Conspiratorial thinking primarily manifests itself through two occurrences: either the individual lacks a cogent understanding of developments, or the individual, conditioned to deny objective reality, clings to alternative explanations that are disconnected, yet viscerally and emotionally appealing. Political thinking in Armenia, at the societal level, still remains heavily grounded in conspiratorial assumptions; while observations by pundits and scholars, though attempting to escape the conspiratorial trap, at some level still inadvertently fall into it. In more laymen terms, the logic is as follows: "This doesn't make sense to me, it's too easy or too good to be true, there must be more to this than meets the eye, and as such, I am inherently suspicious of the current reality, and to this end, there must be some other explanation as to why things are the way they are." Conspiratorial thinking, then, is a heuristic, a mental shortcut, used by those who are not able to grasp the complexity of political developments, or those, expecting incoherent complexity, remain baffled by the relative simplicity of developments, and as such, must concoct an alternative explanation that is divorced from objectivity.
This primordial logic not only harms the growth of a healthy political culture, but it also induces a sense of intellectual self-entrapment: nonsensical tautology becomes the norm! For those who subscribe to such modality of thinking, and this does make up a large chunk of our society, they perceive the corridors of power as murky, mysteriously hierarchical, and coordinated by unseen forces or external powers. Simply put, the nonsensical tautology begets the conspiratorial: unseen forces shape, determine, and direct Armenian politics, where everything is a setup on top of a setup concealed by another setup. As can be seen, the tautology becomes suffocating and absurd: this, ladies and gentlemen, is what our political culture suffers from.
Now, why is this all of a sudden so important? Why the need to deconstruct and expose the epistemic flaws in Armenia's political culture? The reason remains very straightforward: While much of Armenian society supported and still supports the Popular Movement and the Pashinayan Administration with uncritical enthusiasm and zeal, these same supporters remain unconvinced of where our current political reality stands. Unaccustomed to transparency, people remain both uncertain and slightly uncomfortable by the level of openness in government and politics. Unaccustomed to a society where the wealthy or the political elite are held accountable to the law, people remain suspicious and unconvinced that this reality is sustainable. Simply put, clinging to the nonsensical tautology of conspiratorial thinking, many still believe that the Velvet Revolution may have been a well-orchestrated act...there is a visceral discomfort within people in accepting the fact that the power structures which oppressed them, stole from them, and subjugated them for decades on end can actually be supplanted. To them, this just does not make sense! How can the reality that they have known from birth, and the one they have known their entire lives, be altered in a matter of months? And herein lies the paradox: They love and support Pashinyan, but, at the same time, remain suspicious and uncertain of the political outcome.
The biggest problem with this modality of thinking, of course, is the outcome itself: it leads to severe distrust. Lack of trust in government results in the loss of legitimacy. If the Popular Movement/Velvet Revolution is to reach its logical conclusion, if Armenia is to develop and progress, if democratization is to become a sustainable reality, then those who are leading the nation must be trusted and viewed as legitimate. In this context, conspiratorial logic, and the nonsensical tautology that it breeds, habitually promotes distrust, which tacitly chips away at legitimacy.
If the Pashinyan government is to make the Velvet Revolution a reality and implement the necessary reforms that could strengthen Armenia's democratization and development, then it cannot suffer from a crisis of legitimacy. Needless to say, at this stage, due to exuberant popularity, this is not a concern. However, should this conspiratorial political culture not evolve, the persistence of suspicion and questionable trust will inevitably give way to issues of legitimacy.
Be that as it may, but what can, or what is, the government doing to at least mediate and help evolve our political culture? The answer: actionable reforms dictated through aggressive centrism. In its totality, this entails a robust application of the law and an aggressive implementation of the government's policies in combating the entrenched power structures of the previous system which were standardized through corruption and patronalism. This is Pashinyan's War! A two-front battle against systemic corruption on the one hand and an underdeveloped political culture on the other. Pashinyan’s declaration of war against the entrenched powers of the previous system, then, is not simply a singular attack upon corruption; rather, it is a broad, multi-pronged strategy that envisions an ideational restructuring of Armenia’s political culture. This multi-pronged strategy, however, is not purely hinged on legal and legislative resources: Pashinyan is also expanding his political capital. By dismantling the structural resources of the previous system, he is, in turn, developing and instituting his own political resources in preparation of the snap elections anticipated in the near future. The overarching objective of Pashinyan’s War, then, is not only to dismantle the previous socio-political system and implement a rigorous law-and-order society, but also to establish the organizational, institutional, and ideational resources that will grant him (and his party/bloc) success in the pending snap elections.
A Three-Pronged Strategy
Pashinyan’s stratagem has both procedural and programmatic designs, revolving primarily around three main spheres: 1) economic; 2) criminal; and 3) administrative configurations. All three broad areas are commensurate with the war on corruption, hence the procedural similarities, but the programmatic designs are quite different. Implementation of legal initiatives in the economic sphere are not designed to produce convictions or the criminalization of important business figures; rather, the objective is monetary penalization and the stipulation of compensation. The criminal sphere, however, is programmatically designed to produce convictions, and this primarily targets figures, who though may have engaged in economic misconduct, are actually being targeted for serious criminal activities, ranging from violent crimes to political suppression and persecution. The administrative sphere is purely political: Pashinyan is supplanting regional and municipal officials with a nascent set of cohorts who are loyal to the Popular Movement, hence providing the organizational infrastructure that will contribute to transparent snap elections.
Pashinyan’s broad-based public discourse on refraining from any vendettas against operatives and officials of the previous regime appears to be a general reference to those who engaged in financial and white-collar crimes. Within this context, the anti-corruption campaign within the economic sphere primarily targets the large corporate and business interests in the country who also had political leverage. The objective, however, has not been to extend the proceedings to a legal and prosecutorial conclusion, but rather, to offer a form of amnesty, if one may use the term euphemistically. Namely, the government isn’t seeking to use the past economic and financial crimes of such individuals for criminal proceedings, rather, the government simply wants to re-ascertain embezzled funds and allow, retroactively, the fulfillment of tax obligations with pre-determined penalties. In this sense, those business figures who engaged solely in acts of corruption within the economic sphere are offered a notion of “amnesty” that is based on penalties and repayments of said funds. In instances, for example, of Yerevan City Supermarket, Norfolk, GLG/JLJ, etc., the pertinent companies swiftly paid lofty sums in penalties and agreed to work with the government in further compensating the state for past financial grievances. At the same time, the owners or heads of these companies, many of whom were relevant political forces in the previous system, willingly exited the political arena, thus limiting their activities purely within the economic realm. Through this stratagem, not only is Pashinyan neutralizing previous political actors without having to utilize legal resources, he is also expanding his political capital by applying the reverse-Robin Hood complex. He is taking from the corrupt rich and giving it back to the people, that is, the state.
Pashinyan’s War within the criminal sphere is quite different than the economic realm, that is, while procedurally both are being combatted under the banner of anti-corruption, the notion of “amnesty-through-compensation” is not tenable within the criminal realm. As such, the programmatic conclusion of this realm is to secure prosecutorial outcome and imprisonment of pertinent criminal elements. That this sphere includes powerful political actors does not, in any way, change the dynamics. As such, the sensational arrest of General Manvel Grigoryan, a development that would have been unfathomable a few months before, is an extension of this policy. Or the recent arrest and criminal proceedings against the infamous Aleksander Sargsyan, the arrest warrant for his son Narek Sargsyan, and a general criminal concentration against former President Serzh Sargsyan’s circles, including his former head of security Vachagan Ghazaryan and the recent court order for the arrest of his other brother, Levon Sargsyan. These proceedings are clearly indicative of a policy targeted at politico-criminal actors, as opposed to those who purely engaged in monetary, white-collar activities.
The important variable to note here is that a distinction is not being made between the criminal and the political: even powerful political actors that engaged in violation of the law are being investigated. As such, the political becomes moot, for these developments fall within the sphere of criminality. This more cogently explains the new investigations into the March 1, 2008 events, and the arrest warrant issued for former Defense Minister Mikael Harutiunian, or the request for questioning of former President Robert Kocharyan.
The objective here is quite clear: to disentangle the corrupt web in Armenia’s formal and informal politics between criminal and political figures. Pashinyan’s War is targeting both national and local politico-criminal structures that are based on extra-legal notions of “heghinakutyun,” where pseudo-criminal and pseudo-political figures interact to reinforce patronalistic politics. Ideationally, this also assaults and undermines the logic of immunity that many of these individuals enjoyed, and which society had come to resentfully accept. By qualifying these political operatives as purely criminal, Pashinyan is further delegitimizing them. Thus, we are seeing an assault against the politico-criminal infrastructure that served to systemically enforce the culture of socio-political corruption. That Gagik Tsarukyan’s head of security, for example, would be no exception to such developments speaks volumes of how concerted and serious Pashinyan’s War has become.
The third component of Pashinyan’s overall strategy has been to overhaul the administrative configurations for all of Armenia’s provinces, especially the appointment of Marzpet(s)/Governors that fall under the purview of the Prime Minister. Considering the fact that the Republican Party (RPA) operated as a dispersed web throughout the country, local power interests formed a hierarchical relationship with regional power interests, which, in turn, served the political and economic welfare of the centralized powers in Yerevan. Dismantling this web of entrenched power relations remains fundamental to Pashinyan’s goal of consolidating power both at the national level, as well as the regional and local level. Schematically, we have observed the appointment of new Marzpets whose political objectives remain aligned with that of the government, while at the same time, there has been an incremental increase of resignations at the mayoral level (most significantly the resignation of Yerevan mayor Taron Margaryan), which has prompted the appointment of new mayors that, again, remain loyal to the Popular Movement. Through the lens of restructuring the administrative configurations of the provinces, Pashinyan is laying the groundwork that will allow his government to marginalize the entrenched web of interests that the RPA had weaved through the years. Through the lens of political culture, Pashinyan is engaging in shock therapy, especially through the appointment of women as deputy governors, or the increased number of women as mayors. Conceptually, this strategy is an extension of the broader preparations for the pending snap elections. By dismantling the administrative and municipal powers of the RPA, which were crucial in implementing irregularities to secure electoral victories for the previous regime, Pashinyan is paving the way for smoother snap elections, especially with a cadre of local and regional officials aligned with his movement.
What Could Go Wrong? Gauging the Possible Obstacles to Pashinyan’s War
Excluding exogenous circumstances or unanticipated crises, three possible complications stand out that may potentially limit or profoundly harm the extent to which Pashinyan’s grand strategy achieves success. The first complication may arise after a falling out with the Prosperous Armenia Party, or the Tsarukyan Bloc, especially as each political faction postures for the upcoming elections. The alliance between Yelk and Tsarukyan bloc, at best, is artificial and an extension of both Tsarukyan’s opportunism as well as his concealed desire for some form of retribution against the RPA leadership. This temporary euphoria, however, will soon face the nature of electoral competition, since the Tsarukyan Bloc has already asserted its desire for electoral victory. Namely, both sides view each other as inevitable competitors, and considering the fact that the policy objectives of the two factions do not really align, a falling out is a serious possibility. While Yelk, at this stage, is not too concerned by such a development, considering Pashinyan’s immense popularity, the underlying fact, however, is that the Tsarukyan Bloc is not that different from the RPA, and nor would it have any problems in absorbing and providing platform to relatively powerful RPA operatives. Noting the Tsarukyan Bloc’s past activities in vote buying, oligarchic patrimonialism, and a political culture that lacks democratic credentials, they may potentially serve as a serious obstacle to Pashinyan’s grand strategy, especially considering the immense wealth and populist appeal of Gagik Tsarukyan himself.
The second complication, although much more organic and politically healthy, but ideationally worrisome, is the open secret that there’s a great deal of tension within Yelk, between Pashinyan’s Civic Contract and the Bright Armenia Party. With respect to size and resources, Bright Armenia clearly is not a threat to the extent to which the Tsarukyan Bloc may be deemed. However, and at the same time, Bright Armenia’s bona fides as a serious and purely democratic party is well-established, and the level of uneasiness and latent drama between the two may explode into open political warfare during elections, in the same fashion that we saw Zaruhi Postanjyan’s Yerkir Tsirani Party openly and aggressively clash with Yelk. The underlying assessment here is that the potential splintering of the core political groups that made the Popular Movement a reality through their unity could have severe ideational complications. It is one thing for Pashinyan to have a corrupt opposition to his government, such as in the form of the RPA right now, or possibly in the form of the Tsarukyan Bloc and all the skeletons that they carry; but it is another thing to have an untainted, respected political party, and a close former ally, as an opposition. That being said, the probability of a falling out is much higher with the Tsarukyan Bloc than it is with Bright Armenia, especially considering the fact that Pashinyan will very likely be successful in co-opting Bright Armenia and even converting some of Edmond Marukyan’s underlings to his side. Mane Tandilyan’s most recent posturing is a case in point!
While the above two scenarios may produce potential complications for governance and coalition-building, these obstacles, however, are forms of limitations that Pashinyan would be able to successfully navigate. Namely, they are political in nature, and not highly substantive, especially considering Pashinyan’s political capital and his ability to leverage that against any domestic political fallouts or insurgency. The much more serious issue, and the one that can thoroughly hamper Pashinyan’s War is the third scenario, which revolves around Russia’s growing indication of uneasiness with Pashinyan’s reforms and policies. While Pashinyan has taken painstaking measures to appease the Russians, especially in the international arena by voting with Russia at the UN and not altering Armenia’s membership obligations to Russian-led regional organizations, Russia appears to consistently signal its distaste of Armenia’s continuous democratization. Simply put, regardless of Pashinyan’s insistence that his government’s policies will not have any effect on geopolitical developments, Russia still does not seem convinced of this. Or, to be more frank, Russia’s perceived respect for Armenia’s sovereignty is quite misleading, regardless of geopolitical considerations: Russia basically considers a democratic country in its sphere of influence to be incommensurate with Russian interests. In this sense, the more Armenia democratizes, the more it becomes a matter of time that Armenia’s geopolitical posturing will change, because both sides know but do not want to address the elephant in the room: Russia prefers to control its neighbors, both regionally and domestically. In this sense, Armenia has the illusion that Russia would respect its domestic developments and not interfere as long as Armenia respects and preserves the geopolitical status quo that serves Russia’s interests. What Russia appears to be signaling is that this simply is not enough!
How will Russia meddle, obstruct, or hamper Pashinyan’s grand strategy? Considering the Kremlin’s cognizance of loss of influence in Georgia and the geopolitical nightmare created with Ukraine, Russia’s strategic initiative has shifted from direct, immediate response in the form of economic pressure and use of force to a more prolonged and methodical policy. Noting Pashinyan’s popularity and latent anti-Russian sentiments within Armenia, Russia has cleverly presented a neutral posture on the Popular Movement. This neutral posture, however, is quite misleading, because Russia remains quite unhappy with a continuously democratizing Armenia. And the rational for this is quite straightforward: democracies cannot be pressured or controlled by outside states in the same fashion that non-democratic regimes can, and as such, the more Armenia democratizes, the more it reaffirms its sovereignty. From the Kremlin’s perspective, this is incommensurate with its interests in the region.
Russia’s objective, then, is the maximization of its influence in its sphere of influence and within the countries that encompass this sphere. This is the main reason why Russia did not directly interfere during the Popular Movement: Armenia society would have turned against Russia and thus further limited Russia’s influence and interests in the country. To not overplay its hand during a period of intense domestic sensitivity, Russia chose not to intervene: hence its posture of neutrality. This lack of direct intervention or neutrality does not suggest, however, that Russia is either comfortable or satisfied with what Pashinyan and the Popular Movement achieved. To this end, Russian policy toward Armenia is going to be much different than what Russia did with Georgia or Ukraine: it will not directly intervene, but rather, will utilize its soft power, economic influence, and regional military might to obstruct and hamper Pashinyan’s domestic grand strategy. Russia is concocting a long-term policy in its endeavor to neutralize Armenia’s democratization.
This will take place primarily in three forms. First, funding and supporting a domestic political party as an opposition to Yelk, and thus utilizing democratic competition to install a heavily pro-Russian party. Second, apply economic pressure through selective sanctions, artificial enforcements, and other tactics that will have direct impact upon Armenia’s economic reliance on Russia. And third, leverage its regional military might, primarily through the Karabakh conflict, to demand conformity from the Pashinyan government.
In the case of the first form, the Tsarukyan Bloc is ripe for Russian intervention: Tsarukyan has extensive ties with Moscow, it seeks power and is willing to conform to Moscow’s will to attain such power, and more importantly, the Tsarukyan Bloc’s political leanings, as noted earlier, are far more consistent with a non-democratic political party. To this end, an alignment of interests, fused with Russian backing, could pave the way for a very serious electoral showdown (or perhaps even more than mere electoral competition) between Yelk and the Tsarukyan faction. In the case of the second, minor policy shifts or excessive enforcements of agriculture imports, or hikes in gas prices, or the ability to block remittances from people working in Russia back to Armenia, could chip away and harm Armenia’s developing economy. And regardless of how popular a government may be, if the economic conditions in the country incrementally decline, the cumulative effect is going to be felt by the Pashinyan government, thus also chipping away at his government’s ability to perform. In the case of the third form, Armenia’s over-dependence upon Russia to preserve the regional arms parity with Azerbaijan creates an inherently unequal partnership between the countries. In this context, whether tacitly allowing escalation by Azerbaijan, or limiting arms sales to Armenia, or increasing arms sales to Azerbaijan— a few examples of a vast number of scenarios that Moscow could use to strangle Armenia’s geopolitical competence regarding the Karabakh conflict— the Kremlin could very easily dictate terms to Armenia, considering the latter’s limited room for maneuverability. Collectively, then, Pashinyan’s War on the country’s domestic ills stands to face much obstruction from Russia, obstructions that will be slow, methodical, and long-term, but nonetheless, inherently problematic to a nascent democracy.
The term “war” is being utilized to qualify Pashinyan’s grand strategy against corruption and Armania’s underdeveloped political culture because the ultimate objective is destruction: destruction of corruption and destruction of an unhealthy, conspiratorial political culture. This proverbial warfare of Pashinyan, however, begins with a desire to destroy, but after which to have the opportunity to construct. Thus, to anecdotally borrow from the anarchists, “the passion for destruction is a creative passion.” The Pashinyan Administration is proceeding through aggressive centrism to destroy the ills of Armenian society, declaring war on the systemic, cultural, and administrative abuses that have shackled Armenia’s progress for the last three decades. The outcome of this war is far too early to predict, and even if the war is successful, we may then only get to the even more difficult part: reconstruction. It is much easier to destroy than to create. As such, Pashinyan’s War is the first stage of forming a New Armenia; the second stage, should the first stage succeed, is going to require far greater resources, competence, and the very elevation of the Armenian spirit. In shaping history, Armenia, for the first time in a very long time, is defying history: this defiance is shaping Pashinyan’s War. Armenia is remaking itself in its own image…unlike anything it has done in its long history.