“Avoid Angering Russia” or how Russian propaganda works in Armenia


“Avoid Angering Russia” or how Russian propaganda works in Armenia

The phrase “Russian propaganda” has become commonplace in societies and news agendas of many countries, and Armenia is no exception in this regard. However, what exactly is Russian propaganda, how does it work and what goals does it achieve? We talked about this with political scientist Edgar Vardanyan, who recently conducted research on the topic of Russian propaganda and agreed to share his insights and conclusions with us.

Photo: Photolure


Mr. Vardanyan, what channels does Russia use to promote its propaganda in Armenia?

There are a number of tools. Russian TV channels are amongst them. They operate directly in Armenia and are widely available. For example, a number of Russian TV channels are part of a public multiplex. In my estimation, and also according to several studies, they are mainly watched by people of older  age. However, this is a fairly serious tool, and in fact, propaganda theses are directly disseminated in Armenia through Russian state media. The second tool, which is aimed more at the youth, in addition to telegram channels, is, of course, one-day sites that appear in unknown ways, then quickly disappear, but are constantly referred to on social networks.

As the next tool, I would mention Russian proxy forces, such as  bloggers and political figures. This includes people who are directly connected to the previous authorities, and, in fact, have always been known for openly disseminating Russian propaganda. They always said that Armenia could only exist thanks to Russia and Russia only. They, act not as Russian propagandists, but as Armenian figures and influencers.

But I believe, and a number of studies confirm this, including our research with Mikael Zolyan, which we conducted with the support of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation, that many Russian narratives are exactly repeated in our Armenian media, and these narratives are disseminated precisely by the Armenian public, politicians and, bloggers.

And we must not forget about one more tool that is used, one might say, in a hybrid way - sometimes directly, sometimes indirectly. We are talking about those Russian-speaking propagandists, citizens of Russia, but ethnic Armenians, who are disseminating pro-Russian propaganda adapted to Armenian reality. For example, those such  as Aram Gabrelyanov, Margarita Simonyan, and others. They themselves use different tools - social networks, personal blogs, pro-Russian Armenian media, and so on. This shows how  Russian propaganda is being developed specifically for the Armenian environment - in addition to the Russian propaganda that is addressed to the whole world, universal propaganda, and in addition to the propaganda designed for the Russian population, which also directly penetrates into Armenia through the Russian media. They also refer to Armenian-speaking citizens of Armenia who conduct social and political activities in Armenia and have an obvious pro-Russian orientation. They also use different tools — social networks and media outlets, for example, the newspaper “Iravunk”, “168 Zham” and so on, as well as Facebook, and Telegram channels. Facebook is probably one of the most serious tools, along with telegram channels. Of course, we should not forget about YouTube.


Have you noticed a change in the level of influence of Russian propaganda in Armenia? Is it possible to talk about a reduction in influence after 2020?

I believe that the influence of Russian propaganda in Armenia has decreased significantly. Again, this is not just an opinion. I recently conducted focus groups that were not directly related to propaganda, and the topic was a bit different, but when you talk to people about something, they bring up different points. Through this, I noticed that the overwhelming majority of focus group participants had an anti-Russian, anti-Kremlin attitude, and they brought up  Russian propaganda points. Although focus groups are not quantitative research, they cannot be said to fully reflect the picture of society, but they do provide some insight.

There are also a number of studies that draw attention to this issue. For example, a survey by the Republican Institute indicates that negative attitudes towards Russia in Armenia have increased. And as you know, the political situation also testifies to this - we see that the pro-Russian forces are weak in Armenia, they cannot shape the agenda to any extent or even influence the agenda, they are unable to organize mass protests, and very few people come to their demonstrations. This is too much of an indicator.

Also, the Armenian society, after experiencing so many shocks and traumas, essentially suggests that we need international guarantees, Western guarantees so that we can ensure our security, development, and so on. This is another indicator that the influence of Russian propaganda has, I would say, sharply decreased in Armenia. If it wasn’t, it is unlikely that people would have a positive attitude towards Western guarantees or would consider them necessary, it is unlikely that they would say that Russia is not a reliable country or a reliable ally, or even an ally at all. Even those who in the past had a pro-Russian orientation today say that Russia has betrayed Armenia.


Can you give an example of a successfully spread idea or narrative from Russia in Armenia?

When we say that they managed to form a narrative, we still cannot talk about how successful they were, what segments or groups of the population were influenced by this propaganda. This aspect should be put aside for now. But there was a thesis that the world is completely based on force, democratic values are fake, everyone wants to suppress us, deceive us, and, probably, only Russia can resist this pressure. This propaganda had an impact on a certain group of people.


What can you say about hidden channels of propaganda, such as universities, cultural centers, books, cinemas, etc?

There was a time, when films had a great influence, but now I would not say that the Armenian society consumes propaganda films, or movies that contain propaganda narratives, even if hidden. Talk shows may work better than movies, but they also work better for the older generations. As to cultural centers, then, of course. But they have their contingent, they are not widespread — a very limited number of people feed from these centers.

Again, it is quite difficult to provide evidence, but based on my experience and contacts, I can say that there are a lot of people with obviously pro-Russian sentiments in the academic environment. These people take advantage of their audiences, influence young people, and try to promote the talking points of Russian propaganda. At least the points that I mentioned, that democracy is an artificial concept, the world is a cynical place, the USA and the West are pursuing the idea of the “golden billion” (the theory of the Earth overpopulation - ed.), promoting conspiracy theories, which are an important part of Russian propaganda. Again, the idea that without Russia, Armenia is lost, and nothing should be done that would anger Russia. There is another important thesis that is being promoted in Armenia by local influencers: You should never take actions that might be perceived as unfriendly towards Russia, because in such cases, we will all suffer. There is an element of blackmail, spreading fear, an obvious element of manipulation of our dependence on Russia. They even say that Russia has tools of influence and can punish us.

One of the most important characteristics of Russian propaganda is that it is most often based not on the idea that Russia is good, but rather on the idea that everyone else in the world is bad, and if you do not stand with Russia, you will be punished. Conversely, you will be able to take little advantage of your position if you give yourself up completely to Russia.

There’s another layer to this, as social conservative ideologies enter our information field through Russian propaganda. It’s something referred to as traditional or family values.

Russia is trying to promote this idea in Armenia in the following way: The West wants to distort different societies and thus establish power over them. If you establish power over the souls of people, then it is much easier to control their states. And now they want to destroy the Armenian family. This idea is spreading. And Russia tells us: We are fraternal people, and Russia acts as a defender of traditional values, therefore, if you do not want to lose your national identity, if you do not want the traditional family, values to be destroyed in Armenia, then you should ask for our help, and we will help you. Because we have power, we are a nuclear country, and we come forward precisely with the agenda of protecting traditional values.

Social conservatives in both the US and Hungary are talking about absolutely the same traditional or family values today. For example, Hungarian Prime Minister, Viktor Orban, says the same thing. Our neighboring country, Georgia, seems to be moving along the path of integration with the EU. But their previous prime minister, and the current one too, talk about traditional family values, how the West is trying to distort their national identity, and so on.


Is there adequate opposition to Russian propaganda in Armenia, if it is necessary at all?

That’s a good question. You know, I think there is very little resistance in the education system. Because so many people continue to carry out their propaganda, and it seems that no action is being taken against it. Yes, we can say that various subjects of civil society conduct programs of civic education, media literacy, and sometimes, to a certain extent, they manage to change the situation. But this is a disproportionate response, it is not enough.

Quite, I would say, disproportionate, but not in terms of inefficiency, but on the contrary, quite effective is the work of the political news block of the Public Television Channel – to be exact, it’s a block that prepares and broadcasts news, organizes discussions and debates. For example, the Petros’s program (political debates show with host Petros Ghazaryan - ed.). He enjoys great authority in society, he has a serious, large audience, and I believe that, although the principles of unbiased journalism are violated in a certain way, the Armenian authorities use the Public TV as a tool against Russian propaganda. To some extent, this is a negative phenomenon. Public TV should be as unbiased as possible, and the authorities should not interfere with its work. But if we take into account the goal, and this is the fight against destructive anti-state propaganda, we can say that the state is taking the necessary measures, although it uses tools that cannot be used for these purposes. There are not many other tools available today, and this issue is of course up for debate.


Is it possible that the influence of Russian propaganda could return to its previous level in Armenia?

The influence of Russian propaganda could be restored if they achieve success in the geopolitical arena, if, for example, Russia wins a clear victory in the Russo-Ukrainian war. If Russia can find more allies. If Russia manages, by some means, to ensure that the authorities in Armenia feel more limited due to dependence on Russia. If Russia invests heavily in the radical anti-democratic opposition, or finds new faces who will promote Russian propaganda and who are not directly connected with the previous authorities, but are also carriers of anti-democratic propaganda. And if all of a sudden, Russia  convinces some part of the Armenian society that it will resolve issues of our security, for example, in the context of Armenian-Azerbaijani relations. I’m not saying it will do it, but rather it will persuade the society, although this in itself will mean strengthening Russian propaganda. In such scenarios, some may decide that, although Russia betrayed us, that is already in the past, and now it is back to helping us. “Look how many weapons they sold us, look, they made a reprimand to Azerbaijan.” Then yes, their influence may recover a little. But all these factors must coincide, one of them alone is not enough, but the whole complex can change something to a certain extent.

And, of course, lastly, and most importantly, it is very important that those who promote democratic values are not passive. If they suddenly begin to show passiveness, they say that everything has already been decided, Russia no longer has influence here, people’s views themselves will become democratic, a culture of activism will form itself in Armenia, and so on.

This could create a vacuum in which Russian propagandists can step up their activities. Therefore, I believe that regardless of everything, it is necessary for the bearers of democratic values and the activism culture to take additional actions; disseminate their ideas, so that people can have a better understanding of what democracy is, what civil society is, what the West is and what it stands for. Because this is often used in propaganda narratives. It is important to say that democracy is not a threat and cannot destroy national identification.

It is also extremely important for people to understand that some of their ideas, approaches, and behavior patterns must change because they might be destructive, do not contribute to development, can contain a certain amount of violence, and create conflicts. As long as these internal changes occur among a significant part of the population, they will be fertile ground for effective propaganda in any authoritarian country. If not Russia, then China, for example, or any other country. So, I think it's very important to build resilience and work to strengthen the culture of democracy and activism among the wider Armenian population. It is not enough to just work in schools. This may be effective in the long term, but it is today, in the short and medium term, that it is important to work with the adult population. It is usually more inert, and there are usually no educational projects for adults, nor are there any effective media outlets for adults, as it is mainly aimed at the youth, and adults often remain outside of these topics and become fertile ground for external propaganda.

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