When Ideology Meets Reality

By Edmond Y. Azadian

Armenian political thought has always been in flux, and remains so even after independence and perhaps even because of it.

The Armenian political parities, which were created in the late 19th century, were fashioned after the European and Russian ideological movements, sometimes incongruent with the situation on the ground. Such a contrast has given birth to a masterpiece in Armenian satirical literature, Yervant Odian’s Comrade Panchooni, a novel based on the clash of lofty socialistic ideals with the reality of a primitive life, resulting in hilarious situations.

Because the majority of the Armenian masses lived under the tyrannical yoke of the Ottoman sultans, emancipated Armenian liberal youth could only express themselves freely outside the Ottoman borders. That is why by necessity, the political parties came into being in capitals far from the Armenian population centers.

The Hunchak Party was formed in Geneva, Switzerland in 1887 and the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnag) Party was formed in Tiflis (Tbilisi), Georgia in 1890. The only party which was founded in the Armenian heartland — Van — was the Armenagan Party in 1885, the forerunner of the Armenian Democratic Liberal Party (ADL).

The political challenges were the same for all the parties, but their ideologies differed in large measure in their approach to meeting those challenges.

All the parties, along with the masses, had to fight the tyrannical rule of the sultan, either striving to liberate Armenia or to create tolerable human conditions for survival within the empire. The Armenagan Party did not subscribe to any foreign ideologies which were popular at the time in Europe and Russia. They were nationalists to the core and they believed in discreet preparation for self-defense. Their policy was vindicated twice in history during the defense of Van in 1896 and 1915.

The ARF adhered to the credo of international socialism. To this day, the party is a member of the International Socialist Movement.

The Social Democratic Hunchak Party was modeled on the principles of Russian Marxist Socialist movements.

It is ironic that these parties were denied venues to serve their people along the lines of their ideologies, but they served as role models to the Ittihadist Party, which overthrew the sultan and declared the 1908 constitution, whereby all citizens of the Ottoman Empire were granted equality.

Initially, the Ittihadists lured the Armenian political parties to their movement and actually allowed Armenians to be elected to the parliament. No leader or party was able to suspect the conniving nature of the Turkish leadership, when they laid their arms and mobilization down, leading to the tragedy of 1915.

Jeffersonian democracy was far removed from the political philosophy of the Armenian leadership. He writes that in a democracy “the national government is a dangerous necessity to be instituted for the common benefit, protection and security of the people, nation or community; it should be watched closely and circumscribed in its powers.”

The Genocide dispersed Armenians around the world and the ideologies of the political parties became irrelevant, because the first challenge was to survive and get organized. In addition, the corresponding venue to implement these ideologies was lost.

Licking their wounds, Armenians were engaged in reorganizing their communities around the world.

The time for truth came in 1991 when Armenia became independent once again. The parties entered the Armenian political scene with a variety of approaches, some hoping to serve their homeland modestly, while others with a Messianic zeal. That is where ideology met reality. Armenia, long dominated by Soviet totalitarian rule, needed a long time to be reared in the idea of self-government.

The ADL (Ramgavar) Party believed that since democracy was the antithesis of the totalitarian ideology naturally emancipated citizens of Armenia would gravitate toward the party. One of the leaders, Hampartzoum Berberian, even claimed that the ADL had hit the jackpot and the party had to move to Yerevan to cash in. And indeed, the ADL became the largest political faction in the first parliament.

During the 70 years of Soviet rule, the government in Armenia never missed an opportunity to bash the ARF, and ironically, that is how the party became imbued with mythical powers of salvaging post-Soviet Armenia in the imagination of the people.

But the traditional parties were soon demystified and they were cut to size, as the ratio has demonstrated in the current parliament in Armenia.

Armenia has yet to develop as a mature democracy. At this stage, ideologies don’t count. Only the wealth of some patron oligarchs defines the size and the power of the existing parties.

During the last elections, more than 100 parties were counted, with the ones advocating abstract ideologies marginalized. Former speaker of the parliament, Khosrov Harutunyan, is the head of the Christian Democrats who were not able to gain popularity. The National Self-Determination Party of Paruyr Hayrikyan similarly lost miserably. Despite huge rallies, the Armenian National Congress barely made a dent.

Some parties are not treated in reference to their ideology or bankrollers; the Heritage Party of Raffi Hovannisian and the ARF are considered transplants from the diaspora and they will always be discriminated against, albeit tacitly.

The recent news is that Armenia’s government is already planning to reduce the number of the political parties in the country. The Justice Ministry has tasked a group of lawyers to draft a new law for political parties. It looks like in the first phase, the number of parties may be limited to 10, which eventually will be reduced further to five or six. Under the 2002 law pertaining to political parties, any party could be legally registered if it counted 200 members and retained local structures on one third of the republic’s territory. The new law will be more restrictive: within six months of application, the party has to prove that it has 2,000 adherents and in each district, through the country, at least 100 members. Thus, very few parties will be able to meet that threshold.

After the new law goes into effect, only the following parties may survive: the Republican, Prosperous Armenia, Land of Laws, Armenian National Congress (ANC), Heritage and the ARF.

None of the parties have defined ideologies, with the ruling Republican Party being most devoid of any political philosophy. Sometimes, on official occasions, Garegin Nejdeh’s name is exhorted, whereas Nejdeh, although a national hero, advocated a race-based ideology (tseghagron), too toxic in today’s world. Even the ARF is completely divorced from its socialist ideology and practices an issue-oriented policy.

The ANC thus far has demonstrated a negative policy. It is against anything that Sargisian’s Republican Party does or believes in.

Unfortunately, two decades of independence has not been enough to eradicate the political mayhem that Soviet rule has left as a legacy. For the foreseeable future, oligarchs will continue dominating the political landscape, buying and selling political parties and voters.

Armenia will attain political maturity when the ideologies of its political parties match their performances.