BY HAIG KAYSERIAN
We have arrived at the eve of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation–Dashnaksutyun World Congress, when the 128 year old political organisation’s global branches will send delegates to Armenia for a thorough review of the past four years of activity, as well as to pave a path forward for its next four years. And in order to properly gravel this forward road, it is critical that the ARF points the mirror directly at itself during this review.
It is important that the organisation judges how its own decision-making, packaging and messaging has impacted the ARF’s ability to lead the nation of people that created it out of necessity and hope in 1890. This would mean that the ARF resists any and all temptations to convert what is the organisation’s primary opportunity for self-reflection, to instead reflect on the activities of Armenia’s now-Acting Prime Minister, Nikol Pashinyan.
Pashinyan has understandably dominated Armenia’s political landscape since he led the country to long-awaited regime change – armed by popular support from the people – in what has been labelled the Velvet Revolution. In the ensuing election, the ARF was not able to pass the requisite threshold of 5% to serve in Armenia’s parliament, scoring only 3.9% of the public’s support in an election that was won in a landslide by Pashinyan’s My Step Alliance.
The fallout from this result has been mostly sub-standard political commentary of all the other players – including the ARF – where their decisions, packaging and messaging has been critiqued from only a single angle: Pashinyan.
For example, leaders of parties that oppose Pashinyan have consistently ignored their own shortcomings by shining a light on what Pashinyan did, what Pashinyan did not do, what Pashinyan said, what Pashinyan did not say and what Pashinyan will do and what Pashinyan will not do. “History will judge us to be correct,” they have said while ignoring the reality that election campaigns are competitions for the present; in this case a competition for the hearts and minds of Armenians today.
While valid commentary might be spun into such nothingness with effective use of the media, a political force with a history of service such as the ARF owes its World Congress the respect to stand tall above all of this and honestly reflect on itself.
Yes, this means resisting the temptation to turn this review into a referendum on Pashinyan, and resist focusing on the revolution’s resulting euphoria as the primary reason for any ARF failures, among a myriad of other reasons beyond the party’s immediate control.
This also means acknowledging that the ARF has plenty to discuss. Its activities in over 20 countries around the world will undoubtedly feature, as will its activities in Artsakh and Javakhk, however the focus of any honest review of the period between 2015 and 2018 must be the ARF’s activities in mainland Armenia, which culminated in the public rejecting the opportunity to re-elect the party into its National Assembly.
You see, history proves that the ARF has been dutifully building political capital in the Armenian world for over a century. The blood it spilled to achieve an improbable independence in 1918; the exemplary leadership of the First Armenian Republic under desolate conditions through to 1921; the establishment and maintenance of the Diaspora as the torchbearers for a future Republic during Armenia’s Soviet occupation; the heroism on the battlefields of Karabakh ahead of the Republic of Artsakh’s successful vote for self-determination; the legislative victories recognising the Armenian Genocide across most continents – these are all but examples of the capital that has been naturally built out of sincere obligation over 128 years.
It hasn’t all been doom and gloom during the past four years either. Deposits have been made towards this capital. The ARF’s leadership to achieve the Constitutional Reforms that brought Armenia to a parliamentary system of governance, replacing the old presidential model; the instinctive reaction of the ARF world to respond with frontline volunteers, resources and advocacy during the four-day Artsakh War in April 2016; the vision to achieve a united call for justice for the Armenian Genocide during the Centenary year of 2015; the activities to support the homeland, Artsakh and Syrian-Armenians by outstretching the global tentacles of the ARF – these are among examples of continued capital building.
So how does such political capital get spent, to the extent that an organisation with the aforementioned track record cannot even attract 5% support from its fellow citizens? This is the key question that needs to be honestly, selflessly and courageously pondered by the ARF World Congress when it convenes in January 2019.
Sure, the euphoric environment played a role. Sure, Pashinyan played a role. Sure, foreign interests might be flexing their muscles in Yerevan like they are known to do in countries with the geopolitical realities of an Armenia. Notwithstanding these points, my hope is that the ARF focuses on what it itself is directly able to control, which is none of the aforementioned.
For example, the ARF has been criticised for its delay in joining the revolution. Moreso, the ARF has been criticised for standing with its Coalition partner, the Republican Party of Armenia (RPA) and their nominee for Prime Minister – former President Serzh Sargsyan – while protests against Sargsyan’s perceived grab for a third term in power grew on the streets of Yerevan. The ARF has also been criticised for its controversial exit from the unity government formed by Pashinyan, after partnering with the RPA and the Prosperous Armenia Party in a vote that once again forced people to the streets in an encore in October 2018.
The ARF has since been criticised for not properly acknowledging its mistakes, assuming it did make some. Even before all of this, the ARF was criticised for favouring the path of making changes from within (even in Coalition with the RPA) instead of on the streets (in Coalition with the people), as well as for transitioning away from its progressive roots while involved in some of these partnerships.
The World Congress needs to break down these decisions, and hear the justifications from the incumbent leadership. Assuming it accepts their justifications, the World Congress needs to ask why 96.1% of the public did not accept these same justifications at the December 9 polls?
This is where packaging and messaging may need to be scrutinised. Before and after these elections, the ARF brought up some very valid concerns about the elected policy paths of Pashinyan and his team – I too am not comforted by his economic agenda and could be more at ease with his foreign policy standing with less spin-populism and his rhetoric of the potentially chaotic “governance by Republic Square” strategy. However, it is obvious that most people are not listening to the ARF’s concerns. Why not? What can the ARF do better to reverse this worrying trend?
It was U.S. President Harry S. Truman who famously had a sign on his desk with the following inscription: “The buck stops here!” – meaning that responsibility is not passed on beyond this point.
In the ARF world, the burden to determine where the buck-passing stops and to set frameworks for future corrections rests with the World Congress.
An honest self-reflection at this World Congress will ensure the ARF comes out of what is a historically critical meeting with decisions that will lead to a period of the correct policies; better packaged and efficiently delivered. This will ensure the path forward leads the ARF to clawing back some of the political capital it has lost.
There is no doubt that the ARF deserves its place at Armenia’s decision-making table. It has protected everything Armenia and Armenian for 128 years. A pinpoint, self-reflecting mirror at this World Congress is the opportunity to ensure the ARF continues its exemplary service for the next 128 years and beyond.
Haig Kayserian is the Executive Director of the Armenian National Committee of Australia, with a Bachelors in Media & Cultural Studies (Macquarie University) and is currently completing his Masters in Politics & Policy (Deakin University). He is a Director at several technology companies based in the United States and Australia, and is an Advisory Board member at Armenia’s first technology venture capital firm.