We are still in disbelief; it honestly has not fully sunk in. The trepidation, the intensity, the stress, the jubilation and the overall speed of developments have surpassed everyone’s expectations. We are all, indeed, engulfed in sheer exultation. Could the reason it hasn’t fully sunk in be because it is too good to be true? Perhaps, more simply, we can frame the issue differently: because we never thought someone like Serzh Sargsyan would give up power, we have not fully understood how this happened, and as a result, while we are overjoyed, we are also collectively shocked. In this sense, if we can better grasp why and how Sargsyan’s Administration collapsed, we can develop a more cogent understanding of this watershed moment in Armenia’s history; maybe then it can finally sink in. This article, then, is a political postmortem.
To more methodically account for the collapse of the Sargsyan Administration, two conceptual frameworks will be borrowed from the lexicon of political science: prospect theory and historical institutionalism. Prospect theory will provide us a robust understanding of the structural conditions and risk variables that convinced Sargsyan to resign from power, while historical institutionalism will address the surprising strength and endurance of some of Armenia’s governmental and political institutions. Collectively, we can have a fairly comprehensive understanding of the recent transition of power in Armenia by gauging the Sargsyan Administration’s decision-making under stress, and, at the same time, assessing the endurance of the country’s political institutions that were able to absorb the shocks that came with the unexpected changes in political leadership.
In our first analytical framework of undertaking an autopsy of the Sargsyan Administration, we utilize prospect theory institutionalism. Founded on psychological treatments of decision-making under risk and during crises, this theory uses “bounded rationality” logic to explain decision-making within institutions, and in our case, the institution of the executive. Individual decision-making is contingent upon the actor’s conception of the situation, thus engaging in cost-benefit analysis. If one gains to lose, for example, this will motivate behavioral change. Thus, perceived threats may be utilized as a motive for participating in collective political behavior. In this context, institutions and institutional changes are studied by observing the structure of decision-making based on risk-loss assessments.
Decision-making mechanisms and risk assessments actually prolong the need to make changes or resolve existing problems. And when these difficulties reach crisis proportions, a dramatic breakthrough occurs.
As becomes obvious, risk-seeking is a method employed by political actors to stem political decay and restore basic institutional functioning. More specifically, prospect theory argues that political actors tend to allow problems to worsen, with deterioration eventually triggering concerted efforts to stop the deconsolidation process. This attempt to obstruct the deconsolidation process requires viable solutions. However, power and interest affect and shape institutional change, and crisis-induced shifts in risk propensity affect the very constellations of power and interest. Thus, decision-making mechanisms and risk assessments actually prolong the need to make changes or resolve existing problems. And when these difficulties reach crisis proportions, a dramatic breakthrough occurs.
In applying this framework to the collapse of the Sargsyan Administration, we can actually diagram a postmortem of how the country’s most powerful figure committed political suicide. From the outset, it is evident that the Sargsyan Administration was not only caught off guard by the spontaneous popular movement, but it also had limited information on the very nature of this social uprising. Thus, confined to bounded rationality, Sargsyan was not able to develop a healthy understanding of the political realities, leading him and his advisors to rely on perception. Namely, their decision-making, as prospect theory demonstrates, became contingent on the Administration’s conception of the situation, which was heavily detached from the developments on the streets. Needless to say, there is a broad disparity, a strong disconnect between the Administration’s conception of the popular movement, and the very reality that was defining that movement. Accordingly, when Sargsyan met the movement’s leader Nikol Pashinyan to engage in possible negotiations, the underlying position of Pashinyan was that Sargsyan’s conception of the political developments remained divorced from reality; the Administration’s perception of Armenian society was simply incorrect. Unable to grasp this disconnect, Sargsyan remained shocked by Pashinyan’s refusal to negotiate along with the latter’s stubborn demand of resignation. Intrinsically, Sargsyan appears to have become cognizant of his own disconnect with the country’s political crisis, and his behavior appears to have confirmed this: uncharacteristic of him, he threw a tantrum like a political ingenue and waltzed out of the meeting.
The configuration of powers and interests were no longer aligned: the police, for example were not willing to do for the Administration what they had been willing to do in the past. This divergence of institutional interests further solidified Sargsyan’s decision to commit political suicide and resign from power.
Unable to engage the opposition through dialogue, the Sargsyan Administration’s next approach was to undertake a risk-loss assessment for their next course of action. Namely, if at this stage they perceived some form of loss, this clearly would motivate behavioral change on their behalf. And this is precisely what happened: the perceived threat was utilized as a motive for collective institutional behavior. More simply, the arrests of Nikol Pashinyan and the various other leaders of the popular movement were ordered and subsequently implemented by the pertinent institutional forces. The risk assessments of the Sargsyan Administration concluded that the popular movement was now a direct threat to their leadership, and the risk of arresting its leaders outweighed, according to their calculations, the risk of allowing their continued stewardship of the protests. In the face of this crisis, the Sargsyan Administration engaged in two-flawed assessments that further demonstrated their limited understanding of the civic uprising: 1) they presumed that if the leadership was arrested, the movement would die out; and 2) they did not cogently grasp the dispersed, “controlled chaos” organizational approach of the popular movement.
Accordingly, the Sargsyan Administration, seeking to be risk-averse, actually miscalculated the dynamics, for the outcome was a much larger public outpouring and a further jolt of energy to the popular movement. Thus, Sargsyan’s attempt to stem political decay actually backfired: his institution of the executive was not only unable to understand the nature of the popular movement, they were also unable to engage in cogent risk-loss assessments. As such, the decision-making process consistently produced further decay and a continuous worsening of the situation. This deterioration clearly triggering concerted efforts to stop the deconsolidation process. This attempt to obstruct the deconsolidation process, however, required viable solutions; none of which the Sargsyan Administration possessed. From their analytical scope, they were left with two options: 1) declare a state of emergency and attempt to obstruct the deconsolidation process (that is, the popular movement) through the use of force; or 2) induce the collapse of the Administration through resignation. Now, as noted above, power and interest affect and shape institutional change, and crisis-induced shifts in risk propensity affect these very constellations. Within this context, the configuration of powers and interests that formed the other institutions of the country, themselves, also undertook their own decision-making mechanisms and risk assessments. The risk-induced decision-making outcome, by the pertinent institutional actors (these also include the institutions of the police, security apparatus, etc.) determined in their risk-loss assessment that the first option, of responding violently to the popular movement, was simply not tenable. In this sense, the inter and intra institutional divergence of interests curtailed the available options that Sargsyan could select. As such, with these developments having reached crisis proportions, a dramatic breakthrough occurred: Sargsyan resigned, and an institutional transition of power began to take place.
Conceptually, Sargsyan’s decision to willingly end his political career, hence the obvious nature of his political suicide, appears to have been the byproduct of two main factors. First, in the face of crisis the Administration’s risk-loss assessments proved to be erroneous and inaccurate, thus further exasperating the crisis and further limiting the decision-making options for Sargsyan. Second, the ability to implement any other alternative options remained contingent on the other institutions of government, and the extent to which they were willing to follow the orders of the executive institution. As clarified, the pertinent institutions were simply not going to abide by any decisions from the Administration that would run counter to the objectives and interests of the said institutions. Crisis-induced shifts in risk propensity had altered the interests of these institutions. More simply, the configuration of powers and interests were no longer aligned: the police, for example, in the face of this crisis, were not willing to do for the Administration what they had been willing to do in the past. This divergence of institutional interests further solidified Sargsyan’s decision to commit political suicide and resign from power.
The Role of Armenia’s Relevant Institutions During the Crisis
The strength of Armenia’s institutions, which, ironically, the Sargsyan Administration played a big role in developing, actually served as an important bulwark against the Administration’s potential assessments of clamping down on the popular movement. Within this context, the institutional strength of the country’s bureaucracies, and the relative level of professionalism of its high-ranking technocrats, curtailed the number of options that the Sargsyan Administration had in the face of crisis. More specifically, inter-institutional competition over interests and objectives allowed for some form of limitations to be shackled around the institution of the executive. To better understand this development, we turn to an analytical application of historical institutionalism.
Historical institutionalism contends that institutions are developed and shaped through time, in which the design and foundation of the institution at its inception tends to be followed throughout the given institution’s development. Based on this pattern of development, institutions develop their own interests and goals. They become political and social forces in of themselves. Because of this historical and developmental logic, historical institutionalism uses the concept of path dependency: outcomes remain similar, consistent, and predictable based on the pattern of action and development. This portion of the theory presumes, of course, that all pertinent institutions in the country have actually institutionalized. In the case of Armenia, this obviously is not the case; however, various important institutions in the country have formally institutionalized, and as such, they have become social forces in of themselves, as opposed to simply being the instruments of individuals or the personalistic tools of certain elite actors. Let us consider three important institutions: the Army, the Police, and the Justice Ministry.
When the popular uprising spread rather abruptly, there were wide-ranging questions of whether Armenia’s military would intervene. Yet, if addressed through the lens of historical institutionalism, such questions would be untenable. And not because some generals would agree or that some generals would not: these forms of personalistic analysis are inapplicable.
The Army, for example, remains the most institutionalized institution in the country’s political system. While instances of graft, corruption, or other such matters are prevalent, the Army, however, remains in the service of the country and does not bend to the whims of any single political actor or actors. Accordingly, when the popular uprising spread rather abruptly, there were wide-ranging questions of whether Armenia’s military would intervene. Yet, if addressed through the lens of historical institutionalism, such questions would be untenable. And not because some generals would agree or that some generals would not: these forms of personalistic analysis are inapplicable. Rather, Armenia’s Army, as an institution, has its own interests and objectives, and as such, intervening in domestic, political developments would fundamentally be counter to its institutional interests. To this end, because Armenia’s military is heavily institutionalized, no single leader can order the military to intervene in domestic affairs: such an assumption remains incommensurate with institutional realities.
The Police (this will also include Interior Ministry troops), on the other hand, as an institution, are not as institutionalized as the Army, but they have become more institutionalized in the last ten years under the Sargsyan Administration. In this context, the Police are partially institutionalized, where which they do have elements of their own institutional interests and goals, while at the same time, not being formally institutionalized to the extent where they are immune from being extra-legally influenced by the Administration. This analytical scope is important because it addresses the question that many people have wondered but did not want to ask because they prayed it would not come down to such: why didn’t the Police violently disperse and terminate the popular movement, considering the fact that they easily had the resources to do so? And, more specifically, if Sargsyan had given the order, would the Police have undertaken such action? The relative institutionalization of the Police in the last ten years answers the question itself: whereas ten years ago in the events of March 1, 2008, the Police behaved quite brutally in following the orders of then-President Robert Kocharyan, the relatively more institutionalized Police under Sargsyan’s Administration were not going to follow such orders. Meaning, institutionally, the Police engaged in corruption, some forms of violence, and had a general servitude to the Administration because this was commensurate and consistent with its institutional interests. However, because crisis-induced shifts in risk propensity effect the decision-making of institutions, undertaking orders where there is a high probability of loss of life, of which the consequences remain quite unpredictable and dangerous, remained against the institutional interests of the Police. As an institution, the Police are cognizant not to surpass a certain red line in the type of behavior that they are willing to engage in. To this end, Sargsyan received much pushback by the institution of the Police for even suggesting the possible use of brute force against the people. That which was possible ten years ago was no longer possible: the relative institutionalization of the Police thus curtailed the options that the Sargsyan Administration had.
Armenia has a very troublesome legacy of institutional development and consolidation, which has allowed, to a problematic degree, the privatization of the country’s institutions by the political and economic elite. Considering how this became a paradox for the Sargsyan Administration is quite fascinating: that which they thought would better serve them in times of crisis actually ended up being that which weakened them during the crisis. This unintended, self-inflicted wound remains at the heart of the paradox.
The Justice Ministry, which comprises Armenia’s judicial system, remains the least institutionalized state organ, and accordingly, it has been the most active institution in both serving the interests of the Sargsyan Administration as well as being in the forefront of political persecution in the country. From a simple correlative observation, we see a very obvious and directional relationship: the more institutionalized the institution, the less the Sargsyan Administration was able to rely on, and the less institutionalized the institution, the more the Sargsyan Administration was able to rely on. The judicial system has undergone perhaps the least degree of reform or development in the last ten years, functioning under a patronal network that accommodates the demands of the executive through two institutional actors: judges and prosecutors. In this context, this institution lacks a coherent sense of institutional norms, interests or objectives; namely, it doesn’t function as an institution, but rather, as an arm and an extension of the executive branch. From the lens of historical institutionalism, since this institution lacks agency, it also lacks substantive relevance in functioning as an actual institution; meaning, it functions upon personal interests, as opposed to institutional interests. To this end, it is no wonder that the Justice Ministry was more active in its obligations of obstructing deconsolidation than any other state institution: it willingly fined, imprisoned, and persecuted at the behest of the Administration.
The underlying contention here becomes straightforward: the greatest obstacle against reverting to authoritarianism or the aspirations of strongman rule remain not simply formal or informal institutions, but rather, institutions that become legitimate legal-political forces in of themselves; that is, the institutionalization of the country’s institutions. The mere existence of institutions does not suffice; this is why scholars speak of strong or weak institutions, which are merely magnitudes of institutionalization. In this sense, the most important objectives of the Pashinyan government, and one that they have noted they are working towards, is to de-personalize existing institutions and strengthen them through institutionalization. Once institutions are strengthened and thus achieve institutionalization, they will serve as important barriers against abuse of authority or any extra-legal endeavors sought by the executive branch.
This, of course, does not suggest that institutions do not change; they change through a concept called critical juncture. Critical juncture holds that upon the formation and consolidation of institutional arrangements, barring external shocks, persistence is expected, making drastic change rare when there’s outside irruption, while institutional self-perpetuation (self-correction and continuity) is the norm. Thus, institutions develop, adapt, interact, and evolve on their own terms and in conjunction with institutionalized interests, as opposed to the personalistic and crony network of institutional manipulation that was the norm under the Sargsyan Administration. Critical juncture, then, explains for us why Armenia’s important institutions did not collapse or fully acquiesce to the demands of the Sargsyan Administration: institutions were able to absorb the shocks of political change, as they adapted in conjunction with their institutionalized interests.
That this was not anticipated by the Sargsyan Administration is a foregone conclusion: they still functioned under the logic that the institutions which they were strengthening would serve the Administration’s interests, as opposed to those of the people or the institution itself. Such thinking, however, was not unique to the Sargsyan Administration; rather, this mode of thinking was inherited from the Kocharyan Administration, which, to a large extent, modeled its patronage network of weak institutions upon the Ter-Petrosyan Administration. Collectively, then, Armenia has a very troublesome legacy of institutional development and consolidation, which has allowed, to a problematic degree, the privatization of the country’s institutions by the political and economic elite. Considering how this became a paradox for the Sargsyan Administration is quite fascinating: that which they thought would better serve them in times of crisis actually ended up being that which weakened them during the crisis. This unintended, self-inflicted wound remains at the heart of the paradox.
This paradox, which provided the context for Sargsyan’s political suicide, is indicative of the clash between patrimonial politics and institutionalization: it’s either one or the other, one cannot have both. That Sargsyan was too blind to observe this only contributed to his political downfall. To that end, it’s not that Sargsyan wanted to engage in political suicide, rather, it is that he no longer had any other options. In the end, however, he understood that his political death would actually become a form of institutional growth. In this sense, Sargsyan has done more for Armenia as a political corpse than he did in ten years as president.