Illustration by Roubina Margossian
The term “political” has been the source of issues since the beginning of Armenian History as it exists as the default definition for four distinct concepts. First of all, we already know that the term “the political” (Le politique) in its masculine form differs from its feminine variation. In its masculin form, the term political as a concept alludes to the space, the institutions, the polis, the exercise of power, its organization in a regulated and normative society, and to the State. We speak of politics that must be decoupled from the religious, the social, the cultural, and so on, with each field having its own resources, norms, and dynamics as well as its own actors in the hypothesis of the Rule of Law. In its form, politics (La politique) conveys action (politics as action, as activity), strategy and tactics. If these two concepts are totally antithetical to each other in an industrialized society, it’s quite the opposite in the Armenian experience, since the language of Mashtots only has room for one word “Kaghakakanutyun” for both meanings of the term. This confusion not only reflects a deficiency in political vocabulary, but also exposes an absence of a tradition of sovereignty (Inknishkhanutyun). This semantic scarcity is put on display in the term “Ishkhanutyun” which, in Armenian, means both “power” and “authority”. Yet, in the sociology of domination, the examples of “power without authority” or “authority without power” are plentiful.
Secondly, this political pathology only worsens under international constraint. With its geographical awareness harkens back to the Armenian Highland, now mostly situated within modern Turkey, Armenia serves as a great example of “sovereignty by eclipse”; the model upon which it bases its modern independence being the 1st Century BC Empire of Tigran the Great. The main Armenian players of the day (princes and chroniclers) never actually broke with the imperial paradigm and, from a certain point of view, reflections of identity have never stopped revolving around that historical figure, both in the conscious and subconscious, with Tigran’s Empire being the conceptual avatar for a revived Armenian State in the form of Wilsonian Armenia 2,000 years later in 1920. That this Empire of Antiquity remains on the horizon of attainability for Armenians encapsulates how Armenians themselves are most aware of the hardships that were endured to preserve this memory alive in their spirit while Armenia’s political history developed as a succession of dominations, and partitioning of territory between foreign powers, under which survival remained the objective. Rightly, across the imposition of foreign dynasties at Armenia’s helm, or Armenian dynasties under foreign stewardship, this interference into the formulation of Armenian sovereignty also had the effect of turning politics into a foreign import which, over the centuries, became routine in mentality and practice, as it was only from without that politics found legitimate inception and a normative place within Armenian societal organization; to the point where the majority of Armenians don’t even see this meddling as the existence of a foreign body grafted onto their social and political unity.
Thirdly, aside from semantic confusion and international constraint, there is the unreached dimension of the political construction due to the shock which this process felt in contact with the real. Politics (m.), consisting of taking destiny in one’s own hands and creating the dimensions of a more-or-less demarcated space, institutionalized and strategic, constitutes, in its final phase, a mark on the harshness of the real. Conversely, any incomplete process, suspended or embryonic, of the political demonstrates that the real has ascended. And in the Armenian experience of the political, this ascendance of the real is quasi-permanent to the point where the Fathers of the Armenian Church have taken that into account in its identitarian project. Indeed, having chosen, during theological debates of the first millenium on the question of Jesus Christ’s divine or human nature, the Creeds of Ephesus (431) and Dvin (555)—establishing that Jesus is of divine, and thus spiritual nature, meaning that his human nature is only established through the verb itself—these early Monophysite Church fathers signed, at the start of the Middle Ages, their refusal to take on the real as is. They prefered, instead, to circumvent its harshness by taking refuge in the Ephesus-Dvin credos; this impalpable elsewhere, this kingdom of illusions, this limitless imaginary, this memorial open to all excess, the sacred, the mythos, fictions and exuberance. The “real”, translated through time and space the general inability to assume the presence of that which exists outside of the identitarian group, as if a pause were to establish itself between the human collective and the outside world. More so, from the moment that Armenians find themselves confronted by the Politic, and reflect upon the hypothesis of sovereignty, this aversion to reality is expressed through the asymmetry of between an hypertrophied-but-fragilized identity and an unavoidable-yet-atrophied otherness. In other words, when dealing with transactions with the outside, the Other is unavoidable, but the “us” is invisible while in a search for sovereignty, the “us” is exposed in all its fragility, and the Other in fear. Inversely, the Other is over-dimensioned as the “us” scares itself.
Finally, the last segment of the political’s hidden vice: the Fathers of the Armenian Church succeeded, throughout the 4th century, in imposing Religion as the basis for identity to the point of squashing all other aspects, other categories, such as the cultural (chroniclers, after all, are clerics themselves), the social (the Church assumes a charitable mission), the economical (the Church raises its own taxes) but especially the political (Divine right regiments the system of dynastic succession and Armenian society). This Armenian form of monism, which took off in the 5th century, is founded on the early construction of the Nation around a religion, a language, an ethnicity, and an often-partially-conquered, but never subservient-even-if-rarely-sovereign land. The domination of the religious irrigates the body of Armenian identity, prevents any self-determination of categories and becomes an engine of History, to the point where the Church is often blended into the Nation, and vice-versa.
Hence the beautiful expression “Nation-Church” coined by Professor Jean-Pierre Mahé who, in a game of deforming mirror, harkens back to the Nation-State, if not to annihilate the political, to at least establish dominance over it. This centrality of Religion can be read in the experience of the political in two ways: the first is a system where Great Families or “dynasticism” are accountable to the religious and any attempt at emancipation is partial or doomed to failure. The other is the Armenian monism which recognizes only the princes and Catholicos as great figures in History. In neither case does “the People” play any role in historiography. Yet so long as it symbolizes Armenian identity, the religious confiscates the political while simultaneously redistributing it between the Great Families. It does this so well in fact that each princely house, such as the Arshakunis, Bagratids, Mamikonians hold a parcel of power and politics, whether one is in a situation of vassalization or independence. One other characteristic of this swallowing of the political by the religious is that the absence of sovereignty puts Armenian decision-makers in a very restrictive approach to the political, given that the Armenian State was never truly institutionalized along the long term. One could talk about a blueprint for politics, or even proto-politics founded on a partial sovereignty and rudimentary institutions. Yet, since Armenians do not distinguish Politics from the Political, none can see in the empty form of the social and institutional link the proto-political expression and each is content to assimilate them into political practice. In this case, the feminine (political-as-action) wins over the masculine (political-as-concept), but everyone ends up on the wrong track while the political finds itself entirely disjointed and outsized. Conclusion: Armenians have a knack for politics but not The Political.
This blueprint of historical political sociology doesn’t end with this manufacturing defect. Adding to this is the crumbling process of the political, starting in the 10th and 11th centuries, as the centers of the Armenian diaspora reach into the world and constitute relay points of a turbulent history but also as dynasticism tries to become autonomous from the religious. Primarily, the expansion of Armenian centers abroad gave way to the introduction of a new practice: the extraterritoriality of the political. This phenomenon would develop throughout the Middle Ages, and especially in the modern day. Alternatively, Armenian monism was founded between the 5th and 15th centuries around the Church, itself having secured its importance on family and dynastic life. The Family, as the basis for the Armenian Nation, becomes the receptacle for the political. Armenians had passed the status of tribe, but not yet gained that of pre-modern nation, let alone the status of “People”. Thus, deprived of sovereignty in the long term, they remained stuck in a familial conception of the political, to this day. Regarding dynasticism, it never managed to reach the level of Western European feudalism for the simple reason that what could pass as as an Armenian political system remained loyal to its legal model (orinabar) at the expense of its authoritarian model (ishkhanabar), closer in concept to western feudalism. In the orinabar model, power is shared equally between the monarch and the nobles, since each house enjoys a parcel of power equal to that of the monarch, now considered primus inter pares (first among equals). Consensus was imposed, the political was anesthetized to the point where dynasticism, or the nakharar system, had institutionalized treason as a means for a great house to reject the authority of the monarch. Unlike in Western Europe, no such feudal practices existed between the monarch and the nobles. In fact, this Orinabar model actually forms the foundational basis for Armenian parliamentarism. Connivances between political forces codified political practices which superseded the Head of State.
While in the Ishkhanabar model, power was incarnate in the person of the monarch and above petty rivalries among the nobility. Yet, despite being above the system, the monarch was still challenged by three forms of rivalry. The first would pit the monarch against foreign powers (in other words, the political versus foreign constraint). These foreign powers would not necessarily be open to the idea of a strong Armenia consolidating at their gates. The second would pit the monarch against the Catholicos (or the political versus the religious), in a competition over which office enjoyed supreme authority and held the last word. The third rivalry pitted the monarch against the Nobility (or the Center versus the periphery). This rivalry had, for instance, always prevented the royal power from enjoying control over political redistribution worthy of its name, the Nobles having always refused to support the Crown in any such centralizing endeavors given the risk of centralizing power and the political. For these multiple reasons, specifically the latter, Armenians never developed the tradition of the Polity, of the Agora, and thus, debate in the Greek sense. The absence of the Polis also suggests lacking methods of social linkage regulation, rupturing the essence of a modern political model’s complexity.
This Nakharar system did not survive the Ottoman conquest, which imposed its own imperial system in Armenia, and recognized only the Armenian’s religious authority, the Patriarchate of Constantinople, as a representative of Armenia. The Holy See of Etchmiadzin was under the Persian Empire at the time, and would remain so until the Russian victory of 1828.
This social pathology around the political continued into the Modern Age with the development of extraterritoriality in the Indies and in Western Europe, spurred by initiatives from merchants and the Mekhitarist Order, in order to reestablish the basis of the political without actually affecting the center of Historic Armenia, itself weighed down by Armenian monism. It wouldn’t be until the intersection of two complementary processes in the 18th century to register the modernization of Armenian political thought. On the one hand, the Ottoman Empire’s ongoing dismemberment through the Eastern Question aims to create sovereign entities on top of Ottoman ruins. This takes shape as liberalization across oriental empires, where the ideas of “people”, “nation” and “reason” are introduced, upsetting the simmering balance between the imperial and the periphery. On the other hand, the rise of social movements, even within empires run by enlightened despots, serves to reinvent the political at the heart of nationalities cracked by the effects of the Revolutions of 1789 and 1848, inspiring a new conception of History where the individual becomes a proper actor in their own destiny. The intersection between international constraint and social convulsions from within empires gave birth to the Armenian Question in 1878 at the height of the San Stefano and Berlin treaties. This Armenian Question, or “Armenian Problem”, would transform itself, in its popular and moral dimension, the “Armenian Cause” (Hay Tad in Armenian), or even “Haytadism”.
This neologism would mark a turning point in the evolution of the political, since it dusted off the concept of a political system among Armenians, and introduced the Westphalian principles of State Sovereignty along with the advent of a secular identity. As a new concept itself, Haytadism would be built around a proto-system and presented itself in part as the inheritor of dynasticism, both through the fusion of rulers and countries, but also at the central role of the Family in this new collective emancipation. Regarding Westphalian principles, Haytadism rejected the imperial principle of deterritorialization of the Armenians, advocating instead, for matching Armenian identity to a distinct territorial dimension. From then on, “territory” and not “land” would be at the center of discourse. Finally, regarding the secularization of identity, Haytadism would introduce the revolution of “I” and the fundamental liberties where the individual and the people become, in theory, new historical actors. But would they achieve this in practice? In other words, who drives the political? The nation, thus the Church, and the “elites”? Or the people without the clerics and the bourgeoisie? So long as the Armenians lacked an answer to this question, Haytadism would remain frozen between modernity and tradition. Its modernity is engaged but not irreversible since, while promoting the shift from the spiritual to the temporal (secularization) Haytadism does not slice between Nation and People, and thus does not break with religion. In other words, Haytadism synthesizes tradition and modernity with all its major proponents—with the possible exception of the marxist-leaning elements of the Social-Democratic Hnchakian Party’s anticlericalism—respecting this equilibrium. And even there, this distancing among those Hnchaks was more theoretical than anything, uneasily translating into facts, or when it did take shape, would simply provoke a split in the party.
Haytadism, now a new paradigm of the political, pushes Armenians toward universalism, reason and revolution, but all the while setting the stage for a new national and territorial identity. The absence of springs of sovereignty and its attachment to religious tradition maintained Armenian monism while jostling it in its foundations. These convulsions would deprive the political of a certain coat of modernity, causing the political to lose its rational focus and topple—much like the Ephesus-Dvin credos, updated with the Van-Geneva-Tbilisi credo, the three founding-cities of the Armenian revolutionary movement—into the extrapolitical, excess, the sacred, the maximalist and the messianism (itself the synthesis of the political and religious), incarnated into ideology which, at that time, was articulated as a dilemma between nationalism and socialism. At the turn of the 20th century, ideology attempted to surpass the religious and absorb the political: the Nation, preceding the State, ideology reformed the political all the while giving the impression of reassembling the political and strategy. During the First World War, and the following years of the international system’s reconstruction, the Armenians bore witness to the crushing of the political. The Genocide of 1915, the extinction of the Sovereign State in 1920 and the suppression of the Armenian Question from the diplomatic agenda in 1923 anhiliated in quick succession the political.
In the diaspora, Haytadism, or what’s left of the political, went into exile, became communitarian, extraterritorialized, and later drowned in the systems of adopted-States. The national ideology would be overtaken and weakened due to disunity. In Soviet Armenia, Haytadism would be violently assaulted by Stalinism and what was left of the political would be deprived of any territorialization of identity and attributes of sovereignty. Totalitarian communist ideology would reign and deteriorate, over time, the human condition. Yet in the every-day, actors in exile, like those in the Homeland continued to breathe life into the political, while in reality, it had all but disappeared, or at least, totally emptied of its substance. By the 1960s, international constraints reoriented the trajectory of the political among Armenians. The Third-Worldization of Haytadism sprung an identitarian rejuvenation, both superficial but also exclusive, ideological and messianic, which restructured and standardized identities around language and a common understanding of “Armenianness” without causing any break between the East and West. So much so that, instead of taking into account the reality and the diaspora’s integration in their new host States (citizenship was gaining ground), what appears to be “political” came out of reason and was memorialized in excess, in identitarianism and ideological maximalism.
It wouldn’t be until the collapse of the USSR and the reemergence of independent states in the East at the end of the Cold War (1988-1991) that a revival of the political would be witnessed not only in Armenia but across post-Soviet states. In Armenia, this revival of the political would take the form of a new push for Haytadism, victorious in its war against Azerbaijan but also in the cleavage between building a regime and building a state. Out of habit and security reflex, Armenian decision-makers always favored safeguarding the regime to the detriment of the affirmation of the State. But in making this choice, they weakened the political, now reduced to its functional dimension, and turned Armenia into a memorial state with all the more persuasion that the diasporan message introduced into post-Soviet Armenian society was essentially excessive and memorialized, so much so that the political would fail to recover—despite a resurgence during the Velvet Revolution in 2018 which marks the return of the state—and ended up giving in to the harshness of the real embodied by the 2020 Artsakh War. Since Armenia’s military defeat, the crisis of the political has been generalized. The international constraint incarnated by the Russo-Turkish rapprochement has anhilitated Haytadism. Armenia risks losing its strategic value and the diaspora now contemplates its impotence in changing the course of Armenian History. Are we back to square one?
In summary, the relationship between Armenians and the political embodies a dialectic of the village and of the Polity, or more precisely, the unavoidable but asphyxiating spirit of the village pitted against the indispensable yet evanescent Polity. Village versus Polity, or even the rural versus the urban, the periphery versus the center, the orinabar versus ishkhanabar, liberty of the Yerkir against the repression of urbanism. Stepanakert versus Yerevan. The Nobles versus the King. Territorial right versus the rights of the people. Liberation versus Independence. Community versus. Society. Tradition versus Modernity. Religious versus Secularism. The Empire versus the State. At the time of the Republic’s rebirth, three decades ago, not parting with the spirit of the village was tantamount to renouncing the State.
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