Diaspora High Commissioner Zareh Sinanyan

YEREVAN — The Republic of Armenia’s first High Commissioner for Diaspora Zareh Sinanyan has one great advantage: he understands both the diaspora and Armenia, the two entities (which along with Artsakh) make up the Armenian nation. He was born in Armenia in 1973 and grew up in California, where his parents immigrated in 1988.

A lawyer by training, he was very active politically, serving on the Glendale City Council for several terms before becoming mayor.

Despite his success in his new country, he and his wife and four children moved to Armenia in 2019, and he assumed this new position in the government.

He is now in a position that at once is extremely difficult, but at a point in the country when many more are moving to Armenia from the diaspora. He spoke recently about the challenges the country faces as well as the summit his office is organizing for later this fall. (This interview was conducted a week before the latest Azerbaijani attacks.)

Diaspora Summit

One of the ways Sinanyan hopes to bring the two sides together is the Global Armenian Summit, which will be held from October 28 to 31 in Yerevan. The summit will serve as a forum for representatives of the diaspora, together with their local counterparts, to discuss the most pressing challenges and strategic questions of pan-Armenian significance.

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According to the event’s website, “The proposals, solutions, and results achieved at the summit will serve as the cornerstone for developing new approaches to our common pan-Armenian agenda. The summit will provide Armenia and the Diaspora the opportunity to identify priorities and develop a roadmap for future cooperation.”

About 600 participants from 40 countries, including Armenia and Artsakh, are expected to attend the summit.

“It’s a good representation of a cross-section of the diaspora. Our goal is to involve constructive voices, concerned voices, individuals that are truly vested in Armenia’s future, about topics that are on our minds that are urgent today and are relevant for our future,” Sinanyan said.

Large conferences inviting members of the Diaspora from a variety of fields have taken place for years. Often, little is gained other than discussions which do not go beyond talk. Sinanyan said that he knows that and wants to make sure that concrete results ensue.

“Your concern is ours, from the very beginning, not to have another diaspora-Armenia conference that involves a lot of talking and not really leading to productive results,” he said. “We’ve done everything — gone out of our way — to make sure it’s anything but that. It’s dialogue. It’s an exchange of ideas that are going to have an impact on the way Armenia will run its own affairs and the diaspora will run its own affairs and impact our diaspora strategy and hopefully shed some light on concerns that need to be addressed.”

He went on, “There is a lot of misunderstanding about what’s happening in Armenia and there is a lot of misunderstanding in Armenia about how the diaspora feels and what role the diaspora sees for itself in the future of Armenia.”

He expressed his hope that with the October summit, more understanding would be possible. “There is an opportunity to have that discourse. If you look at our agenda, you will see the way the conference is structured. It is intended for this discourse to take place,”

(He stressed that “the future of Armenia is difficult to separate from Artsakh,” so that people later don’t say that the government of Armenia does not care about that republic.)

The summit has economic and educational aspects, he said, which involved development of tech and IT in Armenia.

“The tech sector does have a lot of diasporan involvement, from the funding of the companies to founding,” he said.

Bringing the Two Closer

It is no secret that Armenia and Diasporans don’t always understand each other and that lack of understanding can create frustrations on both sides. Sinanyan addressed those. With his foot in both camps, he seems to have a personal understanding of both viewpoints.

“Saying that the two sides have issues  does not do justice to the dilemma. Instead, we need to wonder how deep those misconceptions are,” he said.

“There is some legitimacy to both sides. In Armenia they say, you know you send some aid, sure, but we are the ones who have to die. We’re the ones who have to fight. We’re the ones to pay taxes. We don’t send aid, we pay taxes,’” he said. “In the diaspora they say we’ve been helping so much but you don’t create opportunities for us to be more involved and engaged, and also whatever aid we send has been squandered.”

He added, “Unless these topics are discussed openly with a constructive mindset, these are not going to be addressed.”

He said his office has “been open” to “all kinds of discourse no matter how painful it may seem to one side or the other.”

“The most important goal of our office is to deepen the integration between the diaspora and Armenia, and if that sounds like a broad concept, it is because it is,” he said. “The second goal is to effectuate mass repatriation to the homeland.”

Sinanyan was cautious when it came to naming names or blaming parties which have been agitating against the government.

“Unfortunately what we’ve encountered is less of constructive criticisms, suggestions or discourse, but from certain political circles, it has just been outright absurd criticism of Armenia and Armenia’s government, blaming Armenia’s government for every problem that has been accumulated over the first 25 years of independence,” he said.

“We work with our counterparts throughout the diaspora. Part of the work that our compatriots in the diaspora engage in is soft power and advocacy. We do work with those entities in the diaspora that are willing to do so and do so constructively. To the extent that those organizations are not connected to the old regime that has ruined Armenia and aren’t today openly hostile to the people of Armenia and the Republic of Armenia, we will continue working with them,” he said.

A new law passed in Armenia would appoint people in the diaspora to connect with Sinanyan’s office.

He explained, “We did pass a law at the end of November, which created the institute of diaspora commissioners and the idea is to have counterparts in the communities that provide the boots on the ground, so to speak, to help the high commissioner’s office do its work on location. That idea has been met with various degrees of understanding, depending on the community we are dealing with. Some are very excited about it and want to move forward with it and others don’t understand it. Especially in those communities where the old diaspora structures feel they are in control, they are extremely opposed to this institution. I think one may understand why. The conference is also an opportunity to discuss and explain why we decided to create this statute and move forward with the appointment of commissioners.”

Duplication of Effort

“We engage with and cooperate with dozens of organizations in the diaspora, if not hundreds. Any organization that is in any way in the diaspora space and is not politically inclined not to work with the country of Armenia, we work with. We appreciate their presence and the resources they represent. That cooperation for the most part is very, very successful and very fruitful,” he said.

“Would we like to work with them all? Absolutely,” he said, adding “Thank God” there are so many.

Currently the office has 37 people  and will expand to 50 when the Repatriation Integration Center comes online, within the next 4-5 months.

“No less than 30 percent of our staff, if not more, is from the diaspora,” he said, something that had never been the case in the diaspora office before.

Sinanyan spoke about the healthy numbers of repatriates, though he did not claim credit for them. “Repatriation is something that happens by itself, despite the fact that the country doesn’t have a robust repatriation program, meaning there are no incentive programs [and] there are no subsidy programs. That doesn’t exist yet.”

“Thankfully we have thousands of Armenians moving to Armenia from every part of the world. A lot of them are from distressed areas of the world, but many, many others are not,” he said. He said to make the experience as painless as possible, those in his office have looked at other countries’ actions and have decided to create a center for repatriation and integration. “The idea is for them to repatriate, so when they arrive in Armenia, or even before they do so, they get in touch with the center and use it as a one-stop shop for all their repatriation needs,” he said.

“We are well on our way and construction is already going on at the Hrair and Anna Hovnanian Center, next to our repatriation counterparts such as Birthright Armenia, Repat Armenia, and the Armenian Volunteer Corps,” he said. “The idea is to create one more important hub of the repatriation infrastructure which has been lacking and which is necessary in order for us to turn to mass repatriation.”

Two Worlds Meeting

Sinanyan knows firsthand the joys and pains of repatriation.

“It’s been really wonderful for my family, a very painless experience – much less problematic than we thought. You can move from one city to another in the same country and it’s still painful. It’s been quite nice. My kids feel very much at home. They miss the States sometimes, but … you can live without In and Out Burger or Krispy Kreme donuts. They have a great circle of friends. They go to a great school that is really friendly to repatriates and has a really nice integration program for the children. My wife really enjoys living in Armenia even though she is not from Armenia. She works from Armenia for her American clients. For me, I am serving my homeland at one of the hardest times in its history. It’s both very emotionally and physically taxing and at the same time very rewarding.

He added, “Obviously you have to adjust to certain realities of Armenia – the way of thinking, the speed in which things get done. Otherwise, I am in my homeland and this is the one place you can stay Armenian in perpetuity without fear of assimilation or loss of heritage. Other than the monumental security concerns, this is a great country to live in.”

Zareh Sinanyan (photo Aram Arkun)

“One of my goals, my daily struggle is convincing Armenia that the diaspora is not a burden and on the contrary is an asset, pretty much the only asset we have and we need to rely on that asset and deploy it more fully and utilize it more intelligently than it’s  ever been done before,” he said.

“Unfortunately, in the diaspora there are forces that are hellbent to make sure that that does not happen, that the diaspora doesn’t engage with Armenia meaningfully. For three decades it didn’t. The engagement that was there was a very damaging donor-recipient relationship. We know that kind of relationship is not sustainable and if it’s not managed properly, it has even less impact,” he said.

“The relationships must be much more symbiotic, much more respectful and mutually useful and gratifying. Both sides have to understand what they are getting out of that relationship. They first have to understand the full potential of the rewards that they can reap from that relationship and I don’t think we have reached that stage yet,” he continued.

The number of repatriates varies. There were years in the 1990s that no one moved there, whereas now, there are thousands. “Statistical information is very hard to come by in Armenia and there is so much back and forth you can’t tell who is really moving here and who is just visiting,” he said. “But if you spend any time in Armenia over the past year or so, you can see this year is a bumper year for people moving to Armenia.

“After the 44-day war, a lot of people in the diaspora did not get disheartened and they didn’t get disappointed. Quite to the contrary, they decided they needed to take personal responsibility for the fate of their homeland and that the only way to do that is to move and be physically here,” he said.

“It certainly moved a certain type of people to make that move,” he said.

Always quick to point one how someone would counter his comments, he then referred to the population exodus from Armenia: “The naysayers will say you are not talking about how many people have left the country. That’s right. I am not talking about how many people have left the country.”

Sinanyan was also diplomatic when addressing the pushback the Pashinyan government got when on several occasions, members of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation from Europe were not allowed to get into Armenia, though he did say he was not involved with the decision and that it was not one he might have made.

“First of all, let’s get one think straight. I was not part of that decision. My cultural political background would make me very reluctant to make that decision. But the people that are subjected to this are very, very small [in number] and these are not people that are [only] opposed to the government. Every government has opposition, but [these are] people who have taken violent steps against the government, the symbols of the government or government officials.” He added, “I understand that the people who were banned were individuals that participated in a demonstration or picket of the prime minister’s visit to Paris.”

He stressed the popularity of the government with the Armenian population. “Several democratically held elections have amply demonstrated that this government is more popular than the previous criminal regimes have ever been, who have never won a single fair election. But these people that are from the old regime have their supporters in the diaspora and sometimes those people cross the line and they have crossed the line with me several times. In this case, they got physical and this is what it’s about, but I’ve already told you what my approach would be.”

“The concept of the diaspora is a very fluid one. Different diasporas have a different role to play in all of this. First, the diaspora has to understand Armenia’s realities. Anyone who sits in Los Angeles or San Francisco and complains day in and day out why Armenia is not attacking Azerbaijan are simply disconnected from the reality in Armenia. They don’t understand what is happening on the ground,” he noted.

He did say that he understood why some people needed to complain about the government. They need to think “how they can be constructively useful, making sure that our fundamental and existential problems are addressed now because we do have existential threats that we are facing. Now is not the time to be romantic about the homeland. The homeland, Armenia, and the people who live in Armenia are real human beings. Armenia is a real place. Like it or leave it, it is the way it is. The people who live here and those that live here and those in the diaspora that are engaged to make it a better place and want to join in that struggle, all have a role to play.”

He added, “I will go so far as to say for some of our people, both in Armenia and the diaspora, that role is to provide robust, aggressive and productive criticism about what they don’t like and offer solutions. Just criticizing out of thin air doesn’t serve a purpose. Offer viable, realistic solutions to those problems,” he said.

“I hope people can find that role and engage Armenia, whether through our office or NGOs, benevolent organizations, the educational process, … the main thing is to add something to our daily struggle,” he said.

To find out more about the Diaspora High Commissioner’s Office, visit http://diaspora.gov.am/en.


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