Armenia’s government has introduced long-awaited legislation to ban domestic violence, an issue that has become the key battleground in the proxy war between Western and Russian cultural influence.
But as the wrangling begins over the bill, its Western backers are making a tactical retreat, hoping that a quiet approach will ultimately help the controversial legislation pass.
Armenia’s Justice Ministry published a draft version of the law in late September: it would, for the first time, provide protection to victims of domestic violence, including state-run shelters for abused women; and it would enable victims to obtain restraining orders against their abusers.
The law is the result of a long collaboration between the Justice Ministry and the European Union, as part of a pilot project under which the EU has promised up to 12 million euros in aid if Armenia implements specified rights reforms. In addition to addressing domestic violence, the reforms include banning discrimination against minorities, stronger measures to prevent torture, and improvements in the care of disabled children.
Social conservatives have heavily criticized the proposals, saying that they would interfere with Armenia’s traditional value system. Opponents have also portrayed the reform program as an attempt by the West to impose its own values on Armenia.
Western officials acknowledge that those arguments have gained traction in Armenia, and caused initial efforts to pass the legislation last year to be abandoned.
Supporters of the law contend that opponents are secretly backed by Russia, though there has been no proof of such meddling uncovered thus far.
On this second attempt to push through the legislation, Western officials are adopting a low-profile position. “One of the lessons we’ve learned is to stay out of the public debate, because it should be a domestic debate,” said one European embassy official in Yerevan, speaking to EurasiaNet.org on condition of anonymity. “All these gender equality, domestic violence, anti-discrimination laws, these are for the benefit of the population, and shouldn’t be seen as being imposed by us.”
The approach has been coordinated with the Armenian government. “In order to make a favorable environment, we don’t need the EU and the United States to get involved, because there is a risk that others will also intervene and that we will turn Armenia into a place where all these interests are again colliding,” a senior Armenian government official said, also speaking on condition of anonymity. “Instead, we need to create a favorable environment where we can launch a public dialogue about these issues.”
The EU is still involved in the process, organizing seminars with civil society groups to discuss the law. And a “fact-checking” website run by the EU has been combating what it says is Russian propaganda against the law.
The introduction of the new law has “raised a new wave of disinformation and anti-propaganda, especially by Russian founded organizations,” said the site, sut.am, in an October 6 post.
The EU’s low-key approach, however, has not stopped the bill’s opponents from trying to tie it to perceptions of Western cultural hegemony. An October 9 public discussion on the bill devolved into shouting matches and was suspended, but not before opponents accused the bill’s backers of carrying out the demands of Western governments.
“There is no public demand for this law,” said Hayk Nahapetyan, a conservative activist who has been at the head of public opposition to the legislation. We know whose demands you’re carrying out – Peter Svitalsky,” the head of the EU delegation in Yerevan. “This is a person who, as a representative of Poland in the Council of Europe, did everything in his country to bring laws on same sex marriages.”
Armenia’s Justice Minister, Davit Harutyunyan, has pushed back against accusations that preventing domestic violence is a Western imposition. “If you think that beating a woman or a child is a national tradition, let me disagree with you and say that it is a deviation from national traditions,” he told reporters.
Edmon Marukyan, an MP from the pro-Western Yelk bloc, said that without EU pressure, the government would not have pursued the legislation. “Every reform in Armenia happens because the EU institutions push it. If not, there are no incentives for this regime to reform anything,” he told EurasiaNet.org.
“In any case, you will have such arguments [about the West imposing its values], even if there is no support” from the West, he added.
While a Russian hand in opposition to the bill remains unproven, Russia has not been shy about promoting “traditional values” as part of its foreign policy. At an October 11 summit of the Commonwealth of Independent States in Russia, the group adopted a statement “in support of the institution of family and traditional family values.”
Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan, at the summit, said he supported the initiative. “We support Russia’s proposal to support the institution of the family and traditional family values, understanding well that the institution of the family is the foundation of society, as well as a unifying force.”
Still, backers of the bill make a mistake when they ascribe all opposition to Russia, said Alexander Iskandaryan, a Yerevan-based analyst. “They focus on the dichotomy of Russian-vs.-Western influence in Armenia, totally ignoring the domestic roots of Armenian traditionalism,” he said.
“Armenian society has its own traditionalists and Euro-skeptics that exist regardless of Russian influence,” he said. “It is certainly true that people and organizations active in Armenia who are funded from Russia support the traditionalist discourse in general, and with regard to this law in particular. However, the Russia-supported groups do not form the center or the source of these trends simply because they are two few and too marginal to change public opinion.”
Ultimately, Iskandaryan said, he expects the bill to pass: “It’s part of Armenia’s project of coming closer to Europe – a project that the ruling party of Armenia is implementing in the framework of the Eastern Partnership program, with some setbacks but steadily.”
Joshua Kucera is the Turkey/Caucasus editor at EurasiaNet.org, and author of The Bug Pit. He is based in Istanbul. With reporting by Oksana Musaelyan.