YPC Weekly Newsletter




“Promoting Democracy from Abroad? Promoting Instruments of External State and Non State Actors. Perspective for the EU’s Eastern Neighbors” workshop was held on November 17, 2005 in Berlin at the headquarters of German Friedrich Ebert Foundation, organizer of the discussion. Those participating and making presentations at the workshop included experts from Germany, Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Georgia and Armenia.

Below we provide a version of the workshop presentation by Boris NAVASARDIAN, President of Yerevan Press Club, prepared especially for YPC Weekly Newsletter.

IT IS COMMONLY believed that the one of the most effective democracy promoting instrument in the Soviet times, along with various Western radio voices, was… the kitchen. This phenomenon has been described in thousands of essays and fiction works, and I will not dare to compete with them, proposing my own images. I will only say that it is in the kitchen of ordinary Soviet flats where people felt free enough to criticize their rulers and the system. Neither in the bedroom nor the sitting room nor in the pubs did people have such courage during those years.

Today the promotion of democracy in a number of countries and regions of the former socialist camp experiences certain crisis. This refers primarily to those, whose governments did not have the political will to conduct and support democratic reforms themselves and, appropriately, the outside instruments turned out to be not so effective as they were, say, in the Baltic countries. To go out of the crisis it is necessary to seriously and critically reconsider the implemented programs. Here the radical critique of the Soviet kitchen can help. And it is this method that I will use in my speech.

I SHALL BUILD my presentation on a few recent examples of how external instruments of promoting democracy are used in Armenia. These examples are of “various caliber” but they testify to certain general tendencies and problems deserving attention and analysis. That of the most current importance is related to the constitutional reform – in ten days’ time, on November 27 a referendum on amendments to the Main RA Law will be conducted. To fully imagine the whole context of this process, a brief historic overview must be made.

The issue of the reform was raised on a serious level first after the change of power in 1998. Then the current President, who ran for the post for the first time, needed broad support and he promised during the pre-election campaign that once elected, he would, firstly, reduce the authority of the president in favor of the parliament, and, secondly, would introduce duel citizenship. Thus, he was trying to recruit the support of the leading political forces, interested to have their shares in the power pie, and also ordinary people, for whom the idea of unification with the majority of the compatriots (at least 2/3 of Armenians are residing abroad) was very attractive. Besides, the prospect for receiving Armenian citizenship, in addition to the one the representatives of the wealthy Diaspora already have, allowed the new authorities to rely on its support.

The process procrastinated for five long years and lost its significance for the authorities of the country. Who, with no serious reason, would give up a part of his authority or run the risk of forming new, potentially multi-million, completely uncontrolled and unpredictable electorate? In 2003, President got his second term. The parliamentary elections were also held on the scenario favorable to the authorities, and their little interest in conducting the Constitution referendum caused it to fail. Formally, the promise of five years before was fulfilled, and the President was quite indifferent towards the ballot – “As you wish!” was his message to the public.

Here a new circumstance appeared. To explain to Strasbourg, why the country is not fully compliant with its commitments to the Council of Europe, the Armenian authorities invented an argument: the impediment is in some provisions of the Constitution. And although in most cases the grounds for such excuses were lame, CoE clung to the argument and actually demanded that the Constitutional reform be carried out to the end. This is where democracy promoting instrument went at work; the official Yerevan understood that the new referendum could not be avoided and that another failure would damage international image of Armenia and affect the foreign aid received. In this respect, the task of the Armenian authorities was clear: amendments were to be made, retaining at the same time all the levers of total control over the country.

In such a situation, it seemed natural to expect the CoE to push for the reform to be truly serving the democratization of Armenia, to disrupt the basis for authoritarian regime and oligarchic domination. However, the CoE Venice Commission, the body to assess the document developed and to introduce recommendations, for some reason decided to take the way of least resistance and concessions to Armenian authorities on a number of crucial points, referring, in particular, to local self-governance, freedom of expression, etc. At certain stage of work on the document it seemed that the recommendations were sent from Strasbourg to Yerevan only after the prior informal approval of the Armenian authorities.

Similarly to many other cases, the process of developing draft amendments resembled a conspiracy, in which there were active members – a narrow group of people working on the text and coordinating it with the Venice Commission, and supers (including MPs, civil society, experts), who, willing as they were to take part in the work and make their contribution to the reformation of the Constitution, were not properly empowered to do so. Another version of the document and recommendations to it of the European experts were available only at the last moment, when there was no time for introducing proposals and their argumented defense. The victim of this “conspiracy” was the whole Armenian society, who has to make a “pro” or “con” decision under terrible time pressure.

No less perplexity is raised by the indifference of international structures to the legitimacy of the process of campaign and the ballot on November 27. The campaign waged in mass media, mostly controlled by the authorities, is virtually unilateral, favoring a “yes” vote to the draft. Moreover, open calls to vote for Constitution are made by representatives of international organizations or Western diplomatic missions themselves! The ballot process is to be observed by… 10 international observers, although no one doubts today that the technologies for obtaining the necessary result at the referendum will then be used by the authorities at the parliamentary and presidential elections of 2007/2008!

Under the circumstances expecting that the reform will be anything more than a make-up, that the amendments will contribute to the true compliance of Armenia with its commitments to the CoE and, as the Armenian authorities allege, the reformed Constitution will actually open the doors of Europe to Armenia is quite hard. This situation, in my opinion, is an obvious proof of how democracy promoting instruments yield results that are contrary to expectations.

THE SECOND episode that I would like to tell you about is not as general as the first one. Yet, it pushes one towards similar conclusions. Recently Armenia was visited by a prominent politician from a very important democratic country that actively helps Armenia and others to build their democracies. His one-day visit agenda included a meeting with the representatives of the civil society. The people who gathered mostly held critical views on the situation in the country, yet, at the same time, had no political agenda of their own.

For some time the guest was interestedly listening to the meeting participants, most of whom were sincere, although discrete (their assessment of the current situation in no way resembled a complaint), in sharing their concerns, telling about problems impeding Armenia’s democratic development. It seemed his attention to our words was due to the natural wish of getting a better understanding of the situation. Yet when the turn came for the politician to speak, it appeared, that while listening to us he was preparing arguments to protect Armenian authorities – saying that everything does not come at once, there are countries where situation is much worse and so on and so forth. And this “brainwashing” of those assembled lasted much longer than listening to them.

Questions arise as to whether the prominent politician should have spent so much time, to repeat what is constantly poured upon us by official propaganda machine? Why would the guest act as the advocate of Armenian authorities and find justifications for problems and shortcomings, even 1% of which would make him make strong accusations of his own government – particularly, as an opposition politician of his country? Let us try to find the answers to these questions a bit later, now dwelling on the theory of developing democracy in small steps. It is very relevant for Armenia, almost officially placed by the West in the rank of “slowly reformed countries”.

SOME EXPERTS present the current reform process in countries, similar to ours, as a substitute to the informal institutes making up the present semi-autocratic, semi-oligarchic and semi-criminal system by formal institutes of the European type. Here, by saying institute not only agencies and structures are meant, but also the laws, procedures, relations… The old system feigns accepting such a reform, while doing its best to accommodate the formal institutes introduced to its needs, retaining the informal institutes as a basis for its stability – these institutes being based on autocratic methods of governance, concentration of political power and property in one hands, corruption, fraudulent democratic procedures, etc.

The breakdown of this system is possible only through rapid and radical actions so that its informal institutes do not have time to grip everything new by its metastases. This is why, after decade of not every successful process the post-Soviet space goes through a fad of revolutions that promise fast and productive measures (how these promises are fulfilled after such unpredictable events as revolutions is another matter). And this is why the small steps, such as Armenian constitutional reform or, what this prominent politician I told about said, cannot really make a difference.

A proof of this is the controversy in the assessments of the biggest donors on the progress of Armenia (UNDP, World Bank, USAID and others whose activity, fully or mostly, is implemented through our government) with the ratings of international human rights organizations. While the former ones report the success of the programs they implement, based on formal institutional development (these very small steps), the latter ones, for three years in a row, record a deterioration in the democratic freedom index, monitoring concrete cases and expressions of repressive nature. Thus, according to Freedom House, Armenia has gone down to the lowest limit of “partly free” countries’ list, and Armenian media have moved from “partly free” group to “not free” in 2002.

There are several international programs aimed at promoting “know how” of successful reforms and consolidation of democratic principles, including exchange of efficient experience of former socialist countries in the development of various spheres important to the society. Some of them are very effective and allow a number of the countries of Eastern and Central Europe to quickly overcome the transition period. Thus, a relevant program of Open Society Institute is called “East-East”.

However, we should not ignore the fact that the presidents and governments of post-Soviet countries have their informal “East-East” and settled mechanisms of exchange of experience in imitation and mimicry. The aim is on the one hand to please the Western partners, showing their adherence to democracy and market reforms, and on the other to pursue the course for concentration of power and property, adjusting (or distorting) the exported institutions to meet their interests. In our countries, it is fashionable to discourse on the futility and uselessness of the summits and other official events within CIS framework. However, do we underestimate the significance of these meetings, at which the leaders of various levels get an opportunity for exchanging “know how” of resistance to promotion of real democracy?

Recently much was spoken about the frequent meetings of our President Robert Kocharian and his Georgian counterpart Mikhail Sahakashvili. What our President needed is more or less clear – primarily, the use of Sahakashvili’s contacts in the West. But, probably, Kocharian, too, gave his Georgian partner some very good advice on how to keep the whole country under personal control. In particular, we see how the method of taming and concealed censorship of leading TV channels by their concentration in the hands of loyal owners, realized in Armenia in 2002-2003, is gradually applied in Georgia. Certainly, Armenian authorities assimilated this method themselves and adjusted to the specifics of the Caucasus using the experience of other countries, such as Thailand and Russia.

Armenia followed the elections in Azerbaijan with interest. For some, I would qualify as shortsighted nationalists, it was a chance for gloating over the undemocratic set-up of a hostile neighboring country. For others, it was important to understand the outcome of the confrontation of the mechanisms for ensuring fair elections imported from USA and Europe (abundance of observers, variety of monitoring programs, marking the fingers of the voters, exit polls, etc.) and the progressive “post-Soviet” technologies for keeping power by all means. No matter how conflicting are the relations among our countries, it has no impact on the efficiency of exchanging election technologies! What we observed in Azerbaijan raises concerns over our own elections, primarily regarding the fact that external and internal instruments for promoting democracy are gradually replaced by the “know how” developed and promoted within interstate “East-East” framework.

FINALLY, the last example – the promotion of the draft law “On Lobbying Activities” in Armenia. It was developed by the Ministry of Justice under a foreign-funded project with the total cost of 25 thousand USD. The draft has already been approved by the Government and is submitted to the RA Parliament. The idea of the law is quite a civilized one – regulation of various influences on adopting legislative acts and developing public policy, removal of these mechanisms from the shadow. However, let us see, what the effect of the application is, once it becomes a law, today and in short term.

The most interesting thing is that nearly every person, having real resources to protect their private, group and other interests on the level of legislation and public policy, that is, oligarchs, neo-feudals, fathers of mafia clans, are today deputies of the RA National Assembly (or are soon going to add the deputy mandate to the gentleman kit of power accessories). It is expected that if everything goes just like it did top this day, including success of the referendum on amendments to Constitution, the positions of these groups will grow strong both in legislative and executive power. Certainly, they do not face the issues of leaving the shade (should the law be adopted). Moreover, they can use the law to register lobbying offices, gain premises at the Parliament building and put there their valets and bodyguards.

The primary targets of the draft law, should it be adopted, will be the civil society institutes. Firstly, in its definition the draft makes no difference between lobbying and advocacy, and it appears that any activity of non-profit NGOs, aimed at legislative changes (for instance, draft law development or involvement in public policy making in various spheres) is considered to be lobbyist and demands special registration. Secondly, a ban on lobbyist activities funded from abroad is stipulated. Meanwhile, the funding of NGO sector in Armenia is 90% (and foreign expertise to them – 100%) provided by international donors, and qualified advocacy efforts of the civil society can become completely paralyzed.

Here I want to remind that the draft was developed through a foreign grant. That is, the structure that provided it closes the possibility for itself and other donors to use a significant part of democracy promoting instruments. Here I must somewhat calm down the audience: Armenian NGOs raised huge noise on the draft, many representatives of international organizations, working in Armenia, realized what the risks of the draft are, and are going to take appropriate measures.

HOWEVER, in my opinion, this is matter of not an individual precedent, but of a general problem. At the initial stage of democratization of the post-Soviet countries the West and the international community in general formed a powerful sector of non-profit NGOs in our countries nearly from a scratch. But for the outside resources, the civil society in our countries would look much weaker. It evolved by the highest democratic principles and became the carrier of critical attitude to the slow and inconsistent reforms and to the governments in general. Yet during the recent years in some countries and in Armenia, in particular, there is a significant transformation of processes in this sector.

The foreign promoters of the democracy in their work with NGO sector increasingly rely on the opinion of the governments of our countries. More and more resources go for programs, initiated by GONGOs and excluding any chance of damaging the interests of the governing elites. The initiatives that contain components that are alternative (not oppositional) to the interests of these elites receive less and less support. It can be stated that in 2004-2005 the previously very small and ineffective GONGO sector of Armenia is already quite comparable in its capacity with the independent NGOs, and if it still loses to the opponents, it is only due to the vigor, competence and commitment of the latter organizations. However the trend persists (also proved by the examples above) and in the years to come the power balance may change significantly, both due to the redistribution of resources and to the redirection of certain NGOs, following the resources.

The process of fragmentation of civil society is still more aggravated by the competition among its own institutions. Today, we may single out four main groups of NGOs. The first one is same GONGOs, promoting imitation processes and creating semblance of the participation of civil society in the key processes. The second – NGOs linked with various groups of political opposition and rather aiming at power change (with or without revolution) than reforms proper. Given the absence of established institutions of democracy, power change in no way ensures progress (though providing an alternative chance). The constructive potential of these NGOs may be used only in the future at the best. At present, they are related to the first group through the political situation, though with a different indicator. The third group is guided by the principle “grant is everything, result is nothing”, i.e. it goes to all means for getting financial assistance, uses the resource of external instruments for promoting democracy, being actually indifferent to the goals and objectives. It is the forth one that preserves allegiance to the basic mission of NGOs in the countries with transitional democracy: to promote reforms making the public their active participant. At the same time, it appears to be the most vulnerable one since it is constantly subject to “stealing” and discrediting by the other three.

Naturally, within each of the mentioned groups there is endemic fragmentation and competition, leading to a larger waste of the potential of democratic reforms. Presently, it is hard to define the cause and effect – fragmentation of civil society in our countries or the external instruments for promoting democracy, nourishing it. The efficiency crisis in the reformists camp is especially obvious under the growing consolidation of power “in slowly reformed countries” to secure the fixed system via mimicry.

There are currently several explanations of this phenomenon circulating:

– the West does not expect some of the countries to make special progress in democracy, they are just put aside and further efforts do not have particular sense;

– the West realizes that keeping the power for the governments of these countries is much more important than the relations with the West itself, and it prefers not to “tease the beast” to keep its interests in the region;

– in the context of antiterrorist campaign and major geopolitical programs of the West, the considerations of security and influence spread prevail over the ideas of freedom and democracy, and in the cases, where priorities are attainable without the “gravy” of rule of law, civil society, independent media, greater tolerance to the local rulers can be shown;

– organizations, having on their agenda the task of democratization of post-socialist countries and their officials, have already conducted much work here, have spent much money on various programs and have reported their success, seem to have formed or reformed the core institutes and today have to speak about progress on inertia – otherwise it would turn out their activities were not very effective and the reports were not completely valid;

– the blackmail of local pro-governmental political forces and media, accusing Western countries and international organizations of interfering with the internal affairs of the states and provoking instability and “colored” revolutions, is at work. Due to this blackmail the West has to be cautious and be less demanding;

– international structures are to a certain extent corrupt, they got united with the local governmental structures, semi-governmental expert groups and NGOs, proceeding from selfish interests;

– the work in the missions of international structures in some countries is of little prestige and attraction, and hence not very competent and insufficiently motivated people are recruited to work there. This results in smaller productivity of their efforts.

There are also versions for each specific case, in particular, for Armenia:

– Armenian Diaspora, and in particular, its lobby organizations actively work to form a positive image of the country in the West and to attract greater foreign aid in the country. Their influence in appropriate Western circles neutralizes the critical signals about the situation in Armenia and contributes to the emphasis in the activity of international donors on programs, “loyal” to Armenian authorities;

– Armenia, both in geo-strategic and political sense, is of much lower interest to the West than Azerbaijan and Georgia. Besides, it does not declare its Euro-Atlantic orientation as obviously as its neighbors. Consequently, there is no interest in Armenia surpassing its neighbors in the pace of reforms – the fact that it is not lagging behind is satisfactory enough;

– the solution of the Karabagh problem is a priority for the West over the democracy strengthening in Armenia and Azerbaijan. For this reason the governments of the major Western countries close their eyes on the elimination of opposition and influential independent media, accepting the argument of local authorities that plurality and democracy can be impeding with the realization of an unpopular conflict resolution model at the necessary point.

One can question the grounds behind each of the versions listed, prove, that they are wrong completely or partly – I only voiced what is being said, leaving it to the audience to draw conclusions.

SO AS NOT TO close up with pessimist tone, I would state that alternatives to further active use of external instruments of promoting democracy in Armenia are non-existent.

First, in Armenia few people place a question mark at the end of the sentence, made the title of this presentation. Geopolitical, economic, historical-cultural, time factors do not allow us to seriously speak about our own path – without exporting and implanting the Western model – for establishment of open society and free market, similarly to the way it is often declared in China, Russia or Kazakhstan. Probably, the latter have necessary conditions and potential for promoting their own models, which Armenia lacks. We will only applaud to their success, still relying both on our own forces and external aid and pressure. Second, resistance of the authorities to the reforms is of inertial, situational and not principal nature. No one within the ruling elite questions the prospects for Armenia as a democratic country of European type. Within power structures, there are a number of people, though having right for decisive vote, that feel the burden of slow and inconsistent reforms, trying to speed them up. Third, unfavorable tendencies and low efficiency for using the instruments of promoting democracy, the examples of which were mentioned above, will not necessarily be of permanent nature. Fourth, not all foreign agents of reforms are subject to influence from the top and have “gone slow”. These are Open Society Institute, National Democracy Institute, Friedrich Ebert Foundation (I mention this Foundation quite sincerely and not as an organizer of this event) and other German political foundations. All these structures act with various degrees of effectiveness and expertise, but they still manage to oppose pressure and the aspiration of the local authorities to “bind them hand and foot”. Their capacity is incomparable to that of bigger donors, but their effective cooperation with the most advanced part of the civil society allows them to remain serious players. Though their efforts are subject to fragmentation as well: some of them to a certain extent have orientation for the second (i.e. linked to opposition) of the groups of NGOs mentioned above.

I shall give two examples of this positive partnership. Of huge importance for Armenia’s development in the coming years are two major programs – European Neighborhood Policy and Millennium Challenge Account. We had (and we still do have, since the program implementation has not started yet) serious fears that ENP and MCA will inherit the negative sides of a number of their predecessors. That is, they will lack transparency, they will have a big replication component, the funds allocated will become objects for corruption. For that reason we, I mean the most active NGOs and some foreign organizations decided to promote the enhancement of the role of civil society in the process, including the involvement in defining the content of the programs, increasing of public awareness about them, implementation monitoring.

Thus, to a certain extent due to active dissemination by the group of NGOs, united around “Partnership for Open Society” initiative, of their information about the current situation and alternative ideas (particularly the report on democratic reforms in Armenia and conceptual proposals on the Action Plan for Armenia), the democratic component of ENP is given more attention today than previously. Besides, the interested approach of the representatives of civil society to the Millennium Challenge Account ensured their participation on all the levels of preparing and implementing the program of MCA in Armenia.

During the subsequent years the most serious challenge for the democratic community of Armenia will be the parliamentary (2007) and presidential (2008) elections. As mentioned above, recent elections in Azerbaijan showed that the technologies of illegitimate attainment by the authorities of the wished result are improving every day and the international observers find it harder to identify them. And since under the informal “commonwealth of post-Soviet authorities” there is a very effective experience exchange, everyone interested to have democratic elections in Armenia will face quite an ordeal.

Here a significant role can be played by the process of GONGOs empowerment, also mentioned above. In elections of 2003 already there were NGOs, seeming to observe the run-up and to give their positive basements, dramatically different from those given by international observers. In 2007-2008 such “NGOs” will probably become more numerous and their activities will rely on better resource base. Actually these resources to a significant extent are formed by international organizations, the mission of which is to strengthen democracy and its institutes, including elections…

Hopefully, these negative trends in applying democracy promoting instruments will be overcome, and a particular role here is to be played by the effective cooperation among real democracy promoters from abroad and local ones.