2018 is fast becoming a turning point in the history of Armenia. After a civil disobedience campaign ousted Serzh Sargsyan from office in April 2018 – only six days after finishing his second presidential term and being appointed Prime Minister – the country held its first elections in two decades without widespread fraud or violence against the opposition.
In the wake of this upheaval, The Economist named Armenia “country of the year”. But the magazine added a suitable warning: “A stellar performance in one year is no guarantee of future success.” While there were grounds for cautious optimism, it could also be expected that a more complex period – of democratic consolidation accompanied by difficult and often unpopular reforms – lay ahead in Armenia.
A recent poll by the International Republican Institute showed declining but still relatively high public support for Nikol Pashinyan’s government: 69% of respondents view last year’s change of government positively, a significant reduction from 82% in October 2018. This declining support is understandable. The post-revolutionary euphoria could not last long and, quite predictably, Armenia has not experienced an immediate economic breakthrough. More than 60% of poll respondents want the government to undertake political and economic reforms quickly rather than gradually.
The 2018 “Velvet Revolution” was a heavy blow to the Republican Party (RPA), the former ruling bloc which is currently out of parliament after receiving 4.7% of votes at the December 2018 elections. According to the IRI poll, while the RPA would likely pass the 5% electoral threshold if elections were held now, it also enjoys the highest negative rating: 56% of poll respondents said they would never vote for it. By contrast, in 2017, the party used its control over virtually all state institutions to achieve a two-thirds parliamentary majority. Before that, in 2014, the Republicans had expressed their ambition to remain the ruling party for at least another decade, while President Sargsyan claimed that membership of the Republican Party would be “the main, if not only” career choice for people aspiring to higher office in Armenia.
This article examines the relatively new methods of manipulating public opinion used by groups connected to Armenia’s former regime and its allies. As the Republican Party continues to control significant media and other resources, the importance of disinformation, fake news and influence campaigns has grown. Even though the messages may seem primitive, they are continuously reproduced by a number of sources, including media and civil society structures claiming to be independent. This means their influence may gradually increase. Ultimately, populism fuelled by fake news could threaten Armenia’s fragile democracy which is still in the process of consolidation.
Before the snap parliamentary elections
Immediately after the Velvet Revolution, the Republican Party and its allies, unable to overcome the image of a corrupt and ineffective administration and offer a positive agenda, launched a massive propaganda campaign aiming to destroy the new government’s reputation.
This campaign intensified in July 2018, when ex-president Robert Kocharyan (in office 1998-2008) and other former officials were indicted on charges of violating the constitutional order. These charges concerned the events of March 2008 when, in the aftermath of an election, the Armenian government passed draconian laws and security forces were ordered to crack down on protesters in central Yerevan, killing several in the process.
From the beginning, the Republicans attempted to use well-known prejudices among certain groups in Armenian society against the Pashinyan government. These included allegations in the media that Armenia’s new government would “sell Karabakh,” i.e. make unilateral concessions on the Nagorno-Karabakh issue; that the 2018 revolution had been staged by the “Soros Foundation” (Open Society Foundation – Armenia), which allegedly continued to influence the new government; and that Armenia’s new government was sponsoring religious sects and the LGBT community, thereby “betraying national and family values”.
This campaign relied on speculations and unsubstantiated information, as well as attribution to sympathetic sources or just plain rumours. For example, when ex-president Kocharyan was indicted and taken into custody in late July 2018, the Hraparak daily newspaper alleged that the Open Society Foundation could be influencing decision-making on the basis of family ties between an Open Society employee and the head of Armenia’s Special Investigative Service.
This information was apparently taken from a Facebook account (“Lerneri Dzayne”, or “The Voice of the Mountains”), which was created shortly before the report and then referred to as “our sources” by the media. The same day, several media critical of Armenia’s “revolutionary” government also reported this information, but with references to Hraparak. Shortly afterwards, the Facebook page in question was deleted (a screenshot is available). Another similar case involved allegations that newspaper editor Anna Hakobyan, wife of Nikol Pashinyan, had enjoyed a luxury shopping spree in Paris, which was later republished by numerous websites.
Meanwhile, Eduard Sharmazanov, deputy parliamentary speaker, has led the Republicans’ populist campaign for the “protection of national and Christian values,” submitting one law draft after another. These included a proposal to ban “paedophilic and homosexual propaganda”, another to ban “homosexual propaganda and popularisation of narcotics among minors”. Yet another proposal suggested measures to counter “propaganda of religious sects and homosexualism.” The Republicans have also played on the highly sensitive issue of Nagorno-Karabakh, with one high-level election candidate claiming that “[Armenia’s] current government is a much more dangerous threat for Nagorno-Karabakh than Azerbaijan”.
Yet the tactics of Armenia’s former regime have gradually changed. First, the negative image of the Republican Party, its satellites and ex-presidents – shaped by a long history of fraudulent elections, corruption and bloodshed – has seriously undermined their chances of staging a comeback and has resulted in mass public resentment towards key party figures. Second, resentment towards former presidents seems to have made Armenian society less susceptible to propaganda, and it appears more difficult for Kocharyan and Sargsyan to repeat the success of 1998. Back then, these two now ex-presidents – at the time, Prime Minister and Minister of Interior and National Security respectively – successfully managed a campaign which labelled President Levon Ter-Petrossian a “defeatist” over Karabakh, forcing him to resign. Third, the Republicans appear to have acknowledged the need for new methods in politics, especially for targeting younger citizens.
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Significantly on this account, several hours before Serzh Sargsyan’s resignation in late April 2018, one of the key figures in his administration admitted that the Republican government had lost the capacity to influence public opinion: younger citizens had stopped watching TV and come to prefer the internet as a source of information.
In recent months, the intensity of propaganda using new methods and, more specifically, targeting younger audiences, has been growing in Armenia. As some groups involved in influence campaigns are being promoted strongly by a number of media associated with Armenia’s former regime, this network and the kind of messages they deliver deserves closer attention.
Somewhat new faces, not-so-new conspirology
Within weeks of the Velvet Revolution, new social media platforms – which coordinated their actions and were promoted by several media outlets – appeared. Using Facebook live videos and other tools with social media-friendly language, these pages have been attempting to create an image attractive to young people.
The most vocal group is Adekvad (“Adequate”), which, together with its partners, has become one of the most active critics of the Pashinyan government. Launched in June 2018 as a Facebook group, Adekvad members post texts and live stream videos (there is also a backup profile that posts links to same videos on Youtube) that promote conspiracy theories and anti-Western rhetoric. For instance, Adekvad has claimed that the involvement of western-educated people in Armenia’s state administration is “the second stage of the Armenian genocide” and that “[George] Soros is provoking a civil war” in Armenia.
Adekvad was initially coordinated by Arthur Danielyan and Narek Malyan. While Danielyan is a Russian citizen who claims to have briefly participated in the development of strategy for Nikol Pashinyan’s newly established Civil Contract party in 2015 (and obtained Armenian citizenship in 2016), Malyan is the owner of an eponymous PR agency and a former adviser to ex-chief of police Vladimir Gasparyan. As an adviser to the police in 2015, Malyan was involved in a defamation suit during the “Electric Yerevan” protests over increasing electricity fees. Here, he claimed on Facebook that one protester, a Russian citizen living in Armenia, had offered sex to policemen blocking the protesters’ way, calling the woman “a professional provocateur, an anti-Putinist who hates her own country”. After a public outcry at this statement, Malyan deleted the Facebook post.
While promoting conspiracy theories and anti-Western rhetoric, Adekvad has also posed as a provider of alternative views and “anti-disinformation”. In February 2019, Adekvad and an NGO called Civil Consciousness launched the AntiFake.am website, which currently has 12,000 followers on Facebook. Civic Consciousness was established during Serzh Sargsyan’s presidency and positioned itself as a moderately pro-EU think tank and educational establishment, before supporting, albeit cautiously, the 2015 “constitutional reform”, and staunchly opposing the Velvet Revolution.
Despite calling itself an “independent and impartial mass media”, AntiFake provides biased views, with a focus on denouncing Nikol Pashinyan. For example, the website has not classified a single one of the Prime Minister’s statements as “true”. Analysing Adekvad’s and their partners’ coordination, Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab (DRFL) noted that they had used manipulation techniques, masquerading as impartial fact-checking organisations and subsequently injecting biased narratives and polarising statements into the Armenia’s online discourse.
In response, Adekvad denounced DFRL’s analysis as a part of a global conspiracy to shut down rightwing news blogs. The same day, Adekvad tagged Donald Trump in a Facebook post saying: “People of the world support your struggles [sic] against the leftist fascists, sponsored in part by the US Congress… America first. Russia first. Armenia first.”
Conspiracy theories and anti-Western rhetoric appear in Adekvad’s discourse frequently. On one occasion, in a video with images of Nikol Pashinyan, Open Society Armenia director Larisa Minasyan and the Statue of Liberty in the background, Danielyan reflects on poverty, poor governance, corruption and other problems in America. He then blames the US for “gay propaganda” in Armenia and causing millions worldwide to die, and showed a known anti-American internet meme adapted to the Armenian context, implying that Armenia is about to become USA’s next victim. “What would have happened without America ‘helping’ our country?” Danielyan says. “We would still be having Soviet education, Soviet health care… our peasants would be working at collective farms, we would not have 50 sorts of chewing gum… certainly would not have Nikol [Pashinyan]… we would not have pornography.”
Danielyan also advocated against a vaccine that prevents the HPV infection in videos with portraits of Pashinyan, Armenian minister of health Arsen Torosyan, UN Secretary General António Guterres and former US ambassador Richard M. Mills (who worked in Armenia in 2015-2018) in the background, claiming that “pharmaceutics, besides being big business, is a weapon, firmly placed among biological weapons” and blaming “the world’s strongest country, the omnipotent UN, the strongest pharmaceutics business, the world’s strongest lobby and the richest man” for the promotion of Gardasil.
Ongoing institutionalisation, growing network
In May 2019, Adekvad announced that it had registered an NGO with the same name and published a manifesto presenting the ideology of “adekvadism” – which is, more or less, a conspirological “fortress-under-siege” narrative. This invention of a new “ism” in order to avoid associations with other “isms” unpopular among different social groups in Armenia (capitalism, socialism, nationalism, liberalism and so on) might be an attempt to invent an ideology with a brand of its own, not overtly connected to old ideologies. Later that month, Adekvad members also announced their intention to form a political party with the same name.
Aside from Arthur Danielyan, this new NGO and party counts among its co-founders Konstantin Ter-Nakalyan. The latter owns a tabloid website (blognews.am) that specialises in republishing social media posts and rumours, which are then quoted by more established media with reference to a “news website”. Meanwhile, another Adekvad co-founder, Ani Hovhannissian, is the founder editor of an online rumour-mill (analitik.am).
Though it denies any connection to Republican Party figures, Adekvad’s connection to several figures related to the Republican administration has also become more evident. Another Adekvad co-founder is Lilit Tumanyan, former deputy executive director of Armenian Public Radio and a former department head at the Sputnik Armenia news agency.
In early February, Tumanyan announced she was joining Karyak Media, a holding recently founded by four former Republican MPs. Shortly before this announcement, Karyak Media acquired the Armnews television company, Lav Radio and tert.am agency. Several months earlier, Karyak’s founders, who had been obliged to submit asset declarations as MPs , failed to demonstrate the level of assets sufficient to purchase several media outlets. The owners of Karyak Media have since been repeatedly featured in Adekvad’s videos and a series of roundtable discussions. Armnews and tert.am, owned by Karyak Media, regularly quote participants of what is emerging as the “Adekvad discourse”.
Indeed, the regular guestlist for Adekvad is worth closer attention. Other frequent guests include Eduard Sharmazanov, deputy chairman of the Republican Party Armen Ashotyan and other leading Republicans, such as former Ombudsman of Nagorno-Karabakh Ruben Melikyan, director of the Civil Consciousness NGO Narek Samsonyan, chairman of the Chamber of Advocates Ara Zohrabyan, and editors of websites connected to figures from the former regime, conservative political commentators and bloggers, as well as Narek Malyan, who is not formally involved in the Adekvad NGO and the new party, and launched a new initiative, Veto, which focuses on campaigning against Open Society Armenia.
Articles, social media posts and interviews by Adekvad members and their partners are regularly promoted by media associated with Robert Kocharyan, Serzh Sargsyan’s son-in-law Mikayel Minasyan, former Republican officials, Prosperous Armenia party and the Armenian Revolutionary Federation Dashnaktsutyun (ARF).
The anti-Soros campaign comes to Armenia
While the anti-Soros campaign in Armenia began with attempts to discredit the criminal investigation against ex-president Kocharyan, it has since expanded.
Prior to the 2018 parliamentary elections, Narek Samsonyan, head of the Civil Consciousness NGO (which would later launch AntiFake.am with Adekvad), put forward the idea that “George Soros has accomplished his mission in Armenia”. Pretending to argue from an impartial “civil society” point of view, Samsonyan talked about the need to get rid of civil society institutions which had criticised Armenia’s old regime and supported the revolution.
After the elections, Samsonyan demanded a ban on the “Soros Foundation” in Armenia, apparently as a reaction to an article suggesting how reforms in Armenia could be supported, which was later retweeted by Soros’ Twitter account. In mid-May, Veto, Malyan’s other initiative, started demonstrations against “foreign agents” and Open Society Armenia. These were regularly attended by Adekvad and Civil Consciousness members, as well as some public persons with ties to the former regime, including members of the Republican Party and their coalition partners Armenian Revolutionary Federation. (Strangely enough, Chris Berterian, an organiser of the Yellow Vests movement in Belgium, was also present.)
The Veto initiative demands the adoption of laws against “foreign agent networks” and “foreign agents’ access to state institutions,” and to banish the “Soros agency” from Armenia. In an article presenting Veto’s demands, AntiFake.am condemned 66 NGOs which had signed a petition criticising Veto’s activities. Among a number of Facebook posts attacking Soros, Narek Malyan has also spoken approvingly about Viktor Orbán’s actions against the “Soros network” in Hungary.
Protecting children from “abomination” and “homosexual propaganda” is a recurrent topic of the Armenian alt-right’s propaganda campaign. Adekvad has blamed Soros for sponsoring “profanation” and “homosexual propaganda”, while expressing support for a group of activists who disrupted a presentation of newly released book (My Body Is My Own) which introduces pre-school children to basic ideas about privacy. The action was also supported by Iravunk, 7or.am and other friendly media. The group that disrupted the book presentation, including founder of the Civic Initiative for Protection of Armenian Values Vahagn Chakhalyan, who previously served a prison term in Georgia for possession of weapons and inciting unrest, and the director of the Luys analytical centre, Hayk Ayvazyan, also harassed personnel at Yerevan’s Sexual Assault Crisis Centre. The latter were also threatened via social networks that they would be subject to sexual assault and burned.
In turn, Veto made an alarmist statement about a schoolchildren’s summer camp organised by the Ministry of Education, Science, Culture and Sport with support of OSF and UN Food and Agriculture Organisation: “it is a bad sign that Soros’s people are now organising a camp with the ministry’s permission, since the Soros Foundation has destroyed several countries and has promoted perversions”. Iravunk, analitik.am and others reposted that absurd claim as an established fact.
Veto also called the posting of some widely known religion-related jokes in a Facebook group “Soros’s people’s attack against the Armenian Church”. The Golden Apricot International Film Festival organised annually since 2004 has also been accused of “LGBT propaganda” as one of shown films presented a transgender person’s story. In this case, Veto also managed to find a Soros connection: in 2005-2009 the festival had received partial funding from OSF. The ministerial appointment of Rustam Badasyan has been decried as “Soros’s people’s total control over the Ministry of Justice”. Recently, Veto also posted a Russian propaganda “documentary” film, “Soros. Quantum of Destruction”, which was translated into Armenian by Narek Malyan.
Sexism, homophobia, hate speech
Allegations that the “Soros network” wants to get same-sex marriage legalised in Armenia by means of ratification of the Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence (Istanbul Convention) has been a “hot” topic in the repertoire of the Armenian alt-right in recent weeks, although discussions about gender equality and domestic violence in Armenia have always been heated.
The Istanbul Convention, which requires signatories to take specific actions to combat sexual violence, was signed by Armenia’s previous government in January 2018 with reservations not linked to convention articles currently challenged by Pashinyan’s opponents. However, Eduard Sharmazanov, a former Republican public official who is now a member of Armenia’s opposition, refutes the convention as “contradictory to our set of values… there must be no alternative to the traditional family model.” Opponents of ratification allege that it would obliterate traditional gender roles, recognise “third gender” aside with two “traditional” sexes and ultimately legalise same-sex marriage.
The beginning of the “gender” discussion provoked a wave of sexist and homophobic statements accompanied with tasteless “macho” jokes by the Armenian alt-right. In August 2018, a group of nine people were physically assaulted in a village in southern Armenia after it was alleged they were gay (the perpetrators, ultimately, did not face punishment). According to some reports, the attack was organised by Republican-aligned local officials. Several days later, Adekvad members held a party at the site of the attack and recently released another video mocking the victims.
When Zareh Sinanyan, former mayor and member of the city council of Glendale, California, resigned in June 2019 so he could be appointed High Commissioner of Diaspora Affairs of Armenia, Samsonyan ridiculed Sinanyan’s appointment, referring to an AntiFake.am article mentioning Sinanyan’s past involvement in protecting LGBT rights. The same day, Artur Danielyan boasted that he had said in an interview with an Armenian-American reporter that it would be proper to isolate LGBT persons, in a “similar way to schizophrenics”.
Furthermore, a wave of revelations by Armenian women about their experience of sexual assault was met by sexist remarks and more jokes. Arthur Danielyan spoke about women fantasising about rape and getting pleasure from it. Narek Samsonyan argued that the ultimate goal of those who share stories about violence is ratification of the Istanbul Convention, while also ridiculing a feminist activist. In a televised discussion on Armenia’s TV5 channel, Samsonyan made jokes about rape during a panel discussion with an Armenian MP.
In the context of victim blaming, it is also worth noting that while alt-right repeatedly make alarmist statements that “George Soros is provoking a civil war,” that the Armenian government is inciting violence or that the Armenian government and “Soros’s people” promote swearing and hate speech, their own record speaks for itself.
This record includes threats by Danielyan that “none of Soros’s people will be able to pass by me peacefully in the street”; a post laden with expletives, approving a physical assault on a person who had spoken disrespectfully about a bishop of the Armenian Church; a speech by Narek Malyan where he called his opponents “scum” and other epithets, and a post calling other opponents “Soros’s bastards”; or inventing new swear words later widely repeated by their followers, like the word “kaylarast” composed by Danielyan, based on the offensive Russian slang word “liberast” (composed from the words “liberal” and “pederast”). As “kayl” means “move” or “step” in Armenian and refers to Pashinyan’s parliamentary faction, My Step, it is used to mock their voters and, more generally, all those who participated in the Velvet Revolution under the slogan: “Make a move, reject Serzh [Sargsyan]”.
It may also be noted that while alt-right’s main figures are quite intelligent and attempt to manipulate public opinion while hardly believing in their own conspirological narratives, some statements are still utterly absurd. A rather typical example is a statement by the chairman of the Chamber of Advocates, Ara Zohrabyan: “It is called the Istanbul Convention because it was signed in Istanbul, in Turkey, the country which had perpetrated violence of the worst kind – genocide, and keeps denying it. That is symbolic.” That statement was also amplified by Armenian media.
So far, Armenia’s alt-right do not seem to be particularly popular. Their public actions are usually attended by several dozen participants; the principal means of communication – posts on social networks – receive hundreds, or perhaps several thousand views online. But regular coverage of their agenda by media associated with Armenia’s former regime extends their capacity to influence public opinion with conspiracy theories and intolerance, creating a tense public mood and expectations of violence. Likewise, this movement distorts the meaning of civic activism by connecting it with pro-authoritarian, sexist or otherwise anti-liberal movements.
The movement has also developed international ties. Recently, a sizeable interview with Arthur Danielyan appeared on Free West Media, a website founded by a member of the Sweden Democrats, and part of a whole network of Swedish right-wing media. Here, Danielyan supplemented already familiar rhetoric with praise of Euroscepticism, which “will ensure that the European nations can cut the leash that the US has imposed on them right after the Second World War. European nations must build a lasting alliance with Russia and strive to become an economic, political and moral leader for humanity”. Danielyan specially thanked Manuel Ochsenreiter, the editor of AfD-linked Zuerst! magazine (and who has been accused of ordering the firebombing of a Hungarian cultural centre in Ukraine), for arranging the interview.
Furthermore, while their foreign connections are still to be explored in detail, Armenia’s alt-right may potentially get a strong additional source of information support from abroad. Ex-president Robert Kocharyan, who is currently awaiting trial, has been receiving support from several Russian media, including major state-controlled TV channels. This suggests Kocharyan’s readiness to use his considerable assets to get any support he can, but without some level of compliance with Russian interests, money alone might not be enough to stage talk shows on Russian TV at prime time. There have also been indications that Kocharyan’s arrest caused serious disappointment in Moscow.
The mood of ex-regime figures is becoming more radical. Robert Kocharyan has stated he plans to become an opposition leader (with more direct actions to follow), and Mikayel Minasyan, the son-in-law of Serzh Sargsyan, recently claimed that “a real revolution is yet to come”. And previous statements on controversial issues, whether “gender” or the environment, by Armenia’s alt right suggest that they could attempt to play a more active role in efforts to compromise the Armenian government.