Armenian political infighting and the master manipulation of Soviet propaganda

By | Rachel Brooks

February 22, 2021 

Image credit: “Remains of Soviet propaganda” by Jorge Franganillo is licensed under CC BY 2.0

The western response to political infighting in the Caucasus puts major pressures on the internal politics of these nations. The internal-to-external approach reveals the state of society in the Caucasus regions as they contend with strategic losses and western prevalence ideologies. In contrast stands Georgia, a nation on the verge of a unipolar shift in domestic politics, and Armenia, a nation braced by complex multigenerational infighting over a toxic nationalism movement and a highly influential but detached Diaspora. 

Armenia and the glasnosts-perestroika era  

In the late 1980s, the Soviet Union saw an “unprecedented” change in policy under Gorbachev. The introduction of the Gorbachev era saw the “glasnost” or the Soviet Union’s era of “more open consultative government”. The “glasnost” era was the catalyzing policy of Soviet reform which led to the final dissolution of the Soviet government. In his book Glasnost, Perestroika and the Soviet Media Brian McNair noted that “few would have predicted the scale and pace of the reforms about to take place.” 

Under the glasnost policy, in 1988, Armenians began to push their agenda of desiring the Karabakh as their autonomous territory. There was a catalyzed ethnic cleansing of Azerbaijani from Azerbaijan republic adjacent territories of Armenia and a purge of the Karabakh to follow. Likewise, a massive earthquake in Armenia in 1988 led to an internal crisis that compelled the move of nationalism empowered by the new glasnosts policy. 

Social infighting in Armenia over the Karabakh conflict 

The conflict and the departure from the Soviet-era characterized repeat social infighting crises in Armenia. Following the en masse move of states to secede from the Soviet Union, Armenia joined the United Nations in 1992, the same year as the infamous Khojaly massacre that characterized the bloodiest episode of the First Karabakh conflict. That same year, Azerbaijan imposed a trade and energy embargo upon Armenia, as the conflict continued. In 1994, in an almost mirror image of what took place at the end of the second episode, demonstrations exploded in Yerevan following a Russian-brokered ceasefire to end the First Karabakh conflict. At this stage, Armenia was still in occupation of the Karabakh territory. 

Following the episode of the First Karabakh conflict, Armenia saw a parliamentary reform in 1995. The government launched a price liberalization and privatization program. The parliamentary elections returned to the ruling party and the powers of the president opened wider. This eventually led to the internal stress in Armenia that in 1996 saw tanks deployed to Yerevan’s streets as protestors rose in rabble over alleged electoral fraud in the reelection of Ter-Petrosian as president. This was stressed by the Armenian nationalism movement that had continued to linger in the nation since the glasnost reform era. Ter-Petrosian resigned in 1998 over the extremity of opposition to his efforts to compromise with Azerbaijan over the Karabakh issue. This saw a shift in which Robert Kocharyan was elected president. Kocharyan was a nationalist, and the movement continued.

 

Under the Kocharyan era, political infighting continued. In 1999, gunmen opened fire at the Armenian parliament. The gunmen accused the Armenian government of leading Armenia into political and economic ruin. On October 29, 1999, The New York Times reported that three suspects were charged in the shooting that occurred. This was a day after The New York Times reported that the then-Prime Minister and a group of others had been slain in the shooting. Throughout the end of October 1999, the assassination in Armenia continued to make headlines. CNN likewise reported these events on October 27, 1999. CNN stated that at least five people in addition to then-Prime Minister Vazgen Sargsyan were killed, including parliament speaker Karen Demirchian and deputy parliament speaker Yuri Bakhshyan, as well as Operative Issues Minister Leonard Petrosyan. 

For the next decade, a repeated pattern of similar political infighting occurred. Duress on the Armenian internal politics also increased when in 2007, the BBC reported that Armenia passed a dual citizenship bill that granted dual citizenship to Armenia’s massive diaspora. At that time, the foreign diaspora was estimated at roughly 8 million people. 

There was a brief pause in tensions over Turkish relations, in which Armenian leadership saw rapprochement with Turkey. In 2010, a prisoner exchange for prisoners captured during the first Karabakh conflict was brokered by Russia between Armenia and Azerbaijan. This rapprochement was later dampened when in the 2011-2012 era the French government voted to approve a bill that would make denying the Ottoman party’s pogroms against Armenia in 1915 a criminal offense. Turkey reacted negatively, threatening political retaliation. This era of foreign influence in the political discussion of the Ottoman-era pogroms led to further strain between Armenia and Turkey. For example, the Pope declared the events of the Ottoman pogroms and early World War I era pogroms in the region an act of genocide in 2015. This prompted Turkey to recall its envoy from the Vatican. The President of Armenia at this time, President Sezrh Sargsyan, who was in his second term welcomed this commentary from the Pope. The tensions between Armenia and its Turkic counterparts continued to escalate until the outbreak of the April War of 2016, which shifted the Karabakh conflict from an armistice to a warm conflict once again. 

At the end of the Sargsyan era, Armenia moved to convert the nation to a parliamentary republic by 2018. During the process of this, both Europeans and opposition leaders criticized voter irregularities. This led to the scenario where President Sargsyan briefly assumed premiership outranking presidency after the move to make Armenia a parliamentary republic in March 2018. This was a position he had held before, as was reported by CNN in 1999. In the 1999 era, Sargsyan was described as “an ally of Armenian’s Soviet-era leader Demirchian.” At this stage, Sargsyan co-chaired the Unity Party. 

With this era of Sargsyan’s premiership, political infighting erupted once more, and street protests, at last, led to Sargsyan’s resignation. At this stage, Nikol Pashinyan, the opposition leader, took over. From December 2018, Pashinyan influenced a snap election that led to the removal of the Republican party in parliament, by the force of his My Step Alliance. Armenia at this stage effectively became a single-party government, as the Republicans won no seats. 

By September of 2020, Pashinyan was engaged in a re-escalation of conflict with Azerbaijan in the Karabakh territory. With the outcome of the Second Karabakh conflict leading to a Russian-brokered ceasefire that also saw the seceding of Karabakh territory back into Azerbaijan’s control, political infighting once again erupted. 

Russia as the master manipulator of the press

Also in the book by McNair, he describes the role of Soviet-era media in shaping the political conflict that would emerge from the dissolving of the Sovietology Union into the post-Soviet era that would follow. He noted that the Soviets described their media as the “means of mass information and propaganda.” The media of the Soviet Union was not a “watchdog” of the state, but rather an active part of the “ideological apparatus of the state.” The Soviets likewise expressed a belief that media is the most important means of “formation of public opinion.” It was from this theology that the Bolsheviks built their media apparatus which, after 1917, was “unequaled in size and complexity anywhere in the world” (McNair).  

McNair describes the 8,000+ media organs that were disseminated by the complex Soviet regime. This included regional Communist party publications, workers party publications, and more. 

McNair likewise notes that it is critical to review the power and influence of the press over the USSR by understanding that in their capacities both Marx and Lenin were journalists. This fundamental understanding of press relations served the ideology of the Soviet power arm and contributed to the complexity of the propaganda organ that would become, rather than dissipated, dissolved in the modern political infighting of the post-Soviet bloc. 

Armenia absorbed the Soviet agenda in breakaway nationalism 

The Heinrich Boll organization out of Tbilisi refers to the role of the Soviet media in influencing the push of the Karabakh conflict. Researcher Eviya Hovhannisyan wrote regarding the samizdat or Armenian dissident press, and how its efforts were absorbed by the Soviet “friendship of nations” policy. 

“The policy of glasnost that was announced in the USSR in 1986 and the gradual escalation of the Karabakh conflict led to the fact that in a short period the Armenian dissident press was scourged by articles of nationalist anti-Azerbaijani and anti-Russian content,” wrote Hovhannisyan. 

“It should be noted that this was a bottom-up movement, since the official press in the Soviet Union bypassed questions of national content in every way, adhering to the policy of “friendship of nations.”

Hovhannisyan writes that the samizdat of the late Soviet era was not codified, but was rather found and destroyed by the Communist party, or kept in the archives of the KGB. Over time, the glasnost policy allowed for the dissemination of samizdat to become official. This was a transfer of media control and power from the Propaganda and Agitation Department of the Central Committee of the CPSU, which served as the Soviet control room, to the samizdat press. Armenian anti-Soviet and Soviet dissension propaganda was absorbed by a freeing of the Soviet Union in its reform, a non-starter sort of reformation. 

“In the majority of cases, the dissident press had a dialogue with the official press, that is, a challenge vs. response principle was a foundation of the logic seen in references regularly made in the samizdat,” wrote Hovhannisyan.  

Control of the central command of propaganda was therefore not relaxed but rather shifted in a political master-manipulation that left the impression the Armenian nationalist movement was somehow independent of the Soviet ideology that was transforming rather than disappearing. A problem that would carry into the political infighting of the many years to come, where Armenian social reforms led rather a recycling of the same social grievances under different hats. 

This was further stressed by the author A. Motyl who wrote in 1990 that Gorbachev was the chief instigator of instability in the Soviet Union. 

Yet, the Russian regulation and then relaxation of propaganda likewise served to influence that era. In the book Samizdat and Ethnic Mobilization, writer Dina Zisserman-Brodsky drew a direct comparison to print journals and national publications as the determination of ethnic diversity and the rise of ethnonationalism in the nearing end of the Soviet era. Zisserman-Brodsky then goes on to refer to modernization as almost a compulsory attribute of the rise of nationalism at the end of the Soviet era. In Zisserman-Brodsky’s review of this era, the author refers to the article “Ethnopolitics and the Future of the Former Soviet Union” by Zvi Gitelman. Gitelman’s research describes at the end of the Soviet era a move where the western and eastern global demographics were “moving toward each other economically, culturally, and politically; the physical and political barriers between them are disappearing.” 

Modernization, Zisserman-Brodsky argued, was present in the Soviet drive for industrialization, and the belief that “congenial social and political changes” were required to see this drive realized. 

In recent news 

Armenia’s cycle of internal conflicts repeats itself as this week Deutsche Welle reported that thousands have rallied against Pashinyan. The rally cry centers around the result of the Second Karabakh conflict. Armenia places the blame for the loss of their territorial claims to the previously occupied Karabakh squarely on Pashinyan’s shoulders.

Deutsche Welle reported that, as of Saturday, Armenia has named former premier Vazgen Manukyan as Pashinyan’s successor. Manukyan told his supporters in recent rally speeches to “prepare for an uprising.” Armenians rally around the slogan “Pashinyan is a traitor!” and prepare to support Armenia without Pashinyan.

As of Monday, thousands continued to march in Yerevan’s streets, demanding the resignation of Pashinyan. This was reported by khon2.