The push to cut the umbilical cord with the Soviet Union started early in Armenia. In March 1991 the Soviet Union was on life support and the central government called for a referendum asking the citizens whether the USSR should continue in a reformed structure - about 78 percent of voters voted yes. Not in Armenia - the republic was one of the few which boycotted the ballot altogether. Yet 25 years since becoming an independent state, the umbilical cord has been cut only nominally.
Today Moscow retains a strong grip on Yerevan - less evident, yet more troublesome. Russian soldiers co-patrol the borders with Iran and Turkey, Russian military base is firmly settled in the country, and Armenia is a member of the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union (EEU). Moreover as the economy struggles, Russia is the primary destination for Armenian workers in search of jobs. In 2015 their remittances contributed to 14.5 percent of state GDP. In 2016, 60 percent of the $896.9 million transferred from abroad to Armenia came from the Russian Federation.
Armenia was one of the 18 countries surveyed in 2015 by the Washington-based Pew Research Center on religious beliefs and national belonging. The research showed that 71 percent of Armenians favour “strong ties with Russia”versus a bare 8 percent calling for stronger relations with the European Union (EU). The protracted conflict with neighbouring Azerbaijan over the Armenian-populated region of Nagorno-Karabakh means that Armenians see Russia as a “protector” against its neighbour and is key for the country’s security.
83% of Armenians agree that a ‘Strong Russia is needed to counterbalance the West.’ 71% of surveyed people admit that ‘Our national values are in conflict with Western values.’
Critics maintain that this clear pro-Russian attitude is a result of intense, and effective, Russian propaganda. Russian media, specifically TV channels, dominate the post-Soviet information space and voice the Kremlin’s views on a wide range of topics - including what the West, and its values, represent to the effect of the USSR’s dissolution.
In 2016, a platform bringing together non-profits and journalists monitored the media of six countries of the former Soviet bloc - and currently part of the EU’s Eastern Partnership (EaP) - including Armenia, and Russia with the aim of unveiling pro-Russia messages and propaganda used to instil political ideologies in the media.
“The propaganda component of their programmes has a significant impact on the public opinion, particularly in the EaP countries,” states the report. “This circumstance is all the more important, as, given the lack of equivalent information exchange between EaP countries, largely their image of each other is formed indirectly, through Russian media.”
The Yerevan Press Club took part in the research monitoring the Russian-language newspaper Novoye Vremya and the online outlets Iravunk and Sputnik Armenia. Boris Navasardyan, the club’s chairman, maintains that “Armenia is definitely under the Russian propaganda influence and these three chosen media organizations are prone to echoing the stereotypes which are common in the Russian media.”
The research showed that the propaganda machine targets specific topics depending on the country - in Ukraine the 2014 Maidan demonstration from “the revolution of dignity” was manipulated into “the corruption of dignity” corruption after the revolution, while in Armenia the propaganda focus is the civil society as “the 5th echelon,” meaning the state’s internal enemy.
Even on issues not directly connected to Russia, public opinion seems to think along the same lines. According to the same PEW survey, 79 percent of of Armenians consider the collapse of the Soviet Union a bad thing and only 15 percent consider it good.
(source: Pew Research Center)
But it is on values that the ideological juxtaposition between the Kremlin and the West have clashed - and LGBTIQ rights is one of the key front lines. Russia has been able to capitalize on the deep homophobia in mostly traditional societies of the former Soviet Union, where church holds a strong influence in countries like Armenia, and turn into a leverage mechanism against pro-Western forces.
The repetitive narrative has essentially defined the West as a supporter of homosexuality - and the public opinion has been clear in its response.
The PEW research found that 98% of Armenians think that homosexuality is morally wrong.
(source: Pew Research Center)
The Russian media offer in Armenia is vast. Three Russian TV state channels are licenced to broadcast - Pervy Kanal (1st Channel), RTR Planeta, and Kultura - plus a plethora of channels which air via cable TV. Russian is the unofficial second language in the country and people watch films in Russian and follow the news in Russian - the result is that what most Armenians know about international events, like the ongoing conflicts in Syria and Eastern Ukraine, from Russian sources.
Specifically covering current affairs, RTR Planeta and Pervy Kanal reflect the Russian government’s official line.
“International events are hardly ever covered in Armenian media or are dealt with superficially,” explains Navasardyan. “Thus the citizens turn to Russian media as the only alternative.”
As an example of Russian propaganda in Armenia, the research Navasardyan took part in picked a Brexit-related cartoon published on June 29, 2016 in Iravunk - the caption read “The English rats were the first ones to leave the sinking EU.”
The monitoring project showed that in Armenia the Russian propaganda often uses the so called “traveling” topics, that is recurrent topics across the scope, for example the NGOs and civil society representatives as, “the West’s fifth column.”
Examples range from the affirmation of Armenia’s welfare thanks to Russia:
“The delivery of the weaponry to the participants of Nagorno-Karabakh conflict by Russia is a measure to maintain a balance of forces. If Russia did not supply it, someone else would do it with worse consequences for security.”
Or they target directly Western institutions:
“The European Union, its institutions and policies (the Schengen Agreement, Neighborhood policy, social policy, security, etc.) are coming to an end.”
Large scale events like demonstrations or elections offer the opportunity to disseminate false or twisted information - or to block what or who authorities do not please.
A wave of attacks by bots and trolls of Russian origin aimed at the #armvote17 (April 2017 parliamentary elections hashtag) was against the civil society in Armenia.
A day before the latest parliamentary elections on April 2nd, 2017, a wave of attacks by bots and trolls used the #armvote17 to jeopardize Armenia’s civil society. Messages like “American money to fund protests post-electoral protests in Armenia’ or “NGOs will be trying to disturb the elections in Armenia,” flooded social media.
These tweets attached a shot of a fake e-mail sent by USAID, the United States’ development agency, which stated that the agency funded “democratic societies” in Armenia to stage protests in order to destabilize the country. The US embassy in Yerevan intervened showing that the message was a bogus by pointing out logical and spelling mistakes in the text. The e-mail was sent from a Gmail address instead from the official organization’s domain usaid.gov.
Ben Nimmo and Donara Barojan of the Washington-based Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab (DFRLab) found out that dozens of Russian-language accounts that shared the fake USAID email featured similar patterns of behavior, style, and tone suggesting they are part of a coordinated group of bots. All of the accounts were created over a year ago, had few followers and repeatedly tweeted similar phrases and images, often multiple times from the same profile.
Many of the accounts had tweets with #ДимонОтветит (Dimon will be held responsible) hashtag about anti-corruption protests in Russia. In case of #ДимонОтветит the bots tried to make the theme look silly by posting tweets unrelated to the issue.
The attack on #armvote17 hashtag by bots and trolls showed that the virtual space of Armenia is vulnerable to manipulative attacks and misinformation. The volume fell short of a critical mass but it was significant enough to show that a massive attack could temporarily paralyze the system.
A sign that the umbilical cord is far from being totally cut.
cover photo: Tina Rataj-Berard