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‘Just The Two Of Us’: Armenia and the Diaspora

As we close the chapter of another month of commemoration, activism, lobbying and remembrance on the Armenian Genocide, I am reminded of a vital element in our journey: the relationship of the Armenian Diaspora and the Republic of Armenia. At face value, one might consider it a natural connection—two mutually dependent branches of the greater Armenian nation. The former was essentially born out of the despair of the Genocide. The latter also dealt with the effects of Genocide, but went on to endure a very different, culturally transformative fate in the Soviet Union.
Over time, the seeds of our Western Armenians were scattered across the earth. Through faith and heritage, these seeds grew into communities with a legacy of four generations. It is a testament to the resiliency of our people to regenerate and flourish. For many decades, these communities operated with a strained relationship to the motherland. Armenia was under Soviet control and the two significant common denominators with the diaspora—faith and patriotism—were severely filtered. Cultural connections continued, but were controlled.
For Armenia, it had been a perilous journey. The miracle of a nation state in 1918 from the ashes of the genocide was the first such sovereign entity since the fall of the Cilician Kingdom in 1375. The short-lived Republic was divided between the resurgent Turks and the Soviet Union. Despite the loss of freedom, a territorial base for an Armenian homeland was secured. During the 70 years of Soviet occupation, the Diaspora matured with extensive infrastructure and a will to assume a leadership role in the pursuit of justice.
In 1991, events took place that continue to define the new relationship between the diaspora and Armenia. With independence, Armenia assumed its rightful place as the official representative of Armenians on the world stage. But if we looked at the issues of Genocide recognition and resource investment, how is the Diaspora impacted? I would describe the relationship since 1991 in three sequential phases.
We can call the first phase the “honeymoon” period. When Armenia became an independent state, it had an immediate and remarkable effect on the Diaspora. The tri-color flew in all buildings for first time. A new sense of identity and unity prevailed. Diasporans went to help the new nation in droves, physically and financially. In one sense, this was a continuation of the investment that had begun with the tragedy of the 1988 earthquake. Many Diasporans had become successful business people in countries across the world, and the time had come to apply that wealth, talent and determination to the homeland.
In the second phase of its relationship to Armenia, the Diaspora gets a reality check. But there were also new realities that had not been anticipated. Over the decades of separation, Armenian communities had actually developed sub-cultures that were an adaptation of where they lived. Some of these norms clashed with the void that had emerged in post-Soviet Armenia, as a result of economic collapse and mass emigration. The worst was the institutional corruption that emerged, enabling poverty, limiting economic growth, discouraging investment and crushing many dreams. This was a very difficult period, where the heart and the head of many in the Diaspora were in serious conflict. Investment and progress slowed, as the powerful were corrupt and the enlightened had little authority. (The Ministry of the Diaspora was a showpiece with little impact.) The relationship of Armenia and the Diaspora grew, but not at the governmental level. Many found ways to help with activities “under the radar” of corruption. The splendid NGO community in Armenia was born in this environment.
The main element missing in this relationship was a strong government that could be trusted to pass just laws, spend money responsibly and establish an environment where the best of both worlds could come together and flourish. In 2018, the Velvet Revolution emerged. It was not perfect by any standards, but it was the will of a beleaguered people and a startling example of democratization for the world. The most important deliverable of the Revolution was the restoration of hope, in both Armenia and the Diaspora. Today, there is a new sense of optimism. Diasporan investors are returning. Most importantly, the faces are younger. Armenia’s best asset is its dynamic, patriotic and educated younger generation. Thousands of our young people from the Diaspora go to Armenia today and develop friendships, learn Armenian and offer a cultural exchange. They are vested in a nation-building initiative. Over time, the walls we feared from Diasporan sub-cultures are lowering. We are dealing with the dialect issues of Eastern and Western Armenian. With education and knowledge, we have learned that what we have in common dominates our differences. This is what our youth embrace. This is our future.
We have learned a great deal in the last 28 years. Armenia is a sovereign state and despite our emotional connection, we must respect that sovereignty. We must respectfully acknowledge our fears. For Armenia, it is the concern of the country being influenced financially, culturally and politically by an absentee populace (the Diaspora) that does not live there. For the Diaspora, it the concern of being valued solely as a source of money that is appreciated, but not trusted. Others in the Diaspora feel that too much emphasis in Armenia will hurt the sustainability of the Diaspora. These fears are rarely acknowledged, but are the topics we discuss in our homes or other private venues.
We don’t have a history of progressive leadership. This is uncharted territory. It is a complex challenge, but a good place to start would be increasing the depth of our mutual respect. One way for the Diaspora and Armenia to build that trust is to encourage a sense of community with each other. For example, giving money to Armenia for important projects is a wonderful blessing, but if you don’t create relationships that go deeper than that, it can feel like living in a community where you pay taxes, but really don’t know anyone.
Last year, my wife and I went to Armenia with our family. We stopped at the Paruyr Sevak (Ararat Marz) village with the Armenia Tree Project to visit where we had donated some trees. We met the people of the village and have become involved in school improvement projects. Since then, we have become like family. There are many I know who are doing the same in Tavush, Artsakh, Lori and other places. Likewise, when Armenians from Armenia come here for academics, education, business or other purposes, it enriches our lives incredibly.
Once you connect through the schools or sports or community service, you feel vested in the outcome. It is essential for the Diaspora to understand that Armenia offers identity solutions for our new generations that are further exposed to an assimilated society. This is an incredible opportunity that did not exist a generation ago. Likewise, passing conflict of interest laws, women’s equality or encouraging residency will only improve our commitment. Ensuring the continuity of this development, our leaders must articulate a pan-Armenian vision, where Armenia has emerged as the motherland with open arms for its scattered nation. We all have a personal role in contributing to the maturation of this relationship.
Stepan PiligianColumnist


Armenian Weekly

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