Re-engagement and reciprocity define a new era in Diaspora-Armenia relations
By Laura L. Constantine
For Armenia’s new Office of the High Commissioner for Diaspora Affairs and its principal players Zareh Sinanyan and Sara Anjargolian, the stakes couldn’t be higher. With the restructuring of the previous ministry-level office, which now falls under the direct oversight of the Prime Minister himself, the new entity they were handpicked to lead could be construed as an equal opportunity uniter—a “one-window, one-stop destination for everything Diaspora related,” as High Commissioner Sinanyan describes it.
Whether the Diaspora is in Russia, North America, South America or the Middle East, Sinanyan and Chief of Staff Anjargolian, along with their team of nearly 50 staffers and specialists, are mapping out the necessary plans, strategies, programs and budgets for putting Armenia-Diaspora relations back on track with a focus and intensity to
make up for, what Sinanyan recounts as, a steady drifting apart after the early years of Armenia’s independence when there was diasporan representation in key government positions as well as in major reconstruction, renewal and humanitarian efforts.
Together, these two U.S. lawyers are arguing their case before sometimes skeptical audiences. Based on her own experience as a repat from the States, Anjargolian understands the inner-dynamics perhaps more than most. “For a very long time, we had a lopsided relationship in which diasporans was constantly pouring time, energy, effort, and resources into Armenia. Armenia wasn’t seen as a place that could benefit the Diaspora in any way. But now the Armenian state has matured to a point where it has a lot to offer the Diaspora. Our purpose is to strengthen Armenia and strengthen the Diaspora equally and without favoring one over the other.”
Sinanyan agrees: “Just as diasporans have perceptions about the folks in Armenia, folks in Armenia have perceptions about them. We’re really creating a new way of working that didn’t previously exist with the ministry. The contacts now are much more direct and not just with the elites. We want to work with student groups, cultural groups, non-profits, business circles, every member of every strata that you can find in the Diaspora.We intend to fully balance our time and attention between the various diasporans, whether they are in the East or the West.”
While Sinanyan continues his tour of key cities across the Diaspora, inviting communities to take a second look at Armenia from a new perspective, Anjargolian plots out the evidence to demonstrate that success will be all in the details of practical problem solving.
Objectivity and inclusivity are essential values that must be applied in every case that comes before the commission as it works to fulfill its promise to serve as the first point of contact for diasporans looking to connect with Armenia, on one end, and harness the resources and agencies of the state to deliver solutions that are as effective, productive and painless as possible.
“Once you’re inside the government, you really do see the bureaucracy,” notes Anjargolian. “We’ve noticed so many barriers to engagement with Armenia from the Diaspora. It’s almost as if those diaspora Armenians who have engaged with the country have been doing it kind of with the grit of their teeth…It really shouldn’t be that hard.”
Clearing Bureaucratic Dust
Cutting the red tape and overcoming barriers like this requires wearing multiple hats: liaison; concierge; ombudsman; or middle man, and Anjargolian seems to relish each opportunity to break down walls and build up confidence among diasporans that Armenia is serious about creating the right conditions for economic development, whether by changing laws and easing regulations or transforming the culture of civil service. “We’re working on that with our counterparts in the various agencies,” Anjargolian pointed out, referring to the entrenched bureaucracy with its old structures and workers, despite new leaders put in place. She is also quick to add that the government is “one hundred percent behind this,” citing a new working group being led in Parliament to enact the Law on Repatriation.
As for foreign investment in Armenia, Sinanyan asserted that solid success stories would build a new image of Armenia as a favorable business environment. To that end, the Office of Diaspora Affairs, along with the Ministry of the High Tech Industry, has already introduced the “Neruzh” start up grant program. Now in its second year, it’s designed to help enterprising diasporans grow their ventures in various fields of business. Winners from the first year included a green bike share program and an ethnic wedding planning company in Armenia, capitalizing on the trend among diasporans to plan destination weddings in the homeland, following traditional rituals and customs.
When asked how Diaspora Affairs fits into the overall landscape of established non-government organizations designed to foster ties between Diaspora and homeland through youth programs, mentorships and internships, Sinanyan and Anjargolian do not see it as a zero-sum game. “We’re blessed to have these organizations that are willing and able to help with goals that I think we share and therefore, to me, we’re really not conflicting with each other,” replies Sinanyan. “Yes, we have a governmental mandate that gives a certain level of gravitas. But at the end of the day, it’s all about achieving the goal, which is strengthening the homeland and the Diaspora by engaging as much human potential as possible from the Diaspora. If they succeed, so will the rest of the country.”
Anjargolian says that Armenia must remove barriers that prevent more diasporans from participating in governance, pointing out that, “you cannot serve in Parliament unless you are only a citizen of the Republic of Armenia. Zareh and I could never be in Parliament because both of us are dual citizens. Several laws on the books need to change in order to have diaspora Armenians take [government] positions.” To get around this over the short term, however, Diaspora Affairs allocated funds in its 2020 budget for an initiative in which, for the first time, Armenia will bring diaspora Armenians to work in government for one year, under the status of fellowships.
Repat and Repop
Perhaps the most pressing item on the Armenian government’s agenda, which falls on the shoulders of Diaspora Affairs, is the goal of increasing Armenia’s population to five million by the year 2050. Accomplishing this involves a global campaign that inspires Diasporans to reimagine their ancestral identity not only in the context of history, language, religion and traditions, but also by relating to Armenia as a good place to live, work, raise a family and contribute to nation-building as an equally valuable and welcome member of society.
Other organizations have been working for years on this issue, most notably Repat Armenia, which works closely with Diaspora Affairs. Vartan Marashlyan, its executive director and a transplant from Moscow, has deep insights on the motivations for moving to Armenia.
“In Armenia you can combine both professional development and quality time with your family. You can spend a lot of time on many other social related events and projects.” He alludes to what might be called the “happiness factor” which is to say that “people may find it more difficult living in Armenia, but somehow they feel happier.”
Marashlyan also talked about the appeal of being a groundbreaker. “In order to start something completely new [in other countries], it will take huge resources. In Armenia it’s different. You have sectors where you can be a pioneer, where you can start something absolutely new. There are things you can change even on a small scale; whatever you do, you see the effect not only on your wellbeing, but also on the wellbeing of the country as a whole.”
He notes the the impressive number of people who actually move and then serve as positive examples to others. “Once a repat has integrated into society and their relatives come to visit them and see for themselves that the person has found a job or started a business, it helps them make a decision about their own prospects for success in Armenia.”
Repat Armenia has a blog run by repats and an Armenian Repatriates Network community of 7,600 members to date.
All About Identity
“The goal of attracting both young and experienced talent to Armenia would be hastened with the re-branding of Armenia,” states Sinanyan. “Diasporans should think of Armenia as their native soil.”
Appealing to the Diaspora with a simple but compelling message, Sinanyan says: “Armenia is your home and the Armenian people are your family.”