For Armenia, the COVID-19 pandemic coincided with a critical juncture in the country’s democratic development. As the country transitions from a semi-presidential system to a parliamentary one with multiple parties represented, the logistical challenges presented by the pandemic raised fears that the advances of the past year could be reversed. In order to ensure that Armenia remains on the path of reform, the International Republican Institute (IRI) has worked with Armenian parliamentarians on a series of virtual hearings to allow them to perform their oversight functions and respond to constituent needs.
The spread of COVID-19 has placed unprecedented strain on young democracies like Armenia, where democratic practices are still new and not well-rooted. Public demands for accountable democratic governance peaked in Armenia during the country’s 2018 Velvet Revolution, ushering in the election of a new prime minister and National Assembly. Today, Armenia’s democracy is stronger but still evolving, with the ongoing transition from a semi-presidential to a parliamentary democracy with diverse and competing ideas serving as a critical step.
Since 2018, IRI has supported the National Assembly’s efforts to increase its policy development capacity, exercise oversight and institutionalize a culture of regular constituent consultations. Three weeks after Armenia announced a state of emergency in response to COVID-19, IRI organized the country’s first-ever virtual parliamentary hearing with the Committee on Education addressing educator, parent and student anxieties over online classes.
Throughout the hearing, citizens had an opportunity to raise their concerns and pose questions directly to the representatives and authorities. Most of the questions were related to grading, final exams, a lack of technology and internet connection, training of teachers, as well as questions on the physical and mental health of students and teachers who are tasked to spend many hours in front of their computers. The participants were also interested on what the future of online education will be for Armenia and whether there will be a unified platform for continuing it even after the pandemic is over. The government has since addressed these concerns by issuing specific policy guidance rooted in the recommendations of the hearing participants.
Inspired by the success of the first hearing, IRI helped to organize a second hearing with the Committee of Foreign Affairs at the National Assembly. Parliamentarians, ambassadors, representatives of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and experts in the field together discussed approaches Armenia and its neighboring countries are taking to address the pandemic and their re-opening strategies.
Both committee hearings were livestreamed on the National Assembly’s official YouTube channel and Facebook pages and attracted the attention of major media outlets. Moreover, they enjoyed an unprecedented level of public engagement — around 70,000 people tuned in and over 60 questions were asked. Working with the respective committees and government representatives, IRI is collecting and analyzing stakeholder feedback via online surveying tools so that we can further improve future hearings.
Online hearings are providing an excellent opportunity to engage a wider circle of constituencies than typically seen in the National Assembly. They are also encouraging a culture of cooperation across the political spectrum, with leading parliamentarians from the major opposition parties, Prosperous Armenia and Bright Armenia, coming together and actively participating. By showing a willingness to try new methods of communication, parliamentarians are building greater trust between them and their constituents at a time when that trust is critical to slowing the spread of a global pandemic. As Armenia’s democracy evolves, IRI will continue to support efforts that help parliamentarians improve efficacy and transcend partisan divides to better serve their citizens.