Today we observe a crisis in existing state governance systems: modern democratic systems have ceased to reflect the values embedded in them, and there’s nothing to say about authoritarian regimes. Do we need to invent something new, or is there something old and well-forgotten?
The parliamentary form of government, adopted today in Armenia, became quite relevant in Europe after World War II. Then, after the destruction of Mussolini and Hitler, the question had to be solved: what to do to prevent populists, leading the people and the country into the abyss, from coming to power in the future and prevent them from becoming new dictators?
Parliamentary rule became a system that could dismiss the government if it becomes clear that it is not coping with problems, has lost the people’s trust, or is trying to take power away from them. But our mechanism not only did not work, but moreover, the parliament became a docile tool of power, more precisely it remained the same as it was under the previous presidential form of government in roughly the same proportion: a pro-government majority and an opposition minority.
Is our long-suffering people doomed to eternal wandering in this vicious circle? Today, even in the largest and strongest countries in the world, in the USA, Russia, and others, they already talk about a crisis in the forms of democracy adopted. Democracy is called a veil for the ruling elite. But if these big countries have huge resources, then Armenia, being a small country and a fragment of historical Armenia, cannot afford to continue on this destructive path. And here our country’s rich history and its immense heritage can come to our aid. Our people have a form of salvation: a system of governance that emerged thousands of years before the democracies of Ancient Greece and Rome, which was essentially real rule by the people – the Ashkharazhoghov (people’s assembly) of Ancient Armenia.
It has always been believed that democracy was born in Europe in the times of Ancient Greece, and in the East, according to stereotypes, political forms of government were the most despotic and totalitarian. Images of cruel kings of ancient Persia and Assyria, and later sultans of the Ottoman Empire, who killed even their own brothers for the throne, were associated with the rest of the peoples of the Middle East and Asia.
However, ancient texts provide stunning information about significantly earlier forms of democracy. Especially interesting are the descriptions of the powers of the People’s Assembly in the country of Aratta – Ancient Armenia, which existed in the Armenian Highlands two thousand years before Urartu, then in the kingdom of Aya-Azzi (16th-13th centuries BC), and later in Urartu itself.
The People’s Assembly in the times of the Artashesian and Arshakuni dynasties was called Ashkharazhoghov. It was essentially a gathering of representatives from all social strata of the population where all important decisions were made. The People’s Assembly included warriors, commanders, priests, farmers, blacksmiths, shoemakers, and generally representatives of all crafts and regions. These were not ordinary citizens, but the most outstanding people, known throughout the country, whose advice was listened to by the head of state, and sometimes he directly obeyed their decision.
Ashkharazhoghov was authorized to declare war, dismiss unworthy secular and spiritual leaders of the country, establish laws and rules. It was at this time that Armenia reached maximum power and even size. The empire of Tigran the Great and the Great Armenia after him are the best illustrations. And this happened not because of some whims of history, but because the country had essentially the most advanced form of government. And when later in the early Middle Ages it lost it and established sole royal power, it lost its best achievements and was divided, finding itself part of more powerful neighbors.
It’s interesting, if we compare today’s realities with the oldest system of parliamentarianism, which one will turn out to be more democratic? Armenian historians believe that the ancient system was more democratic. In ancient Sumerian sources, there is mention that the king was elected. Surprisingly, even Babylonian Utnapishtim – the real historical prototype of the biblical Noah, who was the ruler of the ancient Sumerian city of Shuruppak, was elected to this position.
This system operated in the territory of Armenia until the Middle Ages. It turns out that bad kings could be easily and quickly relieved of their positions, and peacefully, without rebellions and revolutions. So, in the 1st century AD, in the 16th year under Mount Npat, the assembly deprived Vonones Arshakuni of the throne, that is, Ashkharazhoghov removed the power of the king and sent him into retirement. This system continued to operate until the Christian Middle Ages, until the 4th century, and then the People’s Assembly was dissolved.
For those wishing to delve deeper into the topic, I can recommend an article by the wonderful historian Artak Movsisyan (1970-2020) “Ashkharazhoghov: the supreme advisory assembly of Armenia”.
The experience of ancient Armenian democracy is not only not outdated, but is more relevant today than ever. In our current world, the concept of democracy, even in advanced Western European countries, has a completely different character.
Can we imagine the principles of Ashkharazhoghov in today’s reality: when people can choose power not from some politicians who speak beautiful speeches, who then come to power and completely forget about the interests of the country and the people, but from worthy and respected representatives of society.
If we could apply such norms of Ashkharazhoghov, representatives of each estate could choose only those they know well, the most authoritative and advanced people, ready to protect their interests, who will not betray their voters for personal gain, high salaries, etc. And then this very Ashkharazhoghov, in which the truly most worthy representatives of the nation gather, will in turn elect the government from the best leaders.
Some compare Ashkharazhoghov with meritocracy (literally “the rule of the worthy”) and even with trade unions – this may be partly true, especially if you consider that China has become one of the world leaders largely thanks to its ancient Confucianism, in which meritocracy has a very large significance, but the essence is not in this. The point is that there is no third option: either the people themselves retain all the fullness of power and, if necessary, re-elect its executors, or the executors take this power to themselves, and as they say, do whatever they want.
There was some resemblance to the system of Ashkharazhoghov in the USSR. The Bolsheviks understood that since they announced that they had given power to the people, they had to at least create the appearance that the people had it. The highest body in the USSR was the Supreme Council, which united deputies from all over the country, among whom were ordinary workers and collective farmers. The main function of the deputies of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR was to applaud the speeches of the members of the Politburo of the Central Committee, vote as the party had already decided for them, and then disperse to their cities and villages.
But if the Communist Party really understood and appreciated the role of the people, it would have thought about the necessary increase in the level of its life. And in the USSR, with a huge amount of weapons production, the Food Program was not solved for 20 years. The Soviet Union, producing more combines and tractors than the USA and Canada, could not provide its population with ordinary food. And then bought grain from the same America and Canada. That is, money was constantly invested in machines and iron, and they were simply afraid to pay more to people.
In Soviet times, the first secretary of the Noemberyan district, the most intelligent and kind man Gevorg Saribekovich Nakhshkaryan, told that in his district an experiment was carried out by the decision of the government to increase labor productivity. The essence was simple: collective farmers were stimulated with large sums of money for those times. There were no restrictions on payment, and peasants showed a result reaching 1000%, that is, 10 times more than the norm. It would seem that everything is excellent, the experiment was successful, take it and spread it all over the country. And then it’s not you buying food from others, but they are buying from you. But no, again the grey cardinals at the top began to fear that if people start to live better, they will forget the Soviet values and rise against their power. That’s why the Union collapsed in the end, this was enough, not to mention the interethnic clashes, which our fellow Armenians know about first hand.
Nowadays, the tradition of Soviet virtually fictitious and ostentatious democracy continues in most post-Soviet countries. Some changes took place in the early 90s, when new forces came to power, fighting for sovereignty and national interests. But then the inertia of the Soviet past prevailed again.
Today, the situation is close to critical: wars, losses, color revolutions, escalating crises, epidemics, superpowers interfering in the internal affairs of small countries, and a host of other problems and disasters leave no choice for nations but to return to the most genuine and real forms of democracy. Can Armenia apply its richest historical experience and set an example for the whole world? This depends on us, on our understanding of the problem and its solution. Let’s hope for the best, because Armenia can be the first to return to true democracy.
by Armen Petrosyan
Translated by Vigen Avetisyan