Gauging Armenia-Diaspora Relations

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As the My Step alliance of Nikol Pashinyan races towards its anticipated landslide electoral victory, the destiny of his Diaspora Ministry faces uncertainty, because Pashinyan has set as one of his priorities the downsizing of the government.

The 28-year-old Diaspora Minister Mkhitar Hayrapetyan has offered some projections on the fate of his own ministry, stating that the government “will likely decide to incorporate the Diaspora Ministry into another ministry or downsize it and lower its status.”

Hopefully, any change will come as an outcome of a thorough study rather than rash guesswork. After independence, the Diaspora Ministry was created by former President Serzh Sargsyan haphazardly, without setting any goal or adopting a program, most of the time becoming a medal-issuing venture, with noisy trips to well-established communities rather than tending to the needs of the newly formed or expanding communities in Ukraine, Northern Europe, or the Iberian Peninsula.

Continuing his comments, the young minister concluded his remarks: “My idea is that if the ministry is going to have some symbolic functions, such as planning at working or meeting certain expectations, it does not have to be in the format of a ministry.”

There is some truth in the above statement and the Soviet era experience in dealing with the Diaspora may serve as a reliable guide in charting the future course of Armenia-Diaspora relations. Soviet Armenia had set up an NGO named Committee for Cultural Relations with the Diaspora, which operated in foreign lands under the diplomatic radar. The leadership in Armenia, wearing the communist hat, nurtured the diaspora with quality culture, education, science and entertainment. The country had a lot to offer, since it had created the golden era of Armenian culture during the later Soviet period. There was an unspoken code of conduct among Armenia’s leaders to contribute to diasporan life meaningfully. Of course, in the upper hierarchy of Soviet authorities, the survival of the diaspora was not a priority. The propagation of Soviet ideology was the main goal. But the truly patriotic leaders in Armenia catered to the needs and priorities of the diaspora, reporting to higher-ups in Moscow how effectively the ideological warfare was being conducted. But now that the ideological masquerade is over, Armenia and the diaspora can engage in a new mode of cooperation.

With the destruction of the Iron Curtain, the profusion in communication and transportation has shrunk the globe, bringing Armenia and the Diaspora even closer, yet they still remain a world apart.

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The diaspora is a tremendous resource for Armenia, yet it continues to remain as an untapped treasure. Successive administrations have not been able to tap that resource for a variety of reasons, one being the lingering negative portrayals and suspicion from the Soviet era and the other being the misreading of diasporan realities.

During the Soviet era, Armenia had prospered in almost all realms of life without developing a political system for very obvious reasons. On the other hand, the diaspora comes equipped with a full century’s worth of political parties, yet, in turn, they lacked the terrain and society on which to test their ideologies and give full meaning to their existence. In Armenia they met with such a hostile reception that they have not yet recovered from the shock.

Armenia, itself, has failed miserably in developing Western-style democratic institutions of its own which function through ideologically-driven political parties. Up to now, political parties there are formed around powerful individuals and their pocketbooks, only to wither away with the moving tides. It is a system of governance which cannot be defined in any other term than a primitive form of political system.

This writer had the opportunity to meet recently with Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, when he received the ADL delegation at his office. The main topics of the discussion were the relations between Armenia and the diaspora and exploring the means to make those relations effective in helping the homeland. The most prominent idea promoted by our group was mutual recognition and a scientific analysis by the Armenian government to objectively assess the diaspora, develop a database to determine who’s who in the diaspora, to find Armenians in the higher echelons of foreign governments and media, to identify real investors, to trace scientists, artists, writers, journalists and prominent Armenians in all walks of life and update the database regularly. That kind of serious approach to the diaspora will help the government able to set its own agenda and priorities and focus on the people and organizations which can help Armenia rather than adopting a passive approach which has been the norm thus far, allowing individuals to claim most important contributors to the homeland.

That determination must come from Armenia itself, based on serious and objective studies. In the past, the minister depended on the claims of diasporan individuals and considered most patriotic Armenians who even lined up at the doorsteps of the ministry, begging to receive medals, which were dispensed generously.

Following independence, which was marked by a fateful flood of emigration, a new diaspora is being formed with its new agenda and priorities. An anthropological study is in order to determine how the old and new diasporas should integrate, how to approach each group, what to offer them and what to expect from them.

One of the immediate test cases is the recent Armenia Fund telethon, which took place during Thanksgiving in Los Angeles. The results were approximately one million dollars less than the previous year. The naysayers were not vindicated because there were no alarming vacillations nor were the predictions of the “revolutionaries” justified that with the wave of the Velvet Revolution the results could hit $40 million. Remarkably, breast beating and flag waving Armenians in Glendale and Marseilles were not on the list of top donors.

Armenia Fund is an important, even essential tool, which organically binds Armenia and the diaspora together, but it needs a complete overhaul as there is a lot of deadwood which contributes nothing except embarrassment.

Bako Sahakyan’s sheer presence was a powerful message that we still have a bleeding Karabakh which needs the global support of Armenians.

The traditional diaspora is the result of decades or even centuries of exile from the ancestral homeland. With all its ills, that alienation has helped Diaspora Armenians to develop the instinct of self-preservation, a preservation of identity. However, the traditional diaspora is doomed to extinction, with no party claiming ownership of its well-developed language and sophisticated literature and culture.

The new diaspora, which is in the process of formation, while still retaining its umbilical cord with the homeland, is in a more perilous situation because it has not been tested by other cultures like the traditional diaspora has been and therefore has never felt the need for self-preservation. It is, thus, more vulnerable in a new society and more prone to assimilation.

Reviewing and analyzing the experience of the Soviet-era Cultural Relations Committee and decade of the Diaspora Ministry must help government planners to take a realistic approach and form a department under the Foreign Ministry, to avoid the conflicts and confusion which have characterized and hampered the Diaspora Ministry thus far.

As Pashinyan rises to power, his job will be cut out for him, with simmering war on the border, pressures of international relations coupled with the promise of a fairer and more prosperous Armenia, but Diaspora relations must not be placed on the back burner because it would mean the waste of an immense treasure which properly used, can propel Armenia toward the goals that the Velvet Revolution hopes to attain.

 

 

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