Aleksandr V. Gevorkyan

By Aleksandr V. Gevorkyan

NEW YORK — For some growing up in a closely-knit Armenian community, which can be anywhere in the world outside of the present-day Republic of Armenia, pretty much defines their connection with the Armenian diaspora. But for a great many others, there is something else in this concept of a diaspora. For this latter group, the connection often goes beyond immediate family circles, community groups, or participation in various events. For this group it also important to do their utmost to contribute to the betterment and development of the ancestral homeland, the country of Armenia.

Such is the long-established view across Armenian world and, perhaps surprisingly to some, beyond. The Armenian community is said to be able to overcome the triangular cross-influence of identity, trust, and engagement infrastructure, which I discuss elsewhere in my academic work and recent general interest publication. Indeed, the perception of the Armenian diasporic community among non-Armenian observers is that of unity and dedication to the homeland.

Have you noticed here a subtle change of wording? The last sentence in the first paragraph uses the phrase “ancestral homeland” and the last sentence in the second paragraph just uses the operative “homeland.” The difference is minor, editorial even, yet crucial for any serious scholar or policy maker working in the diaspora engagement field. You see, on its own “homeland” implied almost physical connection between a migrant and the geographic patch of land from which they draw their roots from. On the other hand, “ancestral” suggests several degrees of physical, emotional, mental, and moral separation between an individual living in the diaspora and that geographic and political entity that exists on the world map today. Yet, there remains in this case an unclear cultural and a patriotic link mixed with one’s self-identity.

Isn’t this a story of the Armenian nation’s history? Many of those living today in the Western diaspora have very limited personal connection to modern day Armenia. Often, the connection is in just a name, shared history and some culture, because the language is still different (the Western Armenian vs. the Eastern Armenian). Even more so, especially, for those in the Americas a trip to Armenia is often a once-in-a-lifetime experience, largely due to the cost but also due to the persisting challenges of a developing country that often surprise even the most dedicated remote donors to various types of financial and humanitarian aid to the country.

One could continue here with probably on an all too familiar path of raising one concern and obstacle to a productive relationship between diaspora and Armenia. Or, one could also argue, as I have partially admitted as well in a recent policy report to the International Organization for Migration-Armenia, that the global Armenian diaspora has been of a massive determining factor in the country’s development.

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True, but have we fully discovered and uncovered the diaspora’s potential? In fact, what do we really know about the Armenian diaspora’s engagement with Armenia the country? As a researcher, economist and someone with strong interest in the diaspora’s economics, I would argue that we do not yet know much and significant efforts are needed to revitalize diaspora research and data collection.

In that, the recent Gulbenkian Foundation’s Armenian Diaspora Survey stands as one of those incredible and much timely monumental studies. With its global coverage and explicit effort to capture the diversity of the Armenian diaspora’s voices, that survey is destined to become an essential source to current and future diaspora scholars.

But more is needed.

Specifically, I would argue there is a need for understanding the diaspora’s (to generalize for a moment) motivations towards connecting with Armenia. Back in 2015, following up on my other diaspora research efforts, I launched a first survey designed from such economic development point of view. The survey closed in 2018 with over 500 responses and an incredible wealth of information. Thanks to the online distribution, the survey represented a wide array of socio-economic profiles.

At the time, one of the critical outcomes was a realization of hidden potential, yet untapped by the established community groups (one would be surprised at this) but willing to connect. Missing was a clear-cut engagement infrastructure, which I ventured to propose to be a digital portal connecting individuals in the diaspora with those in Armenia. At the end of the day, it is through the diversity of diaspora initiatives that Armenia has seen some macroeconomic progress since the dark 1990s…

It is odd how history delivers its unforgiving blows. Today we are at the stage where again, one must be asking about what can a diaspora do to provide support to Armenia’s development. Yet, the question is even more complex now: what can Armenia do to sustain diaspora communities in the longer run (a topic also discussed in my IOM report mentioned above) and maintain a mutually healthy relationship. There is a high degree of cross-interdependence that transpires here and the lesson is global as it pertains to the recent rise in generic diaspora studies across the world.

To attempt to tackle these difficult questions one must have a somewhat accurate or at the very minimum directional information on the motivations and potential of the diaspora, as mentioned in the beginning of this essay. The indicators are necessarily subtle and the true mood would rarely be displayed in public, hidden deep within individual diaspora member’s operational mode.

It is for these reasons that I recently launched a new anonymous survey, the Armenian Diaspora Online Survey 2024, without any funding or support from any group. The survey comprises more targeted questions on the socio-economic (including) cultural connection between diaspora and Armenia. The intention here is very explicit to reach those respondents for whom Armenia is indeed an “ancestral homeland” and not only a tangible physical “homeland.” It is an attempt to hear from those voices that often do not have a public platform but are endowed with unyielding enthusiasm and hope and that massive untapped capacity of skills, knowledge, expertise, and professional network building that so many scholars and policymakers search for but rarely find.

So far, the responses to the new survey are as illuminating and educational as ever with strong support for the effort. It is my hope that future surveys by colleagues and scholars in the field will follow. And one day, we will be able to sketch a profile of an Armenian diaspora. For now, even if we think we know, we do not really know and the survey’s preliminary results confirm that, about what constitutes a true Armenian diaspora beyond the visible surface.

Until that day comes here’s a direct link to the Armenian Diaspora Online Survey 2024 and I would be thankful for anyone who is willing to take the survey and help spread the word and reach larger audiences.

Our engagement can only be as strong as the knowledge about who we are and our true motivations.

(Aleksandr V. Gevorkyan, Ph.D., holds the Henry George Chair in Economics and is an associate professor at the Peter J. Tobin College of Business at St. John’s University in New York City. He is a Senior Research Fellow at the Vincentian Center for Church and Society; a Research Fellow at the Center for Global Business Stewardship; an expert (economics) for the Permanent Observer Mission of the Holy See to the United Nations; and on the boards of the Henry George School of Social Science and the Armenian Economic Association.  Dr. Gevorkyan is the author of Transition Economies: Transformation, Development, and Society in Eastern Europe and the Former Soviet Union (Routledge, 2018). Contact him via e: | w: | @avgevorkyan)

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