Ukraine and Other Social Movements: Where Are They Now?

Ukraine is on the brink of a civil war. The current Ukrainian movement is a continuation of a string of movements which actually started in Georgia and Ukraine about ten years ago.

Protester wearing Ukraine state flag colors facing the massive f

The current president, Viktor Yanukovych, was then the subject of protesters’ scorn. His election win was declared illegitimate, he was removed, and Viktor Yuschenko, his main opponent, took power. Ten years on, Yanukovych, the same guy who was removed, and this time as the sitting president, is the renewed subject of protesters’ scorn.

Curiously, ten years later, the exact same thing is happening. Except this time it has become more violent.

The romanticism of revolution, a common theme among activists in Armenia, too, has brought Ukraine to its knees. Except few people on either side seem to bother asking whether these revolutions or social movements achieve their intended goals and whether they are the best way of achieving those goals.

Below I’ve included a piece which originally appeared in the AYF West‘s publication Haytoug in its Winter 2014 issue. I explored some the Georgian and Ukrainian experiences, in addition to the more recent Arab Spring revolts. If the future of a country is of concern, those purportedly so interested should be asked whether they think the problems of that country are solved in the streets or in the people’s minds.

Social Movements: Where Are They Now?

By: William Bairamian

A social movement can look like and be called many things. Whatever their appearance or name, the goal of all social movements is presumably the same: a change for the better. If this is indeed the ultimate objective of a social movement, it is well worth considering how successfully a movement achieves that objective.

In the past ten years, several social movements have grabbed the world’s attention for the change they promised. Deemed successful for achieving their goal of change, though not necessarily change for the better, further evaluations have been sparsely performed. However, in judging social movements, what happens afterward can often be as important in evaluating success or failure.

The social movements discussed here – the Rose Revolution of Georgia, the Orange Revolution of Ukraine, and the Arab Spring in Egypt and Libya – are popular and well-known reference points in the past decade and that is why they were chosen. They also straddle a spectrum that includes nonviolent protest (Georgia and Ukraine) to violent revolution (Libya) and that in-between (Egypt).

There is no question that these movements achieved some success, if only brief or superficial. The question, rather, is whether they secured change for the better, as promised, and as determined by what followed.

First in the course of social movements in the past decade was Georgia. The country had a similar experience with its post-independence government as many of its Soviet-era cohorts like Belarus, Azerbaijan, Ukraine, and the Central Asian states.

Strongmen more familiar with politburo than parliament took the reins of countries in disarray, less interested in attending to the people than looking out for themselves and doing the bidding of outside influences – Moscow, in the Soviet case – as they well knew how. In Georgia, that strongman was Eduard Shevardnadze.

In 2003, Shevardnadze, a Soviet leftover, was forced from office during a pro-West and anti-Russia movement called the Rose Revolution. The country welcomed Mikheil Saakashvili, a Western-educated and backed lawyer who promised much in the way of removing the country from the Russian yoke and setting it on a path toward European integration and economic development.

About one year later, the Orange Revolution in Ukraine promised similar changes t0 the Russia-oriented government of the former Soviet republic.

When Viktor Yanukovych, the candidate backed by another Soviet leftover, incumbent Leonid Kuchma, ran for president in 2004, he was challenged by Viktor Yuschenko. Allegations of rampant voter fraud led to a political tug-of-war, called the Orange Revolution, which ended in the courts awarding the presidency to Yuschenko, the pro-Europe, anti-Russia candidate. The court’s decision was hailed as a progressive victory.

Georgia was indeed successful in implementing some reforms and setting its sights on Europe, although the latter may have made for better external publicity than internal stability.

Four short years after the euphoria of Saakashvili’s victory, Georgia saw a familiarly brutal crackdown on the opposition by the Caucasian darling of democracy, complete with curtailment of free press, tear gas, beatings, raids, and water cannons. Furthermore, despite promises of policies more inclusive of Georgia’s several ethnic minorities, little changed, including the lot of the country’s severely discriminated-against Armenian population in Javakhk.

The coup de grace of Saakashvili’s poor governing was the decision to attack his own citizens in South Ossetia, antagonizing Russia and consequently procuring a loss of Georgian territory.

Ultimately, widespread discontent with Saakashvili resulted in Bidzina Ivanshvili, a billionaire opposition candidate, winning the premiership. This was followed by the recent victory of the presidential candidate supported by Ivanshvili, Giorgi Margvelashvili.

In Ukraine, Yanukovych, the man on the losing end of the Orange Revolution, became prime minister in 2006 and has been president of Ukraine since 2010 amid infighting and power struggles in the “Orange” opposition. His opponent during the Revolution, Yuschenko, got 5.45% of the vote in the 2010 presidential election and Yuschenko’s Our Ukraine party got 1.11% in the 2012 parliamentary elections. Yulia Tymoshenko, one of the leaders of the revolution, has since been convicted of abuse of power and embezzlement and sentenced to seven years in prison.

Although the victory of an opposition candidate does not necessarily translate into the failure of a social movement – and, indeed, might prove its success – it begs the question of whether the people for, and with, whom the movement was taking place believe the resultant change was for the better. In the case of Georgia and Ukraine, the answer points toward an unambiguous no.

More recently, another wave of revolutions struck, this time across the Middle East. Collectively called the Arab Spring, the ostensible objectives in each country varied, ranging from regime change to political and economic reforms. Egypt and Libya, two heavyweights in the Arab world, fundamentally changed as a result of mass protests in the former and armed revolt in the latter.

Egypt, the crown jewel of the Arab Spring because of the country’s size and central role in the Arab world, deposed its resident authoritarian, Hosni Mubarak, and held an election where Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood was chosen as the country’s president. There was jubilation but it was short-lived.

Shortly after Morsi tried to implement constitutional reforms, the military conducted a coup d’etat, Morsi was removed, and military rule was instituted. The revolution that was supposed to usher a new era of Egyptian politics became a mockery.

To the west, Libya, led by the eccentric Muammar Gaddafi, fell to groups of ragtag rebels aided by NATO bombings chose force as the primary agent of change. The rebels fought Gaddafi into submission, eventually capturing and killing him.

Now apparently forgotten when it comes to post-revolution analysis, Libya, unable to form a sustainable government for going on three years, is flirting with the ignominy of becoming a failed state. The glee-ridden removal from power, and execution, of Gaddafi & Co. has not guaranteed a better state of affairs.

Social movements, whether revolutions or otherwise, are often thought of as a panacea for societal ills. For precisely that reason, a distinction must be drawn between social movement as feel-good exercise where change is the solely discernible goal and social movement as vehicle, meant to put society on the right trajectory. Frankly, they cannot be an end unto themselves.

Many social movements have been successful but what differentiates them from the failures?

Simply put, the most successful social movements, the agreeability of their goals notwithstanding, have been based on principles that were clearly outlined in speech or writing in the time before society was moved, as it were, toward action. Thereafter, those principles guided the post-movement leaders.

In what might be the only instance where a similarity between them can be noted, the commonality of guiding principles was integral to the initial success and long-term sustainability of the American and French revolutions; the socialist-communist revolutions of Russia, China, Cuba, parts of Central and South America, and southeast Asia; and, the Islamic jihad movement.

Successful social movements continue beyond the streets to become a part of the target society’s fabric and collective mindset. Their ideas become ingrained in the belief systems of the people: American society largely believes in the principles outlined in the texts that readied the people for the Revolution; socialism and communism created vehement believers of those philosophies, some who exist until today; jihadists believe in the righteousness of the terror they wreak upon their enemies.

In contrast, too easily do some social movements devolve into power struggles where one bad system is exchanged for another, where the inheritors of the movement’s spoils seem more concerned with the guise of revolution than adopting a new value system.

Each of the four examples above included revolutionary successors of the deposed who purported support of democracy and change but acted with a disdain for those who disagreed with them, much like the people they replaced. With society unable to believe that their new leaders had their general wellbeing in mind, the goodwill granted the new leaders upon their arrival was irreversibly corrupted.

The greatest social movements begin not on streets but in minds. They may end in public gatherings or violence but they can only be successful with leaders devoted to ideas in which the people can trust – and that they do trust. That is what carries them beyond chants and marches to meaningful and sustainable change.

If any more poignant example is needed, it can be found in modern Armenian history: long before a bullet was fired to liberate Artsakh, a social movement led by intellectuals prepared the groundwork through the proliferation of ideas for what evolved into a victorious fight for liberty.

Anti-Putin Protests: What’s The Point?

Vladimir Putin, president of Russia, visited Armenia on December 2, 2013. His visit inspired a rancorous response in some circles.

Below is a translation (mine) of a status posted on Facebook by Sedrak Mkrtchyan in response to a photograph of a nightgown hanging from a highway overpass. The nightgown symbolized the outrage over Russian treatment of Artsakh war veteran Hrachya Harutyunyan who was dressed in a woman’s nightgown to appear in court after being involved in a vehicular accident where several people died in Russia.

The succinct text below by Mkrtchyan lends a perspective to the protests that seems to be absent from the discourse about Armenia’s closeness to Russia. It might be surmised but I’ll state clearly that I agree with the ideas presented here.

Whatever is found in brackets are either my notes or my elucidations of something implied in the Armenian-language text from which this is translated. 

Mkrtchyan is a journalist from Armenia.


By: Sedrak Mkrtchyan

[twitter-follow screen_name=’517design’]

What’s the objective? What’s the point? I don’t understand…

Taking into consideration those who do not want Armenia to associate with Russia, let me propose the following scenario:

1) Russia announces that it is against Armenia’s membership in the Customs Union and the path toward association with the European Union is open,

2) Russia removes its armed forces from Armenia,

3) Armenia is forced to defend its borders with Turkey and Iran with solely its own armed forces, necessitating an increase in the size of the military by at least 30%, which is impossible for Armenia to do because of a lack of resources,

4) The price of natural gas rises,

5) The price of purchasing guns and artillery from Russia rises,

6) In the case of war started by Azerbaijan, there is no help from Russia nor from the Collective Treaty Security Organization (CSTO). The number of people and amount of land lost in Artsakh and Armenia in the ensuing meat grinder is anyone’s guess,

7) A potential Turkish military expansion, the extent of which is impossible to predict.

How might the European Union help with all of this [if Armenia “chose” Europe at the expense of Russia]?

1) Military assistance by the EU is excluded. They have one little problem with Turkish-occupied Northern Cyprus and they are unable to do anything about getting it back for an official member of the European Union [Cyprus],

2) Any member country of NATO is excluded [from helping Armenia] so long as Turkey, Europe’s largest and strongest armed forces, has shared interests with Azerbaijan [note: Turkey indeed has the largest military in Europe but the strongest is likely the United Kingdom]; they could swallow Armenia up and not pay it a second thought,

3) Exports to the EU increase, some business grow, some businesses are enriched. Armenia’s long-term economic situation is improved.

It’s being curiously presented these days that if Armenia signs the EU Association Agreement, people in Armenia will become beautiful, tall, and their hair color will get a little lighter; fashionistas from the pages of monthly magazines will be walking on Armenia’s streets, red double-decker buses will be making the rounds, and the names of all cities and villages might see the addition of the word “New” before them.

I cannot stand Russians – and the more I immerse myself in the study of history, the more that is the case. But before hanging a nightgown [in protest], it’s imperative to look at the issue a bit more [deeply], beyond the most basic level.

[end text by Mkrtchyan]

We might benefit from Mr. Mkrtchyan’s advice to think more deeply about this issue. Other issues even. Who knows, it might even help with freeing Armenia from Russia’s yoke.

Corruption in Armenia: Not What You Think

The Policy Forum of Armenia has released its third “State of the Nation” report, this one entitled “Corruption in Armenia.” It is described on the PFA website thus: “New Report Deconstructs Corruption in Armenia and Sounds the Alarm for Political Reform.”

PFA Corruption Report

Sound an alarm it does. In line with its previous reports, the first on Diaspora-Armenia relations and the second on Armenia’s environment, it goes on to list the litany of issues while predicting dire consequences for Armenia if the country does not heed its words.

If the PFA’s goal were to establish that corruption exists in Armenia, as it does pretty much everywhere, it didn’t need to write a whole report on it. But it tries to do much more than that: it attempts to show that corruption is so widespread that it is severely hindering the development of Armenia.

Except it doesn’t bother with some major details and seems to care more for showing that it can put together a finely designed report with lots of references to economic jargon and carefully chosen information.

The problem with this report can be summed up succinctly: if you’re going to make a case for something, particularly an academic one, be honest.

Below are a few points about why I think the PFA is being dishonest in its “Corruption in Armenia.”

1) Laziness or Irresponsibility?

Although it’s second-nature for most people to assume that Armenia is drowning in a sea of corruption, that should not excuse the PFA from establishing, with evidence, the issue that they are addressing. They don’t.

Activists concerned with climate change can’t just take climate change as a foregone conclusion before they start pressuring governments to place restrictions on pollution; anybody calling attention to an issue they believe is a concern in Armenia should be required to assume the same burden of proof.

The PFA, conversely, tries to establish corruption as a fact in referencing studies that are not its own and by saying that it doesn’t want to “duplicate” those by doing its own analysis. I discuss why this is a problem in forthcoming points.

They excuse themselves from the task by saying that “without the political will to investigate cases and judicial systems to prosecute them, it is even more difficult to provide concrete quantifiable examples and clear evidence…” As in, it’s not their fault they can’t sufficiently prove corruption exists through their own study.

That’s all fine and good but you can’t address a problem by prefacing it with, “there is this problem which we can’t prove really prove exists and it’s not our fault that we can’t. But we’re going to use other sources – which is another reason why we’re not doing much analysis – that prove that it exists because these sources were apparently not precluded from conducting the studies we wouldn’t be able to do sufficiently.”

So, which is it? That corruption couldn’t be measured sufficiently or that the PFA just didn’t want to measure it because others supposedly had?

2) Perception vs. Reality

If you’re walking all by your lonesome in the desert, you might perceive that there is an oasis where you will be able to replenish yourself. The reality might be that there is no oasis and that your perception was just a mirage. We know the human mind plays tricks like this. Indeed, among the youth, this has been popularized by the meme “Scumbag Brain”:

scumbag brain

So it’s important to know that oftentimes when you hear about “corruption” in a country, like when Transparency International reports about it, it’s not actual recorded corruption but a perception of corruption.

This is significant because public perception can be affected by many factors, for example, a report on corruption that doesn’t provide much evidence of corruption. So is it conceivable that if you keep telling people there is a problem with something that they might start believing that there is a serious problem with something?

To elucidate the point, I’ll refer to the 2010 Armenia Corruption Survey of Households (sponsored by USAID) which is used in the PFA report, where the following is written:

“According to a majority (82%) of survey respondents in 2010, corruption is a serious problem in the country.”

That might be what you call perception. The following is what you might call reality:

Although the healthcare system is perceived to be the most corrupt institution, only 22% of those respondents who had a contact with the healthcare system said that they were asked for a bribe…People were rarely asked to pay bribes during contact with public utilities and communications institutions; only 1% of those who dealt with them mentioned that they made some unofficial payments. Only 10% of those who had contacts with the education and social security systems were asked for a bribe over the past year.

The respondents were asked also to describe the main scenarios of corruption cases in the public sector based on their personal experiences. In 2010, 22% of the respondents stated that in all cases, officials mostly do not directly demand a bribe. Rather, they show that they have expectations of money, some gift or favors. Another 14% say that in all cases, officials directly demand money, a gift or a favor. About 9% mentioned that in all cases they used their own contacts to get privileged treatment. Nevertheless, the majority of respondents mentioned that they rarely or never experienced bribe giving with public officials.

(The cat’s words not mine.)

So one of the same reports that the PFA uses to prove that there is corruption in Armenia actually says people haven’t really experienced corruption in Armenia? Then how do you write a whole report on it?

3) Straw Man

After doing a rotten job of establishing that there is rampant corruption, the PFA expounds on the effects of such corruption later in the report. This is called a straw man argument: attacking an issue which isn’t an issue but which was created solely to be attacked.

I know the people in the PFA are really smart but it would be great if they didn’t insult the intelligence of us common folk.

Look at how feeble this straw man looks.

In releasing the report, the PFA said:

The report is intended to spur a debate on the issue of high-level corruption in Armenia and serve as a warning for corrupt officials that civil society organizations are ready to help identify and recover stolen assets—irrespective of their location—and return them to their rightful owners.

It would have been a great help if the space in the report or the effort expended to produce it were directed toward elucidating the assets stolen and high-level corruption that are so prevalent that they necessitated a report discussing their impact and resolution.

4) Old and Selectively-Used Data

So say we don’t have to prove corruption is rampant in Armenia because, well, why would you have to do that if everyone believes it, right?

"Why couldn't people just take my word for it?"
“Why couldn’t people just take my word for it?”

Even with that, I’m going to make the extreme proposition that the most current information available and the progression of that information over several years be used to give an accurate picture of the issue we’re considering.

As mentioned above, the PFA Report doesn’t use its own studies to establish that there is a corruption problem in Armenia; rather, it uses other reports. Unfortunately, from these reports, it uses both outdated information and it does so selectively, at that.

None of the reports the PFA uses in its 2013 “Corruption in Armenia” was conducted after 2011, making the newest one at least two years old. This despite there being more current information available.

If the argument goes that Armenia should have done much more in 20 years since its independence, an extremely short time in history, then we can also grant that two years is a significant length of time during which changes may take place. So would it not have been the responsible thing to do to use the most current reports? Reports that might show an improvement? I’m sure PFA would agree that every year counts.

Here is a sampling of information selectively used or omitted by the PFA report:

Global Integrity Index

The Global Integrity Index, which the PFA cites, notes that Armenia was one of the most improved countries, second only to Liberia, in addressing corruption from 2009 to 2011 (a two year difference). The PFA does not note this in its report.

If you want to see how the Global Integrity Index measures corruption, you can read further here

World Bank 

In the most recent rankings available, the 2012 World Bank aggregator of corruption perception around the world, Armenia is ranked in the same percentile range of the following pitiful countries with destitute economies: India, China, Argentina, Mexico.

Excluding the Baltic states, Armenia (37th percentile), Belarus (37th), and Moldova (33rd) come in only behind Georgia (64th) among former Soviet countries according to the World Bank rankings – all the others are ranked in the 0-25th percentile.

World Economic Forum

Along with the World Bank, the World Economic Forum noted a 10 percentile improvement in Armenia’s corruption perception between 2010 to 2012.

The WEF also indicates, in its Global Competitiveness Survey, indicated that between 2011-2012 and 2012-2013, Armenia gained 10 places in being globally competitive for business. In the 2013-2014 report, it showed that Armenia gained another three places (read: improvement).

Remember that in 2010, in the USAID-sponsored report cited above and also used in the PFA report: “Nevertheless, the majority of respondents mentioned that they rarely or never experienced bribe giving with public officials.”

Two years later, major international institutions noted marked improvements in Armenia’s corruption perception.

I can’t speak to the motivation of the PFA and why it was so irresponsible in writing this report, although it’s not the first time. But besides feeding the despondence which is prevalent in the same reports that it uses to prove its case, the PFA report seems to have little else use.

But I’ll give credit where credit is due: the graphic designer should be commended for making a really beautiful looking report. It’s just that that thing about judging books and whatever by their covers is one of the few things that stuck with me from elementary school.

I’d like to note, in the likely event that I’m accused, that I do indeed believe there is corruption in Armenia. What’s more, I  believe that corruption should be vehemently quashed. Nevertheless, I want to have an honest discussion about it, with facts. Not selective and anecdotal cases presented as fact and then generalized.

Armenia should be the least corrupt country in the world and given some of the information discussed here, it seems that it can be. But I’m not willing to accept discussions of perceived corruption in Armenia based on false premises that are having a real effect on the psychological well-being of people in the country. If you’re not willing to be responsible in the information that you disseminate, and I’m looking at you PFA, just stop. You’re not doing anyone any favors, least of all Armenia.

If you believe in critical thinking, do it.


Aggregate information compiled by the World Bank and used in the PFA report

PFA Report: Corruption in Armenia

By: William Bairamian

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