Gerard Libaridian: “The new chance should serve a certain purpose”

Gerard Libaridian
Gerard Libaridian

On the threshold of the Armenian Genocide Centennial, Mediamax starts a series of interviews with the intellectuals of Armenia and the Diaspora.

It will be an attempt to collect opinions as to whether the Armenian Genocide Centennial will serve a certain “New Beginning” for Armenians or not. This series also aims to analyze the relations between Armenia and the Diaspora and understand the opportunities and challenges.

Our today’s interlocutor is historian Gerard Libaridian, senior advisor to first President of Armenia Levon Ter-Petrosyan in 1990s.

(The interview with Gerard Libariadian was orginially held in Armenian and was then translated into English by Mediamax).

- Mr. Libaridian, what will happen on April 25? Do you think we have exaggerated expectations from the Armenian Genocide Centennial?

- I fear we will wake up slightly disappointed on April 25. The state and various organizations speak about large-scale programs and events the niceties of which are not clear yet, but I am inclined to think they will do what they have been doing over the past years. It will simply be done in a larger scale, which however, will not lead to a qualitative change.

There is also an impression we do all that for the foreigners in the first place, and act ignorantly toward the issue itself. And this spurs concern. In reality, much lies ahead of us with regard to the Armenian Genocide, but we psychologically focus on the international recognition. There will be a qualitative change only when we make institutional changes in the Genocide issue and forget about the international recognition for some time. 

I personally no longer care much whether Obama or Merkel will recognize the Armenian Genocide or not. I find it insulting that having suffered the massacres and the Genocide we should beg for recognition.

To be contingent on international recognition means to be a hostage to what they say and what they do not, and thus link our future, psychological and intellectual independence to others.

Do you think I should be happy if Obama utters the word “Genocide” or spend another unhappy year if he doesn’t? What matters is not to forget the genocide but at the same time, not to be dependent on it – to act as people with independent thinking and valuing the development of the intellectual potential.

I really do not attach importance to the views other people hold on this important issue of my history and my nation. They are not the ones to decide the history of my people and my political maturity does not hinge on them.

We should think of what omissions there are in Genocide Studies and what we do not know. How many genocide experts are there in Armenia and the Diaspora who know foreign languages, including the Ottoman Turkish? We need experts who will give an answer to not only how the genocide was committed but also to why it was committed and what made it possible. In the course of history, there were and there are regimes which are trying to exterminate people under their control in order to settle a certain racial or religious issue. Nevertheless, they do not have means or conditions to commit such a thing. Why did the Ottoman Empire succeed in the last few years of its life?

There are young people engaged in Genocide studies but their number is small and the majority of them have insufficient level to properly present themselves on the international scene. It should be noted that sound and invariable science will facilitate the international recognition. It’s what happened with the previous generation – initially at amateur level, the genocide issue ended up in the hand of historians and scientists. It was the first generation, while now we should prepare the second and the third generations but I don’t see it being done.

Gerard Libaridian Gerard Libaridian

Photo: Wilson Center

We also need an international level scientific institution that will be solely engaged in genocide studies. Unfortunately, we don’t have it. There is the Armenian Genocide Museum-Institute in Yerevan but it has limited financial resources and a small number of scholars. It is essential to engage Diaspora scientists who have advanced in this field more than the Armenia-based scientists.

I believe we owe it to the victims of Genocide to use the centennial to make a step forward in qualitative terms.

-There are two opposite views in Armenia and the Diaspora. Some people believe that we live clinging to the “victim psychology”, which cannot pave the way for a better future. Others think if we get oblivious of our past we won’t have any future at all.

- First of all, we should understand the role of genocide in the policy of our present day and tomorrow. This is the main question to answer.

What do we want for our future? This is what needs to be decided. Do we want to know the history of the past, draw lessons from it and carve out our future, or do we want to remain committed to finding out what role genocide plays in our relations with Turkey and Azerbaijan and consequently, confuse or equal the past and the future.

Thus, we should determine the role of genocide in political discourse. We have yet not even tried to find out the link between thoughts oriented toward genocide and loss of independence. They are bound up.

-It is often stated that the Genocide is the “cement” around which the Armenian Diaspora is established and this factor will gradually lose its significance. Do you agree with it?

 - I do not agree with it. There does exist such an erroneous opinion that the Diaspora structures are united around the genocide. But there was Armenian Diaspora prior to the genocide as well – it existed in the U.S., Russia, Iran and the Middle East. In certain countries, four-five generations of Armenians have already reared their children.

Obviously, Genocide survivors were the largest wave, but the Genocide did not act as an identity determining factor. Our parties and political structures were attempting to convince us of it, but I can assure you that identity was not linked to genocide until 1950-1960s.

During my school years in Lebanon in 1950s, there was just a liturgy served in the memory of Genocide victims on April 24 and it bore no political constituent. Our families used to talk about it and everyone had their stories but it was not politicized and it was not what united us. Issues related to preserving our identity – the existence of schools and churches – were the cement. At the same time, the Diaspora was facing a “big question” until 1960s – are you with Soviet Armenia or against it, do you accept the ideas of communism or not?

Linking the genocide to the identity became easier in the next years. In my opinion, it was a tragedy because alternatives arose – Karabakh movement, 1988 Earthquake and Armenia’s independence.

Undeniably, independent Armenia did way more to preserve the Armenian identity than all the previous efforts the Diaspora committed to this end. We have quite a different Diaspora today and Armenia is committed to preserving the Armenian identity and uniting people. I hope Armenia will persist with it despite the fact the state will conduct relevant policy toward the Diaspora or not.

The question of identity is constantly changing. The new generation always finds a new way to express it. Some people think Armenia might “perish” but the Diaspora will continue to exist. I don’t agree with this – the Diaspora might continue to exist but without Armenia it’s just an ethnic minority in various countries. Diaspora means not to be where you once were or were to be today. Thus, there is a link between your fatherland and you. It means juxtaposing values – if the Diaspora develops, Armenia will also develop. If we don’t assume Armenia as a basis, the Diaspora will have much to lose. 

- Which is currently the main omission in Armenia-Diaspora relations? What should be done for Armenia to become such a promised land for Armenians as Israel is for the Jews?

- I wouldn’t say for sure that present-day Israel is a promised land for every Jew. Many American Jews are against present-day Israel. They are against the policy carried out towards millions of Palestinians. Those who do not support this government and see no hope, leave Israel. But the fact Israel has a more organized policy is out of question.

As to Armenia-Diaspora relations, the Diaspora is not united and it does not need to be so as everybody should not share the same opinion. However, there should be a certain mechanism or platform presenting the Diaspora opinions. The Diaspora should be organizing discussions leading to a united representation through which it would maintain a dialog with the Armenian leadership. Certain attempts were made, but they were of no effect as our Diaspora organizations believe the Armenian identity, culture and even the genocide are a privatized commodity. Thus, organizational identity dominates here.

The Armenian leadership has difficulty telling the Diaspora what to do. During Levon Ter-Petrosyan’s presidency I was working in Armenia and within just a day various leaders came to him on behalf of the Diaspora saying “the Diaspora demands this be done” and each one’s idea conflicted with that voiced by the other one.

The present-day Armenian government seems to have returned to the Soviet era policy – if you are with me, I will award you a medal. They think they will award Diaspora entrepreneurs and artists a medal and that’s it. In the Diaspora, you might graduate from the university living from hand to mouth and become a great artist, but nobody will pay heed to you until you obtain foreigner’s recognition. Then they will award you a medal and will use your capital without adding anything.

And the Diaspora has a corresponding psychology.

Armenia can create values and establish institutions wherein this cooperation will be achieved. During Robert Kocharyan’s presidency a famous businessman told him: “I would like to invest in Armenia but I am not sure about the guarantees there are”. Kocharyan answered: “I am the guarantee”. But it’s not a statesman approach. It’s the law and institutions that should be the guarantee. Today you are a President, but tomorrow you are not. Or, if that person says something bad about you, you might take away his business. Institutions that will not depend on the President should be established.

During Armenia-Diaspora conferences, Armenian authorities fear putting those questions pointblank and invite those people who stand ready to lend an ear to their speeches without radical debates.

-It is sometimes said that over these years the Diaspora could have its input in Armenia’s democratization by making investments to this end, just like the U.S. or European governmental and non-governmental structures were doing.
-I have a counter-question – which Diaspora structure is democratic? Although they operate in democratic states, they are not democratic in their core and so they cannot teach Armenia in this regard. There is another question as well – the U.S. and Europe have allotted Armenia huge amounts to ensure the independence of the judiciary in Armenia. But what results has it yielded?

There is a generation in the middle sections of Armenia’s executive, legislative and judiciary powers, which has impressed me. However, this generation is not able to climb up as there is a “ceiling” and as soon as they reach it, they fall down.

Democratization can be a success only when there is a domestic demand for it. Armenia showed the strongest aspiration for democratization through the 1988 movement and it was driven from within.

- Are there intellectuals in Armenia and the Diaspora who can discuss the “New Beginning” and the “Second Chance” that will enable most use of the Armenian potential to settle nationwide issues?

- First of all, we should realize why we need the “second chance”. During talks with Turkey in 1990s I was adhering to this approach – should we sacrifice the new generation and new Armenia to commemorate the genocide victims?

Is there a goal for which strong Armenia with strong economy and public system where people feel their being strong is not a prerequisite? What would the 1915 victims want? Would they want us to commemorate them by remaining a poor state and cursing Turks time and again?

The new chance should serve a certain purpose. Which is our aim? Our actions and our value system are presently scattered. It’s hard to clarify a purpose in the Diaspora. Although there are certain goals set, they are not well-thought-out. They want Armenian Genocide recognition, but what will come next? Will it ensure prosperity and security for our country and will it bring about a viable society, justice, effective relations with neighboring countries and economic development? Will we claim our lands? But what have we done with the lands we own?

Armenia might have its aim but our current authorities have no forward-looking goals. We are now entering the Eurasian Economic Union and they explain it saying we “don't have any alternative”. Perhaps, we really don’t have. But why don’t we have it? Why did we have an alternative back in 1993, 1996 and 1999 but we lack it today? I do not refer to only the authorities but also to the process which, in these 20 years, has come to a point at which it hit a brick wall. Along with this, we have an alternative, however…

Thus, we should importantly define the purpose – where should Armenia head to? It’s where the answers to the rest of the questions will “drip out”.

Ara Tadevosyan talked to Gerard Libaridian


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