Good News from the Caucasus?An Introduction to the Special Issue
These days, positive news seems to be increasingly scarce on the global political scene—and the last place from which we might expect it to come is the Caucasus. In its north, part of the Russian Federation, news items in recent years have included the corruption scandals that enveloped the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Ramzan Kadyrov's escapades as the personalistic ruler of Chechnya, the trademark brutality of Russian special forces fighting the Islamist underground, and occasional protests by local populations driven to despair. In the south, the ruling dynasty of oil-rich Azerbaijan seems intent on outdoing the erstwhile Shah of Iran in its repressiveness and profligacy, at its own peril. Even in the solidly pro-Western Republic of Georgia, the once demonstratively ultra-liberal regime of the famously mercurial Mikheil Saakashvili has given way to a dull imitation of democracy: faceless politicians emerge from nowhere and disappear with equal ease at the whim of Bidzina Ivanishvili, the secretive billionaire widely rumored to control all branches of Georgian government from the privacy of his gaudily post-modernistic mansion that floats above Tbilisi's cityscape. And that is not to mention the regional powers with their own stakes in the Caucasus: Iran, Turkey, and Russia proper.
In this picture, Armenia is often overlooked. To begin with, it is small: it measures just 29,730 sq. km (smaller than the U.S. state of Maryland) and has only 2.9 million inhabitants. Furthermore, it is landlocked and mountainous, with a mean elevation of 1,792 meters.1 To make things worse, Azerbaijan and Turkey have kept major segments of Armenia's borders closed since 1992 due to the ongoing armed dispute over Nagorno-Karabakh. A single worn railroad through Georgia precariously connects Armenia to the outside world. Few experts would consider this a good location for economic growth. It therefore comes as no surprise that Armenia is also one of the poorest post-Soviet republics. With the severance of rail connections and the collapse of the centrally-planned Soviet economy in 1991, its once large chemical and machine-parts industry died out almost instantly. In the context of this economic depression, the former [End Page 437] workers and engineers either turned to petty trade or emigrated en masse. It is commonly estimated that as many Armenians are now earning their living as migrants in the United States and Russia as remain in Armenia.
Surprisingly, this could be grounds for hope regarding Armenia's future. As Georgi Derluguian and Ruben Hovhannisyan show at some length in their article in this issue, the Armenians are a nation of survivors forged through the centuries of harsh foreign domination and forced dispersal that culminated in the Young Turk genocide of 1915. In addition, social scientists have established that persecuted minorities have tended to acquire education, professional skills, and enterprising dispositions.2 Diaspora is, moreover, a time-honored form of global network. Derluguian and Hovhannisyan argue that the key political function of the diaspora in the recent change of power in Armenia was to follow in real time the political drama in Yerevan, the capital of Armenia, and uphold the moral aversion to the use of force against fellow Armenians. The role of the internet in fostering the worldwide community of the people claiming Armenian descent is a vast fertile field awaiting research.
What actually happened in Yerevan last spring? Over the course of nearly two decades starting in the early 2000s, a regime of post-Soviet restoration coalesced in Armenia. For all its cultural and historical peculiarities, the regime nonetheless looked quite similar to—and functioned in a similar way to—other post-Soviet restorations, from Belarus to Kazakhstan. The political scientist Henry Hale has called this regime type a "patronal presidency."3 The Armenian regime particularly resembled that of Putin's Russia, both at the level of institutions and personal connections, albeit that the Armenian version never approached Russian levels of brutality and venality. This disparity in what each regime felt was appropriate is puzzling and calls for an explanation, in which the articles brought together in this issue of Demokratizatsiya might serve as the opening arguments. But whatever the reasons for the Armenian authorities' reluctance to use full force against their opponents, the fact is that in 2018 this regime fell, bloodlessly and with remarkable ease. Could this be a harbinger of things to come in post-Soviet Eurasia?
Alexander Iskandaryan cautions us against excessive optimism by reminding us that what has happened in Armenia to this point is a change in power, not a change of power. Even though Nikol Pashinyan's new regime looked victorious and on its way to consolidation as of October 2018, Armenia still faces enormous challenges from many sides. One of the greatest remains the barely "frozen" armed conflict with Azerbaijan over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh. Alexander Markarov and Vahe [End Page 438] Davtyan explain why this problem remains so intractable despite all international efforts at mediation and why the potentially democratic change in Armenia is unlikely to change anything in the self-propelling dynamic of the Karabakh conflict.
For all the new leader's currently enormous popularity (in September his mostly young supporters scored a landslide of more than 80 percent in the Yerevan city elections), Armenia still has quite complicated domestic politics. There exist, for instance, the irreconcilable radicals, whose lineage stretches back to the revolutionary nationalists of the late 19th century. Romantic insurrectionism and revolutionary terrorism have been the characteristic traits of this tradition in Armenian politics. The Russian researchers Nikolai Silaev and Ivan Fomin bring innovative data to bear on the most recent reincarnation of Armenian radicalism, as manifested in the abortive armed insurrection of the Sasna Tsrer group two years ago. With the majority of its members now released from jail—the trial is still pending—Sasna Tsrer have declared their intention to form a political party in order to peacefully compete in the forthcoming elections. What will their future trajectory be?
Nevertheless, optimism and hope currently dominate sentiment in Armenia and among the Armenian diaspora. The Armenians are indeed to be saluted for what they achieved in 2018. We are pleased that this issue is rounded out by the prominent anthropologists Levon Abrahamian and Gayane Shagoyan, who have long taken an interest in the semiotics of all things carnivalesque—including revolutions. In addition to his scholarly credentials (he is a Corresponding Member of Armenia's National Academy of Sciences), Levon Abrahamian is also a talented artist who appeared in Sergo Paradjanov's 1969 cult film The Color of Pomegranates. In addition, for half a century, he has drawn witty cartoons that provide visual commentary on current events. Perhaps unusually for an academic journal, we are immensely pleased to feature here Levon Abrahamian's latest visual commentary (see Figure 1). The 2018 revolution was the making of a new post-Soviet generation. The "babies" of new Armenia joined the long history of their nation, demanding that the country "Reject" the continuation of the old patronal presidency ad infinitum and "Take a step" in affirming a different future. As we see, these youths reject the ideological myths fed to them by the fatherly—or should we say patronal and patronizing?—bosses. But if babies are not brought by storks, what new realities is this generation prepared to confront?
Armenia of 2018 belatedly looks and feels much like Eastern Europe of 1989: the same élan, the same "us versus them" mobilization of protest, and very similar hopes. Can the social scientists studying democratic transitions offer useful advice and analysis based on what is now known about the likely pitfalls and prospects? We believe so. This is, after all, the whole [End Page 439] reason for this journal's existence. Armenia delivered a welcome surprise to us all, and we owe Armenia something in exchange. Let this special issue begin a new, fertile line of research and debate.
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1. The CIA World Factbook, Armenia, At https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/am.html.
2. Yuri Slezkine. 2006. The Jewish Century. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
3. Henry Hale. 2014. Patronal Politics: Eurasian Regime Dynamics in Comparative Perspective. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.