Some of the participants in the Boston meeting with Zareh Sinanyan (center)

WATERTOWN — High Commissioner for Diaspora Affairs of the Republic of Armenia Zareh Sinanyan gave a presentation on the activities and goals of his office to a group of Armenian community leaders of Boston at the New England Armenian General Benevolent Union headquarters in Watertown on February 24. This was part of a series of visits to US cities which also included Dallas, Houston, New York City, Fairlawn, Paramus, Philadelphia and Providence.

Zareh Sinanyan (photo Aram Arkun)

Sinanyan was accompanied from his office by Anaïs Astarjian, who serves as US community liaison and is originally from the Boston area. Unlike earlier visits to the US, such as to Los Angeles in June 2022, his current East Coast tour was not accompanied by protests organized primarily by the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF). In fact, a number of representatives of this political party and its auxiliary organizations politely participated in the meeting.

Presentation on Programs

The formal part of the meeting was a presentation with slides by Sinanyan on the various programs of the Office of the High Commissioner, which was created in June 2019. During the meeting, he proclaimed that it has been working on building a strong relationship with the Armenian diaspora in four directions. He said, “The first direction is promotion of repatriation and integration of repatriates. The second direction is the strengthening of the Armenia-diaspora partnership. The third direction is researching, empowering and supporting diaspora communities, and the fourth direction is the development of Armenia-diaspora strategy.”


In the most recent period of independence, Armenia has experienced a number of waves of repatriation, though Sinanyan admitted that they have not been anywhere near the size that is desired. “During each spike,” he said, “Armenia has shown that it is not really prepared to absorb repatriates, or provide an experience that makes that repatriation sustainable and long term for many of those people that initially chose Armenia.” He gave as an example that approximately 50-60 percent of an estimated influx of 30,000 Syrian-Armenians, who came primarily from around 2011 to 2013, with lesser numbers later, left Armenia.

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A new spike began last year of Russian Armenians (this is distinct from the perhaps temporary arrival of ethnic Russians). During that year, Sinanyan said his office responded to roughly 8,000 requests for assistance, including 800 visits of people to his headquarters, 3,700 phone calls and 3,500 letters. There were also several thousand contacts through various social media. Aside from providing general information about repatriation, the office, Sinanyan said, does everything from finding schools for children to helping with housing and jobs for adults. It just began offering Armenian language classes, expecting to help Syrian and Lebanese Armenians switch from Western to Eastern Armenian, but starting last March the program had to be revamped to teach Russian Armenians who don’t know Armenian at all.

While the Russian Armenians were not displaced by war, a smaller number of Ukrainian Armenians, a few thousand people, came after losing everything and fleeing physical danger. Most were Armenian citizens so they could not qualify for refugee status that would allow assistance from international organizations, but they needed immediate assistance. Sinanyan said that before “the slow wheels of bureaucracy could turn” and the Armenian government would provide funding, the High Commission applied to the Armenian Missionary Association of America, which agreed to fund a six-month social package, generous by Armenian standards according to Sinanyan, to allow these refugees to settle down in Armenia.

In order to better handle future repatriates, Sinanyan said his office was working on creating a Repatriation and Integration Center, modeled on the successful Israeli experience. Such a center would provide one-stop assistance for all the issues repatriates have to deal with, such as passport paperwork, housing, military registration, and education, thus reducing some of the stress on the repatriates. The Hirair and Anna Hovnanian Foundation has agreed to provide space in downtown Yerevan and, Sinanyan announced, the new office will open in roughly six weeks.

Parallel to this, an intergovernmental working group is being set up to coordinate the various ministries, agencies and governmental departments that deal with repatriates, since the Office of the High Commissioner will only be acting as a facilitator in coordinating connections. Finally, Sinanyan would like to follow the Israeli example and create transitional housing for new repatriates. The government of Armenia has agreed to this politically but funding has to be found.


One important project conceived in 2019 is mapping the Armenian diaspora by identifying Armenians in influential positions throughout the world to allow access to this potential resource for Armenia. The Office of the High Commissioner lost its budget due to the 2020 war, but for the last two years has hired a professional company, Sinanyan related, which does data mining to create a list. He said that some 75,000 pieces of individual date have een collected, and this program will be continued and improved.

Another way to gather information and strengthen ties is through visits of the High Commissioner to different communities. Sinanyan said in a private interview during his Boston visit, “Experience has shown that nothing replaces personal contact with communities. Often we go to communities because some urgent need arises.” He gave the examples of humanitarian aid to Aleppo after the earthquake, or to Beirut in August 2020 after the explosion in the port there.

Global Armenian Summit and Armenia-diaspora Strategy

Last October, the Office of the High Commissioner held a meeting, called the Global Armenian Summit, in which over 800 people from 45 different countries participated, and which had about 120 speakers, the majority of whom were from the diaspora. Planning began at the start of 2022, Sinanyan said, contrary to accusations by some that it was a last-minute event. He added at a private interview that “You have to understand that various structures went out of their way to try to derail it, but that didn’t help them because we had fundamentally prepared so well.”

A skeleton of an agenda was prepared, he said, then circulated to various individuals and organizations for their input. An advisory board of diasporans helped refine the agenda to include the priorities of both the diaspora and Armenia.

Among the results was the Armenia-diaspora strategy of the Office of the High Commissioner. The government asked for this strategic draft plan to be submitted to it in May, 2022, but Sinanyan refused, he said, because he wanted the input of experts first. The draft is ready and Sinanyan said it would be circulated to the government when he returned to Yerevan from his trip. Sometime during the first half of 2023, it would then be formally submitted to the government for approval.

A second result of the summit was the decision to organize an advisory council to the Office of the High Commissioner. Sinanyan said the council would be composed of 20-30 influential diasporans who could “help us navigate through these quite difficult waters that is the Armenia-diaspora relationship.”

Sinanyan was asked prior to the community meeting why a number of people in leading organizations did not receive invitations, and he replied that there was a recurring problem that many of the emails sent by his office would go into spam folders because of the ending of the email address. He said that multiple individuals invited to be speakers did not come, and only afterwards when they were approached to find out why, they would say they did not receive an invitation. Sinanyan would then show them the email he had sent, and they would check and find that it went directly into spam.

Another result of the summit was the creation of the Armenian National Youth Forum. The young people who participated in Global Armenian Summit complained that this was a season when students had to be in class, and secondly, the agenda did not reflect the interests of the youth. So a separate youth forum is being organized at the start of this August, which, though a period of hot weather in Yerevan, is vacation time for many young people. A skeletal agenda is being created which will be circulated, Sinanyan said, to Armenian student associations and other youth organizations for their feedback before finalizing the agenda. It is hoped that 400 people will participate. The dates will be just prior to the Pan-Armenian games which begin on August 4 so there will be complementarity.

Diaspora Commissioners

Perhaps one of the most significant forthcoming efforts at strengthening Armenia-diaspora relations might be the creation of diaspora commissioners. The National Assembly passed a law creating this institution on November 17, 2021. The high commissioner can recommend appointments to these posts, and the prime minister makes the actual appointment. Their status will be equivalent to advisors to the prime minister.

Till now, Sinanyan said that most people have been unaware that some Armenian embassies had diaspora attaches, exclaiming: “Exactly the problem! They never heard of it because these people never served their function.”

On the other hand, when regular diplomats deal with local Armenian communities, this can lead to a conflict, he continued, with their core diplomatic role. He said, “our diplomats have found comfort, when they get assigned to a post…[by] engrossing themselves in the community rather than in community work. No, diplomats must deal with diplomacy. They need to be, in the United States, on the Hill, in the White House, Pentagon, State House, wherever that may be, and spend a minimum amount of time with the community. That is a low hanging fruit – it’s easy. It is a comfort zone. We don’t want them to have a comfort zone.”

Sinanyan said that his office at present has a staff of 37, and hopes to increase it to 60-65 people by the end of this year, but even 65 is insufficient to deal with a diaspora of over 7 million. The current budget of his office, he revealed in a later interview, was in the range of 2 million dollars. In comparison, Israel’s ministry dealing with its diaspora has hundreds of employees and a budget of 370 million dollars. The diaspora commissioners will be an attempt to make up this gap without the corresponding expense by “finding people in the communities who are so active and dedicated and who will commit to do that liaison between our office and the communities – and are acceptable to those communities.”

No commissioners have yet been appointed, Sinanyan said, “because we didn’t want to do it without explaining this to the communities, without making sure they understand it, and thereby avoid problems.” This year he said some commissioners will be appointed. There are candidates in Russia, Australia and Poland. He told the Boston community audience that before this happens in the Boston area, they would be the first to be consulted so that they would have an input in the choice of the local commissioner.

The High Commissioner’s Office also communicates with the diaspora through social media and its website,, which is in three languages.


Among the programs aimed at strengthening Armenia-diasporan relations is iGorts, a fellowship initiated in 2020 that allows diasporan experts to work within the Armenian government for a one-year period. Positions in the Artsakh government are also included in the program. Sinanyan said that in 2019, when he asked for the necessary budget from Armenia’s National Assembly, he explained that the program is not meant to keep people living in Armenia but to help the government develop the culture to allow diasporans in its work, and secondly, to benefit from the expertise and way of thinking of the experts who can greatly help the government.

It initially was planned for 20 fellows, but in the first week over 900 applications were received, Sinanyan said, so that the funding was increased to 50 fellows, who came despite Covid and the war and worked in 19 different ministries and agencies. Interestingly, though this was not the main purpose, 68 percent of the participants in the first two years ended up staying in Armenia. Though most of them ended up in the private sector, 14 individuals work in the government, including a deputy minister of the economy and the president of Armenia’s national tourism agency.

At the Boston briefing, it turned out that the father of one of the iGorts fellows, Araz Chiloyan, who was instrumental in unveiling Armenia’s anti-Covid vaccination program, was in the audience.

Last year, the United Nations denominated iGorts as a “best practices” program that they recommend to be emulated by others. Sinanyan encouraged applicants for the upcoming third year of the program, with the deadline being April 5 (

Programs for Young People

Sinanyan exclaimed, “Did you notice that a lot of our programs seem to be youth-oriented? It is not so much by design as because life dictates it that way, because young people are freer. They are not tied down by mortgages. They are braver. They don’t have children or spouses that make things complicated…There are people of different ages who apply, but young people are more likely to take that chance and go to the homeland.”

Aside from the National Youth Forum, and even iGorts, he mentioned several other programs.

The two-year-old Diaspora Youth Ambassador program invites young activists in various communities to participate in a two-week intense cultural and educational program in Armenia in September, at the expense of the Armenian government. Sinanyan said, “We want them to not just theoretically fight for their homeland or theoretically like their homeland and be engaged with it, but to actually know what Armenia is…these young people have become our liaisons in our communities, which is a great resource for us.” The application process opens this year on April 15.

Step Toward Home is a program that was inherited from the former Ministry of Diaspora. It is a summer camp for children 13-18 years old from all over the diaspora, with fun and games in addition to some education, such as lessons in Armenian language and dance.

International Politics

After a formal presentation, Sinanyan answered questions from the audience, several of which dealt with the work of his office. The ARF members and affiliates present, considering it a rare opportunity to directly ask questions of a government representative, largely focused on political issues.

When asked whether the Armenian government can provide any guarantees for the citizens of Artsakh if they become Azerbaijani citizens, Sinanyan replied that neither the West nor the Russians offer any provisions for self-determination nor any guarantees. However, he declared that the Russian variant includes Zangezur as an extraterritorial corridor, which is “cutting off our neck, our connection with Iran,” and “that is just unacceptable.” The Western version he said at least does not have any similar indication concerning Syunik and so is preferrable. Last September, the US and Iran, he said, helped stop the Azerbaijani attack through diplomatic pressure, and the European Union observers came, mostly because of French pressure and some US involvement. Such intervention, and primarily whatever military means Armenians still retain, are the only guarantees Armenians can have, he said.

Sinanyan said that Armenia was trying to convince the West to not support a scenario where Azerbaijan can force Armenians to accept Azerbaijani citizenship. “Right now our general strategy is to make sure that our Armenian population remains in Artsakh,” he said, and remains connected to Armenia. Armenia continues to subsidize the Artsakh population and provide for its needs, he said.

This situation hopefully buys time for the Armenians to strengthen themselves, rearm and fix the military and grow the economy, he concluded. Meanwhile, if the population remains Armenian and a corridor to Armenia remains, Sinanyan said, it will be hard for the Azerbaijanis to carry out ethnic cleansing as was done in Nakhichevan.

As far as why Ruben Vardanyan was removed as state minister of Artsakh, Sinanyan said that Armenia had nothing to do with his appointment and nothing to do with his removal, but that the Russian factor has more to do with this than anything else. Whatever the case may be, Sinanyan stressed, “I do think that Ruben should not leave Artsakh, because if he does leave Artsakh, this has been arranged to somehow [seem] like Azerbaijan is winning…No Armenian should have to leave Artsakh because Aliyev has demanded it.”


Sinanyan was asked about trust and corruption. In return, he related a revealing anecdote about logistics. About eight days before the war, Artsakh President Arayik Harutyunyan’s chief of staff or assistant calls Sinanyan and says, brother, I need to come see you. I need to ask for something. Sinanyan replied, of course brother, come and see me. He comes and says that the situation is dire in Stepanakert, and that they were trying to arm Harutyunyan’s staff. They needed 20 bulletproof vests and came to Sinanyan because his office was the one releasing such items from customs.

Sinanyan said that every evening his office received around 600 vests, which would all go to Artsakh’s Defense Army. The chief of staff replied, well, we are the presidential staff and we don’t know where it goes. I just need 20 vests. Sinanyan promised to give the vests, but realized there is something wrong going on. He called someone in the Defense Army and related the situation. He was told that there is a military warehouse only 5 km. from the presidential palace where 2,000 vests were stored.

This meant that there had been no preparation for war, for decades perhaps. He said, “The people who should have been in the midst of it, who should have been experts at it, especially people who control logistics, have no idea what they are doing.” In other words, whatever was being sent to Armenia and Artsakh had been misplaced.

On the other hand, today, he said, for the first time in 30 years, Armenia’s Defense Ministry is actually purchasing arms produced by its own manufacturers, and diasporan Armenians have played an important role in this.

Change in Status

Though seen by some as a downgrade in status from its predecessor body which enjoyed ministerial status, Sinanyan has argued in the past that the Office of the High Commissioner largely has benefitted from its non-cabinet status. However, during the question period, he did note one significant item that was removed from the powers that the Diasporan Ministry used to enjoy – directly dealing with the educational needs of the diaspora. This now is handled by the Ministry of Education, Science, Culture and Sports. It is clear even from the name of the ministry what a large workload it handles, and Sinanyan pointed out that it is understandable that diasporan school issues tend to be among the last issues that it is able to address. However, the complaints all continue to be made to Sinanyan and his staff.

He noted that the programs he presented in Boston were a product of three years of work, all despite the difficulties of Covid and the 2020 war that had a devastating psychological impact on diasporan-Armenian relations. The funding of his office will hopefully grow as the Armenian GDP grows, allowing an expansion of its activities. The 2018 total state budget, he said, was 2.95 billion dollars, but next year this will be increased to over 6 billion dollars, due to the increase in tax revenue.

He declared that “the idea for the structure, functionality and scope of responsibilities [of his office] has undergone significant change, and it keeps getting refined constantly. It is my understanding that the High Commissioner’s Office would be much more of a go-between or pass-through body that would delegate much of the actual work to various ministries and agencies within the government. Time has proven again and again that unless you have a dedicated entity that deals with specific issues, it becomes an afterthought for the other entity because they have other priorities.”

Pan-Armenian Diasporan Councils

The question of the utility of coordinating bodies for Armenian communities in places like Russia, Ukraine, Belgium, France, the West Coast of the US, and most recently Boston, was raised. Sinanyan commented, “Unfortunately, for the most part, it has been a failure.” He said this was for very specific reasons, continuing, “Once they are formed, they assume that they are the only body. So the coordinating council says…anyone who does not want to come under us or anyone who is not part of us is like a pariah, not a real organization. The moment you do that, you are setting yourself up for miserable failure.” He gave the examples of the Union of Armenians of Russia and the Union of Armenians of Ukraine, which each claimed to be the community in their respective countries. On the other hand, he said that the Belgian example was more agreeable because this group holds democratic elections and does not seem to have the ambition of being the only legitimate Armenian body there. He concluded that if these types of organizations could accept that some individuals or organizations may not wish to necessarily become part of a pan-Armenian alliance they could be fine.


Sinanyan and Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan have been called traitors by some, and in turn Sinanyan has called some political opponents of the current regime traitors. The Armenian government has prohibited the entry of several ARF members in Europe into Armenia. In a follow-up meeting after the Boston community event, Sinanyan was asked how this polarized atmosphere in both Armenia and the diaspora could be ameliorated. Without backing down from a characterization of the previous regimes as corrupt and incompetent, he noted first that he is a nonpartisan official who is not part of the ruling Civil Contract Party, but part of the government team that is headed by the Civil Contract. At the same time, he said he used to be as close as you could ever get to being part of the ARF without actually being a card-carrying member.

He stated that “Those same people call me a traitor – me, a guy who has moved to his homeland, who is working for his country and his people, who has done everything that they were supposed to do. Remember the motto, Depi yerkir [Towards the Homeland]? None of them have done it, and they call me that [traitor].”

However, he added that there were a lot of good and dedicated people who perhaps just don’t know the true situation. The solution, he said, is that “So long as we keep the interests of our statehood and our nation above petty political interests, there will be no problem for us to find a way to cooperate, because we have higher common interests. Our common interests are much higher than our lesser political interests.” On his part, he said his own office always keeps the doors open and makes sure that members of opposition parties get invited to its events.

When asked after the formal meeting what he felt was his role during the existential crisis facing Artsakh and Armenia, he responded, “I think of the government, and every person in a leadership position, as a person manning a trench. It is a long trench and each person has to be responsible for a section of that defense work. I want to concentrate on my trench. At some point, I realize that I don’t have the ability or authority to worry about all the other trenches. I just stay committed to … what we do, and try to make sure that our part is secure.”


In answer to a question on what role he thought the US Armenian diaspora should play in connection to Armenia, Sinanyan declared that it should not be based primarily on donor-recipient logic, which has a corrosive effect, turning Armenia into a dependent, and fatiguing the diaspora. “I think that the Armenian American diaspora has so much more to offer [than money],” he said, “and that is in the form of knowhow, in the form of expertise, service and advice.” While repatriation would be amazing and fantastic, because that would bring all that expertise permanently to Armenia and broaden the way of thinking and doing things, he cannot ask that much. Instead, he suggested finding greater means to engage more efforts of American-Armenians in Armenia.

Ultimately, Sinanyan declared at the community meeting that the diaspora should be reassured that it is welcome and wanted in Armenia. In fact, it is fundamentally wanted in Armenia no matter what the ups and downs of the relationship, and similarly, the diaspora badly needs Armenia in order to exist.

He said that he is an optimist, both because he is working to build a future for his children in Armenia and because he sees and believes in the efforts of others doing the same. He declared, “We need to come together. We may have differences. We may disagree. I think that is helpful too to disagree but one thing that we have to agree upon is that we have to come out of this victorious – and we have to believe it. And we have to act on it. Just loving Armenia from far away is not enough. Sitting in Armenia, saying that I love Armenia but not doing the right thing, being corrupt, being incompetent, is also not enough. We need to sober up and get to work…everything is at stake.”

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