THE POLITICAL CONTEXT: CIVILITAS
The Civilitas Foundation was created in 2008 according to the laws of the Republic of Armenia, namely the Law on Foundations. It is a non-profit organization mandated to help strengthen civil society by engaging in civil society development, economic development, education, media and other public activities.
Civilitas has been supported by the governments of Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, the US, as well as the OSCE and a number of non-governmental organizations such as the German Marshall Fund of the United States, Eurasia Partnership Foundation, Counterpart International, and individual donors from around the world.
Civilitas has several major programs:
- Council on International Relations
- Democracy and Development
- Rural Development.
The nature of Civilitas programs makes them different from traditional NGO activity. All programs are conducted publicly, directly with the public, the beneficiaries.
Civilitas’s main activity in the last and this years has been media. In September, 2011, Civilitas began to publish a daily newspaper, Orakarg, and launched a bilingual news-based, research-based Internet channel called CivilNet.am. Orakarg highlights economic news and analysis. CivilNet covers the entire range of Armenian society, offers deep coverage of environmental topics, social and economic issues and current news, in non-traditional, easily accessible formats.
Armenia’s broadcast media are under heavy government control. Armenia’s newspapers confuse freedom of speech with yellow journalism. As a result, the media is not trusted. Electronic media are freer in content, but also less reliable in their sourcing and analysis. Additionally, they too are politicized and serve their political sponsors. In this context, CivilNet is a new outlet with no political or other restrictions on editorial content. Mr. Oskanian, who created CivilNet and headed the Civilitas Board, never appeared on CivilNet’s air and never participated in editorial decisions.
During the 2012 parliamentary election cycle, CivilNet proved itself as a new source of information. CivilNet produced over 400 election-related reports during about 6 weeks. Their Internet and YouTube popularity can be easily measured and is a demonstration of CivilNet’s willingness to give voice to the voiceless, regardless of political inclination, to cover all political players equally (including Mr. Oskanian) and to respect the young and disconnected audience and make news interesting to them.
In less than a year, CivilNet’s popularity has shot up and it is now a major name in the electronic media of Armenia.
The start-up funds for CivilNet came from the Huntsman donation.
The 2012 May 6 parliamentary elections were the first in 20 years where there was a serious challenge to the ruling party. That challenge came in the form of the Prosperous Party, which Mr. Oskanian had joined a few months earlier.
By joining Prosperous Armenia, Mr. Oskanian brought it additional political legitimacy.
The discourse and debate during the campaign period was elevated somehow, largely due to the statements made by Mr. Oskanian and the themes he raised. There was in fact some debate beyond personalities and about issues.
Rather than calling for regime change or worse, Mr. Oskanian’s consistent message was the need to establish a balance of powers and do away with the political monopoly.
Immediately prior to and following election day, Mr. Oskanian continued to insist that voting procedures needed to be changed in order to assure a transparent vote.
When the ruling party achieved an absolute majority, Mr. Oskanian stated publicly that the coalition that the ruling party wanted would serve no real political purpose. He insisted that some sort of balance could in fact be achieved even with minority parties in parliament maintaining their independence. In fact, two weeks after the election itself, the Prosperous Armenia Party announced it would not join a coalition.
In the weeks following the election, all major news sites, even those not known to be particularly supportive of Mr. Oskanian, began to suggest that he could be perceived as a candidate, even as a unity candidate, in the presidential election of February 2013.
Mr. Oskanian, born and raised in Syria, and educated in Armenia and abroad, moved again to Armenia and worked in Armenia’s Foreign Ministry since the first days of independence. He served as foreign minister from 1998 to 2008. He established the Civilitas Foundation in 2008 in order to help strengthen Armenia’s civil society. He served as President of the Civilitas Board from the beginning and resigned from the Board when he entered politics in February 2012.