There is an old adage that argues political laws must be shaped by cultural laws in order for the political system to be compatible with the society that it serves. Unfortunately for the Armenian people, its cultural laws have always been detached from the laws and political systems under which they have lived. The will of the Armenian citizen, and the cultural values that it holds, have historically been usurped by the political system that the citizen has been subjected to. The incoherence of the Soviet political culture was followed by a new era of more incoherence, where Armenia’s political culture simply lacked substance or identity. But the period prior to the Velvet Revolution slowly started changing this. The subsequent developments after the Velvet Revolution brought about cultural syndromes that suggested a positive democratizing trajectory, only to be stalled by war and political crises. This article traces political cultural trends that have been formulating in Armenia through three short, yet fastly-developing, stages: prior to the Velvet Revolution, subsequent to the Velvet Revolution, and after the 2020 Artsakh War.
The patterns of development in political culture within non-democratic societies is contingent on a broad range of factors, the most crucial of which remains the level and magnitude of authoritarianism. In the post-soviet space, political systems have fluctuated from full authoritarianism (Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Belarus, etc.) to rigid hybrid regimes (Russia) to loose hybrid regimes (Ukraine, Georgia and Armenia). The formation of enduring cultural syndromes that promote conduciveness to a democratizing political culture are found in loose hybrid regimes. This remains impossible in authoritarian regimes, and exceedingly difficult in rigid hybrid regimes. Thus, it is within loose hybrid regimes that nascent civic culture, democratic values and citizen activism reinforce the growth of civic society and demands for systemic change. The outcome, as observed in Ukraine, Georgia and Armenia, are democratic breakthroughs, where popular movements, having been birthed in a growing yet latent democratic culture, succeed in dismantling the loose hybrid regime. Armenia’s political culture, prior to the Velvet Revolution, remains consistent with such developments, in which there were developing cultural syndromes that promoted democratic values, but these were overwhelmed by a socio-political system that had culturally normalized corruption, nepotism and conformity to abuse of power. Thus, whereas Armenia’s post-Velvet political culture may be defined as a burgeoning democratic culture, the pre-Velvet political culture may be defined as a latent democratic culture. To this end, the Velvet Revolution did not happen in a vacuum: a latent democratic culture, incrementally developed over a decade, slowly produced enduring cultural syndromes that offered the ideational structure for a democratic breakthrough.
Because political culture consists of a system of beliefs, symbolic expressions and shared values that contextually define political action, shared clusters of attitudes on political norms and values remain fundamental. Perhaps the most important cultural syndrome for a burgeoning democratic political culture is the growth of institutional trust among citizens. For Armenia, institutional trust was almost nonexistent in its pre-Velvet political culture, but shared clusters of democratic attitudes on political norms and values were being crystalized. However, during the post-Velvet stage, extensive data demonstrated an exponential increase in institutional trust, while shared clusters of democratic attitudes and norms became embedded in Armenia’s burgeoning democratic culture.
In the democratization literature, which has been consistent with developments in Armenia, the most important indicator that distinguishes democratized societies from democratizing or non-democratic societies is the magnitude of institutional trust. The higher the interpersonal trust citizens have in their political institutions, the more democratic the given society remains. The lower the interpersonal trust that citizens have in their political institutions, the less democratic those given societies remain. But why and how are interpersonal and institutional trust such important indicators of democratic progress and institutionalization? The broad scholarly literature holds that democratic sustainability is not possible without high levels of institutional trust among citizens. Thus, high levels of institutional trust is correlated with high levels of trust in the political system itself. There is a verifiable relationship between growth of civic culture, the fostering of democratic performance, the reproduction of democratic outcomes, and trust in democratic institutions. Just as importantly, enhanced interpersonal and institutional trust create platforms within society that are conducive to pluralism and consensus-based problem solving. Collectively, institutional trust, as a crucial component of a democratizing political culture, gives legitimacy to the political system and promotes political participation. As such, it is qualified as being part of an enduring cultural syndrome that becomes embedded in a society’s political culture, thus nurturing the viability of democratic politics.
Pre-Velvet and Post-Velvet Indicators of Political Culture
The Autumn 2019 IRI Poll and the Winter 2020 Caucasus Barometer survey provide extensive data on Armenia’s burgeoning democratic political culture during the post-Velvet stage, while the Autumn 2017 Caucasus Barometer survey provides data on Armenia’s pre-Velvet political culture. The empirical findings demonstrate robust support for the democratization of Armenia’s political culture during the post-Velvet stage. Our initial scope of analysis begins with public expectations after the Velvet Revolution, where survey findings show that 84% of society expressed positive expectations, with only 3% holding a negative view. This immense vote of confidence in the democratization process was supplemented by a subsequent question asking if the said expectations were met, with a resounding 74% noting confirmation. This substantial endorsement of a democratizing culture in the post-Velvet stage was aligned with society’s positive outlook for the future of the country: 80% of Armenian society held that the situation in the country would improve, while only 15% remained pessimistic. When compared to the same results from 2017, only 47% were optimistic, while 46% remained pessimistic about the country’s outlook under the Sargsyan Government. Further, in the pre-Velvet survey results from 2017, only 9% of society thought domestic politics was going in the right direction, while by 2020 society’s outlook was fundamentally positive. Society’s outlook had exponentially changed from 9% in the pre-Velvet stage to 68% in the post-Velvet period. Strongly supporting the framework of a burgeoning democratic political culture was the general perception of democracy in the post-Velvet stage: 63% of society considered democracy “preferable to any other government.”
Further findings demonstrate that the post-Velvet burgeoning democratic culture has not simply been temporary or euphoric, but is part of an enduring cultural syndrome. 85% of post-Velvet society affirmed that Armenia is a democratic country, with this affirmation tempered by a set of pragmatic observations: 37% conceded that, while Armenia is a democracy, it does have “major problems,” 30% held it is a democracy with “minor” problems, and only 18% believed that Armenia is a “full democracy.” Post-Velvet society’s healthy and diverse perceptions of its democracy, and its shared cluster of attitudes, solidified the burgeoning democratic culture thesis. In contrast, citizen perceptions of the political system in the pre-Velvet stage remained highly negative. Asked, in the 2017 survey, whether one considers one’s self “treated fairly by the government,” only 18% confirmed fair treatment, while 74% of society confirmed unfair treatment under the Sargsyan Government.
Polling during the post-Velvet period also displayed shared clusters of democratic attitudes and social inclusiveness. For example, 92% displayed approval of including both youth and disabled people in political decision-making. Support for the inclusion of women in political decision-making was also high, standing at 91%, while opposition to violence against women and support for rigid punishment of offenders stood at 96%. On the issue of combating discrimination against women, 90% agreed, while 85% agreed the state should “eradicate prejudices and all other practices which are based on the idea of the inferiority of women to men.” Collectively, cultural syndromes of the post-Velvet period demonstrated robust support for social inclusiveness, as well as alleviating cultural and institutional sexism.
Pre-Velvet and Post-Velvet Indicators of Institutional Trust
When observing the empirical findings on institutional trust, the post-Velvet period demonstrated an exponential increase, while the pre-Velvet stage suffered from severe citizen distrust. The post-Velvet Government, for example, enjoyed a 71% level of trust, while the pre-Velvet Government suffered from serious distrust: President Sargsyan was distrusted by 65% (trust at 17%) of society, while his Government was distrusted by 59% (trust at 20%). For a society to go from trust levels in the low 20s to one exceeding 70% is a strong measure of citizen confidence in the political process. Levels of trust for the legislature also showed immense improvement, going from 12% in 2017 to 39% in 2020. But more telling is the decline in the levels of distrust: the pre-Velvet Parliament was distrusted by 66% of society, while the post-Velvet Parliament’s level of distrust stood at 30%. This qualitative improvement is highly indicative of citizen confidence in the democratization of its institutions. Perhaps the most profound measure of enhanced citizen trust in Armenia’s state institutions is the sizable change of trust toward the police. Public distrust of the police in 2017 stood at 46%, while 29% said they trusted the police. The post-Velvet results, however, profoundly transformed this trend, displaying a large positive shift: citizen trust stood at 51%, while distrust averaged 22%, a complete reversal in the faith of Armenian citizens in this institution. In this context, the most distrusted institutions in recent history began enjoying majority public trust during the post-Velvet period. This alteration in society’s collective value system remains commensurate with the burgeoning of democratic culture and the fostering of institutional norms.
Trends in Political Culture From the Post-Velvet to Post-War Stage
While enduring cultural syndromes have shown resilience after the 2020 Artsakh War and the subsequent political crisis, there have, however, been fluctuations. These fluctuations, nonetheless, do not point to observable negative trends, but rather a slowing down of the positive trajectory. Meaning, in the post-war period, Armenia’s burgeoning democratic culture has observed a slowing down of the burgeoning process. A visible decline in institutional trust, democratic performance and shared attitudes is noted, yet these declining indicators still remain quite higher in magnitude when compared to the pre-Velvet stage. It is within this context that Armenia’s political culture remains in its nascent, yet enduring democratic state.
In gauging institutional trust, four IRI polls, two that inform the post-Velvet stage (released May and December 2019) and two that inform the post-War period (released February and May 2021), provide important data in tracing political cultural developments from the post-Velvet stage to the post-War period. In the post-Velvet stage, for the institution of the police, trust levels suggest fluctuation, yet the endurance of demcoratic cultural syndromes remain: in the post-Velvet stage, trust jumped to 51%, only to jump higher to 63% in February during the post-war period, and remain at 62% by May. Analytically, even after social shocks and crises, trust in the police still remains exceedingly higher in the post-war period than it was in the pre-Velvet period, where it stood at 29%.
Rates of institutional trust in the executive and legislative branches also demonstrate support for the endurance of democratic cultural syndromes, specifically when comparing pre-Velvet and post-war trends. Approval of the Government in the post-Velvet stage held at 76%, only to drop to 54% in the post-war stage, and then see a further decline to 38% by May. Similar to trends in other institutions, trust in Government during the post-war period still remained higher than the 20% trust that citizens had toward the pre-Velvet Government. In this context, interpersonal and institutional trust levels in post-war Armenia remain higher than they were in the pre-Velvet stage, even after accounting for the 2020 Artsakh War and the continuous political crisis. This is also reflected in public trust toward the National Assembly. During the post-Velvet stage, public trust in the Armenian Parliament reached 63% in December. However, in the post-war period, positive public perceptions of the National Assembly dropped to 33% in February, and to a further 24% by May. Contextually, the post-war trust numbers remain exponentially higher than the trust numbers in the pre-Velvet stage, where Serzh Sargsyan’s RPA-led Parliament only had 12% institutional trust.
Finally, perhaps the least reformed institution, the court system, which has been the subject of much public disapproval through all three stages considered in this article, is the one institution that continues to struggle in Armenia’s nascent democratic culture. In the post-Velvet stage, the court system enjoyed 36% trust, yet 57% distrust. During the post-War period, satisfaction with the courts declined to 20%. These exceedingly low trust levels towards the institution of the courts during the post-War period still remained higher that the trust levels during the non-democratic period, where it only stood at 16%.
Collectively, three patterns emerge based on the empirical findings of the three stages under analytical consideration. First, the post-Velvet stage enjoyed the highest levels of interpersonal and institutional trust, thus embedding vital democratic values and norms within Armenia’s political culture. Second, the post-war period observed important fluctuations and cases of decrease in institutional trust in relation to the post-Velvet period. And third, the pre-Velvet stage, in relation to both the post-Velvet and the post-war periods, suffered from the highest levels of institutional distrust. These findings demonstrate that Armenia’s burgeoning democratic political culture, while displaying a relative slowdown in the post-war period, nonetheless exhibits a robust endurance syndrome. Even when controlling for war, social shock and political crisis, levels of institutional trust still remain persistently and qualitatively higher in the post-war period than during the pre-Velvet period.
Political culture is an organic phenomenon, a collective articulation of a value system that encapsulates the shared beliefs, norms and transcendental ethics of a society. It is also a generational phenomenon, as those who inherit the burdens of the Armenian realm develop and nurture the constructs of their political culture. The generation that brought about the Velvet Revolution has sought to engender a political society that fosters democratic performance, where participatory norms are widespread, and citizens perceive themselves as active subjects, not passive objects. Armenia’s burgeoning democratic culture is a collective act of cultural defiance against decades of anti-democratic ethos that suffocated an entire people. But it is also a political culture that embraces civic virtue, while demanding effective governance. It is for this reason that this political culture has shown admirable endurance, from the euphoria of the Velvet Revolution to the melancholy of the 2020 Artsakh War. This is the unbearable lightness of democratizing Armenia.
Editor's Note: This article was amended on June 3, 2021, to reflect changes that were made in the IRI poll after the original publication of the article.
*The title is a wordplay of Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being, a novel about the Prague Spring.
EVN Report’s May issue, entitled “Political Culture,” looks back on the evolution of democratic expression in Armenia, from the first parliamentary election in 1919 to political cartoons to the modern day.