Sunday, April 29, 2018

Whither Armenia's 'Velvet Revolution'?

To say that recent events in Armenia have caught observers – including yours truly - by surprise would an understatement.  Its hybrid, semi-authoritarian regime, while highly unpopular, appeared relatively well-entrenched: all major challenges to its hold on power – usually following one of the country’s perennially flawed elections – had been successfully seen off in recent decades.  The population had seemingly been cowed into apathy through a deft combination of repression (with the killing of opposition demonstrators in March 2008 as a particular low point), electoral bribes, administrative resources, ‘political technologies’, and the ever-present safety valve of emigration, to which the country had lost hundreds of thousands of its best and brightest – and possibly most rebellious – since independence. 
The ongoing ‘velvet revolution’, as its protagonists call it, has put most of these certainties in doubt: a new generation of activists, most of whom are too young to remember the collapse of the Soviet Union, has taken over the streets of Armenia’s capital, Yerevan.  The trigger was an attempted sleight of hand typical of the post-Soviet regimes that perennially hover between fully-fledged authoritarianism and pretend democracy: the ruling Republican Party had ensured a transition from a presidential to a parliamentary constitution in recent years, only to hand the now powerful Prime Ministership to the former President, Serzh Sargsyan, in a bid to allow him to maintain power beyond his two-term, ten-year limit, turning what appeared to be a welcome piece of democratic reform into a legislative hoax.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

On Trump, the Populist Wave, and the Forgotten Virtues of Qualitative Approaches

What really bothers me about Trump’s win is not just the clear disconnect it has revealed between the political and economic elites and the ‘man on the street’; it is also the way it has revealed a dangerous blind spot in the social sciences, which have, in general, either moved towards greater quantification (and therefore an increased distance between themselves and their subject-matter), or have systematically prioritised societal discourses and practices as top-down, unidirectional, elite-led phenomena.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

The War on Experts: Why it Matters

Politicians like power, and they do so for a variety of reasons.  Most believe their ideas deserve to be realised for the sake of the public good, or at the very least rationalise their ambition in terms of this adherence to a higher ideal; very few would unashamedly admit to vying for power for its own sake.  In democratic states, the distinction is, in any case, hard to make: no politician was ever elected on a platform of unadulterated, unjustified ambition.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

How War in Nagorno-Karabakh Could Spread – and Become a Major Problem for Europe

Every now and then, the West is reminded of a quarrel in a far-away country between people of whom it knows nothing (as Neville Chamberlain once said). Nagorno-Karabakh is such a place, a tiny enclave that has caused strife between neighbouring Azerbaijan and Armenia even before they gained independence from the Soviet Union.

While recognised as part of Azerbaijan by the international community, the ethnic Armenians living in the Nagorno-Karabakh region fought an independence war to a standstill in 1994. It is now essentially an independent republic supported by Armenia, and while the fragile truce that has held from 1994 on has been regularly breached, the latest bout of fighting is the most serious escalation of violence to date.

Monday, May 11, 2015

The Ties that Bind: War, History and Power in and around Today’s Russia

It is difficult indeed to overstate the importance of victory day in Russia.  In its solemnity, it is as close to a religious festival as any secular event could be.  The Soviet Union was adept at filling the void left by its Marxist atheism with ritual and symbolism, and, more than on other days of the contemporary calendar, its imprint was still palpable on May 9th, 2015. 

Thursday, November 20, 2014

A Small Exercise in Speculation: In the Caucasus, All Roads Lead through Tbilisi

The unresolved conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan experienced a sudden flare-up in tensions last week when the Azeri armed forces shot down an Armenian Mi-24 attack helicopter engaged in military exercises near the ‘line of contact’.  A video published by Azerbaijan’s defence ministry showed what appeared to be a shoulder-fired ground-to-air missile homing into one of two low-flying aircraft, resulting in a fiery explosion and subsequent crash.  As of yet, continued shelling has reportedly prevented the Armenian side from retrieving the bodies of the three crew members presumed to have died in the incident. 

Sunday, March 2, 2014

The Empire That Will Not Speak Its Name

A few months ago, I posed the question – was Putin’s Eurasian Uniona pre-electoral sideshow, or a fully-fledged quest for renewed empire?  I believe this question has been answered beyond a reasonable doubt in recent days.  But should that surprise anyone? Since 1991, maintaining control over its ‘Near Abroad’ has clearly been part of Russia’s core interests.  Even while the Kremlin paid lip service to the territorial integrity and sovereignty of ‘its’ former Soviet Republics, it countered any attempt by them to join Euro-Atlantic structures with subversion, and, in Georgia’s case, successful provocation and open military intervention.  Dimitri Medvedev – once supposedly the ‘friendly’, Westernised face of the Putin regime – publicly declared this policy when he referred to Russia’s ‘sphere of privileged interests’ during the Georgian-Russian war of 2008.  And even under Boris Yeltsin, Western policymakers knew perfectly well that inviting former Soviet Republics to join NATO would have been inviting mischief; they had enough trouble convincing the Russians to accept any form of eastwards expansion, full stop.