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The Second Armenia-Diaspora Conference (May 27-28, 2002)

Armenian News Network / Groong
June 7, 2002

By Groong Research & Analysis Group

"Hayasdane polor hayeri hayrenike e" - Armenia is the fatherland of
all Armenians. This was the motto of the second Armenia-Diaspora
pan-national conference [khohrtazhoghov]. Organized by the Armenian
Foreign Ministry, the goal of the conference was to link up diasporan
Armenians with Armenia, with the explicit aim of generating investment
and economic assistance. The message, "invest in Armenia," or "assist
Armenia" was the main point of the conference, and the "subtext" of
all the events.

If the first Armenia-Diaspora conference (September 1999) was largely
in the realm of symbolic unity and reconciliation, the second was
meant to be more operative, discussing concrete projects and
mechanisms of co-operation. Sadly, however, this could not succeed due
to the size of the event. More than 3000 people attended the
conference. Probably over half of the attendees were from Armenia. It
seemed that in order to thwart the criticism of the first conference -
that it was not inclusive enough - the Foreign Ministry went to the
other extreme and opened the conference to whomever wished to
attend. Consequently, panels which were meant to be forums for focused
discussions regarding specific projects or ideas, became packed
hothouses where people brought their axes to grind, platforms for
airing opinions on subjects close to their heart but far removed from
Armenia's needs. Most of these discussions were monopolized by
Armenians from Armenia. This is not to say that some good ideas did
not emerge. For example, Marilou Papazian's focused presentation in
the first "Education, Culture, Science" panel on concrete IT
mechanisms through which schools in Armenia can be linked with
Armenian schools in the diaspora was drowned out by shouting matches
between various intellectuals on what seemed to be to many people the
trifling topic of classical vs. Soviet Armenian spelling...

The conference began and ended with plenary sessions in the Karen
Demirchian Sports Complex (Hamalir). The first was Monday morning, the
second Tuesday afternoon (May 28). These sessions, chaired by Foreign
Minister Vartan Oskanian, gave an opportunity for various officials to
present their views: From President Robert Kocharian's keynote speech,
to the speeches of the two Catholicoi, representatives of the Armenian
political parties and major organisations, etc. Eighteen people were
scheduled to speak in the opening plenary. Kocharian set the tone by
outlining some of his ideas and projects: the establishment of a
pan-Armenian media outlet (an "Armenian CNN" as he called it);
pan-Armenian sports tournaments, a youth centre, teacher training, and
the establishment of a development council with diasporan businessmen's
participation. He emphasized the importance of investment in Armenia,
and ended his speech by highlighting the security issue of Artsakh,
and international recognition of the Genocide. Catholicos Karekin II
followed him, insisting on the "unity of the nation and the Armenian
Church" and challenging Armenians to "compete only in their patriotism."
Aram I, Catholicos of the Great House of Cilicia, in a speech which
had little to do with religion, implored diasporans to fully
understand Armenia, and vice versa. He also urged the participants to
develop a "clear national-political approach." Arkady Ghukasian
emphasized both the need for Artsakh's security and the need to invest
in Gharabagh.

Among the other speakers, Nerses-Petros XIX, the Armenian Catholic
Patriarch, called for a repatriation drive similar to 1946-1948.
Rev. Vahan Tootikian wished Armenians would return to classical
orthography (spelling). The Hnchak leader, Tiran Aginian, ranted
against the present unipolar world and the ravages of capitalism. The
Dashnak representative, Hrant Margarian, wished to see a more virtuous
work ethic. Hagop Kassarjian, the Ramkavar leader, expressed his
dislike of the Armenian national anthem which he wanted changed.... At
this point, many began to leave the Hamalir to enjoy the fine weather
in Yerevan. Yet, there was more to come. The AGBU, the ARS, the
Assembly, and so forth, all had to have their say. Some wanted dual
citizenship, others revisited the issue of classical spelling, and
one, Toros Sagherian (of the Forum of Armenian Associations of Europe)
wished to see a security tax imposed on the diaspora to boost
Armenia's army...

One interesting innovation at the plenary sessions was the screening
of short films. The themes differed, but basically emphasized the need
to build Armenia together. The images included collages which linked
the late 19th century fedayee movement with the Gharabagh war, past
leaders with present ones, symbols of unity and industriousness, and,
of course, images of Mt. Ararat. The films ended with the logo of the
Armenia-diaspora conference: a large tree with the text
"Armenia-Diaspora" written below it.

The closing plenary session was not as long. Kocharian spoke, each of
the committee leaders summed up the discussions, and a declaration was
adopted. In addition to the usual references to Artsakh, the Genocide,
the need for economic development and national unity, the declaration
promised that the authorities in Armenia will try to overcome the
constitutional hurdle that prevents the granting of dual citizenship.

The substantive part of the conference was to be sandwiched between
these two opening and closing plenary sessions. The intention of the
organizers was that the bulk of the work of the conference would be
done in four thematic sessions, held at the Government Reception
House, Monday afternoon and Tuesday morning. The sessions were:

 - Political Relations: Armenia-Diaspora Organizational and Structural
 - Information and Media;
 - Economic and Social Development;
 - Education, Culture, Science.

Each of these sessions met four times. Almost all were moderated by
Yerevan officials. Each had 5-6 panelists, from Armenia and the
diaspora, speaking 7 or so minutes. After the presentation, there was
supposed to be general discussion regarding specific ideas or
projects. Each of the sessions were two hours long. Attendance varied
from 150 to 250 people per session, with many others watching the
proceedings on tv screens in the corridors.

Whereas the Information and Media, and Economic and Social Development
sessions went reasonably well, Political Relations and Education
sessions were generally useless shouting matches. The prepared
presentations raised some good points, as well as some cliché phrases
or ideas - for example the need to extend military conscription to
diaspora Armenian youth! On the whole, the mood and the discussion of
the "political" and "education" sessions were generally confrontational,
and the audience-led general discussion rather meaningless (to put it
mildly)... In the Education sessions the spelling issue reared its
head to torpedo more important and substantive discussions. In the
Political Relations session the forceful chairing tactics of the
moderator, Jivan Tabibian, merited more comment than the substance of
the presentations. In the latter, one important theme that did emerge
was the need to have some sort of co-ordinating mechanism that would
link, institutionally, Armenia and the diaspora. Some argued for a
state-based body, others believed that a civil society-based set up
would be more effective. But instead of discussing the details of such
proposals, people brought up issues such as the Treaty of Sevres, land
claims on Nakhichevan and Javakhk, insisting that such issues of
"national importance" be put on the agenda of the next Armenia-Diaspora
conference. As people spoke, a few presented their ideas and proposals
to the chairs of the sessions in writing so that the Foreign Ministry
would consider their suggestions.

In addition to the formal conference programme, there were a number of
related events either organized by, or co-ordinated by, the Foreign
Ministry. These optional events included:

 - A Business Trip aimed at familiarizing diasporans with business
   conditions in Armenia;
 - An NGO Trip which introduced participants to the NGO sector in Armenia.
 - A "Diaspora meets Diaspora" reception, hosted by diasporans now
   living in Armenia;
 - A Chambers of Commerce Meeting (by invitation only);
 - A "Made in Armenia" Expo which displayed goods produced in Armenia
   to the Conference participants, with the hope of attracting
   investment and establishing partnerships.

These "auxiliary" events were not fully integrated in the Conference
programme, but it was clear that they constituted an important part of
what the gathering was about.

The Conference came to an official end with a cocktail-style reception
and an outdoor concert at Sardarabad on May 28th. Thousands of
delegates were bussed to Saradarabad to hear Ara Kevorkian's concert
in the shadow of Mt. Ararat. The highlight of the evening was a
"stunt" act - four parachutists jumping out of a helicopter with a
huge tricolor flag. The concert itself infused traditional Armenian
folk songs and dances with new age music.

The second Armenia-Diaspora Conference succeeded in bringing people
together. If this was the sole aim of the government, the Conference
was then a success. It might have even encouraged a few diasporan
businessmen to increase their investment in Armenia.  However, if the
intent of the Conference was to lay the foundations of a lasting and
institutionalized framework for co-operation, it failed. The
Conference was too big, too unmanageable and too unfocussed to be of
any practical use in terms of in-depth discussions and concrete
outcomes. An energetic team of organizers and volunteers held it
together, but just barely. The "organized chaos" had its charm, but it
was not inductive for serious work.

If the Foreign Ministry of Armenia is to host other such conferences
in the future, then it should concentrate on organizing small working
events, centred around specific themes or topics, with specialized
working groups. Armenia-diaspora relations are too important to become
football matches between frustrated intellectuals, and too complex to
be hijacked by passionate individuals, no matter how well-meaning.
While this conference was too inclusive and therefore nearly
unmanageable, the previous one was criticized for being too exclusive
and therefore unrepresentative of the Armenian "silent majority." The
problem of representation will always dog any organizer of such a
conference: who represents the diaspora and the Armenian nation as a
whole. This issue can be debated forever, but it cannot be resolved.
It is time to set aside such considerations - even if it will lead to
criticisms - and concentrate fully on the question of "What is to be
done?" The Armenian government needs expert advice and specific
proposals in all the spheres that this conference was suppose to
address: political relations, education, economy, information and
media. Government policy should be informed by the work of experts
(and in the West, it always is) who work in small and professional
groups. Why should in the Armenian case the weight of history, of
"dinosaur" organisations that must always be "represented" and have
their say, prevent the government from doing the same. There is a time
for show, and a time for quiet and consistent action. After two
excellent "feel good" shows bringing Armenia and the diaspora
together, it is time to settle in and start working.

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