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Review & Outlook - 07/01/2003

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THE ARMENIAN DIASPORA: IN SEARCH FOR A NEW OUTLOOK

Armenian News Network / Groong
July 1, 2003

By Asbed Kotchikian


Since the independence of Armenia, over twelve years ago, the Armenian
Diaspora was mobilized in an unprecedented way in support of the new
Republic. Although fragmented in their agendas, the various Armenian
organizations in the Diaspora (both in the Western and Eastern
hemispheres) realized that they are facing a challenge for which they
should have been preparing for over the seventy years when they
existed and operated as Diasporan organizations.

This article is an attempt to raise some questions about the role of
the Armenian Diaspora, be it vis--vis the new Armenian Republic or
about its role in a new and changing conditions of international and
global realities.


The Function of the Diaspora Before the Independence of Armenia

The question of the function of the Diaspora before independence would
be answered in different ways in the Diaspora depending on which
organization or faction the question is being asked to. However the
underlying and general parameters of defining the self and the
function of the Diaspora would be more or less the same no matter what
ideology the answerer has. The simple function of the Diaspora and its
institutions was to preserve the Armenianness of the dispersed people
of Armenian origin all over the world.  For that purpose the creation
of various institutions, such as political, social, cultural or sports
clubs and associations, compatriotic unions, benevolent societies
etc. had the aim of sustaining the cohesion of the Armenian dispersion
with the hope that one day they will be returning home.  However, a
political ideology was also needed to rally the Armenians all over the
world and that banner became the issue of Genocide recognition.

There have been a lot of studies on the various processes that the
Diaspora went through in the 1960s and 1970s, suffice it to say that
after World War II, the Armenian Diaspora was able to redefine its
role and position in the larger Armenian context by pursuing a
vigorous Genocide recognition campaign. It might be possible that the
two ideas of return to homeland and Genocide recognition are
interwoven and not independent, since the recognition of the Genocide
would eventually result in the return of Armenian to their homelands.

The concept of a homeland is another issue that divided the
Diaspora. For a majority of Diasporans, Armenia designated Western
Armenia or Eastern Anatolia since the majority of the Armenians traced
their roots to that area (excluding the Armenians from Iran or the
very small number of Armenians from Armenia). For some other Diaporan
Armenians, there was a feeling of fait accompli and some accepted the
reality of a Soviet Armenia, which they considered being THE Armenia;
and although it was behind the Iron Curtain, it was the best option
that they could have achieved.

For the duration of the Cold War, relations between Armenia and the
Diaspora were mostly within the spheres of tourism (mostly one-way to
Armenia), and some cultural and educational exchange. For the masses
and majority of Armenians in the Diaspora, Armenia remained a mythical
location, which everyone idealized and imagined in a way that fit the
larger picture of their Diasporan identity making process.


Independence and Confusion

With the start of the independence movement in Armenia and Karabagh
the Diaspora was faced with new realities and new challenges to
overcome.  However, the barriers, which might have existed between
Armenia and the Diaspora, were already removed with the 1988
earthquake when many organizations in the Diaspora started organizing
aid packages and assistance plans to the devastated regions in
Armenia. The direct and intensive contact between Armenia and the
Diaspora around that time was based on assistance and donation, a
mentality which may have created a whole new, - and somehow more
realistic, - image of Armenia. An image of homelessness, economic
devastation and reliance on aid from outside.

This image persists even today, to a lesser degree in Armenia than in
the Diaspora, where for many Diaspora Armenians the prevailing belief
is that if the Diaspora does not support Armenia then the country is
doomed and whatever system exists there is bound to collapse. This
mentality stems from the fact that many Diasporans still do not have a
clear understanding of the realities of the new state as well as the
unwillingness of many Diaspora organizations to relinquish their role
as intermediaries between the dispersed Armenian communities and the
new republic.

The definition of the Armenian Cause also had to expand and be
reassessed to encompass the larger demands of the day. For many
Diasporan institutions this meant the reassessment of their role from
one which is based on preservation of the Diaspora to the preservation
of the new state. The challenge was one that was not thought of or
addressed carefully. What mattered for most Armenians in the early
1990s was supporting the infant republic against dangers from
Azerbaijani aggression as well as isolation from Turkey. Again the
Western Armenian component played an important role in this case since
in the minds of Diaporans Turks and Turkey were the enemy and the fact
that Azerbaijanis were identified as Turks (in both Armenia and the
Diaspora) helped propagate the concept that history is repeating
itself and that Armenia and Armenians need to resist annihilation.

With the culmination of the military actions the Diaspora was now
faced with the challenge of redefining its role again. Now that the
imminent danger was gone, Diasporan attention was focused on the
strengthening of the Republic.  However the Diaspora did not operate
as a single entity and was faced with challenges. One of the more
popular and relatively better-institutionalized organizations of the
Diaspora was the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF), which during
the Cold War was well known for its anti-Soviet rhetoric. The ARF was
able to promote itself as the sole guide and carrier of the banner for
Armenian independence. This nationalist rhetoric was able to rally
many Armenians around the ARF considering that there was no
alternative at the time. However, with the independence of Armenia,
the nationalist aspirations of many Armenians were manifested in the
new Republic and, just like many other Diaspora Organizations, the ARF
started to lose many supporters. With the banning of the ARF from
Armenia in 1994, the ARF became an opposition force in the Diaspora
against the new republic. Although the organization claimed that they
were anti-administration rather than anti-country, in the minds of
many Diasporans the administration WAS the country and they couldn't
make the desired distinction; as a result of this, the ARF lost even
more supporters and sympathizers.

This example shows to what extent the Diaspora and its structures were
unable to sustain the shock of statehood and how to react to it. The
fact that many of these organizations were considered spokespersons
for Armenians and the Armenian Cause in the absence of an independent
and official Armenian government made it difficult for them to
relinquish their role as leaders in the Diaspora.


The Challenge for the Future

Today Armenia-Diaspora relations are at a very important junction. The
pressure of reinventing itself is a heavy weight on the shoulders of
the Diaspora - more so than it is on Armenia. One thing that the
Diaspora needs to understand is that Armenia is a country no different
than any of the countries of the former Soviet Union. It has an
underdeveloped and mismanaged infrastructure which needs to be updated
and modernized but that would be the challenge of the state and not
the nation. This does not mean that the Diaspora should not assist the
rebuilding and the strengthening process, on the contrary the
expertise that exists in the Diaspora should be utilized carefully for
the preservation of the bastion of Armenian statehood. However there
is a struggle far more important and far more crucial that the
Diaporan organizations should pay attention to and that is the
strengthening of the Diaspora itself.

Over the past decade all the energy and attention of the Diaspora was
focused on Armenia. In the minds of Diasporan Armenians, what mattered
the most was their contribution and interest in the politics and
economy of Armenia rather than creating a new agenda for themselves
and the Diaspora.  It could be argued that helping Armenia is an
agenda in and by itself and could provide a sense of accomplishment
for the Diaspora. The idea that Armenia and its citizens need to take
things into their own hands is something that the Diaspora needs to
keep in mind, and not get involved completely with the subsidization
process of the country's economy or politics (an example of subsidy in
politics would be the "transplant" of some Diaspora organizations into
the political arena of Armenia where they became political parties).
The Diaspora needs to restructure and reassess the functions of its
structures in a way to sustain its new role as an independent entity.
However in this new agenda, ties (especially cultural and educational
ones) should be maintained since it replenishes the Diasporan cultural
life. The Diaspora can only assist Armenia (financially or otherwise)
only as long as it has strong and functional foundations, and those
foundations can only remain strong if they are reinforced and
reinvested in.

The two Armenia-Diaspora conferences held over the past five years
might have created a basis for the interaction between the two
entities, however it should not be thought that it is possible to
create a single Diasporan entity to govern and manage the Diaspora.
The strength of the Diaspora is in its diversity and that diversity
creates enough momentum for the various organizations to be able to
work on several fronts simultaneously.

The creation of a single unified paradigm for the Diaspora is also
something that should be cautioned of. For this issue it is more
correct to speak of Diasporas rather than a Diaspora. Each of the
Armenian communities around the world have their unique character as
well as conditions in which they operate. It would be naive to come up
with a single, unified and centralized plan of action, which would be
implemented across all of these Diasporas.  The best plan of action
would be to agree on some very general guideline and then leave each
community to act within those parameters as they see fit and as it
applies to their own circumstances.

The Diaspora is a strong institution that needs to be restructured and
redefined to work in conjunction with the Armenian state. However to
be able to sustain its activities, a lot of attention should be given
to create dual tracks for the Diaspora. The first and most important
track would be to create new institutions, which could function in the
new world order, and addresses new social and global issues from the
perspective of a dispersed nation with multiple identities. The second
track on which the Diaspora needs to work on is to keep assisting and
strengthening the Armenian state with political activism and lobbying
on multiple forums all over the world at the same time keeping in mind
that Armenia has to go through the development process (politically,
economically and socially) more or less on its own. The balance
between these two tracks has to be maintained and kept since a strong
Armenia can only be preserved and supported by a strong Diaspora and
to achieve a strong status, the Diaspora needs to invest more in
itself rather than in Armenia.

The psychological barrier existing between Armenia and Diaspora still
persist. It is not as strong as it was five or ten ears ago but it is
still there. After all even if both groups consider themselves to be
Armenian, their Armenianness varies immensely from one another. They
have different processes of identity making and for each group being
Armenian has different meanings. The people of Armenia are already in
the process of redefining themselves as citizens of an independent
Armenia rather than citizens of the USSR, it is up to the Diaspora to
follow suit and create a new identity in tune with its current
realities.


--
Asbed Kotchikian is a PhD candidate in Political Science at Boston
University and an instructor at Wheaton College. He spent two years
(2000-02) in Armenia and Georgia conducting research and teaching at
the local universities. Comments to the author may be be sent to
asbed@bu.edu.

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