Armenia-Diaspora Relations

Diasporas which can be defined as social groups “who have a mutual origin and are more or less permanently settled outside the borders of their ethnic or religious homelands” (Shain and Barth, 2003: 452) create an identity with unique characteristics. An idealized homeland, a common memory about the history of this homeland, alienation that diaspora members feel for the country they live in and the tendency of maintaining the relationship between themselves and the homeland lie in the core of this identity (Harris, 2009: 147). The identity of the Armenian diaspora also includes these qualities to a large extent. However, as Armenian diaspora members generally live in more prosperous conditions than their kinsmen in Armenia, we can talk about an unequal relationship between a powerful and wealthy diaspora and a homeland in need of its support and under its influence, rather than a relationship between an idealized homeland and an alienated diaspora.

The Armenian diaspora has a wide distribution in terms of geography. They live in a very wide geography from the Russian Federation to the Middle East and from Europe to Latin America. Beyond this geographical division, the Armenian diaspora is not also homogenous in terms of politics and is generally divided around three political views rooted in the nineteenth century and political parties where these views were organized. These can be briefly summarized as the Hunchakian mentality with social democratic tendencies, the Dashnaksutyun mentality with conservative nationalist tendencies, and the Ramgavar mentality with liberal democratic tendencies (Melkonian, 2011: 80). These three different tendencies were in serious competition inside the diaspora and struggled to attract as many diaspora elements as possible to their sides (Tölölyan, 2000: 109).

The most important obstacle before this political division and competition to turn into a serious fragmentation is that these three views unite in a common historical memory, which is the Armenian “genocide.” As it is stated in the report titled “Armenia-Diaspora Relations: 20 Years after the Independence” by the Policy Forum Armenia (PFA), “the efforts made for Armenian genocide to be recognized in international platform gave a meaningful and solid unifying idea to the diaspora and helped a large part of the Armenian world outside of Soviet Armenia unify” (PFA Report, 2010, p. 4). Furthermore, the “genocide” made the Armenian diaspora develop an idea of “us” and a common identity centred on “a selected trauma” (Alkan, 2009, p. 199), and therefore, construct a shield against the threat of assimilation that they face in the countries where they live.

Following the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the independence of their homeland which they idealized during the Cold War and could not go back to as it was under Soviet rule turned to be a big issue for the Armenian diaspora. No matter how the independence of the homeland always occupied an important place in the essence of diaspora discourse, the Armenian diaspora was caught unprepared for this “state shock” (Tölölyan, 2006: 11). Leaving the prosperous life they are living and returning to a homeland struggling with political and economic problems after the independence was a serious hesitation for diaspora Armenians. According to Audrey Selian (2013), the number of diaspora Armenians who voluntarily came from the West to Armenia and became Armenian citizens from the independence till today is less than one thousand. Diaspora Armenians tried to transform the homeland in a way to make it attractive for them instead of going to the homeland, and thus, they started to intervene in the internal and foreign politics of Armenia.

Another development experienced before this state shock intensified the interest of the Armenian diaspora for the homeland. The Spitak earthquake, which caused a large amount of financial and human loss, “revived the Armenian identity in the heart of the diaspora and created a co-operation around help for earthquake victims” (Verluise, 1995, p. 38), and gave a new starting point to diaspora-homeland relations. However, the support collected for the reconstruction of Armenia with the initiations of the diaspora became also a starting point for the refreshment of the economic influence of the diaspora on the homeland.

In addition to the Spitak earthquake and the independence of Armenia, another factor influencing diaspora-homeland relations and causing division of opinion is the Karabagh problem. In 1988 when the Karabagh problem intensified, diaspora organizations came together and published a declaration stating that the Karabagh problem would not do anything other than consuming the economic sources of the poor homeland and wasting human resources, and criticized Armenia for following an adventurist foreign policy (PFA Report, 2010, p. 13). This declaration created a significant disappointment in Armenia on the eve of independence. However, it would be seen in later years that the Karabagh problem would become a part of the Armenian identity and be paid attention to by the diaspora as well.

The problems in homeland-diaspora relations continued to exist also after independence. The first of these problems is the complaints of Armenian authorities that the diaspora did not give enough financial support for Armenia. In other words, Armenians living in Armenia accuse the diaspora of talking too much about Armenia, but giving very little support to it. According to Minoian and Freinkman (2007, p. 1), there is a big gap between the political demands of the diaspora from Armenia and their humble contribution to the economic life of Armenia.

In addition to economic considerations, the second conflict point between Armenia and the diaspora is the extreme intervention of the Armenian diaspora in the politics of Armenia. The first president of Armenia, Levon Ter-Petrosyan, went to great lengths to diminish the political influence of the diaspora. No matter how Ter-Petrosyan provided places for leaders of the diaspora in the newly founded government to be able to attract financial support from the diaspora in the beginning, he actually thought that the diaspora did not make a meaningful contribution to the development of Armenia (PFA Report, 2010, p. 18). The politics of Ter-Petrosyan to bring a solution to the Karabagh problem and improve the relations with Turkey was fiercely criticized by the Dashnak Party, which was supported by the diaspora; and the fact that this party was closed down increased the tensions in the diaspora-homeland relations even more (Derderian, 2010, p. 4).

Unlike his predecessor, Robert Kocharyan, who became the president after the resignation of Ter-Petrosyan, tried to maintain the economic support of the diaspora on the one hand and avoided giving government positions to diaspora members on the other hand (PFA Report, 2010, p. 18). This attitude towards the diaspora also continued to exist in the period of Serzh Sarkisyan. However, two issues, one about internal politics and the other about foreign politics, caused homeland-diaspora relations to go bad. The internal issue is the diaspora’s continuing criticisms that the regime in Armenia was not democratic and about their anti-government activities (Derderian, 2010, p. 5), and the foreign issue was the severe reaction of the diaspora to the development of the relations between Armenia and Turkey and an inversion towards signing the 2009 protocols (PFA Report, 2010, p. 5).

In conclusion, the relations between Armenia and the Armenian diaspora have always been problematic; and the unequal relationship between a very strong diaspora and a very weak homeland lies at the foundation of the problem. Armenia sees the diaspora both as an economic power supporting it and as a political power threatening its own independence; while it needs the diaspora on the one hand, it is disturbed by the political influence of the diaspora on the other. This situation causes Armenia not to be able to act independently in foreign politics and to behave waveringly in some critical decisions of foreign politics with pressure from the diaspora; and the latest development in Turkey-Armenia relations are one of the most significant indicators of this situation.


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