COVID-19 is a litmus test for the rule of law in Armenia

Other activities that undermined the government’s fight against the pandemic, at least at the beginning, inclu

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Other activities that undermined the government’s fight against the pandemic, at least at the beginning, included: the PM and the Minister of Health publicly making jokes about COVID-19 – the PM having been heard to say that “COVID-19 is a dog to be ignored” while it appears that the Minister of Health has said “another absurd panic is ranging… swine flu, bird flu, dinosaur flu...”; the infamous photos of a reception where attendees (including the PM) did not wear masks and ignored social distancing in Shushi (in the unrecognised Nagorno-Karabakh Republic) on 21 May when public gatherings were prohibited; the very late use of masks (June 2020) by members of the government during its weekly meetings; and the failure to self-isolate by the PM during the days after it was announced on 1 June that he and his family had tested positive for COVID-19.

Furthermore, there were sometimes distorted voices coming out of the government (mainly contradictory voices between the PM and the Minister of Health), which made the articulation and implementation of a single unified strategy more difficult. The perception of a lack of unity among the “managerial team of the country” is not conducive to consolidating institutions and creates fertile ground for conspiracy theories, which in turn undermines the public trust in state institutions (especially in the “fake news” era). Besides the need for unity, the crisis constituted a good opportunity to strengthen the role of the Ministries of Health, Economy, or Education among others as these bodies have an important role to play in the context of the pandemic.

Instead, one witnessed a swinging pendulum between harsh measures to relaxed ones (from the complete shutdown of the economy to very relaxed ones when the number of cases were increasing), constant alteration of public safety regulations, some lack of comprehensiveness of these regulations (i.e. congregation of more than five people was prohibited, whereas restaurants and cafés where more than five people could gather were open for business).

But the central issue of this crisis in Armenia has been the enforceability and the actual enforcement of the rules. Public health rules were established and it was announced that the police and the army will enforce them from 16 March. However, the comprehensive enforcement and supervision of implementation did not occur until sometime in June. One explanation for this could be that the authorities were afraid to lose popularity if they were to enforce strict rules, but the lukewarm implementation of public health policies could eventually stir the public and their opinion away from necessary trust in and reliability of the government.

The PM was probably concerned to lose as little political capital as possible through the way the crisis was being managed. Yet again, political capital can be retained when seemingly unpopular actions are undertaken based on clear strategic goals which are communicated comprehensively to the public. There are also higher chances for this capital to remain stable when decisions are discussed and made within a team which is not fully made up of like-minded people.

In retrospect, the Armenian authorities’ constant renewal of the state of emergency for six months was not the best recourse. Indeed, a state of emergency is central to the rule of law and its use is a clear signal that the state cannot perform its function within the regular legal framework. However, a state of emergency has to be used when “it is strictly necessary to fighting against the public emergency”, and the states should always aim for its shortest possible duration. In September, specific legal provisions to address the health crisis were adopted to replace the state of emergency - provisions that would have been more effective in dealing with the public health crisis had it been thought of and implemented in March.

Cutting legal corners might seem politically appropriate in the given moment, but from a long-term state-building perspective, it is detrimental for the state and its citizens.

Governments come and go, but state institutions remain – it is primarily the role of those in power to strengthen those institutions, especially in a country where public trust is low and where the tendency to generate conspiracy theories is common. While this experience of handling the pandemic might have shown challenges, the authorities could also treat it as an important learning experience on institution building, policy formulation and implementation - whether during a crisis or in “normal times”. Finally, it should definitely be used as an opportunity for the authorities to strengthen their strategic vision on governance and state building.

The main challenge ahead for Armenia’s current government will be economic, which could trigger difficulties for the consolidation of the new political regime. In order to mitigate this risk, the authorities might wish to honestly analyse the lessons learned on the legal framework for COVID and how it was applied as well as enforced. If this analysis was discussed publicly, it could contribute to the strengthening of state institutions. States institutions will be central to crisis management in the coming months and years.
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