Diaspora Living a Manifestation of Globalization

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For centuries, when Armenians were exiled from their native land, the perception was that life in the diaspora was the destiny of the Armenian people or at best one similar to the plight of the Jews. But the two world wars and the technological advances which ensued made mass mobility a way of life. Different groups which had been forced to abandon their native lands formed their own diasporas and faced different challenges for their survival.

The fall of the Soviet Union triggered new waves of migrants who moved to the West to add a new layer of diasporan life. But the migrants who had left Armenia for Russia, Ukraine or Central Asia experienced a new derivative of their former lifestyle, because they did not face the challenges of linguistic and cultural barriers that their predecessors had.

Early Armenian settlers in the Middle East or Western countries had suffered tremendously because the life of exile was traumatic for them. Additionally, they had come to their new environment with the baggage of genocide and deportation and they took relocation as a punishment born of the injustice of being uprooted from their ancestral habitat. For the new migrants, the new lands represent new frontiers, new opportunities and the expectation of improved living conditions compared to their original homes.

In the case of the Armenians — unlike Syrians, Iraqis and Libyans — the migration in most cases is on voluntary basis. In other words, there is a tremendous degree of choice compared to their forefathers.

Now that the majority of the Armenians live outside of their homeland, they still relate to that homeland and the majority among them believes their identity is defined by that homeland. Armenia has a vision of the diaspora and vice versa. It is not easy to define where those visions meet or coincide. Therefore, we are in constant quest: what is the diaspora mission and vision? Who represents the diaspora? That latter question particularly is asked when the issue of compensation from Turkey or settlement with that country are raised. Also, the same question is raised when the opportunity arises to speak with the Armenian government.

In recent years, many pundits, scholars and scientists have been writing and discussing the above issues. At times, the subject is the diaspora, but more often it is the global Armenians. Many sensible ideas and theories are being formed and sometimes initiatives are even taken to get organized. The last case had been adopted by a bona fide benefactor, Vahe Karapetian, in California, who has already drafted bylaws for a would-be diasporan organization called “Pan-Armenian Unity.”

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Some people who undertake such ambitious projects use specific communities as a model. In this case, the California Armenians shape Mr. Karapetian’s vision, although his goal seems to encompass the entire diaspora.

Global visions for Armenia and the diaspora have been promoted also by Ruben Vardanyan, the Gulbenkian Foundation and many other organizations and individual visionaries.

Whereas independent Armenia’s government is duty-bound to develop its vision or objective projects as to where Armenia and Armenians are envisioned to be 50 years from now, we find now that the new revolutionary government there has decided to eliminate the Ministry of Diaspora without any explanations. There were talks that the Ministry of Diasporan Affairs would be absorbed by another ministry, but nothing has come of it yet.

Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan’s concept for the country’s ties with the diaspora seems to include having an agency which must deal not only with diaspora affairs but also with immigration into the country.

Attempts for earlier mass immigration movements proved to be catastrophic because of a lack of adequate planning. The Soviets had a particular format in mind and they organized the repatriation of Armenians from Middle Eastern countries at a great cost. Today, the target communities for repatriation are mainly Russia, Ukraine and Central Asian countries, where new settlers are not particularly welcome and their ties with the homeland are still fresh.

For other communities, diasporan living has become a function of globalization. They visit Armenia or even set up a part-time residence there but they continue to consider their home base to be in the West.

Whether we like it or not, there is permanence in diasporan living, that is why many people are in search of a goal or goals for that kind of collective existence.

Through a natural process, the diaspora has become fragmented. And it has also lost the kind of leadership it enjoyed in the past. Heroes such as General Antranig commanded tremendous respect and the masses looked to him to provide leadership. That caliber of leadership is non-existent today; today, even if Antranig were resurrected, not many people would heed his advice or his orders.

The diaspora no longer needs leaders who can think for the masses and issue commands. A new leadership has to emerge with different qualifications. Analyst Vicken Cheterian believes critical thinking is essential for the new diasporan leadership as he writes, “In case traditional diaspora institutions are unable to produce critical thinking — the first step towards strategic vision and leadership — they might soon be overtaken by a new generation of activists, philanthropists and professionals who want to engage in changing Armenian-Diaspora relations and who consider the traditional institutions as obsolete.”

Of course, this would mean a threat for the traditional diasporan leadership but also an opportunity or the survival of the entire diaspora, certainly in a new structure.

Unfortunately, Armenia has not yet developed a political culture and stable statehood. The simmering war with Azerbaijan, as well as the general instability in the region will not allow the formation of a solid statehood for the foreseeable future. Had Armenia attained that stature, the diaspora would also have welcomed the Armenian government’s guidance in its own affairs. Over the centuries, Armenians have amassed communal wealth and assets in certain communities well beyond their competence to manage and maintain on their own.

The diaspora has become a rudderless entity no longer able to manage its own destiny. We are at a point where a higher authority is needed to determine the destiny, for example, of the Armenian Humanitarian College in Calcutta, India. That authority must also have a say in closing down of schools, such as the Melkonian Educational Institute in Cyprus or the real estate deals in the Patriarchate of Jerusalem. Tremendous amounts of moral and material are at risk in the diaspora.

Organizing the diaspora and determining its future are beyond the means of its fragmented leadership today.

Armenia still needs decades of development to attain stable statehood and extend its power over disintegrating world Armenian community.