On Armenia-diaspora relations

~Here is the article I wrote for “Hetq” on the recent visit of the new diaspora minister, Mkhitar Hayrapetyan, to Boston.  ~

Bridging the Divide: Diaspora Minister Hayrapetyan Promises Restart, but Core Issues Remain


10:12, August 8, 2018

By Taline Voskeritchian

Breaking with the past practices of his predecessors, Armenia’s recently appointed minister of the diaspora, Mkhitar Hayrapetyan, said on August 4 in a town hall meeting in Watertown, Massachusetts, that he wanted to get to know the diaspora better; listen to its many voices, even those that criticize his government’s policies; offer information about participating in Armenia’s development; correct the mistakes of the past; and heal relations between the two wings of the Armenian nation. On July 31, Hayrapetyan had a similar meeting with the Los Angeles Armenian community.

It’s been said many times that the diaspora is not a unitary and unified entity, and Hayrapetyan based his comments on this view. He spoke of “thousands of communities” scattered throughout the world, and of his determination to work with everyone who wants to work with his government. In usage, this was a departure from past practices when the Armenian world seemed to be divided between the homeland and what was not the homeland, territory and extra-territory, երկիր and արտերկիր.  Actually, the word diaspora does not represent the full picture of the Armenian diasporic world today that Hayrapetyan ascribes to.  In the absence of a better alternative, I use the word here with reservation.

The idea of the diaspora implied in this writing is broad and ahistorical, but diasporas develop across generations and achieve a tenuous permanence over time.  In this respect, they are different from migrant or exilic communities. I have lumped all these forms of dispersion and resettlement together because of space constraints.

Hayrapetyan’s introductory comments and the answers he gave to selected questions sent in advance were based on two key ideas:  Several times during the meeting, he underlined the importance of this historic moment in Armenia-diaspora relations, arguing that conditions after the so-called velvet revolution are ripe for diaspora Armenians to help Armenia become a “cool” country, a country based on justice, transparency, and rule of law.  The non-violent popular uprising of April, with its ideals of solidarity and love, had created a unique opportunity, he said, to set aside the attitudes and practices of the past and embark on a new, more dynamic course.

The minister was forthright in discussing these past practices.

“We’re not asking for money,” he said. Armenia needs professional expertise from abroad mainly in health and agriculture; he pointed out that the regions, and not Yerevan, are the most in need of such interventions.  One of the goals of the Pashinyan administration is this kind of “professional repatriation” as he put it.

Later, he turned his attention to his own ministry, indirectly criticizing the way things were done in the past: the concentration of decision-making powers in the hands of the minister, and the identifying of the ministry’s policies with the person of the minister.  He answered a question about the ways that his ministry would measure the success of a particular program by saying that if the program withstood the transition from one minister to another, then it had the hallmarks of success. Ministers come and go, he seemed to be saying; policies and institutions stay and grow, if they are well thought-out and efficiently implemented.  This was a particularly revealing moment, a sharp contrast to the oft misguided declarations of his predecessor, Hranoush Hakobyan, who headed the ministry from its creation in 2008 until her resignation in April.

In his invitation to the Watertown audience to act on the urgency of the moment, Hayrapetyan repeated the necessity and attractiveness of investing in Armenia. This has been the mantra of all government officials who talk to diaspora audiences.

“You can make money in Armenia,” the minister told his audience.  He reported that his government was working on a series of measures to eradicate corruption and nepotism, to make the process of investing in Armenia clearer, less cumbersome, and more transparent, in short, to protect business interests.  “Investments don’t have a homeland,” he said. The assurance was noteworthy for the way it turned the idea of the homeland on its head to serve the interests of capital. But more than that, it was significant for what it left out: a government’s duty is also to safeguard the interests of the country’s workers, their environment and working conditions.  Investments may or may not have a homeland, but if an Armenian diaspora business person or entity from Los Angeles or Moscow is investing in the homeland, then the patriotic imperative is to demand that workers’ rights be protected stringently. Sadly, this idea of justice as a pervasive principle is often absent in the self-image of many diaspora communities.  In the US at least, traditional Armenian organizations and political parties have limited the practice of justice to the genocide and to genocide recognition and neglected social and labor justice, to the detriment of the diaspora’s full engagement in the public life of the countries where Armenians live, and by extension, sometimes of Armenia itself.

Hayrapetyan returned to this theme of the historic moment several times and urged the diaspora to step forward, aim for unity of purpose in building the new Armenia.  He appealed specifically to the youth and listed some initiatives that the government had undertaken. As past Armenian ministers go, Hayrapetyan is young, and his words carried the enthusiasm of his years and of the peaceful regime change he and his comrades successfully engineered.  But his audience in Watertown was a group of some 200 listeners who were largely middle-aged. (It may be argued that this condition is specific to the Boston-area community, but I watched the minister’s meeting in Glendale and noted no significant difference.) In the emerging diaspora communities of post-Soviet countries, the involvement of youth may be easier because ties to the homeland are stronger.

In the classical diaspora, Hayrapetyan’s ministry may have to work with, but also around, the established community organizations to reach these marginalized young people and harness their energies. If organizations of the diaspora, inspired by the April popular uprising, are serious about energizing their structures, they would have to re-imagine a mission that is expansive and outward looking. In the case of the US diaspora, this would involve a re-thinking of the genocide cottage industry that the political and cultural organizations of the diaspora (as well as some cultural figures and celebrities) have so energetically supported.  They have reproduced the hackneyed rhetoric of the past, dismissed any criticism as elitism or countering with the well-at-least-they’re-doing-something jargon, but most important, reduced the national tragedy to public relations. (I am borrowing the term genocide industry from Norman Finkelstein’s notion of the holocaust industry, with a qualifier.)

Hayrapetyan’s vision of a modern, “cool” state all Armenians can be proud of is of a country that would put right the mistakes of the past, the corruption of the former administration, but also the injustices that the Armenian nation had endured.  “We have a historic opportunity,” he said, “to prove that the genocide was a failure.” He may have been tailoring his remarks to an American-Armenian community where the genocide and its recognition cast a long shadow, but this was the minister’s only reference to the genocide (and to its many rhetorical offshoots), and a modest departure from the language of the past. True, Hayrapetyan’s optimistic assertion carried a hint of triumphalism, and he did not say much about the limits of his government’s capability to carry out this monumental mandate.  But his speech—delivered in English–was free of the moth-ridden pathos and weepy patriotism of victimhood. It offered rationality, honesty, and pragmatism as correctives. He promised details, which he said would be announced soon.

Hayrapetyan’s second key idea was the relationship between Armenia and the diaspora–or rather the many diasporas and communities-and-enclaves-within-diasporas that make up what we have come to call the diaspora, the classical, post-genocide diasporas of the Middle East and the more recent, emerging diasporas of the post-Soviet realm.  He said that Armenia did not have a “clear understanding of the diaspora.” The admission is commendable; the reasons are complex; the solutions are long-rage.

Part of the reason for this lack of understanding is how his predecessors, going all the way back to Soviet times, saw the diaspora.  To understand the diaspora would have meant to accept the diaspora’s fluid, de-centered character and its hyper-vulnerability to civil war, revolution, economic turbulence; to confront the idea that diasporas are always in a state of formation and dissolution; and to be aware of the limits of exerting control over diaspora communities.

Another reason lies in the diaspora itself, which does not really know itself very well, has not taken stock of its real resources—financial, professional, cultural, and political–and has not developed democratic, inclusive institutions that encourage debate, change, even dissent. The diaspora does not know its cultural heritage very well either despite all the talk about Armenians being champions of culture.  In the US, for instance, the diaspora has not seized ownership of its Western Armenian language (as a friend says, “You want your children not to speak, read, and write Armenian?  Send them to an Armenian school!”). In short, it has not taken itself seriously, has not achieved the kind of self-consciousness that would make it a real participant in the conversation with the homeland.

Hayrapetyan said that to understand the diaspora means to research the capacities of its constituent parts, measure their potential, define their characteristics, find their luminaries through systematic, scientific work, all of it necessary and urgent for investment and repatriation. To understand the diaspora takes time; it is a long-term project. It is complicated by the vast differences in history, development, language, social life and habits of being. A first step might be to integrate diaspora history and culture (especially the literature) in the curriculum of schools in Armenia, to find a place of consequence for the Western Armenian language (begin by refusing to call it a dialect), to foster in students at least an awareness if not a consciousness of the homeland’s other. Another step would be to develop programs of real exchange.  Why should there not be, for instance, a Birthright Diaspora? High school and college students from Armenia could work as volunteers and interns in diaspora organizations and communities. But for such a vision to materialize, the diaspora has to put its house in order and be ready to cast aside its old habits and ways of doing things.

The diaspora is not only tourists flitting into Yerevan, spending money in eateries, visiting monasteries.  Neither is it celebrities, well-intentioned as they may be, speaking as self-appointed spokespersons of a diaspora that has yet to develop mechanisms of democratic representation.  It is ironic that these spokespersons often seem uninterested in the problems of the diaspora, in organizing its potential, protesting its sclerotic organizational structures.

To understand the diaspora in the way that Hayrapetyan imagines would benefit Armenia immensely.  But it is also true that in the absence of reliable data, the idea of the diaspora’s potential and resources have assumed mythic proportions.  In the end, the diaspora’s potential is tied to individuals choosing to be involved or not in Armenia’s future. Some diaspora Armenians are indifferent to what happens in Armenia, to Armenia’s fate.  Or they are, at best, enthused temporarily by events of the day only to return to the demands of their life. In this day and age, to say, for instance, as some of these spokespersons have, that the reason large sectors of diaspora Armenians are not involved is that they do not have enough information is to propagate an untruth, and to relegate the problem again to the old stand-by, accessibility.

Hayrapetyan did not spend much time talking about limits and constraints though he did say that his government will be forthright in saying what it can and cannot do.  His emphasis was on the positives—a strong diaspora means a strong Armenia and vice versa. As the representative of a state, the minister has a clear idea of what makes for a strong state, but what about the diaspora?

Is a strong diaspora one that exerts pressure internationally?  That has high levels of education, professional success, institutional flexibility and resilience?  That has a noticeable and continuous cultural and scientific presence in the host country? That is able to provide substantial support to the homeland?  That can take care of its most vulnerable populations? Armenia will define the strength of the diaspora according to the country’s needs. Are those needs the same as those of the diaspora itself? And as Armenia develops “incentives for repatriation,” would that strengthen or weaken the diaspora?   Should there be a congruence between the state’s definition of a strong diaspora and the diaspora’s own definition if such a definition ever materializes?

The enthusiastic response Hayrapetyan received was partly, and understandably, due to the diaspora’s endemic unease with its non-state status, with its longing to be part of the state. But Armenia is also limited in how it can help the diaspora, the preparation of textbooks and the running of teacher training programs notwithstanding. These efforts, commendable for a small country like Armenia, may be touted as examples of how the state can be of benefit to the diaspora in the realm of national preservation (հայապահպանում).   But whose definition of national identity, the homeland’s or the diaspora’s? To act as though they are one and the same is to be blind to the facts.  As part of its program of national identity preservation, the Armenian government may offer, as the minister proposed, financial assistance to a school that is closing its doors, but that is –and should be– the responsibility of the community, which knows better than anyone else the causes and means of salvaging the situation.  Sometimes, schools have to be shut down.

For Hayrapetyan, the diaspora should “exist”, but opportunities must be created to connect diaspora Armenians with Armenia in concrete ways that are mutually beneficial.  No one can or should argue with that, but the operative idea here is the “existence” of the diaspora. Should it exist, or should it endure and grow and change and respond to changing circumstances and environments?  Existence is a bit like survival. After a decade of post-genocide identity-formation, it is time perhaps to move beyond the stranglehold of survival.

Both in the Los Angeles and Watertown town meetings, someone in the audience raised a question about the fate of Melkonian Institution in Cyprus.  In Watertown, the immediate response came from the floor: “Go ask the AGBU.” It’s a valid answer, but it does not make the question irrelevant or misguided.  On both occasions, the intent was, I think, to appeal to Armenia as a state that has an international presence and perhaps can, if it wants, exert pressure, negotiate, or formulate solutions to protect the interests of Armenian communities and institutions, particularly in the turbulent Middle East region.  In Los Angeles, Hayrapetyan refrained from offering a response to how Armenia can help in re-opening and revitalizing Melkonian. As I understand it, Melkonian is currently closed and under the custody of the Cypriot government.

In Watertown, where the same question was asked impromptu, from the margins at it were, after the event had officially ended, Hayrapetyan said that the closing of any Armenian school is a very serious matter, and that the closure of the Melkonian is part of a larger problem that needs to be addressed. Contrary to what the minister said, the Melkonian situation is not the same as that of the Armenian school in Amman, Jordan, which shut its doors recently. Together with Nishan Palandjian College in Beirut, Melkonian was a venerable diaspora institution, one of the major repositories of the diaspora’s collective cultural and intellectual memory. For this reason, its closure is a major setback to the diaspora’s efforts at national identity preservation. I think it is also for this reason that in both meetings, the subject of Melkonian came up. It was an appeal to the Armenian government to use its resources in securing a viable solution.

The Melkonian situation is also part of a larger consideration.  The same logic that propelled the questioners in Glendale and Watertown would be relevant to Jerusalem whose Armenian Quarter houses the rich heritage of Armenian treasures (surpassed only by Etchmiadzin).  The Armenian government may face a similar imperative should the community and the St. James Brotherhood become vulnerable in the ongoing Judaization of the city. In both cases, Armenia can play a role, as it can for Aleppo, a role above and beyond hosting Armenian refugees who fled the city at the height of the Syrian civil war.

(Taline Voskeritchian’s work has appeared in The Nation, London Review of Books, Armenian Review, Alik (Tehran), Journal of Palestine Studies, BookForum, Daily Star (Beirut) and other on-line and print publications. She teaches at Boston University.)

Top photo: Dejection of Noah from Mt. Ararat (Aivazosky, 1897)


About Taline Voskeritchian

Writing teacher at Boston University; translator (from Arabic and Armenian); prose writer; occasional editor; incurable wanderer.
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