Global Economics

Rifts Emerging in Armenian Community


A vast diaspora has long supported Armenia, but some locals fret that overseas brethren aren't concerned enough about the country's present-day problems

Since gaining its independence in 1991 Armenia has enjoyed the support of a sizeable and influential diaspora worldwide. The brotherly backing of compatriots abroad has been important materially and psychologically as this small, landlocked country has faced war, earthquakes, trade embargoes, and political strife in the past two decades.

The diaspora's assistance has translated into hundreds of schools and roads being built, houses restored, and infrastructure revived.

But while diasporan Armenians and those in the homeland have long shared a common vision for the country's future, there have also long been cracks in the relationship. In recent years, those cracks have begun to widen.

Some indications are that the Armenians abroad and at home no longer see the same issues as priorities, including the recognition as genocide of the 1915 massacre of 1.5 million Armenians by Ottoman Turks. Many Armenians abroad are descendants of survivors of that massacre, and diaspora organizations have invested huge time and effort into achieving worldwide recognition of the genocide – to such an extent that their seeming indifference to the country's present-day problems has angered some Armenians at home.

DIASPORAN DISCONNECT

Perj Zeytuntsian, a renowned Armenian writer and himself a former diasporan, has said that the diaspora is too occupied with international recognition of the genocide and called on to diaspora groups to press Armenia's leaders to protect human rights, respect laws, and hold democratic elections.

"I believe that the diaspora must make demands concerning not only the lands that we lost but also the Armenia that, thank God, exists now," he said in a 2005 interview with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. "We must constantly hear friendly statements like, 'What the hell are you guys doing?' That's what is missing."

This disconnect persists, fueled further by recent events in the homeland, even as Armenia's problems have become more urgent. Although the country registered impressive economic growth before the worldwide recession, its prosperity has been hampered by a trade blockade by neighboring Turkey and Azerbaijan in place since the end of the Nagorno-Karabakh war in 1994. And parts of the country shaken by a devastating 1988 earthquake have yet to recover.

Thriving corruption and several rigged elections further exacerbate the political and economic situation in the country. In 2004, when the administration of then-President Robert Kocharian refused to organize a nationwide no-confidence referendum on the government's performance, a wave of protests followed. In April 2004 opposition supporters were met with water cannons, stun grenades, and electroshock weapons.

Four years later, following the presidential elections, the opposition claimed large-scale fraud and hundreds of thousands of protesters vehemently opposed the election results. On 1 March 2008 peaceful opposition rallies culminated in armed clashes: 10 people were killed, a state of emergency was declared, and almost a hundred opposition leaders became political prisoners. The ensuing political crisis remains unresolved.

The diaspora's reaction to those dramatic events was rather muted. In 2004 some disaporan organizations issued a few neutral statements urging the opposition and authorities to adhere to the rule of law.

Following the March 2008 events, several prominent Armenian-American organizations, including the Armenian Assembly of America and the Armenian National Committee of America, issued a joint statement condemning violence and calling on all parties to work peacefully within civic and legal structures. But they also stressed their readiness to cooperate with the newly elected president, Serge Sargsyan, disappointing those who were claiming electoral fraud and wrongdoing by the authorities.

Referring to this joint statement, former President Levon Ter-Petrosyan, leader of the opposition Armenian National Congress, declared at an opposition rally that major diasporan organizations shared partial responsibility for the failures of the administration because they "supported the position of the 'newly elected' authorities who shed the blood of...people who came to express their protest against the electoral fraud."

Ter-Petrosyan has called the need for reform of traditional diaspora institutions "the topic of the day."

TURKISH RECONCILIATION MOVES CAUSE PAIN

Analysts point to several reasons why the diaspora is reluctant to criticize the administration. One Armenian politician who wished to remain anonymous says some diaspora organizations, such as the Armenian National Committee of America, have links with the Armenian Revolutionary Federation, which was a part of the coalition government until recently and has made genocide recognition a priority.

Richard Giragosian, a prominent diasporan scholar and the director of the Armenian Center for National and International Studies, said in a recent interview with Hetq Online that some in the diaspora tend to see criticism of the Armenian government, no matter how authoritarian, as helping the enemy and weakening Armenia.

Hrach Bayadyan, a writer and lecturer on Armenian culture and identity, said that if Armenia were to get serious about moving closer to Europe and adhering to democratic values, the split between diasporan organizations that attach more value to recognition of genocide than to institutional reform could deepen.

And Vladimir Karapetyan, the Armenian National Congress' foreign relations director, said, "A lack of information, heavy reliance on official propaganda, and an unwillingness to dwell on painful issues may account for the diaspora's muted reaction." He added, "The people of Armenia had a right to expect a less equivocal reaction to the March events. But the diaspora remained silent, thus encouraging violence on behalf of the administration."

The reaction was far less quiet when Armenia and Turkey began making overtures to re-open diplomatic relations last year.

The government faced a wave of criticism from Armenians abroad with the advent of so-called football diplomacy, initiated by President Sargsyan following his controversial election. Sargsyan invited his Turkish counterpart to attend a World Cup qualification match in Yerevan. The outreach soon bore fruit in the shape of Armenian-Turkish protocols aimed at restoring diplomatic ties between the two countries.

The Armenian-Turkish agreement was widely hailed by the West as a historic moment for two countries with a long list of grievances against each other. But the critics insisted that it introduced inadmissible preconditions, including establishment of a historical commission to examine the genocide issue and recognition of current borders, which are contested by Armenia.

In protest at the agreement, the Armenian Revolutionary Federation party launched rallies and hunger strikes in Yerevan, and prominent diaspora organizations called on Armenian authorities to refrain from signing the protocols.

Haykakan Zhamanak, a daily newspaper in Yerevan, described the protocols as a Dayton-style imposed move, referring to the agreement that ended the Bosnian war, signed in 1995 under great pressure from the United States.

The Armenian National Congress described the signing of the protocols as another sign of the political bankruptcy and diplomatic incompetence of the country's leaders, and demanded Sargsyan's resignation.

Voices in the diaspora argued that Armenia had been subjected to pressure from the West and Russia. According to Ara Khachatourian, an ethnic Armenian commentator who lives in Los Angeles, Armenia had submitted to a "full-frontal diplomatic and propaganda attack." In a commentary in the Armenian-American daily newspaper Asbarez he wrote, "It is quite obvious to all observers...that Armenia has been forced to make concessions and take steps that satisfy the Turkish, the U.S. or Russian agendas."

Lobbyist, philanthropist, and publisher Harut Sassounian, also writing from California, complained on the Asbarez website that "The Armenian government made no attempt during the lengthy negotiations with Turkey to consult with diaspora Armenians, despite the fact that the protocols addressed vital pan-Armenian issues."

Hambik Sarafian, leader of the U.S. branch of the opposition Social Democrat Hunchakian Party, insisted that the protocols would "alienate Armenia from the diaspora, creating a great wall of distrust." And Khachatourian, declaring that Armenia needs a new approach, demanded that the Armenian administration "show its teeth or step aside."

A CALL FOR "FRANKNESS"

The diaspora's disenchantment is starting to make itself felt in material ways. In late November, the annual telethon for the California-based All Armenian Fund raised $15.9 million, half the amount raised in 2008. The fund's organizers played down the depressed takings while trumpeting that more people had participated than ever before.

Hranush Hakobyan, the Armenian diaspora minister, said, the telethon's success was evidence that "attempts to drive a wedge between Armenia and diaspora have failed. Armenia and the diaspora are united ever more."

But this optimism wasn't universal.

Analysts and commentators in Armenia said the results would be even more humble than the sum announced during the telethon, given that many would-be contributors don't make good on their pledges. They noted, too, that takings from the Los Angeles area, once the most lucrative region for pledges, were down.

As an unsigned article in Hetq Online, a publication of the Investigative Journalists of Armenia, pointed out, "During the 12-hour broadcast, it was often stressed that one's political views should not prevent anyone from contributing to the welfare of the people in Artsakh [Nagorno-Karabakh] and the border regions of Armenia." But the publication also acknowledged that the global economic crisis had likely depressed contributions.

Armenians all over the world followed the telethon, commented Suzan Simonyan of the Hraparak daily in Yerevan. But in the wake of the March 2008 violence and the Armenian-Turkish protocols, "they watched halfheartedly, assuming that the amount collected and promised would be small." Commenting on the fund's claim that this year's telethon was the most productive ever, the analyst called for "all-Armenian frankness."

In an interview, Simonyan said the telethon's organizers should have admitted that takings were down this year because of the political climate and disagreements between Armenia and the diaspora. "Such a statement could signal a reform both in the fund's policies and in Armenia-diaspora relations. And today we are in dire need of both."


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