone needs to be discussing possible drawbacks. Someone needs to keep a critical eye on the situation. Someone needs to be voicing a different opinion. Not everything is perfect in this new Armenia. Of course, no one expects it to be perfect. And we cannot improve it, if we do not freely talk about what is not right.
As the electoral campaign for snap parliamentary elections kicked off this week, my nagging feeling that something is wrong crystallized into a realization: I hate the whole “black and white,” “us against them” narrative. I am neither. I refuse to be labeled and pigeonholed like that. I defend my sovereign right of being different. If I was a social media user (which I am not) I would probably create a #notblackorwhite hashtag, or something of the sorts. I am sure I am not the only one in Armenia feeling this way. Feel free to do that, by the way...
I have always been inherently suspicious of the “black and white” rhetoric. As a scholar, I have been trained to recognize and appreciate complexities. This is what I teach my students now. No situation involving human beings is ever black and white. It cannot be. We, humans, and the societies we create, are infinitely complex. To reduce those complexities to black-and-white might be aesthetically appealing. Or it might be practical, given circumstances. But is it justified in today’s Armenia?
What was the spring 2018 mass mobilization about? Was it not about reintroducing meaningful pluralism into society and the political system? Was it not about creating an atmosphere where people should have choices? Was it not about freedom? Was it not about diversity? Was it not about rejecting a dominant narrative? Was it not about democracy and rights?
Saying “whoever is not with us is against us” undermines plurality of opinions, which is one of the fundamental aspects of democracy. In fact, pluralism is both a prerequisite for consolidating democracy and a sign of healthy functioning basic democratic institutions. We have to agree to disagree. We have to allow people to have their own opinions. Of course, we can try to convince them to join our ranks, if we believe our cause is just. But at the end of the day, any citizen of Armenia should feel free to say “yes, I am with you” or “no, thanks, I am not with you, but I am also not against you.” If I am not white, that does not mean I am automatically black. There are various shades in between, not to mention all the other beautiful colors.
One might argue that such a radical narrative is a temporary necessity of a post-revolutionary transition period: What started in spring 2018 needs to be brought to its logical conclusion by giving Pashinyan’s party an overwhelming victory in snap parliamentary elections. A resounding electoral victory would secure the victory achieved in the streets and would give Pashinyan a strong mandate he needs to dismantle the corrupt system and build a beautiful new Armenia. In other words, bear with the toxic campaign, stick with the “right” movement for a bit longer, and things will start improving after the “right people” become a proper majority government.
I don’t know. I have my doubts about such arguments. Whenever I hear that good ends justify dubious means, I become very uncomfortable. History shows that it’s a slippery slope. Sacrificing essential components of democracy, one tiny bit at a time, in order to build a shiny democracy sometime in the future? I think I have heard that before. And it did not end well…
Lest I end on a gloomy note, let me remind you of my 70/30 position. I am 70 optimistic. I think Armenia made tremendous progress in the past half a year. We are headed for meaningful elections that will reflect the will of the people. That, in and of itself, will have a great positive impact on Armenia. When I was a student at AUA, I had a professor, who used to repeat that all Armenia needs is one free and fair election. Having a government that we elect and perceive as legitimate will be a game changer. On December 10, I will be celebrating, regardless of specific distributions of seats in the National Assembly.
But I do not like the divisive “black or white” tone of the political campaign. I hope that on Election Day people will vote according to their conscience and preferences, and not out of pressure to be with the “right” crowd. There are 11 options to choose from. It is not black or white. Choose freely. Your ballot is secret. No one can label or stigmatize you because of how you vote. This was the whole point of the “Velvet Revolution.”