Pashinyan and the Personality Cult

“Power tends to corrupt and
absolute power corrupts absolutely”
Lord Acton (1834 -1902)

 

Z. S. Andrew Demirdjian, Ph.D., Los Angeles, 25 February 2019

On a fateful day in the spring of 2018, the citizens of Armenia stood up and refused to be treated as a flock of sheep anymore. Led by a relatively obscure, but compelling, torchbearer called Nikol Pashinyan, the people declared “enough is enough” to the exploitation of the poor and the shrinking of the middle-class by the establishment. Especially the new generation took to the streets en mass. They protested against corruption, nepotism, the monopolies of the ruling party’s oligarchs, and were profuse in praise of Pashinyan, the opposition leader.

Backed by a vociferous popular vote, Pashinyan was elected prime minister in a landslide. Not even one-hundred days in office, he alarmed the Diaspora by declaring his intention to either abolish or merge the Ministry of Diaspora with other ministries to downsize the government. Instead of improving the lukewarm relations with the Diaspora, he seemed to have alienated many living abroad. Pashinyan also made the declaration without consulting the Diaspora. Is this a sign of Pashinyan’s style of leadership or has the adulation gone to his head? Is he heading toward building a personality cult? Let’s explore the possible destiny of Pashinyan’s future leadership style.

The prevailing misconception is that if a politician acquires a personality cult he usually becomes a dictator. While in the ‘80s, dictator meant someone like Hitler it also meant a statesman such as Ronald Reagan. It all depends how each functioned as personality cult leader (aka charismatic leader). Here personality cult is not used as a pejorative term implying dictatorship.

To prevent the emergence of a dictator at the expense of democracy, we should first know how personality cults are formed. There should be four major ingredients present: 1. Presence of a Problem (unpopular leadership, rogue establishment, looming enemy) to be addressed. 2. Articulation of an Ideology (goals, vision for solutions) to pursue. 3. Endowment of Charisma (exceptional powers to lead, motivate inspire followers and others to solve national problems and to achieve the goals and vision of the unifying ideology. 4. Loyalty to Country is the crowning characteristic of a leader. The outcome of these four factors would lead to either to the creation of a selfish dictator or a dedicated statesman.

The following are examples of the four salient factors in transforming a politician into a cult personality. The outcome could be either beneficial (advancing society) or detrimental to democracy (producing a dictator):

Presence of a Problem. This type of situation relates often to a current unpopular leadership.  A good example would be the Young Turks who lost WWI and consequently ended the Ottoman Empire. Mustapha Kemal rose to the occasion and became a likeable and progressive statesman and finally a ruthless dictator. Pashinyan also rose in political power due to the unpopular leadership of Armenia’s former president and his regime. He is now hailed as the maker of “New Armenia”. Going against the unpopular, but deeply-entrenched establishment (Serge Sargsyan and his ruling party) is sufficient impetus to make a hero out of an opposition leader. If his followers were to continue to idealize him, he might be headed toward becoming a personality cult leader.

Resonating Ideology. When a politician devises a unifying ideology, people rally around him. Many personality cults have risen from a nationalist surge or the resonating ideology of assumed national superiority. Pashinyan is inadvertently banking on the “ideology” of eradicating corruption, nepotism, and reducing government waste by consolidating ministries and state agencies into smaller units, introducing tax breaks for foreign businesses wanting to invest in Armenia, strengthening ties with European markets and getting rid of monopolies.

During the protests of 2018, Pashinyan used a populist rhetoric, rallying against the corrupt elites-oligarchs and advocating social justice by upholding meritocracy and egalitarianism. For his “ideology” of purifying Armenia of the parasites plundering the nation, he has established a large following. Pashinyan’s main ideology seems to be the eradication of the “dragon or the demon” of corruption. The resulting admiration makes Pashinyan a solid candidate for a personality cult.

Charismatic Leadership. Charismatic leadership is a result of perceived attractive and unique personality. Endowed with exceptional powers or qualities, he or she is able to lead and to encourage particular behaviors in others through eloquent communication, persuasion and force of personality. Charismatic leaders are able to motivate followers to get things done by conjuring up eagerness in others to achieve a stated goal or vision. Reagan was a great communicator who used humor and wit to engage the population and gain their trust and respect.

Leaders with charisma often exhibit certain characteristics including vision, taking personal risk, being sensitive to follower needs, and unconventional behavior. Reagan had a vision for the country. He was also able to set himself apart from the establishment and provide solutions to problems ranging from foreign policy to runaway inflation.

Reagan was a successful leader because he avoided one of the negative effects of the cult of personality: becoming a dictator.  Cults of personality or charismatic leaders sometimes do not act in the best interest of their organizations as was the case with Hitler.  Yet, in Reagan’s case, he always put the country first.

During the span of several months, Pashinyan not only thwarted the country’s two-term president from becoming a perpetual prime minister, he had also proven that politics is the art of the possible. He became Armenia’s latest “Savior” with sufficient charisma to control thousands of eager followers who wanted to see fundamental changes in the government. Those who knew him before the “Velvet Revolution” indicate that Pashinyan has not changed: he has remained a “charismatic leader” with boundless energy, righteousness, and readiness to make things operate in fairness.

Pashinyan seems to derive his charisma from his past reputation as well as during his leadership of the organized protests against the ruling political party. Some of Pashinyan’s university classmates remember him as being always for the truth. He believed he was right in his judgments for he had the “intellect” to back his position. Those who helped Pashinyan to found the Civil Contract Party expressed their conviction that Pashinyan “…Stands for fundamental human values, meritocracy, [and] egalitarianism”. In many ways he has the trappings of a charismatic leader who exhibits certain characteristics including vision, acting at personal risk, sensitivity to his followers’ needs, and the ability to listen to people.

Loyalty to Country. A great example of a leader who could inspire loyalty in his followers is Alexander the Great (356–323 BC). At a young age, Alexander emerged as one of the greatest military leaders of all time. By the age of thirty, he had created an empire which stretched from his Macedonian homeland to the Himalayan Mountains. Loyalty is the state or quality of being faithful to someone (to a leader) or something (ones country). The morale of Alexander’s army remained high due to his ability to motivate them to face the battlefield and win the war.

“I love my people; I am proud of my people; I shall always protect my people” would recur in Pashinyan’s speech frequently. This repetition drives home the realization that the leader is unequivocally loyal to his country.

As we can see, the input elements to our Model of Cult of Personality Formation are Problem, Ideology, Charisma, and Loyalty. The process consists of interaction between Pashinyan and his followers and his opponents; the output is Cult of Personality; the outcome could be one of two things: statesman or dictator.

The Crystal Ball, Please!

Here is the analogy to wrap our minds around: Pashinyan may become an unstoppable diesel locomotive with four wheels in his fervor to move forward (i.e., problem, ideology, charisma, and loyalty) to pull Armenia into a higher level of success. He does things outside the box. For example, his protest started on foot from Gyumri to Yerevan. By the time he reached the capital, he had become a political celebrity with thousands of loyal followers chanting his name.

“I love my country, I am proud of my people; I shall always stand up and fight for the rights of my people” resonated throughout his speeches. He is a dynamic politician who is able to inspire people.

Furthermore, Pashinyan seems to understand the needs of the Armenian people and he is prepared to lead. He protested against unpopular leadership and articulated an ideology (vision) to pursue. He has used his charisma to motivate followers to achieve the ideology, and exhibited loyalty to the country. Above all, he valued people who had remained loyal to Armenia by staying in the country. All these factors are converging for the formation of a cult of personality, but what will the outcome is subject to speculation.

On the surface, Pashinyan claims to be in post-ideological phase. Despite that, he has been advocating a number of important ideological promises. For example, he wants to get rid of corruption.

He does not seem to be an enigma or a disingenuous person. I was there during the Velvet Revolution. I heard and read most of his speeches. His speeches were always confidence building and crowd drawing. Rivers of people walked, chanted, some carried the Armenian flag heading to Ketron (Downtown) to hear Pashinyan speak. The atmosphere became electric whenever he appeared.

There are questions about Pashinyan’s leadership style. For the time being, he is a revolutionary rather than a statesman. We should ask questions about his way of handling issues such as the Ministry of the Diaspora, but we should not be overly skeptical about his motives. Right now he is seen as a “Savior”. He indicates to have a genuine desire to rid Armenia of debilitating practices. Let us hope power will not “corrupt” him. This will be a big transition to make from a revolutionary to a statesman in a nation known to be hard to please.

Evaluating Pashinyan’s political saga against the Cult of Personality Formation Model I presented earlier in this commentary, he seems to be a most likely candidate to become a personality cult leader, if he has not already become one. This is an uncharted territory for Pashinyan. Whether the cult of personality will make him a statesman or a benevolent dictator only time will tell.

During the “Velvet Revolution” I witnessed many facets of the protests and heard the speeches Pashinyan made. My take is that history will enshrine him for ushering in a bloodless change in the government and for being a statesman. I can conclude with a comfortable level of certainty that he has the potential to become a personality cult leader who will not desecrate the spirit of democracy. Rather, he will be a fair, objective and a humane charismatic leader with a compassionate style of governing the mistreated Armenian people who are ready to immigrate if neglected.

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