Armen Grigoryan. The origins and use of some propaganda techniques and conspiracy theories

11-03-2020 13:50:17   | Armenia  |  Articles and Analyses
INTRODUCTION
 


Disinformation, fake news, and
conspiracy theories have been a part of the Armenian political discourse for a long time, also long before the Internet was there. A part of the younger generation of Armenians may be less aware about some realities, so the narrative about the early era of independence, or, more generally, about the 1990s being “years of darkness and cold” still finds its way sometimes. Middle-aged people may easily remember the propaganda campaign against the top state officials of that time, who were accused of shutting down the Armenian nuclear power plant (which, in fact, had been shut down by a decree of the Soviet government in 1989) and “guzzling fuel oil” (i.e. misappropriating it), thereby causing a shortage of electricity. The top propaganda topic, however, was “selling Karabakh”: that is how propaganda labeled suggestions about solving the conflict on the basis of compromise.
 
The “selling Karabakh” issue ultimately became a pretext used by the then Prime Minister of Armenia, Robert Kocharyan, the minister of interior and national security Serzh Sargsyan, and the minister of defense Vazgen Sargsyan to label President Levon Ter-Petrossian a “defeatist” and to force him to resign in 1998. It is hardly a coincidence that “selling Karabakh” is again one of the principal topics of the current propaganda campaign against Nikol Pashinyan’s government, led by media, NGOs, and other structures controlled by Robert Kocharyan, Serzh Sargsyan, and their proxies.
 
Although the mentioned propaganda topics are country-specific, it is still possible to draw a parallel, albeit distant, between the “years of darkness and cold” and the “rough 90s” narrative of Russian state propaganda presenting Vladimir Putin’s rule as an era of unprecedented stability and prosperity. At the same time, the origins of some recurring propaganda narratives currently used by the adversaries of the Armenian Velvet Revolution, as well as some parallels with similar phenomena abroad, are rather obvious. Some of such narratives and propaganda methods are reviewed in this Research.
 
THE NOTION OF “PERFIDIOUS WEST” CORRUPTING OUR “SPIRITUAL VALUES”
 
During parliamentary hearings on the planned education reform on December 20, 2019 MP Naira Zohrabyan from the opposition faction Prosperous Armenia concluded her passionate speech against the government’s reform proposal by a “famous quote,” which turned out to be a rather detailed depiction of the so-called “Dulles plan” – a plot to destroy the USSR by corrupting the moral values of the Soviet nation, allegedly developed by the would-be CIA director Allen Dulles in 1946. Mrs. Zohrabyan could be unaware that the “Dulles Plan,” which was published in Russia in the 1990s and became the core of a conspiracy theory, is actually based on an excerpt from a fiction novel by Anatoly Ivanov published in 1971, The Eternal Call – a piece of Soviet propaganda. Her apparent ignorance might perhaps be the result of exposure to Russian television broadcasts or other materials loaded with conspiracy theories, and a lack of critical thinking.
Quite significantly, conspiracy theories have become a part of the Russian mainstream politics. For example, at a conference organized by the Russian Ministry of Defense in 2016, a high-ranked employee of the General Staff of the Russian army based his presentation on a fake quotation from a speech by Mitt Romney, who had allegedly said “we destroyed the USSR, and we will destroy Russia” and had suggested measures for demoralizing the Russian society during the 2012 U.S. presidential campaign. The quotation resembled fragments of the “Dulles plan.” 
 
The West’s alleged moral decline exemplified by worship of material values, homosexuality, and sinfulness has been a recurrent topic in the Armenian political discourse for about two decades. Armenia applied for the Council of Europe membership in 1996, and joined that institution in 2001. Ever since, some commitments adopted by Armenia with regard to international standards, have been opposed by certain political actors. There have been numerous absurd claims that Western values are equal to the apostasy of “traditional” religious beliefs, i.e. the teaching of the Armenian Apostolic Church, and sexual perversions. 
 
That kind of reasoning was not a unique Armenian phenomenon. For example, famous Polish intellectual Adam Michnik noted:
Post-communist ethnic chauvinism is often buttressed by the political exploitation of religion: religion which aspires to the role of a political ideology – often of the new dominant state ideology. Such a religion… is animated by the spirit of integrationism, of a fortress under siege, of a crusade against a godless world. … He wants to evangelise through the institutions of the state. He demands legal privileges for his own Church. He claims that a liberal order and the principle of a neutral, non-denominational state mean discrimination against religious people. He warns against closer links with the European Union, which he sees as Babylon, the seat of sin and corruption, the civilisation of death, the kingdom of pornography, abortion, contraception and divorce. 
 
In the recent decade or so, anti-Western sentiments gained additional strength due to widespread media coverage and, most probably, also significant financial support, as Putin’s regime began promotion of a socially conservative agenda in Russia, accompanied by similar propaganda in other countries, presenting Russia as the guardian of unique spirituality (dukhovnost’), Christian values and traditional family. Manipulations, aiming at promotion of Russia’s image of a Christian conservative entity morally superior to the “nihilistic” and “decadent” West have been used not only in the post-Soviet countries, but in Central Europe as well. 
 
Characteristically, while under Serzh Sargsyan’s presidency Armenia’s government was negotiating the Association Agreement with the EU, the opponents of Europeanization, such as the so-called “parents’ committee” and other organizations posing as guardians of “family values threatened by imported western perversions” claimed that Eurasian integration would be preferable because Russia, contrary to the West, would not ask to “promote non-traditional values and immorality.” An NGO focusing on vilification of western democracy, the Yerevan Geopolitical Club, led by the same person as the “parents’ committee”, said in a statement: “there is a clash between two geopolitical poles, one is the west and the other is the Russian Federation with its allies … Today, only this eastern bloc has in this or that way presented a challenge to the values of dehumanization.”  In 2013, when few months before the expected signing of the Association Agreement this kind of propaganda reached its peak, a draft anti-discrimination law submitted by the Ombudsman was being discussed. A subdivision of the Public Council of Armenia criticized it in rather characteristic terms: “It is an irrefutable fact that the draft establishes grounds for the legalization of immorality and perversion … the law will make it legal to promote sexual minorities and propaganda of their lifestyle … the ultimate depravity will be unavoidable.”  After Serzh Sargsyan’s decision not to sign the Association Agreement but to join the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union instead, propaganda of that kind temporarily calmed down, then again intensified after the session of the Euronest Parliamentary Assembly in Yerevan in March 2015, when EU representatives suggested the possibility of a new framework for cooperation. 
 
Ironically, Serzh Sargsyan’s Republican Party of Armenia (RPA), Robert Kocharyan’s supporters, and their proxies openly became the principal advocates of anti-Western sentiments, anti-globalism, sexism, and related national-populist rhetoric after losing power as a result of the Velvet Revolution.  Such shift of attitudes, resulting in huge financial and media support (perhaps up to 80 percent of Armenian media remains under their control) to the instigators
of “culture war,” is obviously driven by the urge to brainwash the population and ultimately to regain power. Yet, it is also worth remembering that during RPA’s rule its and its satellites’ adherence to western values and international commitments used to be half-hearted and insincere.
 
TELEVISION AS A PROPAGANDA TOOL
 
The current propaganda campaign in Armenia is mainly operated by the former regime’s media resources, NGOs and “civic activists” (whose activities will be reviewed subsequently in this paper). However, the recent news about the head of Robert Kocharyan’s office and one of chief campaigners, Victor Soghomonyan, getting hired by the Russian RT  is a good reason to remind about the role of Russian media, especially the television, as a propaganda tool.
 
It is worth noting that after the dissolution of the USSR, the ongoing transmission of Russian television channels was not just offered to post-Soviet countries for free; it rather was an offer that could not be refused. Music and entertainment shows, TV series and other products have been a part of the Russian propaganda machine, romanticizing Soviet nostalgia; creating a heroic image of the Soviet and contemporary Russian army and law enforcement agencies, as well as glorifying Russia in general; showing Vladimir Putin as a strong and principled leader; decrying American “imperialism” and “unipolar world”; promoting the notion of “historical unity” of the peoples formerly united under Russian rule in the empire and then the USSR; spreading mythologized interpretations of historical events and conspiracy theories; and so forth.
 
George Mchedlishvili notes in a paper on some changes of attitudes in the three South Caucasus countries that as the gap between the Russian political elite and “friendly” businesses on the one hand, and the rest of society on the other, has been widening (as evidenced, for example, by the rising Gini coefficient, which measures income inequality), the Russian media portray Western societies as characterized by the same ailment – riddled with income inequality and corrupt elites. … They present imperfections and corruption scandals as typical of the Western political and socio-economic system. Also common are … stories of economic woes in the United States and Europe. … reporting on Eastern European countries either explicitly states or gives an impression that the accession to the EU is ill-advised: detrimental not only to their economies but also to their national identities. The goal of this campaign is … stripping the West of any moral high ground. 
 
Not surprisingly, many citizens of the post-Soviet countries have adopted views influenced by Russian propaganda, as regards a number of international issues. Kerry Longhurst notes: “The thrust of the pro-Russian/anti-Europe/pro-Eurasian Economic Union parties and figures … is powerful in a country where many Russian speakers are ultimately influenced by watching Russian TV channels …, which are their primary source of information and opinion on political and economic issues”;  this statement is valid not only to Moldova, which is the main subject of Longhurst’s article. It would hardly be an exaggeration to say that in the 1990s and early 2000s, in Armenia and some other countries public attitudes towards significant international issues, such as the wars in former Yugoslavia, were largely shaped by the Russian TV. Russian media have been working hard to convince their audiences that the “color revolutions” were U.S. Department of State or CIA plots; the war in Iraq began because the U.S. wanted to seize the oil fields (even though Russian company Lukoil got one of the most lucrative contracts in Iraq after the ousting of Saddam Hussein); that Russia’s actions to “protect compatriots” abroad are just; that the West is a realm of sin, trodden by migrants and homosexuals; and so on.
 
The influence of Russian TV on the way people think may also be demonstrated by its effectiveness for the implantation of Russo-centric stereotypes and a feeling that the post-Soviet area is naturally in the Russian sphere of influence. For example, since the establishment of the Commonwealth of Independent States, the term “blizhneye zarubezhye” (“near abroad”) has been applied, in a way inconsistent from a geographical point of view, to countries like Armenia, Moldova, or Tajikistan, which do not have a common border with Russia, while, for example, Finland remained “far abroad.” And while the Soviet tradition of teaching “Russian and foreign languages” has seemingly died out, some Armenian commentators still use the term “near abroad”; until recently, there were ads referring to Russian cars and other products as “domestic”; Soviet nostalgia is still common in advertisement, etc.
 
Russian cultural sociologist Daniil Dondurei noted in an interview with Media.am that Russian television is a tool for “a gigantic and thorough brainwashing.” According to Dondurei, the TV has been imposing a belief that corruption is permissible; has been promoting criminal subculture and the need to adhere to the underworld’s traditions; has been distorting the meaning of words by means of referring to “Ukrainian fascists,” “liberal fascists” and so forth; by focusing on victory while downplaying the numerous victims and hardship in the context of World War II; as well as by other technologies, has manipulated the public opinion in such a way that people believe war is not a bad thing. More generally, the television explains all events categorically, leaving no room for doubt, trying to convince the audience, so people they would not try to think independently and look for additional reasoning. 
 
THE ORIGINS OF ANTI-WESTERN RESENTMENT, AUTHORITARIANISM, AND ISOLATIONISM
 
Alleged damage to Armenia’s relations with Russia, together with speculations about “Russophobia,” is one of recurring narratives of the opponents of Nikol Pashinyan’s government.  Such an attitude has also been adopted by the most recent addition to the opposition camp – ex-director of the National Security Service (NSS), Arthur Vanetsyan. 
 
Speculations about “Russophobia” and Western involvement in cases when Russia’s ambition to have a sphere of influence may be questioned are recurrent among issues used for propaganda purposes. The fixation on these issues and several conspiracy theories originating from Russia, appeals to slogans like “Russia first,” approval of Euroscepticism and hopes for termination of the Euro-Atlantic alliance in favor of an alliance with Russia,  and other parts of the actively promoted narrative underline the Russo-centric nature of the forces behind the massive influence operation.
 
Expressions of that kind of attitude, based on conspiracy theories or laden with non sequiturs and other illogical assertions, by the RPA proxies may be observed continuously. A recent example is the reaction of Narek Malyan – founder of the Veto movement demanding adoption of a law similar to the Russian “foreign agents” law – to an Army Day address by the Secretary of the Security Council of Armenia, Armen Grigoryan (no relation with the author). Grigoryan’s address  included a quote from General George S. Patton: “The soldier is the Army. No army is better than its soldiers. The Soldier is also a citizen. In fact, the highest obligation and privilege of citizenship is that of bearing arms for one’s country.” Malyan used that as a pretext for claiming that Grigoryan admired Gen. Patton because the latter was a “Russophobe.”  Another recent example is an assertion by another far-right activist, Adekvad’s leader Arthur Danielyan, that the Velvet Revolution “was organized from abroad, like the revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine, and the events of the Arab Spring.” 
 
The origins of the “Russophobia” narrative and other anti-western resentments deserve a more or less detailed review. The propagandistic notion of “perfidious West” could already be noticed since 1999, when NATO intervened in Kosovo, if not earlier, but after the “color revolutions” – the Rose Revolution in Georgia (November 2003), the Orange Revolution in Ukraine (November 2004 – January 2005), and the Tulip Revolution in Kyrgyzstan (March 2005), which began with mass protests against electoral fraud and resulted in regime change – it was given a strong impetus by Russian propaganda, and has been reinforced ever since. The narrative about a Western conspiracy behind “color revolutions” became a recurrent theme of Russian propaganda, and Russian leadership started viewing virtually all protest movements in post-Soviet countries (later on, also in Russia itself) as a result of Western meddling – an anti-Russian conspiracy driven by Russophobia. The new trend was immediately picked up by Russian mass culture, with some bizarre outcomes, like in the case of a 2006 film drama depicting the death of poet Alexander Pushkin as the result of a conspiracy by a group of foreign-born homosexuals trying to destabilize the empire. 
 
Some statements of top Russian officials show that the notion of threat presented to Russia by NATO originates from an old Soviet narrative. For example, the chair of Russia’s Federative Council (upper chamber of parliament), Valentina Matvienko, claimed that unless Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, “within a few months, NATO ships would be standing in front of Sevastopol.”  Such attitudes resemble the old Soviet arguments about an imminent American or West German invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 and other Soviet clichés in favor of the actual invasion by the USSR and its satellites, or a similar argument “unless we invade Afghanistan, the Americans will do so and will threaten our border.”
 
The promotion of antagonistic attitudes towards the West became an excuse for an authoritarian backlash in Russia, accompanied by stigmatization and isolation of the regime’s critics. Mass protests in Moscow in winter 2011-2012, mostly attended by middle-class people disappointed by the fraudulent parliamentary elections in December 2011 and Putin’s planned return to the presidential office, were willingly ascribed to western meddling. At a rally of Putin’s supporters few days before the presidential elections in March 2012, the speakers lavishly used militaristic rhetoric about the need to protect Russia from an “external threat” aggravated by “traitors” at home. Putin himself vowed to struggle against “attempts to interfere in Russia’s internal affairs,” quoting a 19th century verse about the Napoleonic wars: “Let’s die at Moscow’s suburbs, as our brothers did!”, and declared that the “battle for Russia” would go on.  In the run-up to the elections, Putin also argued in a programmatic essay that Russia’s problems originated from the break-up of the USSR – “as a matter of fact, historical great Russia, formed mainly back in the 18th century” – which had somehow been directed by malevolent foreigners. Besides, he pointed out a “special nature” of Russian statehood – a “unique civilization.” 
 
The term “Russophobia” introduced by Putin’s regime became an all-embracing one, mixing intolerance towards ethnic Russians, the Russian-speaking ethnic group and the Russian state (or its policies). Dondurei noted that as a result of cultural conditioning, in Russia the state is perceived synonymous to the country, motherland, people, language, and culture, so if one is against the state, he is against all the mentioned things. 
 
Domestically, the fight against “Russophobia” is directed against supporters of the democratization of Russia: “the state considers critics of the regime as enemies, and works to publicly stigmatize and isolate them. On the other hand, attacking Russophobes serves as a way of immunizing Russian society against doubts about the Kremlin’s policy.”  At the same time, “[t]he mythologized stereotype of Russophobic countries also remains a crowning argument and a simple explanation for the ongoing tensions in relations between Russia and the West.” 
 
So, the unrest in Russia at the time when Putin was about to return to the presidency induced Putin to stake his legitimacy entirely on patriotic mobilization. Instead of institutional reforms and economic modernization that might prove fatal to the hold on power, Putin
embarked on the most portentous change of political direction in his 12 years in power … began to shift the base of his regime’s legitimacy away from economic growth … and toward patriotic mobilization … The regime’s policies changed accordingly … accompanied by the emergence of a new ideological framework … emotive nationalism; intrusive social conservatism; the retrieval of the Soviet legitimizing mythology (most of all about World War II and Stalin); the Russian Orthodox Church as arbiter and enforcer of national mores; and Russian ethnicity as the backbone of the Russian state. 
 
A prominent Russian sociologist, Lev Gudkov, said in an interview with Novaya gazeta that in the aftermath of the mass protests in 2011-2012 Russian political system dangerously moved in a totalitarian direction, and a number of restrictive laws and regulations concerning family relations, attitudes towards religion, arts, school textbooks, freedom of the press and Internet. According to Gudkov, later, in 2014, the establishment reacted to the Euromaidan in Ukraine with an additional ideological shift, introducing a narrative about “divided nation” that “invalidates any issue … representation, rule of law, international order, and instead creates an artificial, mythological paradigm based on … a belief in unity by blood or origin as a foundation of civil solidarity … Such notions as diversity, representation, individual rights get marginalized.” 
 
A detestation of diversity, representation, and individual rights is quite typical for the forces currently trying to destabilize the situation in Armenia as well. In addition to the narratives, the methods they use also seem to be diligently copied.
 
SOVIET-STYLE SPECIAL PROPAGANDA: JUST A COINCIDENCE?
 
Few years ago, known Russian journalist, the founder of the Kommersant daily Vladimir Yakovlev, briefly described some of special, or combat propaganda methods that he had been taught at a secret course during his studies at Moscow State University. Yakovlev argued that in the recent period Russia’s population was subjected to propaganda by methods initially designed for influencing the enemy in wartime: “mutual hatred and discord arise not in the army of the enemy but in our own homes and families.”
 
Yakovlev’s expose covers, particularly, the “rotten herring” method used for character-killing. It uses scandalous false accusations for provoking public discussions, so not only the accused persons’ opponents, but also his supporters help, even though unwillingly, to connect the person with a dirty accusation. As a result, personal reputation may be damaged for a long time. Another effective method is “big lie”: the audience is told such a lie that it is almost impossible to believe that could be a lie. It induces an emotional trauma, which turns into long-term belief that withstands all arguments of logic and reason. 
 
Some Armenians’ persistent belief concerning the aforementioned issue of the electricity shortage in the 1990s fits into the described scheme; on the one side, some former officials’ names may still be associated with the unsubstantiated accusation (which, moreover, was disproved during a special investigation), and on the other side, imprinted lies about the causes of the energy crisis still persist to a certain extent. Characteristically, the lies about the issue were repeated time and again, reinforcing the irrational public attitude.
Currently, several cases of “big lie” can be observed as well. Some typical examples are the allegations by some “civic activists” and other actors that the government wants to legalize same-sex marriage by means of ratification of the Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence (Istanbul Convention); “selling Karabakh” – that Armenia’s government presents an imminent danger for Nagorno-Karabakh; the entire agitation about the so-called “Soros network,”  and so forth.
“Rotten herrings” include allegations about the use of cannabis by some officials. In one such proven case of libel, the editor of an online rumor-mill was obliged to pay compensation to vice-premier Tigran Avinyan.  Currently, there is an ongoing cannabis-themed campaign against another key state official. Quite characteristically, members of Robert Kocharyan’s and Serzh Sargsyan’s proxy network refer to one another’s speculations  presented as established facts. 
 
Republishing social media posts and rumors is, in general, one of the preferred tactics of the mentioned network; it also allows spreading a number of allegations via their numerous media. Among other recurrent propaganda themes combining this tactics with the “rotten herring” method, repeated attempts to target Prime Minister Pashinyan by means of allegations about his wife can be mentioned.  Among more recent examples of “rotten herring” combined with cyberbullying, the case of targeting Pashinyan’s underage daughter  was a rather typical one, with republications in proxy media. 
 
CONCLUSION
 
For the sake of brevity, a comparison with the use of similar propaganda techniques and conspiracy theories in other countries, particularly in Eastern Partnership countries which have concluded Association Agreements with the EU, has been left out of this analysis. Some propaganda elements at the level of brinkmanship, such as disguised calls to violence, allegations about the unavoidability of an imminent war in Nagorno-Karabakh and the need to overthrow Pashinyan’s government in order to prepare, or appeals to the NSS to spy on the state leaders, may also be a separate research topic. Another issue which may be reviewed separately is the defense of criminal subculture and attempts to persuade the others to adopt it by several political actors.
 
It remains to be seen how the situation may change after planned implementation of a law requiring the media to adopt a more responsible approach as regards fake news and hate speech. Besides the adoption of such a law and other legal regulations, a more efficient public communication strategy using the potential of democratic political forces and civil society is probably an important prerequisite for securing the achievements of the Velvet Revolution.
 
 
Armen Grigoryan
AIISA partner expert
Eurasia Democratic Security Network fellow
“Democracy, Security and Foreign Policy” programme (NED)
The Armenian Institute of International and Security Affairs (AIISA) 
 
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