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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-à-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 firstname.lastname@example.org.