A Precarious Case: Interaction Between State and Society in Armenia

By Dr. Gayane Novikova
Dec 8, 2015

The case of Armenia is to some extent different from two other states in the South Caucasus owing to the fact that Armenia, being a member of two Russia-led political-military and economic organizations (the CSTO, Common Security Treaty Organization, and the Eurasian Economic Union, respectively), is developing relationships with the EU (within the Eastern Partnership Program and through bilateral relations with the EU member states) and NATO. Therefore, against the background of a growing number of problems, including national security, this state is trying to balance and to find ways of cooperating with Russia in the hard security and economy areas, and with the EU in soft security areas. In spite of its integration choice to join the Eurasian Economic Union (announced in September, 2013, and implemented in January 2015), Armenia is attempting to convince the democratic world that it is ready to meet European standards in respect to human rights, the rule of law, good governance, etc. Armenia and the EU reopened the negotiations on new bilateral agreement on December 7, 2015.

It is worth mentioning that the fight against terrorism demands from the EU a strong and broad involvement in order to secure as much as possible its borders – including those in South Eastern Europe – and to prevent the penetration of terrorist groups from the Middle East Turkey, via the South and North Caucasus, into Europe. This means that this international organization (together with the US and NATO) is interested in preserving an existing cooperation level with the Eastern partners. Cooperation with Russia in regard to anti-terrorist measures is not only desirable but also unavoidable. Hence, Armenia’s participation in the Russia-led CSTO, which is complemented by Armenia’s  participation in NATO programs, can be considered as beneficial for all parties mentioned.


Armenia’s critical decision to join the Eurasian Union, which resulted in the abandonment of three-year negotiations with the EU on an Association Agreement, including the DCFTA, reduced its ability to implement a policy of complementarity. However, this decision resulted from several political-military and economic as well as social reasons, all of which render Armenia’s national security vulnerable on a broader scale.

This decision was based on the following factors:

1) Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014 demonstrated quite clearly that the EU does not provide security guaranties to any of the Eastern Partnership member-states. As a party to the Nagorno Karabakh conflict Armenia needs security guaranties most of all. Therefore, Russia has been seen on the basis of bilateral and multilateral military agreements, as the main security guarantor for Armenia.

2) Facing a growing number of domestic problems, including a refugee crisis, the EU is not willing or able to provide enough financial support to keep the Armenian economy alive.

Russia is the owner or co-owner of main strategic infrastructure of Armenia. There is also approximately 1,5 mil Armenians in the Diaspora in Russia. The private remittances sent home by Armenian labor migrants in Russia compose about 17% of Armenia’s GDP in 2013. After the Ukraine crisis and sanctions against Russia their volume is reducing significantly.

3) Furthermore, the choice of the Russian integration model was supported by the majority part of the Armenian population. The reaction of society to the sharp change in the Armenian foreign policy – the abrupt U-turn toward Russia – was rather calm: protests were held only by a small and marginal group. Moreover, according to the Gallup International Association poll conducted in Armenia on Oct 10-21, 2015, among 1,105 respondents, 54.4% answered that unification with Russia would be a correct move. Only 11.1% answered that they wished for integration with the EU. 29.9% answered that Armenia does not need to unify with any country.

Although I am very skeptical regarding the results of any poll conducted in Armenia, it is obvious that a pro-Russian mood is quite strong throughout the society.

In any case, the intention and all attempts to avoid extremes in the relationships with Russia and the EU are beneficial to both the Armenian state and Armenian society.


The interaction between state and society in Armenia is developing mainly on the basis of domestic processes; although not overwhelming on a daily basis, the high salience of foreign policy issues allow the state to some extent to manipulate society. This means that the state is able to diminish the society’s conflict potential by redirecting the citizens frustration and anger caused by domestic problems toward external problems and external actors. Until recently the state was quite successful in following this policy; however, the slowly emerging civic society in Armenia now requires more transparency from the ruling elite if it is to preserve its power.

A number of discrete factors contribute to the growth of tension along the “State – Society” axis:

– first, a heavy dependence on Russian energy (oil and gas) supplies. This allows Russia to place strong pressure on Armenia, if and when necessary;

– second, a decline in economic growth (which has also been caused indirectly as a consequence of the EU and the US sanctions against Russia) and a simultaneous intensifying demographic problem (caused by emigration, among other factors);

– and, third, indirectly the escalation of the protracted international Nagorno Karabakh conflict that now brings with it growing number of casualties, including civilian casualties.

It must be emphasized that both the state and the society are preoccupied with the economic and social problems. According to the already mentioned Gallup poll, only 1.8% of the respondents assessed the economic situation in Armenia as good, 24.3% as average, 33.8% as bad, and 39.1% as very bad.

Main trends from the 1990s to 2015 indicate that inertia in the nation’s political thinking and the ossification of established modes of political behavior cannot be overcome in the short term. Furthermore, serious demographic problems, including a sharp increase in emigration, unemployment and poverty, a high level of corruption, frustration caused by the ruling elite and by the weakness of the opposition parties, have called forth a deepening of apathy among the vast majority of citizens.


Three important events which took place in the last two years in Armenia introduce several models of interaction between the state and society .

In 2013 Armenia experienced a presidential election. There was a very high level of social protest immediately after the elections: a significant segment of society which voted against the incumbent  president considered the results of the election unfair and fabricated. However, the oppositional parties and their candidates for presidency were unable to mobilize this protest movement owing to several factors. One result has become apparent: the consequent marginalization of many political parties has opened opportunities for new grassroots actors.

A further model of state/ society interaction was the “Electric Yerevan” movement in mid-June- beginning of July, 2015, which was caused by the decision of the state to increase the cost for electricity.

This widespread protest (in correlation to the Armenian scale of social mobilization) has been provoked by declining standards of living for the majority of the population and by various forms of social injustice. Analyzing events in the summer of 2015, it is necessary to emphasize that they:

– First, indicate an intensification of social, political, and economic polarization of Armenian society and a slow growth of civic protest activity under conditions of continuing and deepening economic and demographic crises.

– Second, there was clear evidence of the readiness of the state to use this protest movement as a mechanism to demonstrate to external actors and observers that the Armenian state is democratic and tolerant, and that it is ready to address and resolve the problems, acting together with the society and for the sake of the society.

– Third, the state manipulated the protest movement to address and resolve the urgent domestic economic problem, acting on the one hand as a “good Kaiser” and on the other hand exploiting the situation to put  pressure on Russia, indeed even to threaten it with the ghost of a “colored revolution.”  Hence, the “Electric Yerevan” movement which reached its peak after 4-6 days of occupation of one of the main streets in Yerevan, was split relatively easily into two parts: the more “pragmatic” and less radical group agreed with the plan suggested by the government, the more radical group of protesters – the minority – tried to bring to the table a demand for a change of power. This protest movement calmed down in a few weeks.

The consequence?  The population is now paying indirectly for the increased cost of electricity, the Armenian ruling elite remains in power, and Armenia received a loan of 200 mln USD to buy modern weapons from Russia.

This short-lived protest movement shows:

– a strong will and ability by the state to avoid by all means the “color revolution” scenario;

– the prevailing pragmatism of the society. There are several factors contributing to this modus operandi, including close observation of the Ukraine experience, the intensification of confrontations along the border with Azerbaijan, as well as the current stage of Russia-Turkey confrontation. All these factors have led to a posture of caution throughout the population;

– the absence of a charismatic leader and a long-term goal which could unite the oppositional forces.

The third event that is necessary to address is the referendum on constitutional changes, which took place on Dec 6, 2015.

This referendum on constitutional changes aimed to transfer Armenia from a presidential republic to a parliamentary one. (The package of proposed constitutional reforms would abolish direct presidential elections and substitute in their place election of the President by the National Assembly. Also, the presidential term would be extended from five to seven years, and the President would no longer be commander-in-chief; this power would be transferred to the Prime Minister. The number of members of the Parliament would be reduced from 131 to 101, etc.)

According to the official results, announced immediately after the referendum, voters turnout was 50.51%; 63.35 percent of voters said “yes,” and 32.35 % said “no” to the proposed amendments. The referendum was marked with a significant number of electoral violations.

It must be noted that the pro & contra campaigns were not really about the proposed changes in the constitution, which are actually critical for Armenia; rather, they reflected more so the deficit of trust in the state and its ruling elite. Citizens were not interested in discussing the paragraphs and articles of the main document of the country. However, they were convinced that the goal of these changes offered an opportunity for those in power to remain in power.

This referendum is a vivid example of how the state and society in Armenia interact against a  background of apathy among the main strata of the society. It can also be viewed now as a good example of the Armenian dosed democracy.

Analyzing the interaction along the axes state – society, power and opposition, opposition – power – society, it is possible to come to several discouraging conclusions:

– first, Armenian society per se is not ready for serious change;

– second, the incumbent elites in power are able to reproduce themselves as a consequence of the passivity – that is, inactivity – of the society in general and the absence of any relatively strong oppositional forces (there are 78 registered parties!)

– third, these changes, when juxtaposed with the high unpredictability of the future, will increase Armenian society’s conflict potential;

– fourth, against the background of the unresolved Nagorno Karabakh conflict, Armenia will become even more sensitive to external influences than it has been under the presidential system of rule.

A growing mistrust toward the authorities is leading a significant segment of society to react more and more negatively to the state’s initiatives; citizens are seeking to prevent the implementation of all / most or all initiatives “from above” and to push forward their own agendas.

However, their activity must be considered in the context of Armenia’s comparatively low level of social mobilization. Nonetheless, it should be emphasized that, despite the fact that Armenian society today appears largely amorphous and apolitical, the potential for social unrest is gradually gaining momentum:  even a small-scale victory by activists may become a turning point that ignites street protests. Critical now to their continued activism is the emergence of a charismatic leader able to articulate realistic goals and to introduce pathways toward their fulfillment. However, in the absence of such a leader and a tangible program of action, the ruling elite retains the capacity to influence the varying reconstitution of groups and to alleviate, through small-scale concessions, tensions in Armenian society.