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The Strength of the Armenian People Lies in its Decentralization

  Standpoint of Diaspora

The Strength of the Armenian People Lies in its Decentralization

Razmik Panossian


Razmik Panossian

Canadian political scientist, is the Director of the Armenian Communities Department at the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation in Lisbon

Razmik Panossian explains that it is time to step out of what he calls the drunkenness of Statehood, which has ailed Armenians for the last 23 years. In his view, a balance must be found between the young Republic of Armenia and an Armenian Diaspora who can never be efficiently controlled because of the very history of the Armenian people.   

The rapport between the Armenian diaspora and the homeland has been a central issue for Armenians since the establishment of the first republic in 1918. Over the past 23 years, following the emergence of the third republic in 1991, the core question in this broader relationship has unsurprisingly been: how do the current state of Armenia and the established diaspora1 relate to one another? The prevailing dynamic is captured in Father Levon Zekiyan’s succinct expression: the “drunkenness of statehood”.2

This “drunkenness” was expected. After centuries without statehood, an independent republic was to be celebrated, cherished and supported, especially since its birth and initial few years were painful: economic collapse, the effects of a devastating earthquake and war with Azerbaijan. In the 1990s it made complete sense for diasporans to focus their attention on a fledging newly independent state. Two decades later there is enough money in Armenia – or rather in the hands of Armenian oligarchs – to transform it into a model country. And yet diasporans still feel compelled to support Armenia as the needy homeland.3 23 years later, the pendulum needs to swing back a little, to encourage the development of both a strong diaspora and a strong homeland.

My argument is twofold: that we must strike the right balance between Armenia and the diaspora, and that we must be wary of one “centre” trying to control the entire nation.

Elsewhere I have written extensively about Armenia-diaspora relations.4 In this short essay I would like to raise just a few points to provoke some debate. But let me emphasise, right at the outset that my aim is not to argue that the state of Armenia – that is, the current independent republic – is not important. Of course it is. After all, states do matter (positively or negatively), especially for security, diplomacy, economic development and cultural production.

Currently, both Armenia and the diaspora are in a precarious situation. Far from the ideals of 1991, what has emerged in the republic is an oligarchic state with well-known problems. On the other hand, the diasporan leadership in many communities is far from ideal, and the diaspora as a whole has to struggle daily – as always – to maintain its existence. In fact, we are even witnessing now the physical annihilation of some long established communities in the Middle East. The fact of the matter remains that the state and the diaspora need each other. But on whose terms is the relationship going to be cast? Herein lies the devil – as well as the source of much past and current resentment, on both sides.

At the root of the tension is the simple question with a very complicated answer: where is the centre of the nation? “Naturally Armenia”, responds Yerevan. It is, after all, the only surviving state (without forgetting Artsakh). Many in the diaspora accept this and turn to Armenia – without returning to Armenia. Others respond “why”? We are not from this Armenia, they point out, but historic western Armenia. For these people in the established diaspora, Yerevan is one important point but not the centre of their identity, politics or even interest.

It is important to turn to a bit of history at this juncture. In the absence of a state of their own for over six centuries, Armenians organised themselves in Armenia and in the diaspora through community organisations, mainly through the national church and, after the late nineteenth century, through political parties and affiliated organisations. While other European peoples were undergoing state sponsored nation-building projects, the Armenian renaissance (zartonk) was essentially a diaspora driven, decentralised and multilocal process. There were, in fact, several centres of Armenian intellectual life, political mobilisation and cultural production, not to mention economic activity. These are well documented in history: from Madras to Venice, from Bolis [Constantinople, or Istanbul] to Tiflis. None of these significant centres were in Armenia proper until the latter part of the nineteenth century. Modern Armenian identity construction was, then, very much a stateless process. And its politics reflected that. No Armenian capital city dominated it, no one hub claimed – or could claim – to be the centre of all Armenians. The fledging independent Armenia of 1918-1920 had the intention of becoming the centre of all Armenians, including lands (and survivors) from Ottoman and Russian Armenia. But it was not to be. Bolsheviks and Kemalists put an end to that dream.

New dynamics emerged in the twentieth century. The Hegelian notion – which Marxists wholly embraced – that the state was the epitome of human evolution was initially married with the discourse of class struggle, development and national liberation (1920s-40s), and eventually with nationalism (1960s-), in Soviet Armenia. The result was the ideologically driven thesis: Soviet Armenia was the homeland of all Armenians, and the best possible state. It is possible to clearly trace the emergence and evolution of this discourse projected from Yerevan. In the context of the Cold War (and following the Soviet authorities’ “defeat” in the 1956 Catholicosate elections in Antelias, Lebanon), the Central Committee of the Armenian Communist Party decided in 1957 to develop new policies and instruments to augment Soviet Armenia’s influence over the diaspora. The most concrete manifestation of this new policy was the creation of the Spiurkahayutyan Hed Meshagutayin Gabi Gomidé (Committee for Cultural Ties with Diaspora Armenians),5 followed by the publication of magazines, textbooks, and other initiatives, all aimed at the diaspora. One telling document from 1974 in the archives, entitled “Minister’s Report Addressed to Armenian Communist Party Central Committee and USSR Foreign Affairs Ministry Regarding the Implementation of Efforts to Neutralise the Anti-Soviet Propaganda of the Dashnaks in Armenian Colonies of the Diaspora,” provides a detailed list of the types of activities Soviet authorities should engage in vis-à-vis the diaspora. It lists some 28 points; these are a few (note the uncanny resemblance to some more recent policies):

- Send school textbooks, cultural workers and agents abroad;

- Ask Soviet Central authorities to allow Armenian teachers from the republic to teach in diasporan schools;

- Invite diasporan children to come to Armenia for summer camp;

- Bring youth groups to Armenia on a subsidised basis via the Ministry of Culture;

- Strengthen the sense of political responsibility in Armenian students from abroad studying in Armenia;

- Organise symposia;

- Emphasise Soviet successes in Armenpress and the Ministry of Culture;

- Send Armenian films abroad and organise film festivals;

- Carry out propaganda through Intourist;

- Invite progressive Armenian organisations and help them solve their internal disputes;

- Ask the Catholicos in Echmiadzin to increase his activities relating to the diaspora.6

As is clear, the tactic was one of rapprochement and a more sophisticated “soft” approach to assert the Soviet state’s influence in and on the diaspora. Crucially, the message in all these efforts, as well as in the discourse of prominent writers like Kevork Emin and Sylva Gabudikian (to name but two), was to make the point that Yerevan was the most important centre of culture for all Armenians, while the diaspora was doomed to eventually disappear. The strategy worked. The supremacy of the state as the source of culture and identity was unreservedly asserted. Moreover, it was combined with the centralising tendencies of Communist regimes. By the end of the 1980s, when the Soviet regime began to collapse in Armenia, the prevailing attitude in Armenia and in the diaspora was that Soviet Armenia stood at the centre of the Armenian world.

There was, of course, fertile ground in the diaspora for such a policy to succeed. An important part of the diaspora did support – or at least accepted the legitimacy – of Soviet Armenia. In the late 1940s nearly 100,000 diasporans “repatriated” to Armenia, the largest of several repatriation waves. Far from being a passive entity, the diaspora under the leadership of community political parties and organisations mobilised, organised and advocated for national issues. Itself divided along ideological lines, some in the diaspora supported the Soviet homeland as early as the 1920s, while others rejected Communist rule. It is interesting to trace the evolution of the most influential diasporan organisation, the anti-Soviet Dashnak party, from total rejection of the Republic in the 1920s and 1930s, to acceptance as “a” homeland in the 1970s and 1980s. As the global ”Iron Curtain” was replicated within significant Armenian diasporan communities, activists on both sides contributed to its construction and maintenance. Nevertheless, despite the intra-community Iron Curtain, the vision of Soviet Armenia and its allies in diaspora eventually became the hegemonic one.

Post-Soviet governments in Armenia, occasionally supported by diasporan advisers, have consistently adhered to this logic. Of course, there has been significant change in Yerevan’s attitude toward the diaspora, particularly between the Ter-Petrossian and Kocharian governments. As the successive administrations have reached out to the diaspora, the Soviet-inspired thrust for centralisation and control has remained, sometimes explicitly, at other times implicitly. The current resentment among certain diasporan intellectuals and leaders toward Armenia is a reaction to its officials’ attempts to control – or at the very least direct – the diaspora, be it through institutional or ideological mechanisms.

Not to absolve the diaspora for its share of controlling tendencies, it should also be noted that in the early 1990s there was a prevailing attitude among certain diasporan leaders, notably among the Dashnak party, that they, as “natural” leaders of the nation, ought to govern independent Armenia – or at least have a major say in its politics – without having any serious presence or following in Armenia. Diasporan (generally successful) mobilisation against Armenia’s rapprochement policies vis-à-vis Turkey (e.g. the 2009 protocols) is another example of diasporan assertion of its priorities. When it comes to relations with Turkey, Armenians in the diaspora feel that they have a rightful say in the matter, and should be able to influence, if not set, policy.

Controlling the Armenian diaspora from one centre – be it Yerevan or elsewhere – is impossible. The diaspora is too diverse, too decentralised and too independent to be controlled, at least successfully. It can certainly be weakened, but it cannot be effectively controlled. Nor should it be. Its very strength, and the strength of the Armenian people, lies in the fact that the nation has always been decentralised. Armenian culture survived the Genocide because of its decentralisation, because of its multiple cultural centres and diasporan communities. Neither the Young Turks nor Stalin’s regime of terror could completely destroy an entire people because there were Armenians elsewhere. Centralisation and control are the two sides of the same coin (and embodied in many states). Both are, in my view, detrimental to the survival of the Armenian people. These are the three reasons why I believe they are dangerous strategies.

First, as mentioned above, they are historically foreign to the experiences of the Armenian nation. “Unity”, with its undertones of centralisation, has been a rhetorical rallying cry for centuries, becoming of poets and community politicians, but not of serious policy makers. Even if we go back seven centuries or more, to the last existing Armenian kingdoms, we see that they were extremely decentralised states with powerful local princes who kept the king in check. Centralisation is simply not part of Armenian political tradition. Communist centralisation was achieved through much blood and pain, and at the end did not succeed in Armenia.

Second, at the present juncture, let us honestly ask: centralisation to where, and control by whom? Armenia itself is facing a slew of serious problems. Yes, it is the only surviving Armenian state, but it is a country with weak institutions, a political system in which real power is exercised through informal means, an oligarchic economic system, and foreign and military policies which are wholly dependent on one regional superpower. Despite the many successes Armenia has had over the past two decades, it nevertheless remains a relatively weak state in a difficult neighbourhood, with a considerable emigration problem. It simply is not good policy to make it the beginning and end point for all things Armenian. Having a strong and independent diaspora is the equivalent of a national “insurance policy”.

The third point follows from the above and projects it into the future. It is highly irresponsible to dismantle diasporan institutions in favour of Armenia. Fifty years down the road there will be an Armenian diaspora. We do not know its shape or characteristics, and we might not recognise it ourselves, but there will be Armenians around the world who will call themselves diasporans and will mobilise on certain issues. I cannot say the same, with equal confidence, about the existence of an independent republic of Armenia. I certainly hope there will be an independent, strong, vibrant, prosperous and democratic Armenia (and this should be the goal of all Armenians) but the economic, geopolitical, demographic and – most worrisome of all – military trends paint another, more depressing, picture. Of course, Armenians will remain on the current territory, but will it be an independent state? A self-governing region in another country or empire? A besieged enclave surrounded by enemies? Part of an expanded European Union? Let us hope for the best, but prepare for the worst. If Armenians find themselves stateless once again, or in a crisis situation in which the state cannot be of help, who is to support them if not an organised diaspora led by strong institutions.

In short, it is time to sober up from the “drunkenness of statehood” Armenians have been experiencing in the past 23 years. Between the “drunks” who cry out, “forget the diaspora, come to Armenia!”, and the “prohibitionists” who respond “Armenia is not our home!”, there surely is a middle road that respects both sides of the nation and does not try to make one subservient to the other. It rejects the very notion that there has to be one national centre for the Armenians which then sets the terms of the relationship for others. After all, a prosperous and secure Armenian nation is contingent upon both the state and the diaspora (with its many diverse communities), independent of one another but reinforcing each other. Weakening one in favour of the other is not only a bad strategy, it is downright dangerous. The tension that exists between Armenia and the diaspora is not something to be bemoaned or eliminated. With good policies and respectful engagement, it can be turned into a creative and productive tension. Yes, states are important, but let us not sacrifice the diaspora – the entity that has sustained Armenian culture, learning and identity for centuries – at the altar of a 23-year old brave but problematic state.

I realise my words are blunt and what I am writing about is a sensitive topic, often discussed privately but rarely debated publicly. It requires much research and analysis. This brief essay is but a small step in encouraging further study and discussion.


This essay was published by the online journal Etudes Arméniennes Contemporaine (Contemporary Armenian Studies) of the Nubar Library at UGAB-France, under the title The “Drunkenness” of Statehood.

1. There is not one Armenian diaspora but several. The two broad categories are: 1) the established post-Genocide diaspora, principally in the West and the Middle East; 2) the Soviet and post-Soviet Armenia’s diaspora, principally in Russia and Eastern Europe, but also emergent in some western European countries. In this essay when I speak of the diaspora, I refer to the first category.

2. Used in a private conversation in January 2014, as we were discussing the current state of affairs in Armenia-diaspora relations. I quote the phrase with the permission of Father Zekiyan.

3. It should be noted, however, that the proportion of diasporan aid to Armenia has decreased over the past several years in relation to Armenia’s GDP and government budget.

4. Some of the more relevant articles are: Razmik Panossian, “Between ambivalence and intrusion: politics and identity in Armenia-Diaspora relations”, Diaspora: a journal of transnational studies, 7:2, fall 1998; “Courting a diaspora: Armenia-Diaspora relations since 1998” in Eva Ostergaard-Nielsen (ed.), International migration and sending countries, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003; “The diaspora and the Karabagh movement” in Levon Chorbajian (ed.), The making of Nagorno-Karabagh, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2001; cf. relevant sections in my book, The Armenians: from kings and priests to merchants and commissars, London: Hurst Publishers and New York: Columbia University Press, 2006, where I analyse the multilocal and diasporan nature of the evolution of Armenian national identity and its politics.

5. There were precedents to this Committee. The much more ideologically driven Hayasdani Oknutyan Gomidé (HOK), active from 1921 to 1937, and the post-War Cultural Liaison Committee (AOKS).

6. Report kept at State Central Archives of History and Contemporary History (Yerevan), Fond 326, Folder 1, Item 562.




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