The 2020 defeat was not only that of Armenia, but also the failure of Diaspora politics. For the Armenian Diaspora it should be a starting point for a radical reappraisal of policies followed in the past thirty years. Only after that we can start a serious dialogue – not folklore! – about Armenia-Diaspora relations. But are we ready for that?
There is a sense of bitterness within Diaspora communities. It has short-term reasons, the emotional shock caused by the war, by the large Diaspora mobilization, and by the massive human and material losses. The official propaganda coming out of Yerevan made people believe, making disappointment even more bitter. But it also has long-term causes: the three-decade long Diaspora mobilization to help strengthen independent Armenia, and support Karabakh Armenian’s security and political rights, is now shattered.
If Diaspora Armenians want to understand the causes of this dual defeat – the military defeat of Armenia, and the failure of the Armenian Diaspora to become a “strategic partner” of Yerevan, then it is time to ask difficult questions: how did political choices taken by Diaspora institutions produce the 2020 defeat and failure.
Diaspora organizations never openly discussed their policies or evaluate the consequences. Key Diaspora institutions, such as the three traditional parties the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF), the Social-Democrat Hunchagyans, and the Ramgavar, the Armenian Church, and major foundations such as the Armenian General Benevolent Union (AGBU), and others, need to discuss past choices, identify failures, and then draw a new road-map. Since the emergence of independent Armenian republic in 1991 the sum of those efforts is what I call “Armenia First” policies.
If one summarizes the political choices made by the major Diaspora institutions it can be roughly summarized around three major lines:
First, the Diaspora failed to become the strategic depth of Armenia. When the ultimate moment of truth came, when the 2020 Karabakh War erupted, the Diaspora failed to weight over the balance. Attempts to lobby in key countries like the US, France and Russia, where important Armenian communities reside, did not hinder neither the restart of the Karabakh war, nor Armenian military defeat. Similarly, international organizations – such as the UN, OSCE, or the European Union – did not express much solidarity with Armenia politically, or adopt favourable positions regarding the conflict in Karabakh. The US, at the time in the last days of the Trump administration, did not do anything significant. European states as well as the EU were equally absent. Russia, the military ally of Armenia, intervened in the war only after 44 days when Armenian armed forces had lost much ground including the strategic town of Shushi. Most of all, “Recognize Artsakh” campaign, massively supported by Diaspora activists, did not reach any tangible results.
Second, Diaspora invested massive efforts in the development of Armenia and Artsakh. Millions of dollars were diverted from Diaspora organizations to replace the weak social services of Armenia, provide cultural subsidies, renovate schools, repair roads, etc. Diaspora organizations also supported funds to create housing for Armenian refugees from Baku, Ganja, or Shahumyan to be resettled in regions conquered from Azerbaijan between 1994 and 2020, mainly in Lachin and Kelbajar provinces. The total amounts transferred per year – or since the independence of Armenia – remains unknown. Armenia Fund vaguely mentions that “Over the past ten years (…) helped raise more than 100 million dollars for projects in Armenia and Karabakh” yet it is not clear how much of this sum came from the Diaspora. Those investments alleviate the difficulties of Armenia’s underprivileged, constructed hospitals or renovated schools, but it did not succeed in developing Armenia. Nor did it bring social justice to a post-Soviet society suffering from the impact of wild capitalism. The reasons why Diaspora efforts to develop Armenia failed needs serious evaluation.
Third, Armenian Diaspora organizations struggled for the international recognition of the Armenian Genocide. This was also the policy of Yerevan since Robert Kocharyan came to power (1998). The open Turkish participation in the 2020 war against Armenians poses the question: what was achieved by decades long struggle for Genocide recognition? How come Turkey with its genocidal past dared to use violence against Armenians again without any reaction from the international community? Here, again, there is a need to formulate the place and the sense in which justice for an unrecognized genocide in the future Diaspora political struggle. Is it worth continuing militancy for Genocide recognition, and for what aim? Is it enough to struggle for decades to receive “declarations”, or is it time to think about how to achieve concrete results? Is the struggle for the international recognition of the 1915 Genocide a moral, a legal, diplomatic, or political struggle? Is it the struggle of the Armenian Diaspora or that of the Armenian Republic? Finally, what are our demands from Ankara to settle the question of Genocide?
In sum, the three essential struggles in which Diaspora was engaged in the last three decades needs to be questioned today.
The type of support the Diaspora gave to Armenia not only fell short of Armenia’s needs, but was also counter-productive because it continuously weakened the Diaspora and impoverished its institutions. While Diaspora organizations were investing time, money and energy on “Armenia First” projects, they were abandoning their other obligations: developing Diaspora institutions themselves, and pass our rich Diasporic heritage to the next generation. Thirty years of “Armenia First” policies came at the expense of weakening and impoverishing Armenian schools, media institutions, sports clubs, political parties, cultural associations, book publishing, and so on. Each dollar sent from Diaspora to Armenia was a dollar not invested in the Diaspora institutions, and contributed to its weakening.
Moreover, during those years, the Diaspora was metamorphosing under the pressure of mass migrations from where Armenians historically lived, from the Middle East and the Caucasus to new countries including North America, Australia, Western Europe and Russia. New Armenian communities did not have the necessary institutional infrastructure to pass Armenian language, culture, political engagement to the next generation. The result is that the Armenian Diaspora institutions are weaker today than at the moment Armenia accessed independence. A weak Diaspora with obsolete institutions, political leadership, and institutions that are unable to reflect on policy and strategy, is inadequate to support Armenia and help solve its problems.
Those political choices were associated with slogans like: “Armenian identity cannot survive outside the Armenian homeland”. What ignorance of Armenian history and culture! Such a slogan negates the entire modern Armenian history, from the Mekhitarian congregations of Venice and Vienna, to the history of the birth and development of Armenian print press starting from Azdarar – published not in Armenia but in Madras in India! To the birth of Armenian political parties themselves. This mentality also abandoned the Armenian Diaspora, instead of re-imagining an Armenian Diaspora culture in the globalized and digitalized age – the relative advantage of Armenians in comparison with other communities.
One of the historic failures of the last 30 years is that Yerevan did not understand, organize or mobilize the potential of the Diaspora in state-building process. The four leaders of Armenia since independence have articulated different Diaspora policies, which all in the end boil down to the same idea: send us money and don’t ask embarrassing questions. In this, the majority of Diaspora structures did not confront Yerevan, did not propose an alternative policy. The reason is that those weakened Diaspora institutions today are unable to produce leaders and leadership, and simply followed Yerevan’s diktat.
What does the Diaspora institutions need to do to overcome the current situation described above, and provide real support to Armenia and Karabakh?
First, Diaspora institutions need to invest in their own organizational setting to reinforce and modernize them, if not create new much needed ones. This should be done first of all in investing in Diaspora leadership and the intellectual productivity by opening up those institutions to the young generation. Concretely, existing Diaspora institutions should reinvent themselves to attract young generations, recruit in their ranks bright young people who can formulate questions of their own generation and not of past times, invest in Diaspora political struggles, universities, think tanks, schools and mass media. In the information age, we need Diaspora institutions capable to think, reflect, discuss and plan. We need modern institutions to convince young generations that Diaspora Armenian culture belongs to our times, and is not a relic of the past. The Diaspora cannot help Armenia, if Diaspora institutions are in obsolete state.
Second, Diaspora-Armenian relations need to be redefined, based on partnership between Armenia and Diaspora. Diaspora should stop being Yerevan’s surrogate, sending subsidies to replace Armenia’s failed social services. It should stop pouring asphalt on Armenia’s highways. Instead, Diaspora should provide real aid to Armenia and Karabakh in the form of knowledge transfer and institutional support, modernizing its universities and school curriculum, bringing to Armenia new technologies, capital investments, and finding markets for its exports. The Diaspora must become the major partner in Armenia’s quest for reform, modernization, and development. Help transform and modernize Armenia’s institutional setting by creating collaborative, complex institutions that can answer to the complex challenges of our times, instead of one-man-institutions that we have today. It is time to stop sending kopeks to Armenia by becoming a real partner in a common developmental project.
Third, Diaspora should become simultaneously more political, but also know the limits of the scope of its political activities. To become partners, Diaspora institutions should not try to “replace” the state in Armenia, neither by attempting to take over some of its functions, nor attempting to take over the leadership role in Armenia. Diaspora organizations should engage in politics in the Diaspora, not in Armenia. Diaspora and Armenia need division of labour, by clarifying the political field of one and the other.
Before 1991, for several decades, the centre of Armenian political activism was in the Diaspora, not in Soviet Armenia. When the independent Armenian nation-state emerged, all attention was concentrated on it. After 2020 war, with Armenian influence over Karabakh much reduced, where Armenian security is now dependent on Moscow, there is a need for rethinking what are the global Armenian political challenges, and what part of those challenges the Armenian Diaspora should shoulder. This task cannot be met without a critical discussion of what went wrong in the past decades.
We need a new policy that aims not at winning insignificant battles, but to win the next war.
Vicken Cheterian is a Swiss-Lebanese historian, journalist and author.