Zareh Sinanyan (photo Aram Arkun)

Diaspora High Commissioner Sinanyan Works for Armenia-Diaspora Integration and Repatriation

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YEREVAN – High Commissioner of Diaspora Affairs of the Republic of Armenia Zareh Sinanyan spoke about the challenges of his office in an interview mid-October of this year.

His life has taken an unusual direction, both literally and figuratively. The former mayor of Glendale and his family had emigrated to the US from Armenia as a teenager. In his new country, Sinanyan has been able to climb high politically, including  serving on the Glendale City Council. However, he changed course and decided to relocate to his ancestral homeland and take this new position in Armenia on June 14, 2019.

(In summer 2018, Sinanyan had sat down for an interview while he was mayor of Glendale. https://mirrorspectator.com/2018/08/23/mayor-zareh-sinanyan-working-to-improve-glendale-while-strengthening-ties-with-armenia/)

Sinanyan had known and supported Prime Minister of Armenia Nikol Pashinyan for several years. After an indirect communication from the prior diaspora minister, Mkhitar Hayrapetyan, broached a possible position, Sinanyan spoke directly with Pashinyan and decided it required a conversation in person. So Sinanyan said he took a plane to Yerevan and after several meetings with Pashinyan came to an agreement.

After this trip, Sinanyan returned briefly to Yerevan and resigned from the city council and all other offices. He then flew out to Yerevan to start living there fulltime. His children, as during other summers, came to spend a few months in Armenia but then returned to Glendale for school.

He said about the move, “You never know in life, but this is it. I am building the foundations for my children’s future here. My family is still in Glendale only because we are building our new apartment [in Yerevan] and because my decision was so quick that we weren’t ready for the school transition and those very important things….The plan is, one way or the other, the kids will start school in September of next year in Yerevan.”

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Office of the High Commissioner for Diaspora Affairs

Some people have viewed the transformation of the prior Ministry of the Diaspora into an office as a demotion of sorts. Sinanyan strongly continues to disagree. He said, “I still sit in on the government meetings. I still sit at the same table. I have been given basically a very broad mandate by the prime minister. The prime minister wanted the office to be associated [directly] with him and he wanted the classical constraints that come with a ministry not to be there.”

He gave two examples of such constraints. First, while Sinanyan is able to participate in cabinet or government meetings, he is not obliged to do so and if he is absent he will not be punished for this. Ministers can sent their deputy ministers in their stead, but this can only be done on occasion. “Whereas,” Sinanyan said, “I have been instructed specifically to spend as little time in the office as possible, and to be out in the community, working with the community…That means I won’t be there most of the time physically.”

Secondly, government ministers must go to parliament and report weekly at the question-and-answer session, which, he said, exposes them to a lot of potential hostility. Thus, part of the intent of the change was to safeguard the diaspora office from that.

As a result of the recent reorganization of the Armenian government, the Office of the High Commissioner will not implement cultural or educational programs. These have all been transferred to the Ministry of Education, Science, Culture and Sport. However, Sinanyan said, “We certainly retain jurisdiction over anything that deals with the diaspora, so that if we believe a program is appropriate and should be implemented, or that one should not, or that one is not being implemented well, we intend to share that [belief] with the Ministry and make the appropriate recommendations.”

Sinanyan pointed out that on any diaspora-related program, “At the end of the day, when they are unhappy with it or they are happy with it, we hear about it. They come to us, especially if they are unhappy with it. We get blamed for it too, forget the fact that someone else is supposed to do it. This is our business. I have that absolute, explicit authority.”

The Office of the High Commissioner of Diasporan Affairs has a staff of 52 including Sinanyan. A good part of the staff is new, some are from before the Velvet Revolution of 2018. He said that this was not his final lineup or configuration however. His chief of staff is a diasporan and he said that he intends to hire as many as he can, while keeping a balance between them and natives of Armenia.

He defines himself as both. He said, “I consider myself a hybrid. I consider myself a complete Hayastantsi Yerevantsi [native of Yerevan and Armenia] [and] at the same time, a complete diasporan.” He is the first diasporan to run this office or its predecessors (which only have a history of ten years).

When asked what is the positive legacy of the Ministry of the Diaspora prior to the Velvet Revolution that he can use, Sinanyan replied, “I can think of only one thing, to be honest, and that is the Ari Toun program, which has since been renamed Qayl Depi Toun.” This is basically a summer camp program for diasporan Armenian children, who come to bond with each other and with Armenia. Sinanyan said the format is being expanded, and added, “If we had more resources, I would double that program in size because, again, it is very effective for kids at that impressionable age. They learn two things. They first learn how vast the Armenian world is. They are not limited to their little communities or their church or even Armenia. They learn that we are a small but global nation. They get to know each other. Secondly, they bond with their homeland, because that is the glue that puts everything together.”

The yearbooks, publications and research on the diaspora done in the past, Sinanyan said, were done even before the ministry was created and will be done after it is gone. Therefore he did not consider that an important legacy of the pre-revolution ministry.

Smaller Budget than Glendale

The office has a budget of about $1.5 million for next year, which must be approved by the parliament. Sinanyan exclaimed that this is a “far cry from the $900 million of the city of Glendale.”

At present, unlike the office of the previous Minister of the Diaspora, he has no advisers. He said, “I am taking it slow. Once we announce the new structure of the office, I think that is when I will commence appointing advisers.” Among them will be his representatives in various diaspora communities. Furthermore, he said, “In the future, I see clearly that we will have an attaché at the embassy from our office, especially in the larger communities, who will deal with nothing but diaspora affairs.”

To make up for limited resources, Sinanyan said, “Since I came, we started partnering up with organizations which have been in the diasporan Armenian space—in the business of the Armenian diaspora, such as Birthright Armenia, Repat Armenia and others, and using their knowhow and their resources to do those things that otherwise we would be unable to do at this stage.” Teach for Armenia is another partner in certain projects. He said, “We are unashamedly, unabashedly using them to further our agenda, and I think they don’t mind at all.”

On the other hand, Sinanyan said, he did not specifically plan to do fundraising in the diaspora for his office. He said, “But I may resort to it. I am not sure yet.” He said that he has received many offers of help in terms of funding and has some ideas on how to attract talent and get things done, but has not yet found the proper legal format for it.

 Diasporan Goals

Sinanyan and the Pashinyan government have two major goals for his office. In the short-term, it is, he said, “to achieve the highest level of integration between the diaspora and Armenia possible. And I mean integration on every level, professional, economic, cultural, etc. – easier said than done.”

He said that “we must do it because Armenia, in order to thrive and to survive and to get its economy to grow as fast as we need it to grow, has to go for the low-hanging fruit, and the low-hanging fruit is its diaspora.” “This integration,” Sinanyan continued, “will also bring with itself the restoration of the sense of trust between Armenia and the diaspora, where the diaspora does not view itself as a milking cow for Armenia. And Armenia does not view the diaspora as a relatively foreign element that didn’t come in large numbers, en masse, to fight during the Artsakh War.” The achievement of this goal will help Armenia attain the second strategic goal, which is important for national security.

This second, ultimate goal, Sinanyan said, is to achieve repatriation on a massive scale over the next 25 to 30 years. Sinanyan said, “This country [Armenia] does not have a sustainable economy. It needs to provide for itself a market.” It needs to be able to draft people into the military in sufficient numbers to defend the country, to have taxpayers, and do everything else a successful country does. When asked what the population of Armenia was at present, he replied frankly, “No one knows.”

Sinanyan said, “The magic number that we are going to set for ourselves, and it is a part of our Vision 2050 [plan], is five million people at least. Frankly, I think it is a modest goal and I think we can do better. But five million is certainly way better than what we have now. I would like to have a million and a half growth, and then natural growth, whatever is there, and achieve that number.”

Prime Minister Pashinyan publicly announced some of the goals of the Armenia 2050 Vision plan in August 2019 (https://www.azatutyun.am/a/30093797.html) while a preliminary draft was discussed in July.

Sinanyan did not find any immediate physical limits to increasing Armenia’s population dramatically. He emphasized that “any time I refer to Armenia, Artsakh and all the liberated territories are part of it.” Together they compose 42,000 square kilometers of land. He said Israel is half that size and includes territory that used to be considered barren, but it sustains a population of 8 ½ million.

He said that first integration must be carried out and then repatriation. Internal reforms in Armenia have to progress, he said, “to a point where we can tell folks with a straight face, come, we are ready to accept you, this homeland wants you, and you will have a quality of life that will be better than the one you are abandoning in your host countries.”

Sinanyan said the recent revolution in Armenia has provided an opportunity to do this. While “better than” is relative and a subjective standard, Sinanyan said it must have some objective and measurable benchmarks. Education, health care, and a non-monopolistic, free economy aroe among the foundational qualities he said a state needs in order for its citizens to be content with it and others to want to possibly live there.
Secondly, he said, Armenia must make sure that the diaspora remains healthy in this time period. This is all ultimately in the interest of the Armenian people, he concluded.

Travels

Sinanyan took his first trip as high commissioner to Russia. When asked whether this was to balance his US connections, he said that in some ways, yes, but more importantly, Russia is where the largest Armenian diaspora is located. He said that it is so vast not only demographically but also in its geographic spread. He took his first two trips there, but afterwards went to many other countries with Armenian communities. His near-native Russian language knowledge serves as an asset on his travels (as does his English fluency).

He said that he inherited no analysis or policy for dealing with the Russian-Armenian communities. Therefore, he said, “First of all, I am trying to understand what the Russian community is. When I say it is a vast and complicated community, it truly is. The difference that I have seen between Moscow and St. Petersburg, between St. Petersburg and Sochi, is tremendous. These communities are so different that they might as well exist in different countries. So for each, there has to be a different approach.” It is too soon to say what that will be, he said.

Zareh Sinanyan, left, with Nikol Pashinyan

Sinanyan agreed that quick and easy assimilation within a generation in Russia was a problem. He said, “Certainly, the language problem [loss of Armenian] is very relevant to Russia, though it is very relevant to all of the diaspora. I want to step away from this language-centric concept of what or who is Armenian and move more towards self-identification. Hopefully that way we circumvent the problem of folks not really speaking Armenian within a generation or two.”

Though communities still should be encouraged to establish Armenian full-time or Sunday schools, Sinanyan said that the creation of schools in Russia apparently was problematic. He admitted that in places like Moscow, where there are sufficient numbers of prosperous Armenians who could afford to pay for private Armenian schools for their children, it is unclear why this is so. His explanation for it is that “the value associated with being Armenian or raising your child as an Armenian had diminished to such an extent that the average Russian Armenian didn’t see the need for it…Why make sacrifices, why spend money and resources just so my kid can speak Armenian if I don’t see my kid’s future in Armenia?”

During the Soviet period, Sinanyan said, Armenia at least was industrialized and was in some ways an interesting country, with science and arts. Since independence, Sinanyan said, and until recently, “Armenia had become a place from which people are leaving and not the other way around. At least a million people have left Armenia. Why would the average diasporan want to go to a place that people are leaving or even dream about their kids going there?”

However, the revolution in Armenia provides an opportunity to change this attitude, he said. Adding value to their future and yours, he said, “is how you fix the language and assimilation problem.”

He added that while Russia might be more top-down, “the same concept exists in the United States. It is must softer, but certainly, a guy with the name Zareh Sinanyan is going to have a much tougher time than a dude named John Smith. That is just the reality of it.” Assimilation is the same in France too, although Sinanyan has not yet visited there.

In the Middle East, Sinanyan said, “Traditionally we held on to our language and our culture because there was this hope of return that Western Armenians always dreamt about. They lived in the Middle East all around Western Armenia.” That has changed too.

Sinanyan was going to visit Los Angeles the next day. He said that though Moscow had Armenians from all over the former Soviet Union, it did not compare with Los Angeles in its degree of cosmopolitanism, with Armenians from around the world, all in comparatively large numbers. As in other communities, he said, “We are still trying to figure out how do we achieve the goals we are setting for ourselves.”

When asked how he would attempt to reach the majority in Los Angeles, who were unaffiliated formally with organizations, he replied that many of the former have connections with Armenian cultural groups, like dancers or singers, or with student groups. These groups can be used to reach people, along with social media and any other resource available.

Ultimately, Sinanyan went back to his formulation of success attracting those who are generally uninvolved in Armenian affairs. If Armenia can provide “an attractive product to the diaspora…they will find a way to communicate with us. It is kind of like the ‘if you build it, they will come’ mentality.”

Sinanyan’s appointment was criticized by the Social Democrat Hunchak Party and some others in Los Angeles, who felt that because of his prior Armenian National Committee/Armenian Revolutionary Federation affiliation, he would be partisan as high commissioner (https://massispost.com/2019/06/sdhp-statement-on-the-appointment-of-zareh-sinanyan-as-the-chief-commissioner-for-the-diaspora-affairs/). Sinanyan commented: “I don’t really see a need to respond to that. They are entitled to their opinion. All I need to do is work and I intend to do that.”

He declared that he was not involved in Armenian politics or in Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan’s Civil Contract party. Sinanyan said, “I try to stay out of politics as much as I can because the Office is kind of nonpolitical. It involves the diaspora and the diaspora shouldn’t be political, if you think about it.”

However, when asked if he foresees becoming involved in Armenian politics at some later point, after this position, he replied, “I will not exclude the possibility of that happening.”

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