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20 02 2008 - Armenia - Diaspora Relations in the Presidential Candidates’ Programs
Hrach Bayadyan February 17, 2008
Decades ago the issue that received the name of “relations between Armenia and the Diaspora” definitely relates to the fate of the Republic of Armenia, to that of the Armenian communities in different countries of the world and to the identity of any Armenian who somehow associates himself with Armenia.

Today, at the beginning of the 21st century, when an Armenian national state exists, the vast majority of Armenians live outside Armenia. This circumstance, if not alarming, then at least unnatural or unusual, has also become a subject for contemplation by a number of candidates on the threshold of presidential elections in Armenia.

Today by the Armenian Diaspora we mean the two large dispersions of Armenians that took place in the previous century. The first one is connected with western Armenians and was the result of the genocide that occurred in the Ottoman Empire at the beginning of the 20th century. The second one was a result of the post-Soviet crisis and was due to economic and social factors. It should be borne in mind that these two segments of the Diaspora have very little in common: not only the time and the reason of the emigration, but also their geography, their status in the countries of residence and many other factors. The nature of their relations with Armenia is completely different too. It would hardly be an exaggeration if, without going into much detail, I stated that there have not been many connections between these two big waves of the dispersion of Armenians so far.

The aid given to Armenia by the first or the traditional Diaspora has a very long history (and even today it is often more accurate to speak of assistance, rather than relations) that started as of the first years of the existence of Soviet Armenia. The work directed for assistance and cooperation is diverse and nowadays it is realized through a large network of well-organized institutions starting from the Armenian General Benevolent Union and the Armenian Assembly of America to many Armenian-studies centers in different western universities. Besides the successful struggle for the acknowledgement of the genocide of Armenians, Armenian organizations also have had significant input into the development of relations between their countries of residence and the Republic of Armenia. Firstly, this is true about Armenians living in America whose Armenian organizations can achieve the adoption of decisions beneficial for Armenia by the US government. Recently, Armenians living in European countries have also organized struggles aimed to influence the negotiations between the European Union and Turkey, trying to lobby for Turkey’s acknowledgement of the genocide as well as the issues regarding the amelioration of relations with Armenia. And certainly all this has become a severe headache for Turkish authorities, moving them to active counteraction.

The Diaspora that was created as a result of the massive emigration in the independence years is still very far from such organization. Many people in this Diaspora are too mobile to establish stable communities and many lack elementary living conditions. However, in addition to the necessity of solving the problem of everyday survival, they are able to support their relatives who have stayed in Armenia, where a considerable part of the population is indebted to that emigration for its current well-being or for merely making ends meet. It is but clear that this emigration has not happened all at once; it lasted for years, and among the factors that conditioned the current state of the emigrant are his/her age, gender, profession and country of residence, as well as the time of emigration. However, for the most part we know very little about them, especially if we try to estimate their present and future in the context of global changes.

Still, objectives have been talked about for years, and it seems that the two large Armenia and Diaspora congresses (in 1999 and 2006) should have brought clarity into that field. I believe their practical value was much less than expected. At least this is the opinion expressed by many of the participants.

In the conditions of these uncertainties some assertions of the presidential candidates regarding the Diaspora may cause a ironic smile (for example, it is extremely primitive to speak seriously about a return movement to the motherland: they promise to return the emigrants who left the country in the years of independence just as they promise to return the Soviet-time bank deposits). Some of them (A. Baghdasaryan, V. Hovhannisyan, A. Geghamyan) devote a separate chapter to this issue in their programs. The discussion of the issue is inevitably tied to the acknowledgement of the Armenian Genocide and the prospect of Armenia’s relations with Turkey, as well as the restoration of the unity of the Armenian Apostolic Church.

The main points can be broken into two groups: A) The enlargement of the participation of Diaspora Armenians in the economic life of the RA and the increase of the efficiency of this participation, B) The preservation of the Armenian identity, the potential input of Armenia (in cultural and educational spheres) to Armenian communities residing in different countries. Still, some objectives and issues are formulated in the language of “pan-Armenian interests.” Some of the candidates are unanimous in the issue of establishing a Ministry of the Diaspora and Repatriation, or creating some other institution that would realize similar functions. The discussion of the issue often takes the form of criticism against authorities, registering the insufficiency of what has been done so far.

I would like to quote a number of descriptive expressions, which would not have received a form of electoral populism, if they were not supported by some stereotypes, already existent in public consciousness: “Armenia ought to become the dreamland of all Armenians” (V. Hovhannisyan), “Our competitive advantage lies in the united potential of all Armenians” (S. Sargsyan), “The relations between Armenia and the Diaspora and the real development of those relations are the potential which can compensate for Armenia’s lack of such strategic resources as oil and gas and its unfavorable geographic position” (A. Baghdasaryan’s assertion is very similar to the idea expressed by V. Manukyan on the same issue at the pre-election congress of the Armenian Democratic Union), “The precondition of the integration of Armenia and the Diaspora should be the guaranteed unity of the latter both in individual communities and through the creation of pan-Diaspora joint governing bodies” (A. Geghamyan). A. Geghamyan goes further: “The Armenian nation needs the creation of a centralized body which will realize national propaganda, which will be able to systematize and direct the work of Armenian political and social organizations, scattered all over the world. The state should undertake the establishment of such a center.” (Just as it used to be in the good old Soviet times)

In these expressions that sometimes resemble words of (self-) enchantment, Armenia and the Diaspora receive a mythical quality, the unity of Armenia and the Diaspora is described in depths yet unearthed and undiscovered with undeciphered mystical possibilities. An Armenian is an ahistoric being - time sweeps over him like a cloud, only from time to time shadowing his eternally unchanging face. And in such cases in the almost inevitable expression “Armenians scattered all over the world”, the world is ignored, simply becoming a place for the scattering of Armenians. (I remember the words of a historian, a member of the RA Academy of Sciences , “Who has been to the Diaspora at least once, he knows…”)

Clearly I am not against most of the desires presented above. For example, I wish Armenia were a country where people would like to come and return. My protest and disagreement relates to these outdated ideas and this worn-out rhetoric that is absolutely unable to take into account the processes defining the globalizing world.

Here are a number of observations that put these ideas to doubt. Firstly, the expression “relations between Armenia and the Diaspora” like many other things comes from Soviet times and has lost its former meanings. The Diaspora has changed immensely and Armenia is not what it used to be - they do not have the singular meaning of the old times, just as there does not exist the clear-cut border, i.e., “the iron curtain”, that divided not only the Socialist camp from the rest of the world but also Soviet Armenia from the Diaspora. Global transformations have essentially changed the traditional views of the relations between Armenia and the Diaspora, hinting that these relations are now formed in a much more complicated situation where many things still remain incomprehensible.

I would like to point out the diverse heterogeneity existent everywhere within the Diaspora and Armenia that is impossible to be erased by calls for a united Armenian people. Diversity within the Diaspora has already been discussed above (a lot of things can be added to that description. For example, the disunity brought about by the splits of Diaspora’s traditional political parties and the church). In this sense the situation of the Armenians who emigrated from the RA is even more complex.

It is beyond any doubt that recently the presence and the influence of Russia have been constantly rising in Armenia. Under these circumstances the Armenian community in Russia receives an unprecedented role. Unlike the western Diaspora, the Russian Armenian community is special also due to its closeness to Armenia and its political, economic and other kinds of influence. The capital of Russian Armenians flows into Armenia in huge amounts and with highlighted political and economic pretensions, in any case reinforcing the Russian influence (because in that way it also makes its own influence stronger) and particularly the importance of the Russian language. This testifies to the possible collision of the interests of various segments of Diaspora Armenians as well as to the inevitability of a particular interpretation of Armenia’s interests by this specific segment. And this is a circumstance that cannot be overlooked.

The same thing can be said about the Armenian society, its classes that have extreme polarity and divergent interests. It seems proper to slightly touch upon a newly emerged class the members of which are called “agents of globalization.” This is a class that has been emerging in all countries where its vital interests coincide with the process of globalization and with the interests of the stakeholders (for example, various international and transnational organizations) in that process. Whereas some of these (starting from an individual top official to various offices and development agencies) who are often the vital decision makers, strategy developers and implementers of a country, are managers of huge financial means.

On the other hand, the role of the state as a guarantor of national interests is implicitly or explicitly overestimated. In such a period of time when the role of the national state is becoming gradually less significant, Armenia has found itself in the field of ever-growing influence of superpowers, international organization, and transnational capital ever since its independence and does not have sufficient political, economic, and cultural autonomy. In such conditions it is not at all obvious how the state of Armenia is able to pursue its national interests.

It is also noteworthy that while speaking of the unity of all Armenians there very often sound ideas referring to the necessity to return to the traditional or Mesropian spelling (in the Soviet times a reformed spelling was used in Armenia, whereas Western Armenian is still based on traditional spelling - Editorial comment) and to use the possibilities of contemporary information and communication technologies, in particular those of the World Wide Web.

The call to return to traditional spelling is meant for Armenia but there is not a single word on this debatable issue in the presidential candidates’ programs. There are some points regarding the necessity of using modern technologies, on the creation of “a pan-Armenian electronic university” and “a pan-Armenian information field.” Such pan-Armenian programs can also bring about the issue of the restoration of pan-Armenian spelling. However, the emergence of Eastern and Western Armenian languages and literatures are historic realities that cannot be simply overlooked. It seems to me that the cultural differences between the two segments of Armenians - eastern and western, and today also those between the Diaspora and Armenia deserve respect and due attention and should not be neglected for the sake of an imaginary unity. This difference is a fact of the print age when the two literary versions of the language appeared, and the desire to overcome this split and to restore the lost unity both simplify the matter when it is brought down to the restoration of a common spelling, and it is ascribed hues of cyber utopianism when it is associated with the possibilities of the new digital technologies.

Thus, the ideas put forward by the presidential candidates of Armenia on developing the relations between Armenia and the Diaspora (if I choose to continue using the common term) and on pursuing the interests of Armenians scattered all over the world are mostly outdated.

If I try to briefly sum up the approaches of presidential candidates regarding the issues of the Javakhq Armenians, as a segment of Armenians living outside Armenia, and to the Diaspora, the following is to be mentioned: the problems of Javakhq Armenians, in a context where vying geopolitical interests are accentuated, are mostly formulated in the discourse of international organizations. On the other hand, the common issues of the Diaspora, not being subject to such pressure, are mostly presented with the help of outdated ideas.

* - Required
Mher (2008-02-18 11:50)
To the author,

I applaud your efforts to present a very abridges synopsis of the two Armenian realities - ROA and the Diaspora. Most of the above and more has been elucidated for years now but nowhere does it appear that both the government of the ROA nor the "traditional leadership " of the Diaspora takes any of this into account when attempting to formulate new methodologies for cultural, business and scientific avenues of exchange with the ROA.

If we conclude, as I do, that the current ROA is the end result of the historical development of both "western and eastern" Armenia, then in this context all Armenians forcibly exiled from that land (and their descendants) must be afforded all the means necessary to assist in their voluntary repatriation to the presently-constituted Armenian state. This is not a romantic ideal to be ridiculed but must be seriously organized by both the ROA and the Diaspora in collaboration. Yes, only a handful will attempt the journey from the Diaspora, but that handful will be comprised of the idealists, dreamers and possibly even the pragmatists that Armenia needs more of.

Gradually, over time, I foresee a certain degree of hybridization taking place in Armenia. Cultural and linguistic elements of western Armenian identity still surving in the Diaspora will be integrated into the eastern Armenian dominant in the ROA. Fifty years down the road, perhaps, a hybrid will be born that is neither purely one or the other.

Armenians in the Diaspora face a set of objective conditions that mostly differ from citizens in Armenia. What links them to the "homeland" are subjective ties and yearnings, "illusions" if you will, that do not form a true basis for integration. Cooperation and collaboration , yes. But not much more....

And please - When talking about the traditional Mesrobian spelling that was "bastardized" by Soviet ideologues back in the 1920's and 1930's, Let's also remember that the letters of the Armenian alphabet have names - not phonetic sounds!! Ayb, Ben, Gim, Dah, etc, and not Ah, Bu, Gu, Du. It amazes me why the alphabet isn't properly taught starting in kindergarten, or is it??


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