The search for traitors leaves no room for real accountability

Patrick Azadian

There are two sets of popular conspiracy theories that are circulating in Armenia about the latest war and loss of territory in Artsakh. Naturally, neither can be proven or disproven beyond the shadow of a doubt but they are worth a mention since they cast a light on the current mood in Armenia. Both theories are based on the possibility of the existence of a ‘traitor’ or ‘traitors,’ and employ a simple linear logic. They also keep the minds of the average citizen occupied and instill a feeling of helplessness amongst the population.

Conspiracy Theory 1 – Pashinyan Planned it All Along

The most extreme version of this theory, and probably the more simple-minded, claims that Nikol Pashinyan had always planned to hand over Artsakh’s territories to Azerbaijan and the revolution was part of this grand scheme. Therefore, he is a traitor. A slightly different take on this conspiracy theory, and as simple-minded, claims that because Pashinyan is a pro-Western man, he willingly destroyed Armenia’s strategic relationship with Russia without having any concerns over loss of territories in Artsakh. Moreover, the loss of territory was Russia’s way of punishing Armenia for moving away from its circle of influence. This theory’s supporters continuously remind us that they cautioned the public on this coming disaster right before the war to further prove their point. They also love to point out the examples of loss of territories in Ukraine and Georgia due to the conflict with Russia. Whether their thinking is a product of the political version of palm-reading or an extension of Conspiracy Theory 2 (coming up next), we’ll never know. This theory is favored by some members of the opposition and some self-proclaimed political experts.

There are some holes in this theory and they are as follows:

If in fact Pashinyan was planning to sacrifice Artsakh for an alliance with the West, why didn’t certain elements of the opposition take more drastic action to prevent the coming disaster?
There is something more dangerous than a traitor, and that is someone who is incompetent, a reckless egomaniac and addicted to populism. This is a combination that can be disastrous for any nation, let alone a nation that is at war. This is an option that is excluded in the above theory.

Why would Russia punish Armenia just because of one man? Russia’s President Putin is not a capricious child. If Russia’s interests meant keeping Artsakh fully Armenian, change of leadership in Amenia would not matter to this extent. For any regional superpower, there are easier ways to control the leaders of small countries than setting their house on fire.

Pashinyan has not made any meaningful pro-Western outreach since the revolution. Beyond the cute sock-diplomacy with Canada’s prime minister, a couple of hugs here and there with President Macron of France, a somewhat supportive stance toward the Amulsar mining project which is owned by Western companies, and a symbolic visit to Georgia, his administration has had little or nothing to show for if they are truly pro-Western.

Did Pashinyan have to go through this bloody and painful exercise to hand over territories if he had already set his mind on doing so? A major defeat in the battlefield can have unpredictable consequences for any leader and that is a risk not worth taking.

Regardless of Pashinyan’s personal preferences, Armenia was still fully in the Russian sphere of influence when territories of Artsakh were conceded to Azerbaijan.

Conspiracy Theory 2 – Pre-Revolution Leaders Were the Real Traitors

The most complicated version of this theory claims that the pre-revolution leadership knew the war was coming, and that Armenia was disadvantaged. Therefore, they let the revolution happen so that when Armenia lost the war, Pashinyan would automatically take the blame. According to this theory, the old guard knew they were going to be forced to give up territory. Therefore, they allowed Pashinyan to take the blame and planned for a soft counter-revolution afterward. A milder version of this theory claims that the revolution was inevitable. Once it had happened, the old guard planned a sit-and-wait strategy peppered with occasional cautionary notes on the dangers of erosion of our strategic relationship with Russia. As war and the loss of territories became reality, they saw an opportunity to dethrone Pashinyan and install their own (and Russia’s) man. This theory is most popular among the average citizens in Armenia, and while many citizens hold Pashinyan responsible for his mistakes and miscalculations before and after the war, as well as the number of deaths on the battlefield, they overestimate the role of the old guard in the latest defeat. This is probably what can explain the lack of enthusiasm among Armenia’s citizens in support of the opposition rallies calling for the resignation of Pashinyan (the other option is that people are just tired of wars, revolutions, upheaval, and incompetent leaders).

There are some holes in this theory, as well.

1. Why would the old guard take a chance on relinquishing power to Pashinyan in the first place? If Pashinyan had moved swiftly, many of the old guard members would have been in prison by now. There was no guarantee Pashinyan was going to make mistakes.

2. Did the old guard think the people of Armenia would forgive them for their mistakes? They still haven’t.

3. The old guard is not homogenous, and therefore such a sophisticated scheme on a grand scale may not be plausible.

4. The theory assumes that all members of the old guard (with some having connections and business ventures in Artsakh) and their associates were willing to lose Artsakh just to take revenge on Pashinyan. This is an unlikely scenario.

5. Russia is officially supporting Pashinyan after the war.

In one conspiracy theory, Pashinyan is the only figure at fault for conceding territory, and in the other, it is mainly the old guard who are seen as the agents of defeat. Both viewpoints have a villain or a group of villains, and they are presented as mutually exclusive scenarios. The first theory completely relieves the pre-revolution leadership of responsibility for the situation that lead to the war and losses on the battlefield, and the second, gives Pashinyan a pass on one of the most tragic capitulations in Armenian history.

What is often missing from the discussions, is an honest self-reflection on the causes of this defeat and a re-evaluation of our strengths and areas of opportunity for growth as a nation. Our Diasporan institutions must also self-reflect and realign their priorities if an independent Armenia and an Armenian Artsakh are to continue to exist. Our national discourse needs to change from ‘name your favorite traitor’ to ‘let’s get serious about building a sustainable Armenian state.’ An honest dialogue, however, has no chance of gaining steam as long as the current administration who was in charge (not necessarily fully-responsible for capitulation during the war) is in place. They have shown they are capable of twisting facts and lying to the public to benefit their storyline that relieves them of accountability. They are now a biased party and have conflict of interest in leading this process. This dialogue will also be flawed in the eyes of public if it perceives the process of calls for accountability being advanced only by the old guard. Ironically, the continued passivity of the public will leave the calls for accountability in the hands of the ‘old guard’ alone or will ultimately relieve the current administration of responsibility. Without active public engagement, an institutional process that deals with the accountability of defeat and a roadmap for the future will be impossible. Engagement in conspiracy theories will only polarize the population and ultimately enable leaders to avoid accountability. Whatever happens, we cannot continue looking for scapegoats and spend as much non-quality time as we have been on the recent past. The future is calling, and it does not have to be gloomy.