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Revolution, Covid-19, and War in Armenia: Impacts on Various Forms of Trust

In: Caucasus Survey
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Yevgenya Jenny Paturyan Politics and Governance Program, College of Humanities and Social Sciences, American University of Armenia Yerevan Armenia

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Sara Melkonyan College of Humanities and Social Sciences, American University of Armenia Yerevan Armenia

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Abstract

This paper explores how interpersonal and institutional trust in Armenia was impacted by three dramatic events in its recent history: the popular uprising of 2018 (also known as the Velvet Revolution), the pandemic, and the war. We use World Value Survey, Caucasus Barometer, and other available surveys to demonstrate the relative stability of interpersonal trust, contrasted with swings in institutional trust. We also show an initial “rally around the flag” effect during the early period of the pandemic, followed by disillusionment. Overall, gains in trust due to the Velvet Revolution outweigh the losses in trust due to Covid-19 and war.

1 Introduction

This paper seeks to understand how three recent major events (a popular uprising in 2018, a pandemic, and a war) impacted various types of trust in Armenia. More specifically, we use secondary data from the World Value Survey, Caucasus Barometer, and other available surveys to map variations in interpersonal trust and trust towards various state institutions. We combine all relevant available nationwide survey data and descriptive statistics and use some basic mathematical procedures (adding/subtracting and averaging) to answer the following research question: Which types of trust in Armenia were most impacted by both positive (democratic, peaceful revolution) and negative (pandemic, war) landmark events in the country?

The fact that a government that lost a war was re-elected makes Armenia a case worth studying. Our data partially helps explain Nikol Pashinyan’s ability to maintain a measure of public support. Our key finding is that overall post-revolution gains in trust towards political, state, social, and international institutions match or outweigh the post-pandemic, post-war losses in trust towards these institutions. In other words, the Velvet Revolution created such a massive boost of public confidence in institutions, that it helped offset the disillusionment that followed. Another major finding is that, as predicted by the academic literature, social trust in Armenia remains rather stable while trust towards political institutions displays dramatic changes, in predictable directions in response to the landmark events in the country.

Our research is situated within the scholarly tradition of exploring political culture, more specifically, generalised social trust and trust towards institutions (Newton 2001, Norris 2022, Putnam 2000) as important forms of social and political capital. The impact of war on trust has been a topic for research for at least half a century now but it is mostly focused on the United States and the United Kingdom, embroiled in conflicts overseas (McAllister 2006, Mueller 1971, Pan and Kosicki 1994, Stevens 2015). Ironically, the cases cited are all cases of a democracy starting or joining a war against a non-democracy (Korea, Vietnam, Persian Gulf War, Iraq). Our case is that of a non-democracy attacking its democratizing neighbor, adding novelty to the literature on trust and war. We also contribute to the new and growing body of literature on Covid-19 and trust (Bengtsson and Brommesson 2022, Ruck, Borycz, and Bentley 2021). The uniqueness of our case is that we address both of these major crises in one study.

In the past few years, Armenia experienced three majorly impactful events: a peaceful uprising, a pandemic and a war. In 2018 a mass peaceful mobilization – the Velvet Revolution – ousted an unpopular government. The leader of the revolution, Nikol Pashinyan, and his inexperienced team came to power and declared an ambitious agenda of rapid democratization. The Covid-19 pandemic was the first serious test of the post-revolutionary government’s ability to handle crises, only to be followed by a more devastating crisis: a 44-day war with Azerbaijan in 2020. As a result, Armenians lost control of much of the territory of the self-proclaimed Artsakh (Nagorno-Karabakh)1 Republic. The Armenian government weathered the post-war political turmoil and renewed its democratic mandate in snap parliamentary elections in 2021, a result that baffled many political analysts and citizens alike. How could a government that lost a war win elections? Pashinyan’s Civil Contract received 54% of national vote – far ahead of Armenia Alliance, led by former President Robert Kocharyan (21%). The government has 71 (66%) out of 107 parliamentary seats (Manougian 2021).

Trust might be an important part of the answer because it is one of the resources that allows governments to overcome crises. In what follows, we present a short overview of the situation in the country and review relevant academic literature on interpersonal versus institutional trust in general, and in times of crisis. The methodology section describes the key surveys we used to attempt to answer the question of which types of trust in Armenia were most impacted by both positive (democratic, peaceful revolution) and negative (pandemic, war) landmark events in the country. We then present descriptive data, tracing the ups and downs in public trust towards certain political, state and social institutions before and after the Velvet Revolution, the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic and the war of 2020, offering our tentative suggestions as to why some institutions were impacted more than others. The last section of the paper attempts to quantitatively evaluate the overall positive impact of the Velvet Revolution on institutional trust, assessed against the overall negative impact of the double crisis of the pandemic and the lost war. We conclude that the overall gains in trust after the Velvet revolution were followed by almost equal losses after the pandemic and the war. If international institutions are included in the analysis, the total gains in institutional trust outweigh the total losses. This might be part of the explanation as to how Pashinyan’s government stayed in power, despite the major military defeat of 2020.

2 Three Landmark Events

Armenia is a small landlocked country in the South Caucasus. For most of its ancient history, it was divided between, and forcefully incorporated into various empires, the latest being the Ottoman and Russian Empires. The eastern part of Armenia survived the turmoil of the First World War and briefly became independent in 1918. In 1920 Soviet leadership took over. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Armenia regained its independence in 1991 reeling from a devastating earthquake in 1988 and fighting an undeclared war with neighbouring Azerbaijan over Artsakh. The economic blockade imposed on Armenia by Azerbaijan and Turkey further exacerbated the situation, leading to widespread poverty and unemployment. In the first years of independence, Armenia barely possessed the necessary infrastructure needed for economic development and was plagued by systemic corruption (Payaslian 2007). With the ceasefire of 1994 and the worst of the shock of the economic transition from planned to market economy overcome, life in Armenia started stabilizing by the end of the twentieth century. The state apparatus consolidated into a competitive authoritarian system (Levitsky and Way 2002).

Recent years of Armenian history were turbulent, with three milestone events: a peaceful uprising, known as the Velvet Revolution in 2018, the Covid-19 pandemic, and the second Artsakh war with Azerbaijan, followed by a deep post-war crisis. Each of these events, briefly described below, had a great potential to influence both social trust and trust towards various institutions.

In April 2018, a popular uprising, known as the Velvet Revolution, resulted in the resignation of the prime minister and a complete change of government (Broers and Ohanyan 2020), making Armenia one of few countries in the world to improve its democratic standing against an overall picture of democratic backsliding (Freedom House 2019). “Take a step, reject Serzh” was the rallying cry of thousands of Armenians who took to the streets, forcing the resignation of Armenia’s Prime Minister Serzh Sargsyan and clearing the way for the leader of the opposition, Nikol Pashinyan (Abrahamian and Shagoyan 2018). In a follow-up snap election, the “My Step” alliance of parties, led by Pashinyan, secured a landslide victory, receiving 70 per cent of the votes (Broers 2020). The brief period after the Velvet Revolution was characterized by great hopes of democratization.

Pashinyan’s government faced its first major crisis, the Covid-19 pandemic, in March 2020 (Grigoryan 2020). The country declared a state of emergency and went into a lockdown in mid-March 2020. The pandemic hit Armenia severely. The number of daily new confirmed cases quickly went into triple digits and reached a 1,000 new cases per day on 17 May, peaking at 4,377 new cases on 28 June 2020. The highest number of deaths per day in the pre-war period was 81 (on 21 June 2020) (World Health Organization 2024). For several months it was among the countries with the highest number of confirmed cases (McKinsey & Company 2021). Its economic impact was also substantial: in mid-2020, the economy declined by 5.7 per cent (Bertelsmann Stiftung 2022). Small and medium-sized enterprises were particularly affected (Beglaryan and Shakhmuradyan 2020). By the end of the summer 2020, the curve of Covid-19 cases had somewhat flattened (World Health Organization 2021).

However, the success was short-lived, since the attention shifted to another catastrophe that had begun: the war with Azerbaijan. Although technically Armenia was not at war and the fighting was mostly outside the country’s territories, the authorities declared martial law on 27 September 2020 (Dallison 2020). The war seriously tested Armenia’s political, economic, and military resilience and virtually dominated all the aspects of governance and civic life in the country. After 44 days of heavy fighting, a Russian-brokered truce was signed between Armenia and Azerbaijan, which contained major concessions on the parts of Armenia and Artsakh. The Ceasefire Statement caused significant public anger, tension, and unrest in the country. The Covid-19 situation meanwhile deteriorated further, with about 10,000 new cases and more than 100 daily deaths in November 2020. The cumulative death toll from Covid-19 in Armenia is 8,775 (World Health Organization 2024). The defeat on the battlefield and the terms of the Ceasefire Statement seriously challenged the trust in the government and became the reason for major political tensions in the country (Freedom House 2022). Snap parliamentary elections were called in June 2021. Despite the double crisis of Covid-19 and war, Pashinyan’s government was re-elected. This poses an intriguing empirical puzzle: how did the Armenian government maintain sufficient levels of public support? What role did trust play in this surprising outcome?

Previous research shows that Armenia has low levels of interpersonal and institutional trust (Paturyan 2011, Paturyan and Gevorgyan 2021), similar to other post-communist countries (Howard 2003, Rothstein and Uslaner 2005). Survey data discussed in detail further in this paper (see Figure 4) show a dramatic increase in trust towards the government in the period between the revolution and the war. A combination of low social trust and increased trust in political institutions makes Armenia similar to other countries that experienced mass uprisings (Ishiyama and Pechenina 2016). However, in Armenia, the democratic breakthrough was followed by a double crisis of Covid-19 and the war. That, and the fact that the government that lost the war got re-elected, makes Armenia a case worth studying. Trust is one of the resources that allows governments to overcome crises. Therefore, our paper poses the following research question:

RQ: Which types of trust in Armenia were most impacted by both positive (democratic, peaceful revolution) and negative (pandemic, war) landmark events in the country?

3 Importance of Trust and Distrust for Governance

Trust has widely been recognized as an essential social resource related to economic performance (Knack and Keefer 1997, Ostrom 1990, Fukuyama 1996, Whiteley 2000), social cohesion (Coleman 1990), and democratic processes (Putnam, Leonardi and Nanetti 1994, Putnam 2000). Some authors describe trust as an attitude, expectation or belief (Dirks and Ferrin 2001); others define it as an action or process in a situation of uncertainty (Coleman 1990). Trust is explained as an outcome of personal psychological development (Szcześniak, Colaço and Rondón 2012), prevalent social culture and norms (Inglehart 1977), a rational judgement of past performance (Norris 2022), or a combination of both societal and individual factors (Freitag and Bühlmann 2009).

Some scholars differentiate between political trust, mistrust and distrust (Bertsou 2019, Citrin and Stoker 2018, Devine et al. 2020, Krishnamurthy 2015, Lenard 2008, Norris 2022, Van De Walle and Six 2014). The authors conceptualize political trust as mostly related to loyalty, commitment and confidence in the object of trust (state institutions, political figures or political processes). Mistrust reflects a critical attitude, caution and watchfulness. Distrust is mostly related to alienation, cynicism and contempt: “The absence of trust can take two forms, mistrust and distrust. Mistrust reflects doubt or skepticism about the trustworthiness of the other, while distrust reflects a settled belief that the other is untrustworthy” (Citrin and Stoker 2018, 50).

There is an active debate about the impact of trust, mistrust and distrust on the governability of a country in general and strength of democracy in particular. There is a well-established scholarly tradition, associated with works of Almond and Verba (1963), Putnam (2000, 1994) and Fukuyama (1996, 2001) that emphasizes the importance of trust for a well-functioning government in general and especially democratic government. In this scholarly tradition an erosion of trust is seen as a sign of weakening of foundations of democracy. On the contrary, scholars like Norris (2022), Hardin (2002), and Krishnamurthy (2015), argue that mistrust and/or distrust towards untrustworthy political actors and institutions is a healthy element of democratic political culture. Devine et al (2020) develop and test survey questions that would allow to distinguish between trust, mistrust and distrust as three related concepts belonging to the same “family” but distinct nonetheless. Their data suggests that trust and distrust are indeed rather distinct while mistrust is less empirically identifiable with the measures they employ.

In political science trust is often analysed in the context of a principal-agent problem (Norris 2022) or as a component of the prisoner’s dilemma and collective action types of problems (Coleman 1990). While the literature on trust, mistrust and distrust is vast, in this paper we focus on two aspects, often differentiated in political science: interpersonal trust (also called generalized social trust) and institutional (also called political or systemic) trust.2

Interpersonal or social trust, defined as “… the belief that others will not deliberately or knowingly do us harm, if they can avoid it, and will look after our interests, if this is possible,” (Delhey and Newton 2005, 311) is important in many ways. It enables collective action (Ostrom 1990, Putnam 2000, Tilly and Tarrow 2015), lowers transaction costs (Coleman 1990, Fukuyama 1996, Knack and Keefer 1997) and allows people to engage with those different from themselves, thus creating pre-conditions for a more diverse, tolerant and open-minded society (Tocqueville 2007 [1864], Almond and Verba 1963, Edwards 2013, Paxton 2007). Social trust is interlinked with good governance, economic prosperity and egalitarianism (Delhey and Newton 2005). Many studies grapple with the question of whether social trust is the cause or the outcome of good governance and economic prosperity, often arriving at the answer that it is probably some kind of a virtuous cycle.

Although social trust is usually considered an important resource that holds communities together, some authors (Coleman 1990, Norris 2022) also discuss the negative consequences of unwarranted trust. Blindly trusting strangers can expose one to risks of being abused; uncritically trusting a government might encourage irresponsible or corrupt politics and bad policy-making lacking proper scrutiny.

Institutional trust reflects people’s positive attitudes towards state and social institutions that shape their lives. It can be defined as “… a belief that the agents will act in a way which serves the interests of the principal” (Norris 2022, 66). Various studies demonstrate that if citizens perceive their governments as trustworthy, they are more likely to comply with government regulations (see Levi and Stoker 2000 for an overview of the literature). Conversely, people with low levels of political trust are likely to be permissive towards the illegal behaviour of their compatriots (Marien and Hooghe 2011) weakening the social pressure for overall law compliance within a society.

Trust towards governments is influenced by economic performance, both on the micro-level of households’ “pocketbook economy” and on the macro- level of the overall countries’ economic indicators. People from economically secure households are more likely to express trust in government; citizens of countries that do well economically are likewise more likely to trust their governments although sources of information influence that relationship (Norris 2022).

There is an ongoing debate around the issue of allegedly declining trust towards democratic governments in the industrialised West (Dalton 2005, Ostrom 1990, Levi and Stoker 2000). The evidence is mixed. Dalton (2005) argues that modernization (overall higher living standards and higher levels of education) led to higher expectations from the government and a more critical citizenry. In other words, lower trust towards the government is the new normal that the democratic governments in developed countries have to adapt to.

Although both interpersonal (social) trust and institutional trust seem to perform similar functions of allowing society to function more efficiently, the two types of trust are not necessarily related (Ishiyama and Pechenina 2016, Newton 2001). While social trust seems to be an element of political culture (Almond and Verba 1963), largely influenced by personal characteristics and life circumstances (Paxton 2007), trust towards institutions is related to these institutions’ performance in the given society (Christensen, Yamamoto and Aoyagi 2020, Newton 2001). Freitag and Bühlmann (2009) hypothesise that institutional trust leads to societal trust. The authors argue that “fair, nonpartisan, incorruptible, universalistic, and power-sharing/consensual institutions” help social trust to develop in the corresponding societies. Conversely, people are less likely to trust oppressive or underperforming institutions. This dynamic is clearly observable in the post-communist region. Howard (2003) documents and explains low levels of both generalized social trust and trust towards state institutions in the post-communist region. Since people had prolonged negative experiences with oppressive communist state institutions, after the break-up of the Soviet block the population of these countries long remained distrustful of public institutions and strangers in their society. Norris (2022, 157) finds evidence of persistent mistrust in government in post-communist states.

3.1 Impact of Big Events (Revolutions, Wars, Covid-19)

There is a growing body of research on how dramatic political changes or transformations in society affect trust. In addition to wars and revolutions, we now have the Covid-19 pandemic as an example of a traumatic rupture that could affect both interpersonal and institutional trust. Ishiyama and Pechenina (2016) claim that in countries where colour revolutions occurred, confidence in political institutions increased after the colour revolution. In the long run, however, these countries experienced a decline in social trust, greater than in countries where no such events occurred. According to the authors, colour revolutions lead to greater uncertainty, less security, and more suspicion about the intentions of others. The lack of trust is not necessarily the cause of social and political conflict but a direct result of social and political upheaval.

Wars are major ruptures of the social fabric. The experience of civil wars negatively impacts social trust (Delhey and Newton 2005, Rothstein and Uslaner 2005). Wars fought abroad influence trust towards political institutions. There is first a “rally around the flag” effect, which increases trust towards political leaders (McAllister 2006, Mueller 1971, Pan and Kosicki 1994), trust towards government overall and even broader positive outlook, such as assessment of personal finances and expectations of the economy (Parker 1995). However, this positive impact of war on trust is short-lived, especially if the war drags on. The rallying effect is replaced with growing weariness with war, related to mounting casualties (Mueller 1971). Going to war is particularly risky for left-wing democratic governments, compared to more “hawkish” right-wing governments partially because left-wing governments tend to lose the trust of their supporters faster, while right-wing governments benefit from being seen as “strong” by their supporters (Stevens 2015).

The Covid-19 pandemic was a major crisis and a serious challenge for governments. It impacted institutional trust in various ways, often depending on how the governments handled the pandemic. In Georgia, trust in public institutions increased due to the successful containment of the spread of the virus (Baldinger 2020). In Sweden, institutional trust increased during the first phase of the pandemic resembling the “rally around the flag” effect, however, it decreased as the pandemic progressed (Bengtsson and Brommesson 2022). Edelman Trust Barometer recorded a similar pattern in eleven countries across the globe (Edelman 2021).

Covid-19 was a perfect illustration of the importance of trust. Trusting the trustworthy (epidemiologists, public health workers, reasonable public policies, credible state and international institutions, vaccines) mattered. Trust in government institutions resulted in fewer Covid-19 cases (Ruck, Borycz and Bentley 2021). Mistrusting the trustworthy mattered as well. Low and/or declining trust towards state institutions hindered compliance with safety regulations issued by governments (Łoza 2020), exacerbating the pandemic. Finally, trusting the untrustworthy amplified the infodemic and led to preventable deaths.

To summarise, decades of conceptual and empirical research on trust has advanced our understanding of the interrelated “family of terms” (Citrin and Stoker 2018) that include trust, mistrust and distrust with sub-divisions, related to the object of trust (other people or institutions).3 A more traditional view of trust as important for social governability is being complemented with a growing body of literature on importance of scepticism or mistrust. The impact of war on trust is well-researched; the impact of Covid-19 on trust is a new but vibrant field; studies that analyse the impact of revolutions on trust are relatively few. This paper addresses an important gap in the literature by looking at all three major influencers (a revolution, a pandemic and a war) occurring in one country (Armenia) over a relatively short period of time.

Previous research demonstrates that trust is usually affected by institutional performance, particularly at times of crisis, such as wars and pandemics. Both events occurred in Armenia almost simultaneously. Moreover, the two major crises were preceded by a peaceful mass uprising that could boost confidence in institutions, but could also add to the uncertainty and lower trust, as suggested by Ishiyama and Pechenina study (2016). This paper tries to disentangle the impact of three major events on interpersonal and institutional trust in Armenia.

4 Methodology

Although some research utilizes experiments to measure trust (Cassar, Crowley and Wydick 2007, Glaeser et al 2000), most social science studies of trust are based on survey data. This paper continues that tradition, using primary and secondary data from six surveys. The surveys were selected for inclusion in this study because of the quality of the data (all six surveys are based on nationwide representative samples and follow standard ethical regulations of survey research); because they contained questions on interpersonal and institutional trust best matching the purpose of this research; and because they were conducted around the time period under scrutiny in this paper (shortly before the Velvet Revolution, during the Covid-19 pandemic and shortly after the 2020 war). The combination of secondary data from these surveys allows us to answer the research question posed in this paper regarding the types of trust in Armenia most impacted by both positive (democratic peaceful revolution) and negative (pandemic, war) recent landmark events in the country.

The World Values Survey (WVS), European Values Study (EVS) and Caucasus Barometer (CB) all include questions estimating both interpersonal and institutional trust. All three are nationwide representative surveys, conducted in Armenia at various time points, allowing us to look at trends and study the impacts of the three macro-events we are interested in. We also use data from International Republican Institute (IRI) Center for Insights in Survey Research and Eurasia Barometer (EB). These polls include data from the early Covid-19 pandemic period and an assessment of how the government handled the pandemic in 2021. We also use data from a survey conducted in Armenia in February–May 2022 within the framework of the EU Horizon 2020 PERITIA (Policy, Expertise and Trust) project to explore Covid-related opinions.

Generalized social trust is commonly measured by asking respondents whether they think most people can be trusted. We use Caucasus Barometer data starting in 20104 with the following question wording “Generally speaking, would you say that most people in Armenia can be trusted, or that you can’t be too careful in dealing with people?” The answer options are “you can’t be too careful,” “neutral” and “most people can be trusted.”5

Institutional trust questions mainly focus on governance structures at local, regional, national, and supranational levels. The Caucasus Barometer survey explicitly asks the respondents how much they trust specific institutions. The International Republican Institute surveys ask whether the respondent had a “favourable” or “unfavourable” opinion about the work of various institutions. The PERITIA survey asks to what extent the respondents trust institutions and, more specifically, whether people trust the information received from these institutions. Although differences in wording between the surveys limit our ability to compare them, this is not uncommon in survey-based research (Norris 2022).

Additionally, we use Caucasus Barometer data to explore the overall attitude towards democracy as a form of governance within which state institutions function. Using these surveys allows us to see a general picture of how trust in Armenia fluctuated in recent years in relation to the 2018 Velvet Revolution, the 2020 Covid-19 pandemic and the 2020 war with Azerbaijan, and the deep crisis that followed.

5 Descriptive Analysis of Interpersonal and Institutional Trust in Armenia Before and After the Landmark Events of 2018 and 2020

Interpersonal trust in Armenia is low. According to the Caucasus Barometer, there have been no major changes over the past decade. As Figure 1 shows, about 20% of the population is willing to trust people in general. The Velvet Revolution seemed to have little impact. The percentage of distrusting people decreased from 58% in 2017 to 52% in 2019; most of these people shifted from a negative to a neutral position. This shift was reversed after the war, with 61% saying you need to be careful when dealing with people. Thus, the small percentage of trusting people continue to hold that opinion regardless of the revolution, the pandemic and the war; the percentage of distrustful people was somewhat lower after the peaceful revolution but increased after the war.

Figure 1
Figure 1

Interpersonal trust, Caucaus Barometer, %

Citation: Caucasus Survey 2024; 10.30965/23761202-bja10036

Source: authors’ illustration based on data from https://caucasusbarometer.org/en

Taken together, the World Values Survey and European Values Study show us a longer time span. Unfortunately, these surveys are not strictly comparable with the Caucasus Barometer, because the question “Generally speaking, would you say that most people can be trusted” has two answer options: “most people can be trusted” or “you need to be careful.” The overall picture, however, displays stability rather than change. Over the course of more than two decades, Armenia continues to remain a low-trust society, with some ups and downs, as Figure 2 demonstrates. Predictably, trust decreased somewhat after the war. Overall, interpersonal trust was minimally affected by the Velvet Revolution, the pandemic and the war.

Figure 2
Figure 2

Interpersonal trust, World Values Survey and European Values Study, %

Citation: Caucasus Survey 2024; 10.30965/23761202-bja10036

Source: authors’ illustration based on data from https://www.worldvaluessurvey.org/WVSOnline.jsp and https://europeanvaluesstudy.eu

Institutional trust shows more variation in recent years, as we demonstrate below. Before going into details regarding various institutions, we present the overall perceptions of democracy, as measured by Caucasus Barometer. Survey respondents were asked about their preference for democracy (see Figure 3). After the Velvet Revolution of 2018, the percentage of people who prefer democracy increased from 48% to 63%. However, after the double crisis of Covid-19 and defeat in the war, the percentage dropped to 44%.

Figure 3
Figure 3

Perceptions of democracy, Caucasus Barometer, %

Citation: Caucasus Survey 2024; 10.30965/23761202-bja10036

Source: authors’ illustration based on data from https://caucasusbarometer.org/en

Turning to specific institutions, the Caucasus Barometer includes a battery of questions about trust towards various institutions. We group them into three categories:

  • Political institutions: executive government, local government, parliament and political parties;

  • State institutions: educational system, healthcare system, police, courts, army, ombudsman;

  • Social institutions: media, NGOs, banks, religious institutions the respondent belongs to.

The question wording is: “Please tell me how much do you trust or distrust [name of the institution]?” The answer options are: “fully distrust; rather distrust; neither trust, nor distrust; rather trust; fully trust.” In this paper, we use the sum of “rather trust” and “fully trust” percentages as a measurement of institutional trust.

The Velvet Revolution clearly affected trust towards political institutions, as Figure 4 demonstrates. The most dramatic increase between 2017 and 2019 was that of trust towards the executive government: from 20% to 71%. The percentage of people trusting parliament tripled, going from 12% to 39%; the same is true for political parties – from 6% to 19%. In general, of all the institutions we consider in this study, political institutions registered the most increase in levels of trust (in terms of change in percentage points). Except for political parties, these institutions were also the ones to suffer some of the most pronounced declines in levels of trust after the war. The largest drop was in the trust towards the executive government which plummeted from 79% in 2019 to 12% in 2021. Trust towards parliament returned to the 2017 level of 12%.

Figure 4
Figure 4

Trust towards political institutions, Caucasus Barometer, %

Citation: Caucasus Survey 2024; 10.30965/23761202-bja10036

Source: authors’ illustration based on data from https://caucasusbarometer.org/en

The case of political parties stands out. Unlike the other three political institutions, discussed in this paper, trust towards political parties increased after the war from 19% to 40%. As the political discourse in the country became very polarized in the aftermath of the war, political parties, particularly opposition political parties, became very vocal and visible, leading some of the street protests and voicing scathing criticism of the government during parliamentary sessions. That might be the reason for their improved rating in the public eye.

Turning from political to state institutions, we see changes in some cases but the overall picture, presented in Figure 5, is less dramatic, compared to political institutions. In the aftermath of the Velvet Revolution trust towards some of the state institutions increased as well, particularly the ombudsman (29% in 2017 to 42% in 2019), the army (77% to 89%), the healthcare system (42% to 48%) and the courts (16% to 21%). Trust towards the educational system remained the same. Trust towards the ombudsman continued to rise after the war, reaching an unprecedented peak of 81% in 2021. Trust towards the police, on the other hand, declined after the war, dropping to 19%. Trust towards the healthcare system returned to its pre-revolution indicator of 42%; trust towards courts declined to 18%, comparable to its pre-revolution index of 16%. Thus, overall trust towards state institutions remained more stable during the recent tumultuous years, compared to trust towards political institutions, with the notable exceptions of the institutions of the ombudsman and the police. During the post-war political crisis, the Armenian Human Rights Defender (ombudsman) was very visible in the public discourse. The police had to maintain public order during many street protests. This “increased visibility” could have been the reason for changes in trust towards these two institutions – a positive change in the case of the ombudsman and a negative change in the case of the police.

Figure 5
Figure 5

Trust towards state institutions, Caucasus Barometer, %

Citation: Caucasus Survey 2024; 10.30965/23761202-bja10036

Source: authors’ illustration based on data from https://caucasusbarometer.org/en

Social institutions seemed to be least affected by the Velvet Revolution, as Figure 6 demonstrates. Trust towards media improved by six percentage points (from 23% in 2017 to 29% in 2019). Other improvements are around or below five percentage points. After the war, trust towards the church plummeted to an all-time low of 34%. Trust towards media declined substantially as well, from 29% in 2019 to 10% in 2021.

Figure 6
Figure 6

Trust towards social institutions, Caucasus Barometer, %.

Citation: Caucasus Survey 2024; 10.30965/23761202-bja10036

Source: authors’ illustration based on data from https://caucasusbarometer.org/en

The overall polarized and toxic post-war public discourse might have contributed to the decline of public trust in the media. The case of the church is worth exploring further. While the Armenian Apostolic Church that most Armenians affiliate themselves with usually remains politically neutral, the Head of the Church called for the prime minister’s resignation shortly after the end of the war. There was also a much publicized and widely discussed occasion when a priest refused to shake the prime minister’s hand on a visit to a church. Similarly to the previously discussed cases of substantial change in public trust, the church was very visible in the public (political) discourse; this might be the reason for such a drastic change in public opinion towards this institution.

Interestingly, trust towards the European Union (EU) and the United Nations (UN) has also increased between 2017 and 2019 by eight percentage points, from 29% to 37%.6 Trust towards the EU continued to increase after the war, reaching a historic high of 53% in 2021. Trust towards the UN, on the contrary, dropped to 23% after the war.

The International Republican Institute provides more nuanced and recent data on public perceptions of the EU in Armenia, although the question is about relationship with the EU, rather than trust towards it. As Figure 7 shows, 80% and more of the Armenian residents considered the relationship between Armenia and EU as good before the 2020 war. In the aftermath of the war the percentage dropped to 54%. It rose again and reached 87% in December 2023 in the aftermath of the mass displacement of the Armenian population of Artsakh. The positive perceptions of the Armenian public might be related to the establishment of the EU Monitoring Capacity (October – December 2022) followed by an EU Mission (February 2023 – current) tasked with observing the situation on the ground along the Armenian side of the internationally recognized Armenian-Azerbaijani border (EEAS 2024).

Figure 7
Figure 7

Evaluation of the current state of the relationship between Armenia and the European Union, International Republican Institute, %

Citation: Caucasus Survey 2024; 10.30965/23761202-bja10036

Source: authors’ illustration based on data from https://www.iri.org/resources/public-opinion-survey-residents-of-armenia-december-2023/

Thus, the Velvet Revolution affected trust towards political institutions the most, followed by state institutions, while social institutions were minimally affected. The war and the post-war crisis seemed to have affected political institutions and those state and social institutions that became active in political discourse. The ombudsman and the political parties improved their standing in the public eye, while other institutions lost credibility in the post-war crisis or maintained the overall levels of trust they had before the triple challenge of the revolution, the Covid-19 pandemic and the war.

So far, we discussed the change in public opinion from 2019 to 2021, assuming the war and the post-war crisis were the greatest influencers. However, the Covid-19 pandemic also happened at around the same time. Armenia went into its first full lockdown in March 2020. The summer of 2020 was the time of most strictly enforced pandemic safety rules but the numbers of infected continued to grow. With the start of the war on 27 September 2020, the pandemic was pushed out of people’s minds.

The impact of Covid-19 on institutional trust is hard to isolate from the impact of the war, but we do have some specific survey data that allows us to explore this question. A June 2020 poll found strong support for the prime minister and his government’s management of the Covid-19 pandemic. According to this survey, 84% of Armenians had either “very” (72%) or “somewhat” (12%) favourable opinions of the prime minister. Furthermore, a majority of respondents supported the government’s management of the Covid-19 pandemic, with 48% “very” and 23% “somewhat” satisfied with the response. When asked how state institutions had handled the pandemic to date, respondents expressed improved opinions of the police (65%), the Ministry of Health (64%) and the Prime Minister’s Office (58%) (Center for Insights in Survey Research 2020).

Figure 8 shows that Covid-19 did not negatively impact trust towards institutions in Armenia, at least not initially. On the contrary, at the early stages of the pandemic, most people reported improvement in their opinion about the police, the Ministry of Health and the Prime Minister’s Office. As for other state and political institutions asked about in the survey, there were some positive opinions but, as often as not, respondents stated that their opinions did not change. This survey did not include any social institutions, but given what we know so far, opinions towards these institutions seem to be more stable, compared to state and political institutions. It is safe to assume that, similarly to the Velvet Revolution, Covid-19 would not affect trust towards these institutions in the short run.

Figure 8
Figure 8

Impact of Covid-19 on perceptions of the performance of institutions, International Republican Institute, 2020, %

Citation: Caucasus Survey 2024; 10.30965/23761202-bja10036

Source: authors’ illustration based on data from https://www.iri.org/resources/new-armenia-poll-shows-strong-support-for-governments-response-to-covid-19/

In the long run, however, the picture changes. According to Eurasia Barometer (October 2021), 60% of the respondents stated that the government handled the pandemic badly (38%) or very badly (22.3%). PERITIA survey data from 2022 shows high levels of public scepticism. Some 56% of the respondents said they believed the government exaggerated the number of deaths from coronavirus; only 28% said the government communicates accurate and unbiased information. When asked who they would “trust to give advice and accurate information about the coronavirus pandemic,” people prefer scientists and the World Health Organization, while the Armenian government ranks the lowest on the list. Table 1 presents the mean scores for the answers, on a scale from zero (do not trust at all) to 10 (trust completely).

Table 1
Table 1

“Who would you trust to give you advice and accurate information about the coronavirus pandemic?” The average score on a scale from zero (do not trust at all) to ten (trust completely), Peritia, 2022

Citation: Caucasus Survey 2024; 10.30965/23761202-bja10036

Source: authors’ illustration based on data from https://search.gesis.org/research_data/SDN-10.7802–2487?doi=10.7802/2487

6 Comparative Analysis of Gains and Losses in Trust

Interpersonal (social) trust in Armenia continues to remain low. It was barely affected by major positive or negative events in the country, such as the Velvet Revolution of 2018 and the double crisis of Covid-19 and war in 2020, or the deep post-war political crisis and polarization. The percentage of distrustful people slightly decreased after the Velvet Revolution, only to increase again after the pandemic and the war. The percentage of trusting people remained virtually unchanged.

Institutional trust, however, was more affected, particularly in cases of political institutions or state/social institutions that stepped into political discourses or found themselves in the crossfire of political polarization. The Velvet Revolution boosted trust towards all political institutions, the two international institutions included in the analysis (the EU and the UN), and some state institutions (the police, the ombudsman, the army) while trust towards social institutions remained mostly unchanged. The percentage of people preferring democracy as a form of government also increased. The pandemic had a short-term positive impact on people’s perceptions of relevant political and state institutions, but in the long run people’s perception of the government became worse. Two years after the start of the pandemic, many people reported thinking that the government handled the pandemic badly, and exaggerated the number of deaths; people do not trust the government as the source of pandemic-related information. Thus, a situation similar to the initial “rally around the flag” effect followed by a downturn in trust, described by Bengtsson and Brommesson in Sweden (2022) occurred in Armenia as well.

The impact of war and the post-war crisis on public trust towards political institutions is almost uniformly devastating, with the exception of political parties that have actually improved their standing in the public eye. Trust towards some of the state institutions also suffered, with the police being affected the most. At the same time, trust towards the ombudsman skyrocketed. In terms of social institutions, the banks and the NGOs were not affected, while the media and particularly the church lost a lot of credibility in the public eye. The percentage of people who think democracy is the best form of government declined.

These swings in public trust towards various institutions have something in common, particularly in the post-war period. Institutions that remained neutral were affected minimally. Institutions that stepped up to their role (political parties) or displayed professionalism and neutrality despite polarisation (ombudsman) gained some trust. Institutions that contributed to polarisation (political institutions formed through elections, the media, the church) lost trust.

Thus, on one hand, we have the Velvet Revolution that boosted institutional trust; on the other hand, we have the double crisis of the pandemic and the lost war that undermined institutional trust. Which change was larger? To attempt to answer this question we calculated the change in institutional trust using the following simple formulae:

  • Change of trust following the Velvet Revolution = trust towards the institution in 2019 - trust towards the institution in 2017.

  • Change of trust following the pandemic and the war = trust towards the institution in 2021 – trust towards the institution in 2019.

  • Total change (“before” and “after” the three major events) = trust towards the institution in 2021 – trust towards the institution in 2017

Caucasus Barometer includes 16 institutions for which trust was measured in 2017, 2019 and 2021. We presented them in three groups above (excluding the EU and the UN from the graphs but shortly discussing them in the text). Table 2 presents all the data for all the institutions plus our calculations of the change in levels of trust.

Table 2
Table 2

Trust towards institutions, % of “fully trust” and “somewhat trust” combined, Caucasus Barometer

Citation: Caucasus Survey 2024; 10.30965/23761202-bja10036

Source: authors’ illustration based on data from https://caucasusbarometer.org/en/

As Table 2 demonstrates, the change after the Velvet Revolution is uniformly positive, while the change after the double crisis of the pandemic and the war is mostly negative with the exceptions discussed above (the change in trust towards banks is within the margin of error). Both summing up the total change and averaging it shows similar results: gains in institutional trust after the Velvet Revolution outweigh the losses.

Comparing 2021 data with 2017 data shows that gains in trust are mostly due to performance of political parties, the ombudsman and the attitudes towards the EU. This is an important finding that needs further probing and reflection. The EU is an institution external to the Armenian political system. If both the EU and the UN are taken out of the analysis, the total gains and losses of trust during the years under study become almost equal, as the last two rows of Table 2 demonstrate.

7 Conclusion

This paper used survey data to explore the question of which types of trust in Armenia were most impacted by both positive (democratic, peaceful revolution) and negative (pandemic, war) landmark events in the country. Combining data from different sources, we demonstrate that, by and large, interpersonal social trust was not affected by these events, while institutional trust was affected in ways that seem plausible. The positive impetus of a peaceful revolution boosted acceptance of democracy and trust in most political and some state and social institutions. The double crisis of Covid-19 and war undermined people’s belief in democracy and impacted political institutions the most, while some state and social institutions were also affected, depending on their level of engagement in the public sphere. In line with what the literature suggests, interpersonal social trust seems to be a more stable, inherently held element of political culture, while institutional trust is more directly tied to the performance of institutions. Since the performance of institutions is inevitably affected by either big positive changes and major crises, trust towards these institutions fluctuates visibly as a result of major events in a given country.

Basic calculations of indicators of public trust in various institutions, performed in this paper, suggest that in the case of Armenia, the positive impetus of the Velvet Revolution was overall equal to or stronger than the heavy blow of the double crisis of the pandemic and the lost war. This might partially explain the paradox of the electoral victory of the government that lost the war. As such, the Armenian case provides important insights for the scholarly debates on trust as an important resource, democratization in the face of adversity, and the importance of legitimacy for crisis resilience.

Our findings also raise a number of questions for further research. Quantitative data is useful for presenting a general picture but is ill-suited for a more nuanced understanding of reasons behind swings in public opinion. We have attempted to provide some explanation for what we thought were the most obvious cases of change in public perceptions of Armenian political parties, the Human Rights defender, the Armenian Apostolic Church, the media and the police. We assumed that other large changes in perceptions (of the executive, the parliament, the local government) are self-explanatory as they followed our expectations of increased trust after the Velvet Revolution and decreased trust after the war and the pandemic. Both our explanations and our assumptions should be further researched through qualitative or more in-depth historical analysis. The decline of trust towards religious institutions begs for further research on state-citizen-church relations in Armenia.

Due to scope limitations, and what we felt was already nuanced discussion of various aspects of social and institutional trust, this paper focused on the Armenian population in general. Further exploration of differences related to gender, age, education, socio-economic status, urban versus rural residents and political affiliation of the respondents would most likely provide further important insights into the dynamics of trust in Armenia.

Contemporary empirical research on trust has entered a new phase where, in addition to trust, attempts are made to measure distrust and mistrust as distinct phenomena. Unfortunately, that kind of research is not yet possible in Armenia due to the lack of specialized surveys. This is another potentially very fruitful avenue for further research.

Another potentially insightful research could compare Armenia with Georgia, which also experienced both a peaceful mobilisation resulting in a regime change (the Rose Revolution of 2003), a war with Russia in 2008 and the Covid-19 pandemic. Although in Georgia the three landmark events took place over a more expended period of time, with the war preceding the Covid-19 pandemic, it would be interesting to observe whether social and institutional trust in Georgia shows patterns similar to those in Armenia.

Acknowledgements

This work is part of the Policy, Expertise and Trust in Action (PERITIA) project funded by the European Union’s Horizon 2020 programme under grant agreement No. 870883. We also thank the students and faculty of the American University of Armenia for their input.

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1

Known to non-Armenians and to the international community as Nagorno-Karabakh, an autonomous region of Soviet Azerbaijan mostly populated by Armenians, it opted for unification with Armenia in 1988. This led to two rounds of hostilities. In 1991–94 Armenian forces prevailed. Artsakh became an unrecognized de-facto independent state. In 2020 Azerbaijan launched a full-scale offensive and recaptured about a third of Artsakh. The remaining approximately two-thirds was under Russian peacekeepers’ control until September 2023. On September 19–20, 2023 Azerbaijan launched another military offensive that resulted in surrender of Artsakh authorities and within days the almost-complete exodus of the 100,000-strong Armenian population. The name “Artsakh” is the historic Armenian name that is preferred by the Armenians and is contested by the Azerbaijanis.

2

We omit the discussion of particularistic or “in-group” trust towards people personally known to the trustor and the discussion of instrumental or calculating trust based on rational self-interest (Delhey and Newton 2005).

3

A comprehensive typology of research on trust is beyond the scope of this paper. Here we mention the few elements that are relevant for this paper. For a comprehensive literature review on political trust and trustworthiness see Levi and Stoker (2000) and Norris (2022).

4

We omit Caucasus Barometer data 2008–2009 because the trust question wording in the earlier survey was somewhat different.

5

The response is a 10-point scale, but Caucasus Barometer groups this scale into three categories, mentioned above, in its online data representation. Since in this paper we rely only on descriptive data, we follow this simplified categorisation of responses.

6

The two questions were asked separately but the results are identical. Most people express the exact same level of trust towards these two entities in Armenia.

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