The 6th Armenia-Diaspora conference in Yerevan is important in itself: it is an occasion for Armenians from all around the world to meet with each other. It will give yet another boost to the tourism sector of Armenia already after a record year in 2017. Yet, the conference will remain short-sighted and produce short-term benefits. While most commentators have raised the issue that preoccupies most intellectuals both in Armenia and Diaspora which is the out-migration from Armenia and the resulting demographic problem – curiously not on the agenda of the discussions – I will argue that Armenia-Diaspora relations will remain problematic as long as we do not address the power imbalance between the two parties.
A natural imbalance emerged with the emergence of independent Armenia, a result of the asymmetric nature of the sides. On the one hand we have a state with concentration of power, a bureaucracy and decision-making in the hands of a handful of political leaders. On the other hand we have a multitude of communities living over five continents composed of various social classes, educational backgrounds, and political views. The texture of the Diaspora is composed of political groups, churches, associations, clubs and individuals, with differentiated experiences in their Armenianness and in their relationship with Armenia. While Yerevan suffers from over-concentration of power in few hands – both political power and economic resources – the Diaspora suffers from lack of leadership, only to amplify the structural problems.
The imbalance was amplified by changes taking place within the Diaspora; a series of wars and calamities were displacing entire communities from the Middle East to North America. For example, in the past the Diaspora had a centre in the vast community infrastructure in Lebanon. The war (1975-1990) caused the displacement of half to two-thirds of Lebanese Armenians. By the time Armenia emerged as independent state, the Diaspora had no more a centre.
Further polarization of power resulted from unrealistic expectations and policy mistakes by both sides. The Diaspora parties had no understanding of Armenian political developments, yet had the ambition of playing leading role: in 1988 the three Diaspora parties made a public declaration opposing the emerging national movement in Yerevan, revealing their lack of knowledge about politics in Armenia and in the Soviet Union. Yet, two years later they fielded candidates to compete for the top political job in the republic!
Similarly, the political elite in Yerevan has seen and continues to see in the Diaspora a source for cash (investment and tourism items on the conference agenda), rather than a strategic partner. This cash flow from the Diaspora to Armenia is further weakening the Diaspora, the cause of many of its failures including in becoming a strategic partner of Yerevan. In Yerevan, different administrations tried different policies. The creation of a Ministry of Diaspora promised much, but ended up a PR operation. The problem is not with individuals in power and their ideas, but in the class nature of rulers in Yerevan, composed of comprador capitalists that accumulates wealth and preserves its power through exploiting natural resources (mining) and rent on import trade. For this class, the Diaspora cannot be a source for capital investments, technology transfers, nor a market for exports, but of rent.
Ara Sanjian has noted elsewhere about the absence of migration from the agenda even when between 1992-2016 one million 63 thousand people have left the country. In his speech, the Catholicos of the Great House of Cilicia Aram I referred to the migration problem by saying: “Armenia is emptying, while the Diaspora is wearing out”. But in case over a million people left Armenia since its independence, then, mathematically, it means that the Diaspora increased by the same amount, and received an enormous boost. Then, how could we explain the fact that the Diaspora is wearing out in spite of this massive out-migration?
Even before Armenia’s independence, the Diaspora was going through massive new challenges. Entire communities were being displaced. They were most often survivors of the 1915 Genocide, who had struggled to build a new life, and a new community. Now, they had to abandon all that once again, migrate to new countries and start the struggle once again, which needed tremendous personal and collective efforts. Moreover, new challenges were adding: Church and language, the two markers of Armenianness, were eroding. It was at such a time that Karabakh Movement, the 1988 earthquake, Armenia’s independence, the Karabakh war, attracted the attention and the resources of the Diaspora towards the homeland. For every dollar the Diaspora sent to Yerevan, was a dollar minus invested in the much-needed structures of the Diaspora. This is why the Diaspora institutions are impoverished, unreformed, and dusty. On top of this came the million migrants from Armenia. In some places they mingled well with local Diasporic communities, in other places – like in North American cities – the challenge of integrating both communities remains. The aid coming from the Diaspora to Armenia had a price: closing down of dozens of Armenian schools instead of opening up new ones to receive new migrants, closing down of newspapers, selling the building of sports-clubs, cultural centres, etc.
Probably the most dramatic is the failure to create infrastructure – schools, newspapers – for growing communities in Russia and Ukraine. While large number of Armenians migrated from Armenia, as well as Georgia, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan to Russia, those new communities largely lack institutions to pass Armenian culture to the next generation.
Do I need to remind the importance of the Diaspora and its future? By different estimates, two-third or up to four-fifth of all Armenians live outside the borders of the Republic. Yet, the majority of the Armenians, whether living in Armenia or abroad, do not have any influence over the decision-making processes in Yerevan.
The Diaspora should know what we, collectively, can do, and cannot do in Armenia. The ARF Tashnagtsutyun, by claiming to be part of the government did not have much influence over Armenia’s national, political or social agenda. Remember Yerevan-Ankara football diplomacy when Serge Sarkissian went to talk to the Diasporan communities after the two protocols were already written? Nor did the AGBU stop the out-migration by closing down schools in the Diaspora and concentrating its efforts on developing Armenia.
In his speech, president Serge Sarkissian stressed about the input of the Diaspora in solving Armenia’s demographic problem, and to invest in its economy. The Iraqi and Syrian experiences shows that a country that has a major unemployment problem and out-migration cannot talk about nerkaght. What concerns capital investments in Armenia, over the past 25 years there had been a handful of success stories, but too many bitter failures. Too many Diasporans who invested in Armenia ended up being cheated and losing money. While their local partners had privileged access to Armenia’s justice systems, the Diasporan investors were systematically discriminated against. There will be no in-migration without fixing the job market, having a ruling class that earns its money from exports and not imports; there will be no Diasporan investments without fixing the judiciary. The Diasporan organizations could work to reform Armenian political sphere by representing Diasporan interests in Yerevan, thus becoming a pro-reform force in Armenia.
We need to re-invest in the Diaspora in case we want it to become sustainable. A rejuvenated Diaspora could help Armenia in the long term, become a pluralistic voice in a political culture of power concentration. For the last 25 years, Armenia and its needs had dominated the discourse in Armenia-Diaspora conversation. Now it is time to talk about the Diaspora.
Vicken Cheterian is a Swiss-Lebanese historian, journalist and author.
These views are his own.