During a campaign stop, Armenia’s second president, Robert Kocharyan, said that he plans to ‘set strict controls’ on the work of organisations funded by foreign donors.
‘They will either be banned or will operate as foreign agents under strict control,’ Kocharyan said on June 13 during a campaign stop in Armenia’s Tavush province. The proposal appears to echo Russia’s recent ‘foreign agent’ law, which has led to the censure and closure of civil society and media organisations, including the independent Latvia-based Russian-language media outlet Meduza.
It was far from the first time that Kocharyan has railed against the ‘destructive’ role of foreign-funded organisations in Armenia, and Kocharyan is only one among many voices on the Armenian right to insist that George Soros is somehow aiming to ‘destroy’ Armenia.
The discussions over the role of ‘Soros men’ — that is, people who allegedly receive marching orders from Hungarian-American financier and philanthropist George Soros — became prominent during and after the 2018 revolution.
The conspiracy theory has its origins in Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban’s campaign against George Soros and Soros-founded organisations such as the Open Society and the Central European University, but has gained traction with far-right groups all around the world. According to its Armenian proponents, organisations with ties to George Soros are seeking to use issues like women’s rights, queer rights, to undermine Armenia’s ‘national values’ and weaken the country.
The attacks on any Western-funded organisations and media outlets — usually identified with Soros, regardless of where they received their funding— became even more vicious after Armenia’s defeat in the Second Nagorno-Karabakh war.
In the riots that broke out in Yerevan the night that the tripartite peace declaration was announced, rioters attacked foreign-funded offices and journalists — including the local offices of the Open Society Foundation and the offices of Radio Free Europe.
Pandering to the far-right
According to Gegham Vardanyan, the editor-in-chief of the Media Initiatives Center, the urge to blame outside forces after the defeat is to be expected.
‘It’s easy and comfortable to find people who are to blame for everything’, he told OC Media. ‘People like Soros or Bill Gates are always there. And this is not a case for Armenia only’.
He added that Kocharyan’s invocation of the spectre of George Soros might be an attempt to play to particular parts of his base. ‘In the case of Mr Kocharyan’, he said, there are also many apparent far-right groups and extremists among his supporters and such statements might be addressed to them'
Vardanyan said he fears that a foreign-agents law, if passed, will eviscerate some of the best journalistic outlets in the country. ‘Almost all media outlets that are maintaining a balance — providing people with information beyond the propaganda of certain political forces [...] are Western-funded in one way or another.’
Daniel Ioannisyan, the project coordinator of the Union of Informed Citizens NGO, often smeared as a ‘foreign-funded NGO’ by the Armenian right, told OC Media that the proposal is nothing less than an attack on Armenia’s democratic institutions.
‘Civil society organisations are a class enemy for [Kocharyan and his allies], and civil society is one of Armenia’s most established institutions’, Ioannisyan told OC Media, adding that it’s not surprising that the former authorities are pushing this agenda, because when they were in power they also ‘acted against the democratic institutions of Armenia’.