Decolonizing Armenia: Metropole and Periphery in the Era of Postsocialism

Article in Armenian can be read on this link.

At many protests in Armenia today, during clashes with the police or in chanting slogans aimed at the ruling Republican Party or governmental officials at large, there is a certain language that almost always, as if inevitably, arises: the language of accusation not formed through political claims necessarily, but through shame. Amot, Amot! (Shame! Shame!), chant protesters. And sometimes these accusations of shame break off into smaller, more personal calls: Turk! You are Turks! Aren’t you ashamed of yourselves?!  Turks, of course, are Armenians’ eternal enemies – the perpetrators of the 1915 Genocide. These calls of shame are a congealment of a widespread feeling in the postsocialist Republic -  that today’s political and economic elite are a shameless mockery of what should have been an independent Armenian government in 1991. Over the past few years, there has been a decolonization project brewing within the grassroots of the country. Popular names of initiatives like Menq enq mer yerkiry (“We are our country”) and Nor Hayasdan (New Armenia) point to a process that, while not always referred to as decolonization through emic categories, looks a lot like it.

            These decolonizing projects can perhaps be traced back to February 2012, when activists occupied Mashtots Park in the central district of Yerevan. The Mashtots Park movement and occupation began when city officials removed boutiques that were previously on Abovyan St. in Central Yerevan, negotiating with the owners to move them, instead, to Aram St. on Mashtots Ave., the location of the park. The park, however, was a part of the public commons, and activists saw the placement of boutiques there as not only the destruction of another green zone in the city, but a violation of public space. Activists hindered the construction of the new market zone by creating a picket line to block the entrance of concrete-mixing trucks. The Mashtots Park movement began as a claim for the park to remain public commons. However, it quickly turned into a larger movement against the corruption and extra-legal moves by an oligarchy class that has come to power in the country’s post-Soviet era.

            In Wretched of the Earth Frantz Fanon – considered one of the founders of postcolonial thought – asks: “When can it be said that the situation is ripe for a national liberation movement? What should be the first line of action? Because decolonization comes in many shapes, reason wavers and abstains from declaring what is a true decolonization and what is not” (2004: 21). Fanon – in his earlier work Black Skin, White Mask - was particularly interested in the pathology of colonization – the pathology that stemmed from centuries of the black man, or the colonized, being produced within the conditions of violence set forth by the colonizer. In other words, the pathology that stems from the asymmetrical relationship between the metropole and the periphery of the colonial situation (2008).

            In this article, I take up this relationship in a quite different context – not that of the postcolonial, but of the postsocialist, and particularly in the postsocialist Republic of Armenia. Armenians have been colonized, recolonized and neo-colonized throughout their history. In a Fanonian vein, Armenia has been historically produced as colonized - although not precisely in the same ways as through the frameworks of Western imperialism – making up national identity and senses of being through the constant and looming threat of mightier armies. Armenia’s founding myth itself tells the story of the giant Hayk, who, through his particularly skilled use of the bow and arrow, was able to defeat Bel, also a giant and a warrior with a massive army who had taken all the lands and conquered all the peoples in the new world after the great flood. Despite this founding myth, Armenia has been a part of various empires – from the Persian, to the Mongolian, the Ottoman, and most recently the Soviet Union. The latter, however, was not felt as colonization necessarily.

            That is, until more recently when in 2012, Russia began courting Armenia for the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union (EEU). The EEU is a customs and trade union that seeks to economically and politically integrate member countries of the former Soviet bloc. Armenia joined the EEU in 2015 under the conditions that it would pay higher tariffs on resources imported from outside of the EEU – to comply with the tariff rates of the other member countries (Russia, Belarus, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan) - as well as reorient its trade to the markets in these countries. The EEU has impacted Armenia’s ability to trade with other global partners, as well as possibilities of membership in the World Trade Organization, diverging from trade with a more stable Europe to an economically fluctuating Russia.[1] Simultaneously, Armenia has also been in talks regarding conditions and agreements with the European Union, especially conditions toward a liberalization of markets with more imports and exports with EU members. While some right-wing nationalists in the country mourn, as well as agitate, around the question of European conditionality, many leftist activists have been more concerned about, and actively protested, Armenia’s entry into the EEU.

            This current historical juncture, at the moment of postsocialism and Armenia’s wavering between two supranational alliances, has multiplied senses of colonization, reordering the location of center and periphery within the nation itself. Colonization in Armenia, in other words, can be understood today not necessarily as an external threat – but an internal threat that constitutes an external that is internal. Those involved in what may be called a “decolonization project” in Armenia are fighting against Armenia’s own government: the mafiaesque state that emerged shortly after independence – made up of what activists often refer to as criminal clans – with a monopoly on violence. It is this mafia state that is the main colonizing force working against the nation’s possibilities of self-definition, autonomy and survival. While Europe and Russia, to various degrees, have a place in this notion of colonization, it is Armenia’s own government that is considered the point of contestation; for, it is this entity of internal enemy that has decided to sell out Armenian land, resources, political and economic rights for the benefits of their own pockets and a general disregard for the well-being of its own people.  

            Comparisons between postsocialism and postcolonialism necessitate some attention to difference, especially considering that Western Empire and Soviet state were propped up by diverging governing projects (Yurchak 2006; Chari and Verdery 2009). Katherine Verdery, arguing that examining postsocialism through postcolonial studies can open up into new directions, points out a key difference between the ways in which Western Europe and the Soviet union produced colonial dominance in various satellite and periphery sites: the USSR accumulated the means of production through “allocative power,” insulating its dependencies from capitalism’s forms of accumulation based on plans for ideological transformation (Hann, Humphrey, Verdery 2002: 16), while Western Empire was largely concerned with a project of extraction of labor and resources. The Soviet Union has also been termed an “Empire of Nations,” cultivating local national cultures beginning in the Stalinist era for its larger aim of internationalism (Hirsch 2005). This is also quite different from the European project of creating the colonized as a form of pure otherness – the captivated flesh denied any interior space or culture of its own, in Hortense Spillers’s (1987) terms, or the “systematic negation of the other,” in Fanon’s (2004: 182), which leads the colonized to constantly ask the question “Who am I in reality?” (Fanon 2004: 182).

            In this article, I draw on ethnographic fieldwork I conducted in Yerevan, Armenia from August 2012 to August 2013 to understand Armenia’s postsocialist experience. During fieldwork, I spoke with activists and journalists on the left and the right of the political spectrum. I also attended rallies, press conferences and other political events. As a part of this research, from February 2013 to May 2013, I worked with a research assistant, Lucine Talalyan, a visual artist and co-founder of the Queering Yerevan collective, with whom I conducted 150 interviews with members of households across the city. Talalyan and I went door-to-door in different neighborhoods to find out how families felt about transition 20 years later and how they understood the role of family for the nation in the contemporary.

            For many of those I spoke to during this research, the Soviet Union did not negate Armenia’s sense of identity, but allowed it to thrive for 70 years. The role of the Soviet Union was often discussed as savior. Soviet Russia, the primary center of the Soviet Union, is often understood as “father”[2] but is rarely, if ever, discussed as an external and imperial force. Soviet Russia allowed Armenia’s survival as well as thriving in the era of socialism in its protection of Armenia from the threat of Ottoman invasion on the Western border of the First Republic, established in 1918; its salvation of Armenian culture and literature through the establishment of Armenian printing presses; and its the economic development projects in the Republic.  

            Armenia became an independent nation-state in 1991 with the dissolution of the Soviet Union. In the late 1980s, spurred by Gorbachev’s new policies toward openness (glasnost), Armenians began to form popular movements with a multitude of demands and acts for democracy. These democratic movements, which included environmental activism and anti-totalitarian claims, however, turned into nationalist movements. By the time of Armenia’s independence, the small Republic was already entrenched in war with neighboring Azerbaijan over the territory of Nagorno-Karabagh. Levon Ter-Petrosyan, the popular leader of the independence project’s Armenian Pan-National Movement,[3] became the Republic’s first President. After 4 years in his presidency of a new state, Ter-Petrosyan became widely unpopular.

            The new nation-state was afflicted by war, leading to massive shortage of food, electricity, and petroleum in the years of 1990-1994.  War also created a blockade with neighboring Azerbaijan, through which Armenia received much of its resources as part of the Union’s distribution system. To allow the distribution of necessary resources, the new government instituted privatization of industry, leading to the emergence of a post-Soviet oligarchy class made up of former directors of industry during the Soviet era. By 1997, 2.5% of shareholders participating in the “pro-rata” privatization scheme (Roth-Alexandrowicz 1997) owned 60% of economic activity (Astourian 2000).  This new oligarchy liquidated much of industry, selling off parts of factories to foreign entrepreneurs (Astourian 2000). This privatization and liquidation led to widespread unemployment after the war years. Perhaps considered one of the greatest and most devastating effects of these processes in the initial years of independence was the massive emigration of Armenians during the war, in which an estimated 40% of the population left. Emigration has not stopped and many continue to leave the country every year in search of employment elsewhere.

            After over a century of longing for national independence, now that Armenians seemed to finally have it, this dream had become a nightmare. In 1996, when Ter-Petrosyan was “officially” elected as President again, protesters claimed election-fraud. By 1998, Ter-Petrosyan resigned from office, leaving the state in the hands of the new oligarchy class to which his own policies had given rise (Astourian 2000).

            While socialism was not necessarily felt as colonialism for Armenians, postsocialism is feeling a lot like it. This colonialism, however, has much in common with processes of postcolonialism in the parts of the world dominated and occupied by Western forces until the mid-20th century. This postcolonialism is not necessarily a lingering of colonization, or the residual effects of colonization, but the after-affects of a government that arose from the ashes of the socialist project. Postsocialism, in other words, is felt by Armenians as a more entrenched form of colonization than socialism ever was. The colonizer, in this instance, however, is this new mafia-state.

            Many Armenians today, indeed, claim that those in government and the oligarchy class are not Armenian at all. Armen Mkrtichyan, the director of the nationalist organization Hayazn, for example – during an interview I conducted with him in May 2013 – characterized those filling the seats of state and economic power as “aliens”: “It’s like they have come here, discovered this land, and are taking all they can get from it and one day they will just abandon it, leaving nothing and nobody behind.” Mkrtichyan’s claim operates on two levels. On the plane of reality, the political-economic elite in Armenia hold off-shore accounts, own homes in other countries where their children are studying or where their families already live. Armenia for them, has, in other words, become a site of economic extraction rather than nation.

            On another level however, this claim of an alien government creates tensions in postsocialist (and postcolonial) national identity. This statement recalls many of the anxious expressions I heard from Talalyan’s and my household interviewees. As Arsineh, a woman in her 40s, explained, “Armenia doesn’t have a government. That’s what you need to understand if you want to understand families. With no government, there is no one to secure the survival of the family. The government we have is not Armenian….Would an Armenian government treat its people this way – like dogs, begging for work, for daily bread?” Mkrtich, a man in his mid-30s, reasoned that his main prerogative at that moment was to leave Armenia, because it was the only way to ensure the well-being of his family. According to Mkrtich,   the mafia-state enjoyed talk of genocide, enjoyed the condemnation of Turkey as the genocider, because it allowed the eclipsing of the genocide that those in the political and economic elite today were committing. He termed this real genocide that Armenians were concerned about today “economic genocide” (dndesakan tseghaspanutyun).

            Many of our interviewees were filled with an anger, a profound hurt, that stemmed from a betrayal of a government that should have been, that could have been, the properly independent nation longed for for over a century. Hovhannes was an older man who sat at his armchair, chain-smoking and watching the television that was blaring one of the many serial television shows that go on in the early afternoon when Talalyan and I interviewed him. For him, the problem was not so much that Armenia belonged to foreign investors and that the costs of food, water, petroleum and electricity were increasing because of partnerships with foreign companies. Rather, it was because Armenians were doing this to their own people; that Armenians were selling out their own nation. “Hay chen, ara! Hay chen! [They are not Armenian, man! They are not Armenian!],” he exclaimed.

            The colonizing apparatus of Armenia in the postsocialist period is no longer located in the sultan’s palaces of the Ottoman Empire, no longer in Istanbul where orders of massacres and deportations are given, and not in the Kremlin necessarily. They are located in Armenia’s own governmental offices – the sites where the long-time dream of national independence was to be fulfilled. They are located at the Republican Party headquarters and the Presidential Palace. Armenians feel that they have become peripheral to the vision of their own state; or, marginal to the institutions that are not their state at all.

            The actions of the political and economic elite over the last 26 years of postsocialist transformations has had major effects on the conceptualization of nation and nationalism. In 2016, when border clashes led to a very close full mobilization of war again between Armenia and Azerbaijan – known as the April Four-Day-War - some Armenians began talking of peace and the importance of keeping cool.[4] This is quite different from the situation in the early 1990s. As the late Mikayel Danielyan, the head of the Helsinki Association of Armenia who died in 2016, told me during an interview that I conducted with him in 2012 – there were almost no voices against the war in Armenia then. “Everyone wanted war.” Danielyan told me that he was the only anti-war activist in the country; a position contested by everyone anywhere on the political spectrum – from human rights defenders like himself, to conservatives, nationalists, as well as those still attached to the communist project. Although this statement is not entirely accurate as there were also others who contested war in the early 1990s, anti-war sentiment was quiet and sparse.

            The colonization of an oligarcho-mafia state has meant a wavering in nationalist sentiment that takes the state as the protector of the body politic. The mafia-state’s perversions – their extractions and exploitations of the people who should have been their own – produces war for the nation-state as a transparent relic of a national past. While there were many voices in support of the war in the spring of 2016, today’s mafia-state has greatly ruptured the feeling of a whole nation-state. Characterized as colonizing aliens, shameless profiteers, anti-national and corrupt, this state produces a break in Armenia’s national and nationalist trajectory. In other words, some have begun asking war for whom? War for whose benefit? After all, if the political and economic elite are not Armenian at all, any nationalist sentiment in the seats of authority is already a colonization of Armenia’s narrative of nation.



[1] For more information on the economic impacts on Armenia’s joining of the EEU, see Garabeghian 2015). More recently, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, claimed that trade with Armenia has been good and growing both Russia’s and Armenia’s economy, adding that Russia would not increase its price for natural gas to Armenia in 2018 (see Harutyunyan 2017). However, concerns about the longer-term impacts on Armenia’s economy – being tied into trade with Russian monopolies (such as Gazprom, from whom Armenia buys 80% of its natural gas) – continue amongst some Armenians. Some parliamentary groups are now proposing secession from the union (Kucera 2017).

[2] This may form a part of the legacy of Soviet and other state socialist paternalisms – as discussed by Verdery 1996; Dunn 2004, Schrand 2002, Woodcock 2007, and Kideckel 2004 among others.

[3] The Armenian Pan-National Movement began in 1988, initially making claims for the reunification of the territory of Karabagh and Soviet Republic of Armenia and later began making demands for independence from the Soviet Union as a unified Republic. While Ter-Petrosyan, the movement’s leader, became the first President of the Republic of Armenia, after his resignation from office, he became a major opposition leader and the head of the Armenian National Congress, a coalition of groups in opposition to Armenia’s ruling Republican Party.

[4] During the days of this war, my Facebook feed (from friends in Armenia) was filled with cries for peace, criticisms of the reasons for war, as well as the sharing of articles questioning Armenia’s entrance into war. As example, one statement, posted by Erik Yesayan (April 4, 2016) and circulated through “shares” amongst a few of my Facebook friends, claimed that a war could “set back the region for decades” and drew links between war and the need for economic revival in Azerbaijan (rather than nationalist sentiment). Hetq, a left-oriented investigative journalism site based in Armenia, published a statement by Hrant Gadarigian (2016), who claimed that “Those in power, the decision-makers, those who send young men to the front, cannot hide from public scrutiny using the veil of patriotism as convenient cover.” While the statement also criticizes Armenian journalism for not being able to independently cover the fighting, social networking sites were acting as spaces of dissent in other ways.


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