Of Reactionaries, Clerics and Protests

Prof. Nerses Kopalyan, EVN Report, 19 June 2024

Armenia’s post-2020 political landscape has been a continuous dialectical battle between a growing democratic culture against remnants of an illiberal opposition, with intermittent attempts at weaponizing culture, traditional values, and identity politics. Not uncommon in nascent-yet-vibrant democracies, this broad socio-political discourse, which may seem to most observers as polarizing and counterproductive, is, in essence, part of a process known as discursive consensus: through expansive rational-critical debate (in whatever iteration), society reaches an overlapping consensus by synthesizing the wide range of disparate ideas into a societal equilibrium. Thus, through war, defeat, threats, and structural insecurity, Armenian society has reached an overlapping consensus: the democratization of the country must go on. It is the prevailing and unequivocal will of the Armenian people that, through thick and thin, Armenia must continue with its democratic trajectory, regardless of the administration in power.

This collective will of the Armenian people, however, has been fighting a battle on numerous fronts. From a persistent security crisis, to predatory neighbors, to an illiberal opposition, to certain Diasporan factions, Armenia’s democracy has been under endless assault. That this democracy survives and continues to grow speaks volumes for its resilience. But in the confluence of this dialectical struggle, a new battle line has been drawn: the attack against secularism and the intrusion of the Church into the political. An important instrument in consolidating the authoritarianism of the Kocharyan regime, and co-opted as an active partner in legitimizing the patronalism of the Sargsyan regime, Catholicos Garegin II’s tenure has transitioned the Armenian Apostolic Church from being the scion of the Armenian spirit to an oligarchized servant of authoritarianism. In this context, while the Velvet Revolution ruptured oligarchic Armenia, it has not yet reached the leadership of the Church. And as the last bastion of the oligarchic class, the Church has decided to immerse itself into Armenia’s political space, not only rupturing the separation of Church and State, but more acutely, seeking to undermine Armenia’s democratic project. To cogently understand the proxy-ization of Archbishop Bagrat Galastanyan, Primate of the Tavush diocese and leader of the current anti-government protests, as an extension of Garegin II’s endeavor of weaponizing the Church against the democratic project, the method of process-tracing will be applied to qualify the integration of the Church into the pre-Velvet oligarchic system. And based on this contextual foundation, a more cogent understanding of the current protests, under the banner of “Tavush for Homeland,” can be better assessed.

In terms of reverence, what can be said about the Armenian Apostolic Church? It is a sacred institution that has served, protected, and advanced the interests, goals, and the very identity of the Armenian people. In its historical singularity, the Armenian Apostolic Church is synonymous with the very act of being Armenian. When the Armenian people were stateless, and leaderless they had the Church and when the cruelty of history devastated the Armenian people, the Church equally bore the burden of this suffering. The Armenian Apostolic Church is not simply a religious institution: it is the spiritual core of the Armenian nation, the consciousness of the Armenian people and is the one unifying phenomenon that embodies the nationalism, patriotism, sacrifice, loyalty, and faith of the Armenian universe. So, in no unequivocal terms, the Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin is an extraordinarily important institution. But what happens when this revered and cherished institution becomes victimized by the corruption and abuse of its own leadership? It leaves society with one choice: to separate the institution from its leadership.

Garegin II is not the Church, he is simply the Patriarch[1] of the Church. An analytical and fact-based opprobrium of Garegin II’s tenure, then, is neither a repudiation nor an attack on the Church itself.

Garegin II’s Consolidation of Power: Rigged Elections and Kocharyan’s Support 

There never can be true separation between politics and religion, especially in post-Soviet Armenia, where every corridor of power remained inherently political. The politicization of the Apostolic Church, however, had always been kept at a minimum, and after the fall of the Soviet Union, the prevalence and prestige of the Church skyrocketed. The Church became a source of power and authority on its own terms: the state might attempt, but it could not dictate terms to the Church. This rapidly changed when Robert Kocharyan became president, as the patronal system of political corruption and administrative abuse made its way to the Church. The outcome was the election of Garegin II as Catholicos of All Armenians.

In 1999, Catholicos Garegin I passed away, paving the way for the Council of Bishops (Church’s administrative body) and the Supreme Spiritual Council (highest executive body of the Church) to organize the National Ecclesiastical Assembly (supreme legislative body of the Church): a new Catholicos was to be elected. The Kocharyan Administration, emulating Putin’s co-option of the Russian Orthodox Church, understood the strategic importance to authoritarian survival if the Church can become a willing accomplice. Seizing the opportunity,  Kocharyan not only interfered in the affairs of the Church, but selected his preferred candidate, and more so, utilized the resources of the state to secure a favorable electoral outcome. Kocharyan’s preferred candidate was Archbishop Garegin Nersesyan, Vicar General of the Araratian Pontifical Diocese. Respected for his administrative and organizational skills, Archbishop Garegin also had extensive experience serving in the Diaspora. Kocharyan’s calculus was straightforward: Garegin’s managerial style, his acquiescence to the political leadership, and his influence within the Diaspora would make the Church an effective extension of his Government.

To operationalize the co-option of the Armenian Apostolic Church, the initial step undertaken by the Kocharyan Government was to secure Archbishop Garegin as the new Catholicos. Pressure from the state apparatus forced potential Catholicosai candidates to withdraw their candidacy, while Garegin met with “hostile clergymen and gave them generous promises of hierarchical promotion or economic support after his election.”[2] This unprecedented and flagrant interference of the government in manipulating the election process led to public outcries from bishops and high-ranking clergy, since the Church leadership was fundamentally opposed to Garegin’s candidacy. Of the 49 highest ranking clergy, 37 expressed their opposition to the Government’s preferred candidate.[3] Interference and pressure from the state apparatus also enraged delegates of the National Ecclesiastic Assembly. But the electoral outcome appeared to have been a foregone conclusion: delegates had to vote as dictated by the Kocharyan Government. As Mesrop Mutafian, the Patriarch of Constantinople, explained to American diplomats, “…[Garegin’s] election to the Catholicosate in 1999 had not been democratic, and, in fact, had been orchestrated by Armenian President R. Kocharian.”[4]

Garegin II’s loyalty to the Kocharyan Government was sealed, and in due time, would also be extended to the subsequent Sargsyan Government. Structurally, the Kocharyan Government’s co-opting of the Armenian Apostolic Church, and the utilization of the Church to whitewash the political agenda of his repressive and undemocratic government, became a systematized process: to align the interests of the Church leadership with that of the Government, the oligarchization of the church had to be consolidated. The broader design, then, was to reduce the Armenian Apostolic Church into Garegin II’s personal fiefdom. For the patronal, clientelistic elite, Garegin II was an active partner installed into the leadership of a hallowed institution in order to reduce this institution into a mere instrument of a broader autocratic apparatus. Thus, Kocharyan’s Catholicos, and his inner circle of clergy, became integrated into the newly-formed oligarchic structure: Armenia did not only have oligarchy in politics and economy, it also now had an oligarchic system of religion.

The Catholicos’ Culture of Corruption and Construction

To dismantle the democratic guardrail implicit in the Church’s system of governance, Garegin II began his tenure by consolidating power through a process of tearing down the democratic and shared governance mechanisms within the Church. In the Armenian Apostolic Church, Parish Councils, Diocesan Councils, and Diocesan Bishops are all elected. Even the Church’s highest executive body, the Supreme Spiritual Council, is elected by the National Ecclesiastical Assembly (Church’s supreme legislative body). As observed through Garegin II’s election, the Ecclesiastical Assembly was neutralized by Kocharyan’s administrative apparatus. To infringe upon the democratic Parish and Diocesan councils, Garegin II passed the 2009 Statute of the Armenian Apostolic Church,[5] allowing him to eliminate the democratic self-governance of local religious communities and simply rule by decree.[6] This left the Supreme Spiritual Council, which Garegin II dealt with by altering the electoral process: positions to the highest executive body in the Church would no longer be elected by the Ecclesiastical Assembly, but rather, would be directly appointed by him. In this context, by hand-picking loyalists to the Supreme Spiritual Council, not only would Garegin II’s decisions be rubber-stamped without opposition, but the very process of dissent would be eliminated. In more simple terms, his authority in the Church had become absolute, since his unilateral capacity for administrative and structural dominance removed any potential checks or balances against the Catholicos. Thus, Garegin II proceeded to run the Church the way Kocharyan or Sargsyan ran Armenia: through corruption, nepotism, abuse of power, and persecution of dissidents.[7]

Having full political cover from the state, and exercising unmatched power over the Church, Garegin II proceeded to operate with full immunity. Two main developments stand out with respect to his approach: 1) intertwining his interests with the politico-oligarchic class, and 2) initiating a construction boom for the Church that would seal his legacy as a great builder. These two visions, of course, cannot be separated from one another. By aligning his economic interests with the oligarchic class, Garegin II secured “sponsors” and “benefactors” to finance Church construction, while, at the same time, business and commercial arrangements were enhanced between himself, his inner circle of clergymen, and the political elite. Garegin II’s tenure would thus be defined, at this stage, by two objectives: amassing personal wealth as part of the elite class, and advancing Church construction projects.[8] What followed was a fashionable trend among the oligarchic class: donate money to Garegin II’s projects, and you can get a Church with your choice of name, design, and location. Churches were no longer being built for the faithful or parish members, but rather, for rich sponsors.[9] This Construction Theology sought “to demonstrate his [Garegin’s] personal social weight and the economic weight of the Armenian Church.”[10] The Church was no longer a bystander, but rather a leading actor in the informal networks, unfair business practices, abuses of political authority, and the collective pillaging of Armenian society.

How many churches have been built under Garegin II’s Construction Theology? Over 100. In pre-Velvet Armenia, a country depleted by poverty, infrastructural deficiencies, underdevelopment, and political stagnation, the political and economic elite determined that building churches with Garegin II was a better investment. And who were these “sponsors” and benefactors? A who’s-who of the most corrupt businessmen and politicians in the country: ranging from Barsegh Beglaryan to Surik Khachatryan to Vahram Baghdasaryan to Aghvan Hovsepyan to Hovik Abrahamyan (to name a few).

This culture of corruption and “sponsorship” also trickled down to the clergy, where meritocracy was replaced with nepotism. Clergymen that lack “sponsors” have either been sent to poor parishes, refused promotion, or even been defrocked for refusing to conform to the “sponsorship” system. In contrast, clergymen who are connected to or have “sponsorship” from the politico-oligarchic elite have been promoted into Garegin II’s inner circle; that is, into the Church hierarchy. To find Archbishop Bagrat Galstanyan in this inner circle speaks volumes, and by extension, begs the question: why is an Archbishop of Garegin II’s Church leading an anti-democratic movement to overthrow the democratically-elected government of Armenia? The answer is straightforward: the last bastion of the oligarchic class, under the guise of nationalism, is waging its last battle against Armenia’s democratic project. That pious priests (vardapets) who have been defrocked due to the Catholicos’ clientelistic system have compared his rule to that of Stalinism should not be surprising: the same culture of fear and intimidation that has dominated Etchmiadzin also once dominated Armenia. However, Armenia’s democratic project disrupted the latter, while the “Tavush for Homeland” protests are seeking to preserve the former.

In tracing Garegin II’s implementation of his oligarchic system within the Church, important empirical developments stand out. One of the more unique cases of nepotism and abuse of authority has been Garegin II’s personalization of Church interests to advance the careers of family members. In 2000, for example, Garegin II removed the highly-respected Archbishop Tiran Kyureghyan from his position in Moscow as Primate of Russia. An obvious act of vengeance, for Archbishop Kyureghyan had opposed Garegin II’s candidacy in the 1999 election, Garegin II further ignored Church protocol by defrocking an Archbishop without presenting a case to the Supreme Spiritual Council. To enhance this act of abuse-of-power with verifiable nepotism, Garegin II ordained his own brother Ezras as bishop in 2001 and installed him Primate of Russia. Primate Ezras, in his own right, became a prolifically corrupt and abusive figure, serving as an agent of Armenian oligarchic interests in Moscow. Not to limit such cronyism to his brother, in 2010, Garegin II ordained one of his nephews bishop and installed him as Primate of the Aragatsotn region of Armenia. The case of Garegin II’s right-hand man, Archbishop Navasard Kchoyan, is even more telling. The presumed heir-apparent to Garegin II, Archbishop Kchoyan is the Primate of the Araratian Diocese, an important operative for the previous regime and the Republican Party (RPA), and of course, an oligarch in his own right. Fashioning himself as a gangster archbishop, Kchoyan was known for sporting a Bentley vehicle, openly carrying a firearm, and replicating the behavior of oligarchic-thugs that dominated Armenian society prior to the Velvet Revolution. An important operative of Garegin II’s inner circle, Archbishop Kchoyan became embroiled in an offshore business scandal in 2013 that involved several Armenian businessmen, ministers, and then-Prime Minister Tigran Sargsyan. Inconceivable that Garegin II’s right-hand man would be held legally responsible, the Sargsyan Government insulated Archbishop Kchoyan from being investigated or charged. Overarchingly, the functioning model of Garegin II’s Church became a replica of the functioning model of the state: in the same fashion Kocharyan and Sargsyan placed their relatives and close associates in positions of wealth and power, so did Garegin II. Thus, structural oligarchization was equally instituted across all of the main spheres of Armenian society.

What Happened to the Separation of Church and State?

The analytical considerations above demonstrate the structural and systemic nature of corruption and abuse of power designed and implemented by Garegin II during his tenure. The large scope of scandals, for example, or the large body of rumors surrounding the Catholicos, have been purposefully left out. However, the formal and informal structures developed between the Church elite and the political elite gave way to two developments. First, the Church elite, like the politico-oligarchs, functioned under a logic of immunity, where they operated above the law, but within the parameters of the elite’s informal rules. As such, whatever the scandal or violation of the law, the state accommodated the Church elite by covering up. Second, this demonstrates how, prior to the Velvet Revolution, the separation between Church and State was not only blurred, but more so, under the tenure of Garegin II, the Church became extremely powerful politically, while, at the same time, serving the interests of the political elite.

The Constitution of the Republic of Armenia grants special status and recognition to the Armenian Apostolic Church as the national Church of the Armenian people. This status and recognition, of course, is hinged on the immense historical, cultural, and spiritual relevance of the Church. There is, indeed, much more substance to the Constitution’s recognition of the Church than mere symbolism. At the same time, the Constitution does specify the secular principles of Armenia’s government and society and does proclaim a doctrine of separation of Church and State. The degree of this “separation,” of course, is what potentially blurs the line. In the United States, for example, the separation doctrine is comprehensive: there is no recognition of any church. In the United Kingdom, on the other hand, the Church of England has symbolic recognition from the state, but the separation is also comprehensive. These Western separation doctrines are quite different from the Eastern Orthodox doctrines. The latter extols the concept of symphonia, which promotes “close collaboration between temporal and religious powers” in developing and advancing “social and economic policy.”[11] Thus, while Church and State are separate, the degree of separation is adjustable.

After independence, Armenia’s secular model resembled the Western doctrine of separation: the Ter-Petrosyan Government and Catholicos Vazgen I maintained a robust separation. This completely changed with Garegin II’s takeover of the Church and the Kocharyan Government’s active infringement. The separation between Church and State was adjusted, with the Church serving the interests of the governing regime, while in return, receiving exclusive and specific benefits and powers within Armenian society. This model is very similar to how Vladimir Putin co-opted the Russian Orthodox Church; Kocharyan replicated this in tandem with Garegin II. Garegin II articulated this reconfiguration as a “harmonious union,” and only through the union of “these two powers—spiritual and temporal—can we create a prosperous and thriving future for our people.”[12] In legal terms, separation of Church and State still existed; the adjustment was in terms of policy. In more honest terms, this adjustment simply removed the separation between religious oligarchs and political-economic oligarchs. Thus, this was not a “harmonious union” of Church and State: this was a harmonious union of a new oligarchic class that would abuse both Church and State. This was further reified under the Sargsyan Government, when Garegin II re-articulated church-state relations as a “hypostatic union.” A common Christian theological doctrine, Garegin II gave it a socio-political dimension: the Armenian people are a union of the body (state) and the soul (Church). Fancying himself a theoretician, Garegin II was recycling theological doctrines to promote his agenda, while giving cover to the political elite: corruption can now be justified spiritually.

The social implications for Armenia were also quite interesting. Garegin II was now able to interject the Church into three of the most important sectors of Armenian society: military, education, and economy. While the role of the Church had been present within the Armenian Armed Forces since the First Nagorno-Karabakh War, Garegin II institutionalized this presence by expanding the Chaplaincy program and embedding the Church as an institutional component within the Army. Similarly, Garegin II controversially expanded his influence into Armenia’s education sector, as the Kocharyan Government made religious curriculum, developed by the Church, mandatory in primary, secondary, and tertiary institutions. Theological programs in universities, for example, were slowly wrestled away from academics and given to Catholicos-approved appointees. And in the economic sector, Garegin II pushed through land and property tax laws that exempted Church-owned properties and businesses from paying taxes or declaring income. The Government’s accommodation produced an obvious outcome: unhindered wealth accumulation for the Church elite, as the business interests of Garegin II and his inner circle became qualified as Church interests, and as such, were excluded from tax liability. This, inevitably, resulted in the expansion of Garegin II’s business assets and investments, which became managed and further expanded by relatives and close associates. By removing transparency, and by extension accountability, the massive wealth and income of the Church was brought under the primary purview of Garegin II. In this context, not only did he wield religious and political power, he also wielded immense economic power.

Religionization of Armenian Politics

The Velvet Revolution cleansed Armenia of both its corrupt political system as well as the politico-oligarchic class. The Velvet Revolution, however, did not sufficiently extend to Garegin II and the religious oligarchy. The institution of the Church insulated this specific oligarchic class; thus, by creating an enclave within Armenian society, Garegin II has been able to buy time. But this is not sustainable. Garegin II survived the initial protests against him during and after the Velvet Revolution, and his inner circle even managed to push back; but these are merely short-term acts of survival. The institutional mechanisms, economic arrangements, and social power networks that Garegin II constructed and relied on are simply incompatible with Armenia’s democratic project.

In no uncertain terms, a clash between Garegin II and democratic Armenia became a foregone conclusion. This, however, is not a clash between Church and State. It is not a conflict between the Armenian Apostolic Church and the Armenian Government. Rather, this is a clash between a democratizing Armenia and the remnants of the previous oligarchic class. This is a clash between a politically-secular Armenian society and a clerical elite that has fortified itself in the Church hierarchy. And this is why the attempt to religionize Armenia’s political field by Archbishop Bagrat Galstanyan, and by extension, in his role as a proxy for Garegin II, to immerse the Church into the political, while giving Garegin II plausible deniability, has simply failed. The attempt to domestically destabilize Armenia, and the desperate attempt to create a right-wing extremist movement that can utilize religion and culture wars to revive reactionary sentiments, have not only failed, but further exposed to Armenian society Garegin II’s designs.

The Church’s support for almost all anti-government protests in Armenia post-2020 come as no surprise to any, since it is evident where the Church stands: it needs a return to illiberalism in order for the Church hierarchy to maintain its fiefdom. That the Church has opposed the democratic project, has openly supported the return of Robert Kocharyan back to power, supported the overthrow of the country’s democratically-elected government, and that the Church has called for the resignation of the Prime Minister, make things very clear: for Garegin II, there is no separation of Church and State. The attack on Armenia’s secularism, the religionization of its political landscape, and the failed attempt to destabilize the domestic sphere through Bagrat Galstanyan’s stewardship is neither about the demarcation process, the security environment, or the legitimate grievances that important sectors of Armenian society have. To the contrary, Bagrat Galstanyan, as Garegin II’s Archbishop, is leveraging the fears, concerns, and vulnerabilities of certain segments of Armenian society to influence one outcome: undermining Armenia’s democratic project.

That there is a broad public consensus of distrust towards Garegin II is self-evident and, in earnest, common knowledge. But Garegin II’s negative image also has inherent, foundational problems: he suffers from a crisis of legitimacy. Not because he is the Catholicos of the Armenian Apostolic Church, but rather, because he is viewed as Kocharyan’s Catholicos. Garegin II is the legitimate Catholicos of the Armenian Church to the extent that Kocharyan or Sargsyan were the legitimately-elected leaders of the Armenian people. The crisis of legitimacy cannot be ignored, whether it is the extensive evidence of fraud and vote-rigging, the magnitude and scope of corruption and abuse of power, or the collective suppression of the Armenian people. The revered Armenian Apostolic Church, now dominated by one man, is being victimized and abused by that very man, with the Archbishop of Tavush as his instrument on the street. To this end, to understand the current role of the clerical elite immersing themselves into the political, to truly understand the underlying structural factors incentivizing them to rupture the separation between Church and State, and to properly comprehend why an Archbishop, whose claims of seeking the Prime Ministership remain inexplicable and incoherent to most, we must trace developments to a foundational genesis: the oligarchic system that brought Garegin II to power and how he reshaped the Church to be the hidden vanguard against the democratic project.


[1]  “Catholicos of All Armenians” and “Supreme Patriarch” are used interchangeably when referring to the head of the Armenian Apostolic Church.
[2] Petrosyan, Levon. “The Armenian Apostolic Church in Contemporary Times (1991-2011).” Journal of the Society of Armenian Studies. vol. 25 (2016); pp. 156-184.
[3] Westh, Michael. “Elections of Catholicos Armenia, 1999.” https://www.groong.org/ro/ro-19991025.html
[4] “Armenian Patriarch Mesrob II on the Church, Armenia, and Turkey,”  http://wikileaks.org/cable/2003/03/03 ISTANBUL399.html#.
[5] Etchmiadzin 11 (2009):38-47.
[6] These have been most prevalent in Armenia, France, U.S., Canada, and Switzerland. See https://pfarmenia.wordpress.com/2016/12/29/the-temple-is-crumbling-the-corruption-of-the-armenian-apostolic-church/
[7] This has primarily been done through the banishing or defrocking of hundreds of priests who have dissented or spoken against corrupt or un-transparent processes. The humiliation and resignation of Archbishop Norvan Zakaryan, for example, head of the Diocese in France who challenged the Statute of 2009, is a case in point.
[8]  Danielyan, M. “The new rise of the construction art in Armenian church,” Etchmiadzin 11 (2009):65-77
[9] Armenia is littered with examples of oligarchs having their “personal” churches: some on public display, such as Gagik Tsarukyan’s in Abovyan, and some on their personal properties, such as Ruben Gevorkyan’s in Davtashen.
[10] Petrosyan, Levon. “The Armenian Apostolic Church in Contemporary Times (1991-2011).” Journal of the Society of Armenian Studies. vol. 25 (2016); pg. 174.
[11]  Petrosyan, Levon. “The Armenian Apostolic Church in Contemporary Times (1991-2011).” Journal of the Society of Armenian Studies. vol. 25 (2016); pg. 161.
[12]  Etchmiadzin 2 (2000): pg. 8.
1 comment
  1. Thanks for this excellent and clear historical overview of the rise of Garegin II to throne/power. The diagnosis is illuminating and the prognosis is convincing: the church needs fundamental reforms, including the re-establishment of the democratic traditions of the church and taxation of the church-owned and operated businesses and real estate interests.

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