Zareh Sinanyan signing the guest book at Alex Manoogian’s desk in the Alex and Marie Manoogian Museum

DETROIT — For the past week, High Commissioner for Diaspora Affairs of the Republic of Armenia Zareh Sinanyan has been visiting Armenian communities in the United States in the Midwest and West Coast regions.

Touching down at Detroit Metropolitan Airport directly from Europe on Wednesday, June 1, Sinanyan along with advisor Margarita Baghdasaryan met with Detroit’s Armenian leadership and organizations and then moved on to Chicago where after similar meetings, they continued to California.

An interview was conducted by Senior Editorial Columnist Edmond Azadian and Staff Writer Harry Kezelian at the Edward and Helen Mardigian Library in Southfield.

From left, Harry Kezelian, High Commissioner for Diaspora Affairs of the Republic of Armenia Zareh Sinanyan, and Edmond Y. Azadian in the Edward and Helen Mardigian Library

Sinanyan, whose office has been under criticism recently along with the rest of the government of Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan for its handling of the Artsakh war in 2020, has embarked on a fence-mending mission with diasporan communities.

He said, “In the immediate aftermath of the ceasefire, clearly there is apathy, disappointment, and loss of confidence in many segments of the diaspora. And it’s natural; it’s the same type of sentiment that you would hear in Armenia. The only difference is people in Armenia don’t have a choice but to revive quickly and move on with life.”

Criticism has come from many camps, but especially in the Diaspora.

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“For us that has meant having to exert more efforts in explaining what is going on and why it’s happening. And what the outlook for the future may be like,” he said.

According to Sinanyan, the polarization caused by the war has alienated certain segments of the Diaspora that were alienated as a result of the 2018 Velvet Revolution already, “in some instances to the extent of being hostile to the Armenian statehood. The polarization is multilayered. Old grievances also play a role.”

In recent years, Sinanyan says, organizations had been “rethinking the old way of doing things,” and “the Diaspora, much like the Armenian nation in general, is searching for a way forward.”

The war was a setback to some of this rapprochement because it endangered the homeland, Sinanyan said. “No matter what our differences may be, and they are many, we do have something in common, which is our Armenian nationality. And that nationality is embodied in the statehood of Armenia. And any blow to the statehood of Armenia weakens the bond between us…which means we should understand how important the statehood is and we should consolidate around it in a time of need and crisis, and not the opposite.”

Sinanyan continued, in relation to the Pashinyan government’s political opponents, saying “We saw many organizations do this [i.e., consolidate around the state of Armenia] immediately after the war, they realized how serious the situation was and they were there on the ground offering to help in the way that they could. Others reacted by trying to exploit this as an opportunity to come back to power. But they have not succeeded, and will not, because they don’t enjoy the support of the Armenian people.”

According to Sinanyan, the High Commissioner’s office has two major goals or aspects of its work. The first is “maximum integration between Armenia and Diaspora. Removing barriers. Increase Diaspora engagement with Armenia on every level. Make the relationship a beneficial arrangement.”

The second, he said, is “Creation of infrastructure for repatriation. Ironically, Armenia does not have the infrastructure for it.”

One of the major initiatives of the office is the iGorts program, which began in September 2020. Now preparing for its third year, the program “invites Diaspora Armenian professionals to serve in the public sector and the government of the Republic of Armenia,” according to the office’s website. The program offers fellowships, with stipends and medical coverage, for professionals from the Diaspora to work in Armenia for a year in government positions where their skills and expertise could be invaluable. Overshadowed by the Covid pandemic and the war, Sinanyan described the initiative as a success story.

“When it was formulated, it was not meant as primarily repatriation, it was meant primarily as ‘let’s use the professional skills of Diasporans to better our governmental system.’ Having said that, in the back of our minds we hoped a portion of them would choose to stay.” Now, two years into the program, Sinanyan relates that of the first year’s fellows, 14 are still working in the government, three of which are in high positions including deputy minister, head of innovation and information transfer institute. More than 70 percent of participants have remained in Armenia. Within the second year group, which is ongoing, there is already a person appointed chair of the Armenian tourism agency. Sinanyan continued, “we have every reason to expect that a similar proportion will remain within the government.”

Sinanyan is proud to relate that the iGorts program was recognized by the United Nations as an example of “best practices.” He further shared that the office is creating a database of “diasporan potential” for internal use by the Armenian government.

Mission to the Diaspora

Sinanyan describes his office’s mission in a positive way. “We don’t try to counter things. We don’t build our philosophy around reactionary approaches to our work, but work towards something. If polarization means the cooling down of relations between our people, we work toward consolidation,” he explained.

He noted that after the war, the government had to employ certain strategies of outreach because of limited resources and the fact that the diaspora is numerically and geographically vast.

“Right after the war we made a major effort toward the Russian-Armenian diaspora,” which numbers around  2.5 million people. “Our efforts did bear fruit. We were able to communicate with large enough segments of the Russian-Armenian community. They understood what was going on and it allayed their fears. And brought back the focus around the statehood [of Armenia].”

Sinanyan discussed his relationship with the Armenian diaspora of Russia and compared it to that of the United States. He mentioned that although there is a massive population of Armenians in Russia, many of whom are recent migrants from Armenia in the last thirty years, there is no one lobbying the Russian government comparative to what exists for in the United States with the Armenian Assembly and the Armenian National Committee of America.

Azadian had questioned why media outlets in Armenia, particularly pro-government ones, seem to insult leading Russians of Armenian descent rather than winning them over, in order to gain influence in Russian government spheres. Sinanyan replied that these influential Russian-Armenians were from a different social background with a different mentality than the general Armenian community in Russia. “They have taken a certain position since April of 2018 that is hostile to the people of Armenia. The Armenian people don’t like being called dirt, being insulted, being told they should live under a corrupt regime. They’ve shown that in the revolution and in the June elections.”

On the other hand, Azerbaijan’s interests are advanced in Russia by powerful oligarchs of Azerbaijani background who reside there. Armenians, for whatever reason, have not curried favor with the Russian government in a similar way. Sinanyan describes this as a failure of previous Armenian governments, saying “In addition to their multitude of failures, they haven’t allowed the Russian Armenian community to shape Russian foreign policy.”

Sinanyan did mention that he works with the Union of Russian Armenians, despite opposition from their leadership toward the Pashinyan government, stating “we work with all compatriots despite ideologies and approaches as long as they want to consolidate around statehood and support Armenia.”

On the other hand, Sinanyan vehemently objected to direct influence by the Armenian government on the diaspora. In response to a question as to whether it was possible to create a lobby in Russia separate from the Union of Russian Armenians, Sinanyan stated that “we in Armenia cannot be building organizations outside the Republic of Armenia,” stating “that’s what we need from our local community.” He concluded, “very often we are accused of trying to ‘organize’ the diaspora. They accuse the Armenian government of trying to ‘organize’ the diaspora, and others accuse them of failing to organize them.”

Recent Crises

Sinanyan also discussed the issues of the Ukrainian and Russian migrants to Armenia. He stated that there are tens of thousands of Russian migrants in Armenia. “There are Russian waiters and delivery boys, in every sphere of life, in a very short period of time,” he said, but added that “we are not helping Russian emigres.”

In terms of the Armenians fleeing from the war in Ukraine, “we are providing a financial package,” Sinanyan stated. He estimated that there were over 6,000 people with Ukrainian passports, and that the government was providing a support package to them with funds supplied by the Armenian Missionary Association of America (AMAA), to which he expressed his gratitude.

The Office of the High Commissioner was also affected by Covid. “We had nine or ten months from June 2019  to mid-March 2020, that was the only period of relative normalcy. Covid was a major blow to our efforts because we basically had to close down programming for that year.” Like so many other organizations, “we turned to technology to fill the void,” Sinanyan stated. “We used Zoom to hold community meetings with various communities in the diaspora. We had a 300-person virtual summer camp.” Sinanyan also mentioned that the World Congress on Information Technology (WCIT) held in Yerevan in 2019 “was a huge success, but the follow-up couldn’t be done because of Covid.”

Finally, Sinanyan mentioned that the IT sector continues to prosper and grow, “the Ukrainian war, as tragic as it is, is helping because of the influx of Russian IT companies. Without getting too much into it, if we can avoid war, we will come to a point where the IT sector’s degree of development will not be detached from military preparation.”

Midwest Hospitality

Following the interview, Sinanyan attended the annual banquet of the St. John Armenian Church Women’s Guild, which happened to be taking place that evening. He spoke to the room of 70 women, answering questions from the audience about current developments in Armenia.

The following day, Sinanyan visited the Manoogian Manor (Michigan Home for the Armenian Aged), the AGBU Alex and Marie Manoogian School where he addressed students, and St. John Armenian Church where he met with the local clergy as well as touring the Alex and Marie Manoogian Museum and the Edward and Helen Mardigian Library. On Thursday evening, Sinanyan met with representatives of the leadership of the church and community organizations, including Tekeyan Cultural Association, Knights of Vartan, and the church’s auxiliary groups.

Similar meetings were held in Chicago that weekend, coordinated by the Honorary Consulate of the Republic of Armenia in Chicago, which is headed by local businessman Oscar Tatosian. After his visit to Chicago, Sinanyan was scheduled to head to California, where the Western Region leadership of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation had already announced that he was “not welcome.” A similar protest incident was averted in Detroit.

Sinanyan assumed his role as high commissioner in 2019. Born in Armenia, he and his family emigrated to the US when he was a teen. He formerly served as the mayor of Glendale.

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