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Armenia-Diaspora Conference 2002 Commentary

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California Courier Online
February 7, 2002

Second Diaspora-Armenia Conference Should Be Results-Oriented; Not a Show

Commentary
By Harut Sassounian
California Courier Publisher

The Foreign Ministry of Armenia just announced plans to convene the
2nd Armenia-Diaspora Conference in Yerevan, on May 27-28. This would
be a sequel to the first conference held in Yerevan in September 1999,
which was attended by more than one thousand Armenians from 50
countries.

Tragically, the Armenian nation suffered a grave setback just a month
after that conference when five gunmen burst into the Parliament and
assassinated the charismatic Prime Minister Vazken Sarkissian, the
highly respected Chairman of the Parliament Garen Demirjian, four
other parliamentarians and one cabinet minister.

With the elimination of two of the top three leaders of Armenia, the
country came close to plunging into total chaos. Even though the
murderers were arrested on the spot, their seemingly endless trial has
provided daily fodder for continuing mutual recriminations between the
supporters of President Robert Kocharian and his political
opponents. The Armenian courts grind slowly, and often imperfectly,
giving rise to accusations of undue interference and manipulation. The
resulting internal instability is one of the main reasons why the
envisioned 2nd Armenia-Diaspora conference had been postponed.

As the Foreign Ministry is soliciting comments and suggestions for the
upcoming conference, I would like to provide some preliminary
observations based on the initial information released by the Armenian
government last month.

TIMING

It would have been preferable to schedule this conference later in the
year in order to allow more time for the planning of the agenda and
the selection of delegates from Armenian communities worldwide. Since
the intent of the organizers is to hold a conference that can make
concrete decisions on specific issues, a hastily planned gathering may
not accomplish the desired objective.

Furthermore, the end of May is not the ideal time to invite more
people to Armenia when a large number of tourists from the Diaspora
usually visit the country to participate in the celebrations of May
28, the independence of the first republic in 1918. Major
international conferences should not be organized at a time of the
year when all of the flights to Armenia and the hotels in Yerevan are
already fully booked. April 24, May 28 and September 21 (Republic Day)
are the most crowded days in Armenia.

The country's hotels, restaurants and touristic sites would benefit
much more from a steady stream of year- round visitors rather than
getting over-run by crowds for a few weeks and remaining mostly empty
the rest of the year!

SELECTION OF DELEGATES

Given the decentralized and disorganized nature of the Diaspora, the
process of selecting the delegates to attend the 1999 conference was
the cause of many disputes. To make matters worse, each community was
asked to select one representative to address the conference
on. Needless to say, serious arguments ensued as to who should be the
spokesman for each community. Such disagreements should not happen
this time around, because the session for remarks by community
spokesmen is cancelled.

Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian announced that in addition to
representatives of various organizations, the government is planning
to invite key individuals and specialists who are not affiliated with
any established group. The Foreign Minister also stated that just
about any diasporan who wants to attend the conference would be
allowed to do so.  Regrettably, this wonderful gesture of
inclusiveness may not have much practical value as the flights to
Armenia and the hotels in Yerevan may not be able to accommodate all
those wishing to attend.

Since native Armenians don't have to worry about the availability of
flights and hotel accommodations, and because they were
underrepresented in the 1999 conference, it may be a good idea to
correct this imbalance by inviting the participation of a large number
of locals. In order to avoid accusations of exploiting the conference
for campaign purposes, prior to the upcoming presidential and
parliamentary elections in Armenia, the government should go out of
its way to invite as many representatives of the political opposition
as possible.

FORMAT

The 1999 conference consisted mostly of a plenary session with over
1,000 delegates listening to dozens of long speeches for two days. The
Foreign Minister announced that the new conference would consist of
smaller, simultaneous panel discussions covering specific topics. This
makes the conference more interesting and more goal-oriented. Each
panel is supposed to adopt one or two concrete projects and decide how
to implement them. The are 5 broad categories: business and economy;
science, culture and education; information and media; political
relations and advocacy; and organizational/structural development.

The success or failure of this conference depends on who sets the
agenda and who ends up selecting the projects to be implemented.
Whereas the 1999 conference was mostly a show -- maybe the first one
had to be that way -- the second conference has to be much more
pragmatic. It has to deal with realistic issues and focus on
achievable goals. This conference should not be just another social
gathering for Armenians from around the world. It should have
measurable results with fixed deadlines.

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