BY MARO MATOSIAN
Most of Armenia’s infrastructure, including energy, railways and mining, was sold to Russia to pay off debt. Over a 10-15 year span, Armenia has lost its sovereignty to Russia. However, not only is it subject to economic hegemony, the liberal democratic fabric of Armenian society is under threat. The principles of human rights and democracy are perceived as a tool for the opposition to rally against the establishment. Rightfully so, civil society in post-communist states like Armenia is fighting for human rights and against autocratic and dictatorial rule.
Though unable to categorically forbid human rights as in Soviet times, Russia has shrewdly found a more subtle and effective method in shaking the liberal democratic order by spreading alternative news, lies and fear. Let’s observe more closely how “information” is disseminated in Armenia to create public confusion and derail public opinion, ultimately impeding legislation that advances human rights.
Post-independent Armenia has ratified a number of international treaties that guarantee protection from gender discrimination through specific measures to improve inclusivity in the workforce, education, and economy, as well as to combat gender-based violence. Part of Armenia’s obligation in accordance to these treaties is to educate and train civil servants and punish perpetrators. To date, the state shows no political will to implement such measures. More specific mechanisms are needed than simply stating in the Constitution that “all men and women are equal.”
In 2012, Armenia was prepared to pass well-written legislation for gender equality with a number of provisions to dissuade discrimination in all areas. During this time, we saw how Russia began to finance smear campaigns and use social media to spread falsehoods. Identical video clips and articles – all in the Russian language – appeared in Armenia, Moldova, the Ukraine, and other states that sought to align themselves with European standards. The well-organized campaign had individuals paid by Russian organizations spread misinformation and lies among the population as a scare tactic. Traditionalists objected to the use of the term “gender,” arguing that the legislation would give unwarranted benefits to sexual minorities in Armenia. They equated the word “gender” with homosexuality, pedophilia and zoophilia. Distorting the narrative, they attacked and even threatened women’s and LGBT rights organizations, accusing them of promoting homosexuality.
The Russian-sponsored campaign was virulent and ferocious. They blacklisted many human rights defenders, and frankly, many of us were concerned for our safety. The draft law was erroneously dubbed as a “gay propaganda law.” Subsequently, the title of the gender equality law was changed to the “Law on Equal Rights and Equal Opportunities for Men and Women” and the term “gender” removed from all state documents. This has had a trickle-down effect, to the point where even state universities are discouraged from using the word.
In 2016, the international community pressured Armenia to adopt a domestic violence law in accordance with the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), an international treaty that the State ratified in 1993. For over a decade, women’s rights organizations and feminists have advocated for such a law and shed light on the endemic nature of gender-based violence in the country. To this day, the general public is convinced that domestic violence is a Western concept and not a problem in Armenia. But the more authorities are in denial of the issue, the more cases of gender-based violence and femicide continue to be registered.
Once again ultra-conservative groups have started to actively promote propaganda against the passage of a domestic violence law, as the European Union has made the adoption of the law a precondition to the large amounts of money the government is receiving for other structural improvements. The propaganda has engulfed both Armenia and Russia at a time when the Duma has prepared to decriminalize some forms of domestic violence and child abuse. These measures not only go against human rights but can be fatal for many who are left unprotected by the state. Arch-conservatives and the Armenian Church alike argue that such a law is “anti-family” and interferes in family affairs. Similar arguments around domestic violence were made in the United States in the 70s.
The misinformation propaganda machine has been activated. However, this time civil society is better prepared. Women’s NGOs in Armenia that work to prevent and combat domestic violence have brought high profile court trials into the public eye, which in turn have sparked a huge interest in the media to cover such cases and murders, though in a very sensationalist way. Feminists have worked hard to raise awareness among the population and make this invisible crime visible. Survivors of domestic violence have started to speak out and show other women that there is a way out of living in an inferno of fear and battering. We marched in the streets with banners reading “Silence will kill you” and “Violence is not love.” We widely disseminated our hotline number, appeared in numerous TV shows, gave hundreds of interviews over the years, organized press conferences and had many street events to raise awareness, using evidence-based advocacy as a powerful tool.
Union of Informed Citizens NGO recently carried out investigative journalism that disclosed all the financial backing by Russian organizations funded by the state and even the Russian embassy in Armenia to individuals and organizations in Armenia with the mission of spreading misinformation to the public and creating hysteria and panic. For example, it was found that Russia financed the most active group, Pan-Armenian Parental Committee, which spreads smear campaigns about the domestic violence law through social media and TV programs. Russia has also financed anti-gender grassroots movements, such as Stop G7 and Restoration and Sovereignty as well as the organizations Yerevan Geopolitical Club, Luys Information and Analytical Center, Iravunk newspaper, and the Armenian branch of the Russian Sputnik radio station Sputnik Armenia.
The above-mentioned Russian affiliates carry out vicious and primitive anti-gender campaigns based entirely on lies. Heavily dependent on Russian financing, they have the capacity to disseminate their messages to a wide audience. For example, Hayk Ayvazyan of Stop G7 spread false information about US-funded laboratories in Armenia preparing biological weapons. The famous pro-Russian blogger Tigran Kocharyan (also known as “Pigh”), who advocated against the draft domestic violence law, is also the head of the “What? Where? When?” Russian Club that operates with funding from Vladimir Putin’s Ruskiy Mir Foundation. It is interesting that the majority of these Russian-bought manipulators communicate primarily in Russian while promoting Armenia’s sovereignty from the West.
Russia has well understood how easy it is to manipulate post-soviet societies using discourse steeped in racism, misogyny, homophobia, and xenophobia. In post- independence societies that underwent enormous transformations and continue to suffer from poor socio-economic conditions, the only thing that people can hold on to is the family. Thus, perceived threats on the family become a very sensitive issue.
Yet, instead of educating and emancipating society, Russia’s politics manipulate and breed conservatism and anti-West sentiments. The local Armenian government and church by its de facto alliance with Russia also are part of the campaign to spread fear among the population. No one talks about the numerous deaths due to domestic violence or the hundreds of victims who come to Women’s Support Center with their children to escape abusive and violent husbands or mothers-in-law; yet, they purport that passing legislation to protect primarily women and children is akin to destroying the Armenian family.
In an excellent article published by the New York Times, “Kompromat or the Danger of Doubt and Confusion in a Democracy,” the author points out how leaders such as Putin use technology as a tool for repression: “Material is manufactured as needed to serve political purpose… Deliberately accurate and fabricated details are blended in to create distrust and confusion.” For example, a law to prevent domestic violence in Armenia will guarantee the opening of shelters, protective orders for victims to keep the abusers away, training of professionals in the field and appropriate punishment for perpetrators (instead of a small fine for abusing one’s wife for a number of years). Shelters, protective orders and just punishment are misinterpreted by these conservatives as interfering with the family and not as protecting and saving women and children from abuse. They wrongly argue that one slap can get one into prison or take children away from families, which we know to be complete lies.
We as Armenians must fight to protect women’s rights. Manipulations that normalize violence against women are a threat to the entire society and a huge cost on the state. Victims who are controlled, isolated and not allowed to work cannot escape poverty and care for their families. Violence is a learned behavior; witnessing violence leads many boys to become abusers and girls to enter abusive relationships. Women suffer with poor health and emotional well being, and children perform poorly in school as they become withdrawn or socially inept. Many girls are sexually abused, as well, and become emotionally scarred. We must put an end to this. Our government must take a responsible stance towards its citizens and condemn such behavior publicly rather than allow Russian-sponsored individuals carry out propaganda campaigns.