“The liberty of a democracy is not safe if the people tolerated the growth of private power to a point where it becomes stronger than the democratic state itself. That in its essence is fascism: ownership of government by an individual, by a group, or any controlling private power.”
― Franklin D. Roosevelt
Back in 2015, just ahead of the December 6 referendum on a package of Constitutional reforms, those of us who had serious misgivings about the timing of the referendum and others who were opposed to the proposed amendments were constantly being asked why.
Now, three years later I want to tell you why.
The package of reforms included switching the country’s system of governance from a semi-presidential to a parliamentary one and was touted as a way to shore up democratic institutions, ensure checks and balances, support the development of political parties and curb presidential powers. At least that was the official line.
Those of us who had been following the political processes in the country sensed, knew or maybe were convinced that it was a power grab, a ruse to keep the ruling elite in their positions of power.
A few weeks before the referendum, an ambassador from a EU country invited a number of editors to his residence for an off-the-record meeting. He was trying to understand our concerns and wanted to know why some were opposed to a parliamentary system that would, in his opinion place Armenia on a path that, among other things, would strengthen political parties. I asked him a simple question - what was hindering their development under the current system? I never got an intelligent response.
And now as April 9 looms - the day when the current president’s second and final term ends - it is clear that Serzh Sargsyan will become Armenia’s new prime minister, a position which has expanded powers thanks to several amendments that have been pushed through parliament leading up to the vote. A number of ‘power’ agencies (law-enforcement) will now be directly under the prime minister’s purview - these include the police, the National Security Council, the State Protection and State Control Services.
Speaking to reporters about this move, Armenia’s Justice Minister David Harutyunyan said, “A member of government should assume responsibility for those agencies. In this case, we considered it appropriate to place this responsibility on the prime minister.”
The prime minister will also be Commander-in-Chief of the country’s armed forces and nominate the leadership of the army.
An Irreplaceable Leader
Sargsyan has been positioned by the ruling Republican Party as the only viable candidate for the office of the premier, the only one who can ‘lead’ Armenia, a country in conflict with neighboring Azerbaijan, a country struggling with growing discontent, poverty, unemployment...the list is long.
Indeed, former Prosecutor General Gevorg Kostanyan, who now chairs the parliament’s Standing Committee on State and Legal Affairs and Protection of Human Rights in a recent interview about Sargsyan’s upcoming election as premier said you don’t change commanders during the time of war.
Regarding concerns that Armenia is about to witness the formation of a powerful office of prime minister, Kostanyan said, “We are creating not the post of a super prime minister but a prime minister who will bear absolute political responsibility towards the people and the parliament.”
The spokesperson of the Republican Party and Deputy Speaker of Parliament Eduard Sharmazanov has on many occasions and at every opportunity stressed the indispensability of Sargsyan. “I simply do not know a more wise and well-trained figure in all spheres from defense to foreign policy,” he said adding that the country should not forget that Sargsyan has been negotiating “for a long time on the settlement of the Karabakh issue.”
The Armenian Revolutionary Federation, a junior coalition member in the ruling regime also chimed in about Sargsyan being “irreplaceable.” The newly elected head of the party’s Supreme Council Arsen Hambardzumyan said that Armenia is facing many challenges, referring specifically to security concerns regarding Artsakh and that there is an element of unpredictability in the region. “These are all risks and challenges. In these circumstances, the voices with regard to [Sargsyan’s] experience and being well-informed about these processes are logical,” he said.
According to the new Constitution, the political party which has secured a majority in parliament can nominate a candidate for the position of prime minister. This has left the opposition without many cards in its hands. Although even if they did have room to manoeuvre, it’s not clear how they would act.
Nonetheless, the opposition is doing what it usually does in Armenia, it is planning protests. Actually, as I write this, opposition parliamentarian Nikol Pashinyan is walking from Gyumri to Yerevan in a 14-day march to protest Serzh Sargsyan’s ascension to the position of prime minister.
Whether a parliamentary system is going to improve governance, transparency and plurality, whether it will indeed contribute to the development of strong political parties or not is an issue for political scientists to debate. One thing is clear - with weak or compromised democratic institutions (such as the judiciary) and no term limits for the prime minister, the potential for the continued monopolization of Armenia’s political landscape for the foreseeable future is written very clearly on the wall.
From a Power Grab to “Military-Patriotic” Education
Another serious concern is the spike in military rhetoric coming from the country’s rulers. Since independence, the unresolved conflict in Artsakh has been used by successive administrations in Armenia to quell any domestic discontent. The message is always the same - don’t rock the boat because the enemy is at the gate waiting for an opportunity to pounce at the earliest sign of domestic instability. If anyone dares to question this, they are pegged as unpatriotic, unworthy, a traitor to the nation.
Sargsyan’s administration has continued this tradition and has also taken full advantage of the fact that the memory of the 2016 April War is still fresh on people’s minds.
This policy has manifested itself in a number of initiatives. The nation-army concept that was devised by Defense Minister Vigen Sargsyan that calls for the mobilization of society in the service of national security, a rise in militaristic jingoism and now, a new ‘military-patriotic’ (ռազմահայրենասիրական) educational doctrine put forth by Education Minister Levon Mkrtchyan.
This doctrine is a government decision called “Approving the Strategy on the Military-Patriotic Education (MPE) of Students (those in the education system)”
Below is an unofficial translation of some of the excerpts of this proposed doctrine:
1) To ensure the sustainable development of the implementation process of the teaching of MPE lessons to students is firstly conditioned by the contemporary challenges facing the Republic of Armenia.
2) External challenges
- The blockade
- Terrorism and wars raging in the world and neighboring countries
- The expansionist intentions of some neighboring countries, etc.
3) Internal Challenges
- The existence of citizens reluctant to protect the country
- The indifference towards military service and the military profession
- The tendency to communicate foreign cultural values
- Disorderly and impudent behaviour
- The rise in condemnable street behaviour (the use of reprehensible street vocabulary/slang and comparable behavior) in children of school age (especially high school students)
- The slow pace of economic development as a result of the above mentioned factors.
- Drug addiction
- Inhalant addiction
- Sexual deviancy and other similar condemnable phenomena are a serious obstacle to the implementation of MPE and a moral-psychological education.
4) To take on the above mentioned challenges, it is necessary to have a functional and stable MPE as well as a moral-psychological educational system, which would insure the emergence of a citizen who is physically and psychologically ready to protect the fatherland, is orderly, is conscious of national values and is able to link them with the values of the system, is devoid of condemnable street behaviour and is gifted with high moral standards.
5) MPE is a process aiming to mold out of the new generation a citizen who loves the country, is ready and willing to protect it, is orderly, understands moral, universal and national values and acts correspondingly.
6) The educational process will include:
- General moral-psychological education
- Ecological education
- Vocational education; work ethic
- Physical education
- Patriotic education
- Military-patriotic education
Shifting the Blame
Nation-army, military-patriotic, moral-psychological are terms that are finding their into the national discourse. The introduction of a military-patriotic component to the country’s education system in order to address issues of ‘condemnable behavior’ by young people (including drug and inhalant addiction!), ‘transmitting foreign cultural values’ and ‘sexual deviation’ is a way to shift the blame of the current state of affairs onto the shoulders of ‘the other’ and should be raising red flags everywhere.
Leading members of the ruling Republican Party have made it clear that they are a conservative party with conservative values. They are carving out their own notion of the traditional Armenian family, the role of the military and the Church, and in that context, how the education system must help shape those values. A statement by Sharmazanov, one of many regarding ‘national values’ says it all: “As we are obedient to God, women are obedient to God and their men. That is the Biblical law, one can accept, another cannot.”
For all those who voted in favor of a new Constitution in 2015, all those who believed that a parliamentary system would somehow fix the problems we are facing and now that we are witnessing the further consolidation of power by the Republican Party, I have one question: Is this what you wanted?