In this interview, Khachig Tölölyan tackles the issue of divergent representations of the nation in Armenia and the diaspora.
Khachig Tölölyan founded Diaspora: a Journal of Transnational Studies in 1991. The first academic journal to focus on the issue of diaspora, it brings together theoretical and comparative perspectives on the subject. Tölölyan is also a leading scholar on Armenian diaspora communities. He currently is professor of English and Comparative Literature in the College of Letters at Wesleyan University in Connecticut.
Q: Khachig, one can see two strong trends in the Armenian nation in the past 20 or so years: on the one hand, the Armenian communities have grown ever more dispersed, but also more connected to each other. On the other hand, the Republic of Armenia has come to occupy some sort of place in this picture, especially since its independence. How would you characterize these two dynamics and where are they leading the Armenians? Towards dilution or more consistency, since in a way, these trends echo global transnational dynamics as well? And what could Armenians do to make the best of it?
A: As you say, there are dynamics of transnationalism and globalization that have led to accelerated migration, the formation of an increased number of transnational communities and the creation of some new diasporas, along with the increase in size and heterogeneity of older diasporas like the Armenian diaspora.
The variety of communities in the Armenian diaspora today is one of the many reasons why it is difficult to coordinate their actions, let alone unify them. Simply to enumerate them is complicated. For instance, there is the intrastate diasporic community of Istanbul, the majority of whose members deny that they are a diaspora; the highly territorialized diaspora of Georgia; the post-deportation diaspora formed in 1604 in Iran; the post-genocide (1923-on) and post-independence (1991-on) diasporas, and the Soviet diaspora of the returnees of 1946-1948, many of whom left the homeland again in the 1974-1989 period and reside primarily in the US. The list could be extended by naming the secondary diasporas created by the dispersion of the Iranian, Lebanese, Egyptian, Iraqi and now Syrian diasporas.
Each has unique features. There are some connections among them, but not enough to coordinate them effectively. Furthermore, they differ along many registers: in terms of social behavior, language, and culture; in demography and economic prosperity; internal institutionalization and ideology; and by the level of available leadership. Some people hope that this heterogeneity may some day become a positive resource, but currently it is the reason why Armenia-diaspora relations are hard to discuss: the diaspora is theoretically or conceptually real, but in daily practice it consists of deeply fragmented and diverse communities linked only by a few elites—of the churches, the political parties and the Armenian General Benevolent Union (AGBU).
The struggle for Nagorno-Karabakh and the existence of post-independence Armenia have of course had a very large impact on the Armenian diaspora, but there are no reliable, conclusive studies that show just how. We do not have any pre-independence studies that reliably document most features of various diaspora communities in a disciplined manner, and so even if we had the financial and staff resources to conduct new studies now, we would not be able to compare the new results to previous work. This means that all of us, whether scholars, researchers, intellectuals, leaders of churches and political parties, or just thoughtful Armenians are each free to speculate, to state what we see as significant post-independence changes and what the future may bring. I have attended several homeland-diaspora conferences and have met with scholars and leaders in Armenia and the diaspora. There is consensus about a few items and a difference of opinion and judgment about most issues.
What complicates the situation is constant change. Already, a great deal has altered since independence. For example, the Armenian American community, in particular the Armenian Assembly, was able to function effectively for a while as a lobbying advocate of the Republic of Armenia just after the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. But, for complicated reasons, that has changed. Or look at the Tashnagtsutyun: after being part of the opposition to President Ter Petrossian (1991-1998) it then functioned as an ally of the Robert Kocharian government (1998-2008), and it is now neither an effective ally nor an effective opponent of the Serzh Sargsyan government (since 2008). Meanwhile, it has not been able to capitalize on its political role in Armenia as a way of increasing its prestige in the diaspora, as it had hoped. Disappointment is prevalent in Armenia-diaspora relations. The diaspora has disappointed Armenia’s political leadership by not coming together as a united force that willingly subordinates itself to the oligarchic state. Furthermore, the diaspora has disappointed some activists in Armenian’s civil society because it has not been sufficiently committed to action or even to criticism, for example in the aftermath of the March 1 killings. At the same time, Armenia has disappointed the diaspora by developing an anti-democratic elite that does not inspire trust or direct investment but does contribute to emigration.
As a result of all this, organized links between the homeland and the diaspora are multiple and fragmented—we can mention the examples of the Armenia Fund, the promising successes of Birthright Armenia; and numerous individual or small-group collectives that have developed fairly successful links between donors and local aid recipients or have created cooperative ventures on a small scale, say between educators and researchers. Many significant links are almost unknown or ignored: for example, I see no studies of just how many Iranian Armenians have invested how much money in real estate in Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh, and what has been the impact of such investment on Armenia’s economy, the Iranian Armenian community, and the diaspora.
The most important emerging issue right now is how Yerevan will deal with Syrian Armenian refugees. Will it be able to function as a homeland for them? If the answer is positive, then that will have a large and positive impact on the increase and improvement of homeland-diaspora relations. If, however, Armenia cannot adequately receive and integrate these refugees, whether because it cannot provide jobs for them or because it finds the refugees politically unmanageable, then they will try to leave for the West, and homeland-diaspora relations will have to work under yet another burden of mutual skepticism.
The variety of communities in the Armenian diaspora today is one of the many reasons why it is difficult to coordinate their actions, let alone unify them.
Q: A classic fear of diasporas is assimilation. There is the reality of assimilation which is that over time a part of any community loses its original identity and there is the fantasy which is a pathological anxiety of disappearing. According to you, what are the prospects for the long-term existence and evolution of diaspora communities? What role, if any, can the homeland or substitute of a homeland play in this?
A: Assimilation will continue. In each generation, intermarriage, loss of language and other factors will lead to it. But it is not the only tendency at work. Two other developments are significant: one is how diasporic identity is understood, experienced, and performed by the young in their daily lives. The other is the emergence of transnational social spaces.
As to the first, increasingly well-educated young Armenians in most of the West and even in parts of the Middle East now refuse to adhere to a single identity. This is true at the level of personal identity, where they have learned to think of themselves as having sexual, racial, class and ethnic identities that cannot be summed up in a single, capital I identity. But it is also how they think of their social, cultural and political identities. We have moved decisively towards a society of affiliation, not filiation. In filiation, identity is socially inherited from the family and the choices are that one either adheres to familial and communal norms or moves away from them, towards assimilation. These options or choices are rejected by the young, whether they are of Armenian, Jewish or other diasporic origin. They want to choose the nature and extent of their affiliations: so they can, for example, declare that they will not learn the language of their ancestors or follow their religious rituals, but nevertheless will join groups that do social and cultural or even ecological work in the homeland. Above all, young diasporic Armenians, even more than their elders, want to choose the area of their committed efforts and need to feel that by becoming involved they can be active agents in the development of their homeland and people; they recoil from the trivialization of their initiatives that they too often encounter.
This means that the new, not-quite assimilated youth are not easily mobilized by older diasporic or homeland institutions: the young will join diasporic community efforts when it suits them, or avoid them. A new set of fluid identities dominates the 18-30 generation. If there is marriage, if there are children, then perhaps this generation will start making choices and commitments that can bring them towards the diasporic community. Within Armenian communities in the West, the older organizations and institutions simply do not have enough innovation and creativity to develop new ways of attracting affiliated, not filiated individuals, so that they can attach themselves to at least some diasporic practices. It is difficult to theorize this. Researchers have to study the nature and intensity of specific affiliations: to electoral politics, say, or congressional lobbying in the US; to reforestation or archeological projects in Armenia; artistic, creative activity, from traditional dance and music to new media creation online; to education and development efforts in the homeland, whether focused on a town, a village, or a neighborhood of Yerevan, etc. If there is a diversity of specific projects, the chances of attracting and holding on to affiliated diasporic Armenians and developing their attachments increases. Of course, such tasks become easier if the homeland government either knows how to cooperate with, or at least gets out of the way of, the innovative diasporic organizations.
As to the second, this has to do above all with the Armenians who have left Armenia since the 1970s—there are now almost three generations of them. They are best categorized as transnationals, not yet diasporic Armenians. In time, they will either assimilate or become a new category of the Armenian diaspora. By transnational migrants, American scholars mean something that differs from the French term circulation migratoire, though there is some overlap between the two. Transnationals are emigrants who live in what some scholars call a “third space” between the country of origin and the country of settlement. Because globalization has made communication and travel so easy, they do not sever their relationship to those who continue to live in the homeland. Because of the density of settlement in some areas (Los Angeles is the most famous example), they are also in easy contact with each other. The “third space” in which they live is geosocial or geocultural and very different from the space in which traditional immigrants lived. The new transnationals receive cultural products from the homeland—they watch satellite TV, have their own TV broadcasts, internet contact, cheap phone calls; whereas an immigrant of 1914 waited for a letter that (s)he might get once a month. These people live in a space where daily contact with the country of origin is possible. Many travel back annually. When they think of who to marry or where to invest money, they think in terms of this transnational, cross-border space across which the Armenian society that matters to them is distributed. The way in which they will assimilate or settle into diasporicity is as yet uncertain. In other cases, for example with Latin Americans in the US, we can start to see whether transnational communities will become assimilated or evolve into diasporic social and cultural formations by the third generation.
In the US, where the best-studied transnationals are Haitians and Dominicans, it is clear that they sustain their bonds with the homeland. But can we use them as models? Armenia is much further away from France or the US than Haiti is—perhaps the Algerians and Moroccans of France offer an example for comparison, but I doubt it. Haitians are black people; Dominicans are quite dark; Algerians are Muslims: this makes their relationships with the American or French white majorities quite different from the Armenian transnational migrants’ relationships with the majority in the US and France. In Russia, where Armenians and other people from the Caucasus are considered “dark,” and where the distance from Armenia is smaller, it may be that the transnational category is more relevant.
Increasingly well-educated young Armenians in most of the West and even in parts of the Middle East now refuse to adhere to a single identity. This is true at the level of personal identity, where they have learned to think of themselves as having sexual, racial, class and ethnic identities that cannot be summed up in a single, capital I identity. But it is also how they think of their social, cultural and political identities. We have moved decisively towards a society of affiliation, not filiation.
Q: Armenians in diaspora communities (whether in the empires that ruled their homeland, or very far) have had an essential role in the modernization of Armenian identity, in nationalism and in the founding of the Republic of Armenia. Could you elaborate on this history?
A: A number of scholars have studied the way in which diaspora Armenians functioned as conduits of enlightenment, modernization, nation-building, and development in the homeland. Richard Hovannisian’s co-edited Enlightenment and Diaspora, Marc Nichanian’s various analyses of the Mekhitarists and of the Constantinople and Tiflis elites, and recently Sebouh Aslanian’s innovative explorations of the links between the New Julfa trade diaspora and the Mekhitarists, all demonstrate this. But while these works improve our grasp of the past, I am not sure they provide good guidance for the present and near future about the diaspora’s role as a conduit.
There are several reasons for this. We must remember that when the Armenian homeland or heartland was in the grip of the Ottoman, Russian and Iranian empires, it really was backward and undeveloped. The Armenians of Armenia are not. They have skills—sometimes valued on the global market, as in IT—and, if those skills could be liberated from the domination of the current power elite, they would do well. In fact, there are also two other factors that make the model of the diaspora helping to modernize today’s Armenia less plausible.
These are, first, the digital links that make it possible for skilled Armenians in the Republic to explore what is available globally, entirely bypassing many traditional structures in the diaspora or the homeland. Second, there are numerous Western initiatives designed to bypass the old elite “gatekeepers” who used to control access to Western ideas and innovations. The American University of Armenia is one. The organizations funded by George Soros are another. So are certain universities in Europe (especially in Budapest, Prague and a few in Germany), where enterprising young Armenians are receiving an education that entirely bypasses diasporic Armenian organizations. Or, when they do not entirely bypass them, they may connect with and utilize certain diasporic institutions (e.g. Maison des Étudiants arméniens) or with non-“traditional” structures (e.g. Collectif VAN), without actually joining them fully. In addition, it is often the case that younger scholars from the diaspora and Armenia meet each other entirely outside channels controlled by the state-directed academy and universities. Similarly, many enterprising younger professionals meet and engage their counterparts the same way that people who are neither Armenian nor diasporic meet fellow professionals: lawyers, architects, doctors, real estate investors have started to initiate contacts and to create new transnational Armenian networks outside the orbit of the state and traditional diasporic organizations.
These factors are joined by another that is harder to describe: diaspora Armenian organizations are bearers of a nationalist ideology which differs from the ideologies of the young in Armenia. These differences have not been well-described by scholars, but my own interaction with educated young people in Armenia repeatedly demonstrates elements of the misconnection between us: many don’t want me to speak to them in Western Armenian, but in English; they don’t want me to be an Armenian intellectual from the diaspora, but rather to function as an American professor who can guide them to opportunities for scholarships in American universities. My diasporic Armenianness makes me care for them; but they do not care for my identity, which makes me inclined to help them: they just want me to function as a guide to global resources. Again, this is not peculiar only to Armenians. The same phenomena are noticeable in Ghanaians or Singapore Chinese who reach out to their diasporas—the migrants don’t want to be African Americans or Chinese Americans: they want to succeed in the West with diasporic assistance but without an interest in diasporic identity or communities. They have identity and communities already.
Q: The Republic of Armenia has had an uneasy relationship with its diaspora in the 1990s: under the first president, Levon Ter Petrossian, misunderstandings and indelicate moves from several parts on both sides strained the relationship. Rhetorically, things have undergone drastic changes since the end of the 1990s, but are the differences merely superficial, or truly substantial?
A: I would say that the specifically political relationship between Armenia and the diaspora has steadily declined. Between 1988 and 1991, each of the three diasporic political parties made a decision to develop some kind of branch or presence in Armenia. I do not know what happened to Hunchakian efforts—they have been reduced to near zero. The Ramgavar Party had some visibility in the early days, but then its alliance with the AGBU became problematic in the diaspora and above all the conflicts within the party in the diaspora also led to a near collapse in Armenia. The few energetic Ramgavars I know now are engaged in a continuing internal struggle. This leaves two diasporic presences in Armenia: the Tashnagtsutyun and the individuals who once supported the Armenian Secret Army for the Liberation of Armenia (ASALA). Both remain active on the scene, but neither is very effective, although since 2012 the new nakhakhorhrtaran or pre-Parliament, in which some former supporters of the ASALA are active, offers some innovative approaches to address the stasis of politics in Yerevan.
Certainly it can be said that the creation of the Republic of Armenia transformed the Tashnagtsutyun in the diaspora more than its presence in Armenia transformed the political scene there. There are few general truths about these phenomena that I can offer in the confined space of an interview. Again, change is key: if we compare the impact of the Tashnagtsutyun’s presence during the Ter Petrossian administration and today, the differences are so large that we would need at least an article to discuss them properly. The Tashnagtsutyun acted like many returning exiles, who think they can step back into a homeland they have idealized, not realizing that in fact it has been entirely transformed (between 1921 and 1988). Returning exiles often do not realize the extent to which they are perceived as idealized ghosts of the past, as outsiders who cannot become serious players in the local game without first transforming themselves. Today, they are players of some minor significance in that game, but no longer effective conduits for diasporic and Western ideas and behaviors.
The question of how the existence of the Republic has transformed the diaspora is even more difficult: are we speaking, for example, of the impact of Armenia’s embassies in DC or Ottawa or Paris or Beirut? I do not see ample evidence of their importance. On the other hand, if we pay attention to the demographic, linguistic and cultural transformation of, say, the Russian or Romanian or Spanish or Polish Armenian communities, let alone of the Los Angeles community or even the Istanbul community, by new emigrants from Armenia, then we conclude that the impact is significant, but once again we do not have general and therefore easily theorized impacts. Unfortunately, the only generality we can affirm about the interaction between the old diasporic Armenians and the new transnational migrants is that it has not had many positive results so far in terms of invigorating the diaspora. Evidence from elsewhere—for example of the migration of francophone Sephardic Jews to Montréal, whose Jewish community was Ashkenazic and Anglophone, shows that it takes about fifty years, or two generations, before a synthesis becomes significant. Israeli Jews emigrating to Toronto’s Ashkenazic community have started to integrate after one generation. There is always a delay.
Q: The official rhetoric makes the combination of Armenia—plus Nagorno-Karabakh—and diaspora(s) a mutually strengthening chain. What do you think of this? In concrete terms, what kind of issues should this chain actually address to have a positive impact on the long-term existence of both diasporas and the Republic of Armenia?
A: What is the evidence that this mutually strengthening chain exists? There is some: the contributions to the Armenia Fund and its role in the building of strategic roads have been significant; the early Assembly lobbying in the American Congress that temporarily placed limits on US cooperation with Azerbaijan was important; and what was also very important was the work of individual diasporic Armenians from Greece, Lebanon, France and the US who supplied funds to purchase weapons and to provide medical services and pharmaceutical products. But perhaps the single most important contribution in human terms came from the Soviet Armenian diaspora, when officers of the former Soviet Army joined the forces of Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh. I have discussed this in my 2007 article titled “The Armenian Diaspora and the Karabakh Conflict from 1988 to the Future.”
A major contribution the diaspora could have made has not happened because there is no guidance from Armenia and no imaginative leadership from the diaspora. It concerns Nagorno-Karabakh. Can the Armenian people retain, in the long run, any part of the territories now under Armenian control? Can there be an economically viable Armenia of somewhat expanded, defensible frontiers that can coexist in peace with Azerbaijan and has open borders with Turkey? The answers to these questions are deeply complicated, in part because what is at issue is the validity of secession: when can the territorial integrity of existing states with internationally recognized borders be invalidated by other principles? The West’s attitude is one of total hypocrisy: secession is permitted and assisted when it suits the West (Kosovo), sometimes also when the west is only partially interested (Eritrea, South Sudan), and it can’t be permitted when it’s opposed by the West (Nagorno-Karabakh, Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Transdniestria; the current developments in the Crimea may complicate these issues further). I do not for one moment believe that a self-determination and secession movement like Nagorno-Karabakh’s can succeed simply on the basis of international law—but that law and its history must be mastered by Armenian specialists, and the pragmatic military and diplomatic moves that need to accompany it must be put into practice.
Instead of identifying these, we have a smug governmental attitude in Armenia which assumes that time is on our side, even though development in the Nagorno-Karabakh-controlled territories has been trivial because the government is undecided about it (there are some reasons for hesitation), and of course, because it is inefficient. In the end, I sadly doubt that the diaspora and the homeland will do what is necessary in order to act together: what collective Armenian will there is, and it’s not much, is focused on the centenary of the Genocide. As Taline Papazian argues, the main responsibility for diasporic inaction in this area lies with the Armenian government, which is not clear about what it dares to want for Nagorno-Karabakh, partly because it not surprisingly worries about Russia’s desires, and partly, as I have argued, because large-scale settlement in Nagorno-Karabakh, like large-scale Israeli settlement in the West Bank, develops a momentum that would make the inevitable compromise with Azerbaijan more difficult to achieve. At any rate, once again, as in 1918-1921, the western and eastern Armenians are not able to coordinate well. After World War I, we sometimes showed up at international conferences with two delegations (Boghos Nubar Pasha and Avetis Aharonian, to simplify) and two agendas. Worse, during the war against the Ottoman Empire in February to October 1918, Armenian officers from the Tsarist Army and fighters under Antranig also could not agree on a single strategy. As far as coordination and a synchronization of homeland-diaspora agendas and priorities—deciding what is important—we have not progressed very far.
Q: The creation of a diaspora ministry in 2008, that abundantly resorts to conventional national rhetoric as an easy tool to tame diaspora communities and/or direct their actions in a suitable direction, reminds us of the good old Soviet days. The bottom-line remains that the leaders of Armenia do seem very reluctant to engage diaspora communities in a political or civil society type of role at home. On the other hand, a lot of people would argue that diaspora communities do not wish for such a role or are not really aware of the political challenges of the Republic of Armenia. The blame of indifference to the political situation is one you can hear in Armenia from civic activists. What is your opinion on all this?
A: There are a few things the Ministry of Diaspora can do, things that were already initiated when Vartan Oskanian was foreign minister: it can create and maintain an unmatched list, a register of who is who in the diaspora and what they can do for Armenia, regardless of affiliation in the diasporic community, or whether they are recognized currently as leaders; I am speaking of a registry of talent and commitment. With skill, it may be able one day to use that list to bring together in an Armenian Davos Armenian-American entrepreneurs and scientists, Turkish Armenian doctors, Argentinian Armenian millionaires, Iranian Armenian construction developers, French Armenian socialist activists, Emirate businessmen, Lebanese bankers and even, perhaps, diasporic scholars and intellectuals—all of these, whether they currently work with diasporic organizations or as independent activists, have money or energy and skills that can sometimes be put to work, but that requires knowledge and savoir-faire that many homeland government employees do not yet possess. After all, successful people rely on their own judgment, not on government employees—so only a combination of vision and practical wisdom can be persuasive.
I do think it is very important for the ministry—for all government functionaries—to understand that modern diasporas, like all other societies and social formations today, are increasingly network societies rather than center-periphery societies; they reject hierarchy but respond well to good leadership. Yerevan doesn’t yet fully understand that it is not the center, the getron, for marginal, peripheral diaspora communities; instead, it is the most important node of the global Armenian network in which different diasporic communities are also more or less important nodes. Yerevan is already the place where many diasporans meet each other and it can benefit greatly from becoming a more skillful host and co-ordinator of this traffic of people, minds and ideas, of pan-Armenian communication. If Yerevan learns to function through this model, the Ministry of Diaspora has a genuine role. Of course, this role is limited as long as other ministries and the government have different agendas or none, and mistake co-ordination for domination.
But, once again, this cannot be one-sided. We must ask what the diaspora is ready for, how it imagines cooperating with the Ministry of Diaspora and with the homeland as a whole. Some observers will say in private that distrust of the governments of the three presidents, combined with donor fatigue, means that there is no more collective energy in the diaspora, especially while it is focusing on the centenary of the genocide. Another point of view is that almost everyone who could be engaged by Armenia as it is now has already been engaged, has visited, donated money and energy, etc. In order for more diaspora Armenians to be more actively and intensely engaged, both the diaspora leadership but especially Armenia must do more. The classic text here is Bedros Pierre Terzian’s speech (delivered at a homeland-diaspora conference in Yerevan on 20 September 2006 and published in Haratch on 5 October 2006). He said, inter alia: “Despite all the efforts of the [French] Armenian Fund and other organizations, only 12-20% of French Armenians have contributed so far, whereas 70% of French Jews have contributed to Israel. If we want more, then you, the leaders of Armenia, must give us an Armenia of which we can be proud. This is your country [yergir], but it’s our homeland [hayrenik].”
In order for more diaspora Armenians to be more actively and intensely engaged, both the diaspora leadership but especially Armenia must do more
Q: Since this interview is taking place in a comparative issue with Israel, let’s compare. Israel and the Jewish diasporas have had their differences too, and on such crucial questions as peace and war, especially starting from the 1967 war. If differences have not been ironed out, at least Israel has been cautious in not antagonizing the communities abroad, always looking to be an attractive place for Jews all around the world. Immigration (aliya) has also been one of the strategic core choices of Israel to support its legitimacy and security. Armenia does not seem to be acting on such premises: although the rhetoric is there, the reality does not support this. There is the bad memory linked to the Soviet period nerkaght of course, which took decades to be digested. Still, when looking at emigration rates from Armenia, at the national security challenge posed by the demographic situation and at the number of Armenians abroad, one can wonder why Armenia does not make attraction (financial and business) and immigration a priority and a proactive policy? Do undemocratic governments fear the diaspora, who, for its majority, has been living in more open societies (Middle East excepted)? What else? If that’s not the problem, how to explain the mediocre policies
put into place since 2012 to help Syrian Armenians out and afterwards to retain them in Armenia?
A: This is a tempting and difficult question. Any response must begin with the assertion that Israel was the creation of diaspora Jews. Before 1880, there was a tiny population of mostly religious Jews in Palestine. The migration to this land between 1880 and 1948 was organized by Zionist groups and others, working from all the major communities of the Jewish diaspora. The diasporic financiers and intellectuals who (more than religious figures) led this effort included world class minds. By contrast, post-1988 Armenia is not the creation of the diaspora, even though individual people born in the diaspora (Levon Ter Petrossian) or born and prepared there (Jirair Libaridian, Vartan Oskanian, Jivan Tabibian, etc.) played important roles. Furthermore, before Israeli independence, the territory was governed first by the fading Ottoman Empire and then by a British Empire which, like much of western Europe, slowly committed suicide by fighting two world wars between 1914 and 1945; this means that the immigrant Jews had a certain freedom of operation: they were monitored by the police, but fundamentally they had a freedom of action that no pre-1988 Armenian groups could have in the USSR. Also, Israel had the sea.
All this means that the creation of the two homelands is not easily compared, even though there is also an important parallel: Armenia became independent after the genocide during World War I, and Israel after the genocide in World War II. So there are points of both comparison and difference.
My own view is that the single most powerful differentiating factor is that the Jewish diaspora has a kind of pride in its identity that Armenians lack. Jews are deeply anxious about their future in diasporic communities, worrying about assimilation, and in the homeland they also worry (nowadays with some exaggeration) about their dangerous neighbors. Armenians also have both worries. The difference is that Jews understand that their culture has been central to the West—monotheism and Christianity are Jewish inventions; economic and intellectual life in the West, since 1804 or so, have been hugely shaped by diasporic Jewish contributions. In the world of communication, Jews have been both major owners and performers, whether in films and TV or in news analysis in print media. There can be no doubt that the Jewish diaspora has been both the victimized other of the Christian West and one of the agents of the creation of the modern world. This creates a sense of precariousness and victimization, but also of pride. All are justified by the facts. The degree of pride and commitment that is present among diasporic Jews is also due to the great tradition of Rabbinical Jewry, of literacy, of their being a people of the book, Torah and Talmud both.
All this is not entirely but largely lacking among Armenians, who have been more peripheral to the West, which until practically yesterday was the dominant form of global civilization. It’s not a question of “Armenians are too materialistic,” nyutabashd, as some claim. Those in the Armenian diaspora who contribute their time, energy and money, are often exceptionally devoted and unselfish, but have no continuing tradition of “thinking big,” of having a global vision and the pride, commitment, and confidence that enables a group to act on that scale.
Last but not least, Israel and western Jews, despite many disagreements, are in continuous contact. The Jewish diaspora is institutionally saturated and the elites who staff these institutions are in continual contact with Israel’s elites who, I repeat, were almost entirely diasporic in origin until the 1980s. They knew how to talk to their diasporic colleagues. Famously, when Golda Meir came to America to raise money for the Haganah, the underground Jewish defense force that was soon to become the Israeli Army, she did not come as a stranger: she was born in the US and had emigrated to what was then still Palestine: she knew the language and she knew the hearts of the people from whom she raised exceptional amounts of money. Perhaps President Ter Petrossian, born in the diaspora, retained enough knowledge of the diaspora to be able to speak to it, under different circumstances, but given the conflict he and the Tashnagtsutyun engaged in from 1988 on, this became irrelevant.
Q: Linked to the previous question, another puzzle for me is why the Armenian government does not make better or proper use of the resources available in the diaspora? There is so much potential, in so many areas, from business to culture to politics. Shouldn’t they hire the services of talented people in a vast number of domains that would help the country develop? Of course, they have a lot of potential at home too and they do not use it properly either. But, using the diaspora may have a positive marketing impact for Armenia in the eyes of its partners on the international stage? If not for good reasons then, it should be done for smart reasons.
A: I think I have already answered a part of this question, but do want to distance myself from one phrase you use, “the resources available in diaspora.” Of course, potentially, there are still many untapped financial and human resources in diaspora. But potential is not actual or available. To make the potential actual takes leadership, both from the homeland and from diaspora leaders. Most diaspora leaders have an archaic vocabulary of azkabahbanoum [literally, “nation-preservation”], with some of whose aims I have considerable sympathy, but which can no longer succeed in the terms to which they continue to cling. The transnational Armenian peoplehood that actually exists already and will become even more transnational and global cannot be what they want it to be, and if they keep asking for money and behavior dedicated to the older ideal of the azk [“nation”], they will be—indeed already are—disappointed. We are a mosaic, fragmented, and each group in the mosaic must hear a different kind of appeal in order to deliver, to turn its potential resources into actual, engaged resources. The collective identities of Armenians are plural, not singular. In my experience with scholars and government officials in Armenia, this is not a concept they can accept, so far. Until they and diaspora leaders do so, efforts will lag. Of course these shortcomings are aggravated by the fact that most diasporic and homeland leaders try to tap the energies of others they already recognize as leaders, without developing the discourse and practices that can energize and recruit able individuals who are not already engaged by existing institutions—that means at least 75% of all Armenians. This is one situation where a well-developed and well-cultivated list of talent can be helpful. I can imagine developing a register and cultivating those on it.
I am thinking that now is an age for Armenians: small in number, dispersed, with a land-locked country poor in natural resources, the current age, with IT, shortened distances and brains based sustainable development should be a favorable one for Armenia. But on this front too, we could do a lot better. Again, what are the obstacles? Is it the potential political price to pay from governments in place that prevent them from being more efficient in this?
The chief but not only obstacle is the dominant power elite in Armenia. There is a sense in which some actions of the current hegemons of Armenia are incomprehensible to me, to many of us in the diaspora, as well as to some I have spoken to in the homeland. Let me briefly explain. Suppose you are a member of that dominant group, which numbers between 500 and 2,000 people, with about 20 plutocrats and political figures at the top of the pyramid. The wealth of most of these people comes from legalized monopolies, unfair taxation, and coercion. The evidence is that these practices are destroying the country—those who can leave, leave. Those who cannot leave often live in misery. The new middle class, upon which so many of us placed our hopes, cannot grow because of emigration and constraints placed on their prosperity.
The result is to use an American phrase, that the masters of the country are “killing the goose that lays the golden egg.” If instead of killing it, they just continued to control it, let it function a little better each year, Armenia’s society could become the goose that lays a golden egg each year, and the dominators could continue to exploit and appropriate. Of course this is immoral, but feasible for them. They do not seem to understand or care—it is difficult even for thoughtful citizens of Armenia to say why they are killing the goose, the source of their prosperity. Why? The most pessimistic assessment I have heard is that they know everything is going to collapse, and they are squeezing the last drop of blood, taking out their money to Moscow or Switzerland, or London or Cyprus. I do not know why an elite that is so smart at squeezing out every dram from the people can be so foolish about the future.
I have heard many others say that the only diaspora that Armenia’s dominant elites want is an obedient one. They want to work only with diaspora Armenian leaders who share their understanding of a singular, traditional, sentimentalized Armenian identity focused on the homeland, and who are willing to be subordinated to plans and programs initiated in Armenia and managed by them. Many of us have sometimes accepted such positions of cooperative subordination because we thought we were working on projects that, if fulfilled, would benefit the people of Armenia or all of the Armenian people worldwide. We were usually disappointed. I think this kind of cooperation is becoming more difficult in the political sphere, but is still possible in the financial and educational spheres as long as the programs are not conceived just by homeland officials. Can the future welfare of Armenia be imagined only by homeland officials? Their answer is almost always a “Yes, it must be so.” Can the future welfare of all Armenians be imagined only by homeland officials? No, but the welfare of all Armenians is not something with which most homeland elites are concerned (neither are many local diasporic elites).
If these observations are true, then I would repeat that we have reached the limits of the current forms of homeland-diaspora cooperation. To appropriate Pierre Terzian’s words, we need above all a changed homeland elite and, right alongside that, a new diaspora elite, to go further and do better. I wish I could add that we need a new mass organization, but I cannot realistically hope for its viability. The third alternative or third path is the multiplication of innovative initiatives by networks of small new groups mobilized by the resources of an Armenian people that understands its new transnational condition and reality and acts on that basis. The old narratives cannot encompass the realities of the new, transnational Armenian people. We need to invent a new metanational narrative, with a plot in which there are active roles to be grasped by all who want to participate.
This interview was first published in Études arméniennes contemporaines, No. 3, Summer 2014.