Publication: Prism Volume: 4 Issue: 13

By Emil Danielyan

The mood was euphoric among Armenia’s intellectual elite following Robert Kocharian’s rise to power last February. Endorsements during the presidential campaign made it clear whom they supported for the presidency. Armenian politicians could only dream of getting the kind of backing the country’s leading intellectuals gave Kocharian. His ideas of “national unity” and “utilization of the nation’s potential” found fertile ground in their milieu. He was seen as the incarnation of their values and aspirations.

Armenia’s intellectuals, who were held in contempt by Kocharian’s predecessor, Levon Ter-Petrossian, saw Kocharian as a man who would at least verbally reckon with them, recognizing their important role in society. In their view, Kocharian was replacing Ter-Petrossian’s “cynical liberalism” with an emphasis on Armenian “spiritual values.” This perception was formed by the new government’s tougher position on Nagorno-Karabakh, its re-legalization of, and alliance with, the nationalist Dashnak party, and its promised crackdown on corruption.

In order to understand the significance of the intelligentsia’s political preferences, one needs to look back at modern Armenian history. It would be no exaggeration to say that it was the intellectuals who transformed the Armenians from an ethno-religious group into a “modern” nation in the latter half of the 19th century. They made Armenia a political entity, with its own agenda and aims.

The spread of nationalist ideas throughout Europe, and the growing national consciousness of its peoples, did not pass the Armenians by. Among them, a new class, educated in the West and in Russia, was beginning to take shape. This new elite laid the foundations for a rebirth of Armenian culture in the Russian and Ottoman Empires. This epoch saw the birth of modern Armenian literature, theater and art, deeply embedded with nationalist sentiments.

The nationalist groups that sprang up in the late 19th century were nurtured by this rebirth. They — and more specifically, the Dashnaks — would soon replace the Armenian Apostolic Church as the main organizing institution, the unofficial authority of a people divided between two empires.

Despite its crucial role as the guardian of national identity and medieval cultural heritage, the Church could not keep up with the pace of transformation. It was simply driven out by the younger educated generation, which was unhappy with the status of the Armenian people and unwilling to tolerate foreign oppression.

To use Anthony Smith’s definitions, Armenia’s national transformation was a process of “vernacular mobilization” by educator-intellectuals, rather than “state-sponsored” nation-building, as occurred in Western Europe. (1) The absence of independent statehood made the Armenian intelligentsia not only the nation’s moral leader, but its political leader as well, representing it in the international arena in the early 20th century.

As Smith writes in his book, nationalist intellectuals needed “to provide cognitive maps and historical moralities for present generations, drawn from the poetic spaces and golden ages of the communal past.” In Armenia’s case, this task was facilitated by the existence of a historical homeland, a long and eventful history, and a rich medieval literature. Looking into that history, with its examples of independent Armenian kingdoms and numerous wars with invaders, intellectuals could find a multitude of examples of the “heroic past” documented in Armenian manuscripts.

Equally important was the fact that centuries of foreign rule did not keep Armenians from preserving a strong sense of national identity. Underlying this is the Armenians’ perception that they are distinct from other peoples of the world. There are several elements to this distinction.

First of all, the Armenian language, although it belongs to the Indo-European family of languages, has no close analogues. This is complemented by a unique script, developed in the fifth century, which is still in use.

Second, there is the culture and religion, which, over time, have become inseparable. Having remained independent of Catholicism and Greek Orthodoxy, the Armenian Church has a strong ethnic dimension. For most Armenians, it is primarily a national symbol.

Another feature is a strong feeling of common descent. It appears that Armenians’ genealogical “purity” has not been disrupted substantially since the Middle Ages, despite a large influx of immigrants. This can be attributed to Armenia’s being surrounded by Muslims, which effectively precluded mixed marriages. Assimilation has only been possible in Armenian diasporas in the Christian world.

All these factors gave pre-modern Armenians, living under different sovereignties, a sense of belonging to the same big family. All this dormant national identity needed was an intellectual boost to transform it into a vibrant sentiment with a political dimension.

The concept of the Armenian nation (“azg”) which resulted was ethnic, rather than civic or territorial, as in the West. Citizens of the Republic of Armenia and Diaspora Armenians are equal members of the “azg.” The concept excludes outsiders, as it implies some genealogical relationship. But it does not presuppose (in general) superiority over foreigners.

Even during the Soviet period, the Armenian intelligentsia continued to play an important role in society. True, it no longer had political power. But for many people, it still represented a moral authority. The Soviet authorities did not oppose this (except during the Stalinist repressions in the 1930s.) They encouraged patriotic discourse which portrayed Soviet Armenia as the realization of the centuries-long aspirations of the Armenian people. Over time, they began to tolerate some degree of nationalist expression from writers and artists, provided that it was not anti-Soviet.

A new intellectual elite came to substitute for those who fled the Bolshevik takeover in 1921. But this elite was turned into a nomenklatura-like class, which was incorporated into the state machine in the form of various artistic unions. It is no wonder that it was not these people who spearheaded the 1988 movement for Nagorno-Karabakh’s unification with Armenia.

The new leaders were lower-ranking, young, hitherto unknown intellectuals (academics, scholars, professionals). They led the republic into independence with a new system of values, in which liberalism and the free market figured prominently. But the poverty of recent years, which resulted from the collapse of the command economy and the war with Azerbaijan, hit the former elite, and intellectuals in general, hard. No longer the recipients of state funding, they found themselves displaced from their former privileged positions.

This alone was enough to make them turn against then-President Ter-Petrossian. He was accused of pursuing “anti-national” policies, destroying the national culture, and later, of “selling” Karabakh to the Azerbaijanis. In turn, the increasingly autocratic president could barely hide his contempt for them.

It is fair to say that by advocating nationalist ideas, the traditional intelligentsia, led by the Soviet-era elite, is attempting to regain its lost status. It has been unable to adapt to the new, chaotic social order. That is why it has been so enthusiastic about Kocharian. Some say that Kocharian’s takeover of the government signals a nationalist revival in Armenia. But before examining this assertion, one must clarify what Armenian nationalism is all about.

Smith defines nationalism as “an ideological movement aiming to attain or maintain autonomy, unity and identity for a social group which is deemed to constitute a nation.” Armenian nationalism fits this definition. Its ultimate aim is the realization of Hay Dat (the Armenian Cause) — the creation of a “free, independent and united Armenia.” The word “united” presupposes claims on the 80 percent of the historical homeland now situated in East Turkey and cleansed of Armenians as a result of the 1915 genocide. But it is unrealistic to expect any Armenian government to regain the territories in the foreseeable future. The more immediate goal of Hay Dat is international recognition of the genocide, a tragedy which has traumatized the nation. The Kocharian government has pledged to include the issue on its foreign policy agenda. This issue is particularly painful for Diaspora Armenians, the descendants of survivors.

The trauma has been somewhat mitigated by military victories in Nagorno-Karabakh, another point on the nationalist agenda. Here, too, the new authorities have gotten tougher.

The other aspect of Armenian nationalism relates to identity and culture. One idea which is quite popular these days among political parties and intellectuals is that of a “national ideology,” a set of values, ethical norms and aspirations to which every Armenian would be committed. It would involve common goals which would unite all Armenians, both in the Diaspora and at home. Its proponents believe that the state must play a crucial role, if not the leading role, in its dissemination. The idea was rejected out of hand by Ter-Petrossian. The new government seems more supportive, but hardly has the intentions or the resources to promote it forcefully.

The nationalist intellectuals demand government support for their activities. They call for Armenian values and traditions to be pervasive in the country’s educational system and culture. For them, “national” topics should dominate artistic works.

But there are dissenters who think otherwise. Henrik Hovannisian, a theater critic and prominent intellectual, warns against the danger of “primitivism” and self-isolation. (2) He believes that the strength of Armenian culture has been its ability to embrace and absorb values of the world (i.e., Christian) civilization. The Armenian script was written under the influence of the Greek alphabet, and the first medieval books were translations of the Bible. The same thing, he says, happened in the 19th century, when European culture became the driving force behind the revival of Armenian literature and theater. Hovannisian views language as the sole genuine national value which maintains the nation’s identity and ensures its openness to the world.

So is Armenia turning nationalist? The answer is, nonetheless, no.

First, its authorities have a wider agenda. President Kocharian is broad-minded enough to understand the realities of the contemporary world, with its economic interdependence. In some respects, his mental horizon is broader than Ter-Petrossian’s, as shown by his greater tolerance toward political opponents. His ability to coopt allies from the former opposition may require concessions to nationalist groups. Dashnak control of the ministries of culture and education may bring a nationalist element to those fields. But there will hardly be a state nationalist policy, let alone a national ideology.

One major reason for this is the lack of popular demand. People are mostly concerned with worldly matters. They will likely maintain a strong sense of national identity and even support the tougher Armenian stand on Karabakh. But one should not expect a nationalist euphoria.

Under these circumstances, the nationalist intelligentsia cannot count on receiving government or popular support. The Soviet-era elite may receive more attention, but is not likely to get material support from the present government. It appears to be lagging behind the rapid changes. Its political influence will continue to wane, as Armenia is already an independent state, with its own political elite and bureaucracy. It is the latter, which will lead and govern the nation.

Perhaps this is a sign that the Armenians are becoming a “normal” nation. Besides, the country’s social fabric has grown more complex in the last few decades. This has sharply decreased the old elite’s intellectual superiority over the rest of the population. It has thus become necessary to redefine who is an intellectual in Armenia today.

It may well be that the old intelligentsia will be supplanted by a much wider educated stratum. According to Hovannisian, it no longer exists as a separate class.


1) Anthony Smith (1991,) “National Identity,” Reno and London, University of Nevada Press

2) Personal interview, May 29, 1998

Emil Danielyan is a political scientist and freelance writer in Yerevan.