The Diaspora must act as an agent for change in Armenia

The National Assembly of Armenia voted on Oct. 2 to remove former Foreign Affairs Minister and Prosperous Armenia MP Vartan Oskanian’s parliamentary immunity. Oskanian is being accused of money laundering in what is widely perceived to be a political move to impede his return to active politics.

A scene from the Armenians and Progressive Politics conference in NY. (Photo by Nanore Barsoumian)

Around the same time, activists from Armenia and the diaspora gathered in New York and then in San Francisco and Los Angeles for the Armenians and Progressive Politics (APP) Conference to discuss a range of issues from foreign policy, to civil society development and the rule of law in Armenia. While the presentations delivered at the conference are yet to be made public, there was a clear call from many of the speakers for the diaspora to be more active in the promotion of democracy in Armenia.

Ironically, the two events couldn’t have coincided better. Two decades on, the disconnect between independent Armenia’s realities and the diaspora’s understanding of these realities is striking.

In the past 21 years, entrenched Soviet legacies of corruption and a lack of respect for basic freedoms and fundamental rights have hindered the democratization of Armenia. A strategic alliance with Russia, a country that faces its own serious challenges when it comes to democracy, has not helped. Some have even argued that the lack of a peaceful resolution of the Nagorno-Karabagh conflict has allowed Armenia’s rulers to cling to power and derailed democratization.

While the challenges for democracy to take root in Armenia have been many, the agents for change have been few.

Some external powers have tried to fill this role, yet have been limited in their ability to drive true change. A case in point is the impact Armenia’s integration into various European structures has had on delivering internal change.

Armenia undertook formal obligations to adopt democratic reforms as part of its membership in the Council of Europe (since 2001), the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (since 1998), as well as cooperation with the European Union particularly under the European Neighborhood Policy starting in the mid 2000’s.

Successive Armenian governments embarked on a series of legislative reforms in the judicial, electoral, human rights, and fundamental freedoms spheres. Constitutional reforms were adopted, election laws were reformed and refined time and again, and legislation relating to freedom of assembly and media freedom, to name a few, were amended in cooperation with experts from these organizations.

In practice, however, legislative reforms have failed to translate into behavioral change. In what democratization experts call cost and benefit calculations by governments, the potential threat posed by putting these reforms into practice has surpassed any benefit that may come out of implementing behavioral change. In other words, when it comes to democratic reform triggered by external pressure, the ruling elites in Armenia have talked the talk but failed to walk the walk.

In recent years civil society and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have emerged as potential change agents in Armenia. NGOs were quick to mushroom in Armenia following the disintegration of the Soviet Union. It has been argued that the Armenian NGO sector has been influenced by the availability of funds from donors who have not only played a role in shaping the issues raised but also the solutions proposed, often resulting in a mismatch with the local context (see Ishkhanian, A. Democracy Building and Civil Society in Post-Soviet Armenia, New York: Routledge, 2008).

While civil society in Armenia faces significant challenges, a number of civic initiatives have been able to rally and maintain enough popular support to register small successes. We have seen examples in the fields of environmental activism (for example, the “Save Teghut” initiative), domestic violence, and the protection of public spaces (the campaign against the demolition of Mashdots Park).

Some of these initiatives have also resonated with the diaspora. Such was the case of the anti-domestic violence initiatives organized in the U.S. following the murder of 20-year old Zaruhi Petrosyan, beaten to death by her husband. By and large, however, the diaspora’s involvement in Armenia’s democratization has remained minimal.

There needs to be a deeper understanding in the diaspora of the serious threats that corruption, the absence of rule of law and accountability, and persistent violations of human rights constitute to the long-term viability of the Armenian state. More than 20 years after Armenia’s independence, it is high time for the diaspora to open its eyes to these realities and reassess its role in bringing change to Armenia.

What can we in the diaspora do? To begin with, we need to start talking about the serious internal issues that threaten Armenia today. We need to start talking about them not in a way that feeds into already well-established stereotypes, but in a way that creates meaningful public discourse and seeks solutions.

Do we have a vision for Armenia? What is it? How do we get there? These are the questions we need to be asking ourselves today as individuals and communities. The imperative for internal reforms in Armenia must become a topic of mainstream concern and discussion in the diaspora if we are to find ways to affect positive change in the country.

The structures and processes by which the diaspora can influence the course of democracy in Armenia is a topic that warrants serious discussion and one we are yet to start. However, in trying to bring change to Armenia, the diaspora can find an important ally in civil society. A generation of young and motivated Armenians who want better for their country exists in Armenia today. Let’s reach out to them, learn from them, empower them. They may become the country’s next leaders.

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the emergence of an independent Armenia, the priority for the diaspora was to provide immediate relief to an impoverished country devastated by an earthquake and a protracted war. Now it is time for the diaspora to re-consider its priorities in Armenia and act as a much needed agent for change in the country.


Houry Mayissian

Houry Mayissian is a communications professional with journalism and public relations experiences in Dubai, Beirut, and Sydney. She has studied European politics and society at the University of Oxford, specializing on the democratic reform process in Armenia as part of its European integration. She is currently based in Yerevan.


  1. Interesting but inconclusive and lacks specific recommendations of what the Diaspora should do and more impotrantly how.
    There has been a number of commentaries, opinions expressed in the AW and other publications that the Diaspora should be more involved. And yet, none came up with a specific recoomendations on how that involvement will take shape.
    Who is the Diaspora? Who leads it? What organizations if any, will take the lead?
    There are several organizations in the Diaspora who are actively helping and assisting various activities and causes in Armenia. They are all well meaning and serve worthys causes; but in reality it is a drop in the bucket. May be it makes us feel good, but has absolutely no effect on the political realities that exist in Armenia.
    For the Diaspora to have an effective influence on the political landscape in Armenia, the Diaspora needs unity,common vision, and focused strategy and most importantly leadership.

    In the Diaspora we are talking the talk also, but not walking the walk.
    The Diaspora is fragmented and has different conflicting agendas that help the few in Armenia. but not the many.
    Vart Adjemian

  2. I think that it is very difficult task, you have to go there and share the path for democracy,but look what happened to few diasporan Armenians that we know, who gone there to serve ,someone inArmenia,not without shame,tells them to return from where they came,this shows what kind of mentality the two segments of our nation have developed,the soviet side a mentality of living well and do not care for anything else, we in the diaspora,a mentality that the father land is sacred,so essentially too opposed ideas are coming to be challanged,and this needs much time,or a catalyst to accelerate it..
    Look for example,for the Syrian Armenian crises,nothing is done,but many of our intelectuals give solutions on paper,better on computers,when it is wise to keep silence in this situation.
    I wrote the above to invite every armenian to do something tangible and not words,we have entire libraries of words.
    Please,do not write that not all the armenians of Armenia or The diaspora are as I mentioned,I know that,and fortunately many are not,but the majority are as I think..
    Note. .. sorry for my english,50 years ago I used to write better.

  3. This article introduces an important topic, but it also leads to some difficult questions. One of the only beneficial outcomes of benign a dispersed nation has been the ability to live in freedom,build values with democratic ideals, and create an infrastructure of education and wealth. Growing up in the diaspora, most Armenians existed in a dual identity loyal to their adopted nation(and in subsequent generations indigenous) but always retaining ( or attempting) to retain their heritage. Many worked actively for the day when Armenian would once again be free. The ARF, in my view, was almost singularly responsible for keeping Armenian nationalism alive in the diaspora…. A critical,component in maintaining a viable diaspora. It is an incredible contribution to our society. One of the outcomes of this nationalism is a very romantic view of a free Armenia. Many of us grew up grew up fedayees stories defending our oppressed people or Armenians from the early diaspora forming the Armenian Legion and fighting for the Allied cause in the Middle East and Cilicia. We were sustained by the notion that one day Armenia would once again be a free nation.
    And then it happened in 1991. In many , joy has transformed itself to frustration and now cynicism. We must take heart though! This is what we dreamed of. What we didn’t dream of was the evolution of building a democratic society or the post-Soviet hangover… Ie corruption and market transitions. But at the end of the day, it is still that ideal imbedded in our psyche that we must identity with.
    The major challenge is that the diaspora has been very effective in humanitarian,educational, infrastructural and to some degree economic efforts, but it has not yet translated into an effective political influence in the nation. In my view that is attributed to two factors…. One we don’t live there and it is viewed warily as outside meddling and two ….. just what is the diaspora? Armenian Fund , AGBU,
    Diocese,Prelacy, ARF, ARS, Armenian Protestants, ……all with noble intentions and even cooperating frequently . In addition , we now have a more diverse diaspora. It was once essentially the Middle East, and the West. We now have the largest diaspora in Russia; which is frankly mostly an unknown to most Armenians In America. The solution starts with dialogue… Within the diaspora and within Armenia. Building alliances, minimizing the power variables and working for an Armenia we dreamed of. When Armenians operate in those conditions , amazing things happen. Look at wealth, knowledge and influence created in the diaspora in essentially 80 years. Now we have an obligation to figure out how to continue the process of assisting the societal development of Armenia. The key is to accomplish this in harmony with our people who live their with there dignity intact. We must be patient and motivated by service to an ideal…. Then great things will continue to happen.

    I have “suggested’ that best manner through which the Diaspora can make itself heard,more introduced,PRESENT IN HOMELAND IS>/
    from oiur 5 main community continents*at least,-not COMMUNITY COUNTRIES- That are North and Spouth Americas, EU, RF and the Middle East PERMANENT DELEGATES, if not at Govt. level,-within the Ministry of the Diaspora.
    Thus they can get to know -firstly-ea other better,also homeland and solve important issues on the spot.There is a lot more to be said be suffice it to this .And mind you I am suggesting,TAKE IT OR LEAVE IT.I never advise…..

  5. A great deal can be written about the topics of Vision and Change (for Armenia, even for our own Diasporan Armenian communities), and even more can be said about it in daily conversations and in public discussions, but I think that before we can really have any kind of vision or ideas for change in Armenia, we first need to learn about each other—the Diasporan Armenian about the Hayastan Armenian, and the Hayastan Armenian about the Diasporan Armenian. Perhaps this lack of knowing and understanding each other is why we keep spinning our wheels and, as a result, shaking our heads in frustration because of the lack of progress and direction we see in the country.

  6. Good article: will stimulate discussion.

    Question for Ms. Mayissian re: “{we need to start talking about the serious internal issues that threaten Armenia today”}

    What internal issues are threatening – emphasis on threatening – Armenia today ? Please list some, and also what Western funded NGOs and Western funded civil societies could do to counter those threats, if any.

    For example, I know of one specific internal concern – not a threat: weak demographic base. It is improving, but needs to improve much more.
    So, what can an NGO do to help there ?

    Thank you.

  7. The Diaspora cannot be the agent because hayastansis do not like spiurkahyes meddling into their affairs but will happily take $$ with an illusion of brotherhood and understanding. I’m going to live the rest of my life as an Armenian without wasting my time, effort and money on a country that is not an independent Armenia as it claims to be nor will I dwell on a delusional Western Armenia which will never emerge. Let them give back Artsakh and destroy the remnants of Armenia and transform into the Russian outpost they were destined to be.

    • Jack,

      With all your pessimism you’d better live the rest of your life as an Armenian outside of Armenia. You can blame Armenians in Armenia day and night from your comfortable chair . As you brought up the issue of giving away Artsakh, please do not forget that Artsakh was liberated by the very same Artsakhcis, Hayastancis and diasporan Armenians of not your kind (I highly doubt you took part in the NKR war or will take part in the future should the new war break out.

      Those the very same Artsakhcis and Hayastancis send their 18-year old sons to army to keep the borders and some of them get killed every year.

      Armenians in Armenia cannot possibly understand Armenians from America who are more American than Armenian, Armenians from Russia who are more Russian than Armenian, Armenians from Lebanon who are more Lebanese than Armenian when it comes to their mentality and lifestyle. I have seen how certain American-Armenians complain that they do not understand Armenians from Lebanon and Syria. I have seen how certain Armenians in Europe complained how Americanized American-Armenians were. I have seen how certain Armenians in Armenia complained about Diasporan Armenians and this can go on and on.

      Therefore this circle of complaints should stop. Armenians from around the world, when dealing with each other, should understand that they are different and most importantly should respect and celebrate those differences because it is those differences that make us a vivid and powerful nation.

      For example, when journalists visited the few Iraqi- and Syrian-Armenian families that immigrated to Armenia recently, the camera man purposefully kept his camera for a few seconds on the their TVs because they were watching Arabic channels. Now, this may not be received well by some Armenians in Armenia. The camera man and the journalist should have understood that there was nothing special for those Armenian families to watch an Arabic channel in Armenia. They simply should not have captured that or cut that part out lately. Instead, we should be happy that we have Armenians in Armenia who are fluent in Arabic and try to use their language skills for their future employment. This is the kind of thinking we should have.

    • well said Sella.

      we are far more alike, from wherever we are, than different.
      but for some strange reason some amongst us constantly keep searching for minute differences – and harp on them ad nauseam.

      Sella is right: that disease needs to be gradually eradicated from our body.

  8. The existence of a diaspora is of no use for Armenia, diaspora is a self serving structure for some Armenians barely trying to hang on to their past. The only way Armenians can be helpful to the republic of Armenia is by living and investing their money and time in Armenia, while demanding change from the inside.

  9. I suppose that the opinion of a person living in Armenia will be useful in the discussion about this important article.
    Yes, the Diaspora may and must help democratization in Armenia. The problem is: is it informed well enough to do so? I want to present one example. The author presents “the Oskanian case” as an example of lack of democracy in Armenia. I sympathize Mr Oskaian and I do hope that he will successfully leave behind this difficult period of his life. But what we have now? The prosecutor asked the parliament to allow him to include Mr Oskanian as a defendant of a case – this is what is named «lifting of immunity». Many people believe that this is a wrong case. What should be done? Shell we have a list of the deputies of the parliament which are above suspicion and those who are not? Who will prepare such a list?
    The author has not quoted the speech of Mr. Oskanian who, first, said that all accusations are baseless and politically motivated, the went on to say that these accusations are harmful for Armenia as they were addressed to a person who was its foreign minister during ten years. Let replace «Armenia» for Israel and the name “Vartan Oskanian» for «Moshe Katsav». Then the respective fragment of the speech would be: «This case is harmful for Israel as it is addressed to a person which was the country’s President during N years» (I think, the former President of Israel, who is jailed now, did pronounce such words somewhere).
    It is very easy to say that there is no court in Armenia. However, ( unfortunately), there is no other way to have a strong judicial power in Armenia, than have cases such as that of Oskanian. I can bring many other examples of problems, too.
    Yes, the Diaspora must act as an agent for change in Armenia. But, to do that, the Diaspora must be well informed, avoid being just a repetition of things that are seen in local media, which are often motivated.

    11 October, 2012

  10. Will “the Diaspora” (in quotation marks, because I don’t think there is a single diasporan entity) agree to have Armenia (as a state and government and as civil society) “act as an agent for change” in “the Diaspora”?

    • Will the “Republic of Armenia” (in quotations marks, since Armenia is not even a de-facto established state, as Armen Aivazyan wrote a while ago) agree not to receive the crucial financial assistance from the Diaspora?

      Would the people of the “Republic of Armenia” rather prefer to have foreign entities as its agent of dependency, and Russia as its agent of stagnation? Or would they prefer to have the patriotic Diasporans, who are knowledgeable in democratic state-building, as the agents of change and development?

  11. It made me feel good and satisfied, reading dear Sella trying to make some here understand that our having different (by circumstance)type or -now origin-Armenian s…for most of these Arab Ar,menians,Peersian Armenians and also Istanbulla Armenians ,plues the Euro Ams,are all assets for us.
    We hail from many countries with different mentalities and way of life.
    That should not be considered a liability.
    However, that is why I have been able to discern ,rather analyse how we can by and by find a way FOR COMMUNICATION AMONGST ALL ABOVE AND ALSO,INDEED WITH HOMELAND COMPATRIOTS.
    Otherwise just by criticizing ea other´s way of life-an example- whey the arab Armenians like the belly dance music even in U.S. or elsewhere and prefer that to armenian dancing or dance music, is a bit childish or teenageish.
    We must also understand that the WORLD ALSO IS CHANING .FACT IS EURO-AMERICANS ALSO LOVE THAT BELLY DANCE MUSIC AND DO NOT feel antagonistic about same….
    Nowadays,frontiers are by and by -if not collapsing-becoming more invisible,as to exchange of peoples,races, beliefs etc.,. etc., etc.
    BUT I MAINTAIN MY SUGGESTIONS-NEVER ADVISE AN ARMENIAN(MY MOTTO) TO HAVE 5 PERMANENT DELEGATERS IN DIASPOR MINISTRY.That is ,rather will be the starting point….for even the Argentinian armenian there would be able to make contact on daily basis with the Middle Eastern one and the others likewise.These would then FEEDBACK TO THEIR AREAS,knowledge that they gain , in writings emails t.v. broadcasts etc.,.LET US GET TO WORK,SPREAD THE WISH TO BE PRESENT IN YEREVAN THAT WISE, IN D I A S P O R A MINISTRY.

    • Dear Mr. Palandjian,

      I only wish that God will bless you with great health and strength for many years to come.

      I wish that more and more diaspora Armenians have understood that Armenia is the motherland of all Armenians and every Armenian can go and live there without waiting for an invitation from Armenians in Armenia.

      I have lived in different countries because of my education and work, and even though I have been happy in every country I have lived, Armenia was by far the best.

      With best regards,

  12. ERRATA!!
    Please excuse /pardon me if I make as lot of typographichal and grammatical errors.
    Now this one is none of those ,above I mention Ministry of Armenia ..should read Ministry of Diaspora…

  13. We really need the help of our diaspora as we really want to make changes but we don’t want violence again. Who can prevent us from that?
    So I suggest to start everything from the roots not from the head. If we strengthen our schools and find really motivated and devoted teachers who really care about the future of our country and educate and change the minds of young people we can reach success in some period of time. Othervise a group of people will struggle and become the victim of violence… and again the same.
    And diaspora can help financially to find qualified teachers who proved that they can do everything. This qualities can be found out during the teacher trainings. And according to the teacher’s essays. If we start to respect the best teachers and if young people see that not only by corruption a person can live decently then they will change their minds about education and being educated. But now when children see how poor their teachers are, no matter how much they know. They compare them with some uneducated people who have business and live well. They can also afford paying tutors who teach their children, meanwhile the unsatisfied teachers don’t want to teach the poor people’s children as their salary doesn’t worth the efforts they do.
    These problems can really draw back our country and in time no changes will happen. Who has money will have more, who hasn’t won’t have any.

  14. Anna, nobody wants violence, and violence should be a last resort, and I hope that it does not get to violence, but sometimes violence is the only way to save a country. As I have said elsewhere, if Armenia does not become a democracy, it is going to lose its next war with Azerbaijan. They keep growing stronger, and we keep losing our best and the strongest to emigration. Democracy is not just to appear good to others, it’s a matter of urgent national security for us.

    Now, it is irrelevant for us to discuss whether we should avoid violence. If Armenia does not become a democracy, there WILL be violence. If people are so sick of everything that the only option they see is violence, they are not going to listen to those who call for peaceful reforms. This is what the people in Armenia have to realize, and this is the message that we, the Diaspora, and the people of Armenia have to give to the government: if they do not allow democratic changes, they are going to destroy themselves and the country.

    I agree that we should work from the roots, but I believe that will not be enough. We can send money for teachers, but in a corrupt country, there is no guarantee that the money will actually hire good teachers instead of being wasted or going to the oligarchs’ pockets. That is why Armenia needs radical legal changes at the top level: we need a new, functional constitution to replace its pathetic dysfunctional constitution. To become a democracy, you do not need to reinvent the wheel, you simply need to adopt the system of other successful democracies. As I have said elsewhere, I think Armenia should adopt a constitution modeled after the U.S. one, which has made the U.S. the wealthiest and strongest country, and because so many Armenians prefer to make the U.S. their home. And this is where the Diaspora can help. We have lived and worked in established democracies long enough to know how a good democracy works. We have accumulated vast knowledge that Armenians in Armenia can use to make their country livable. The Diaspora should act as an agent of change, because if it does not, others will, and others may not have the best interests of Armenia in their minds.

  15. I am very frustrated. Most of the opinions expressed agree in principle that we need change of the political environment in Armenia, and that the Diaspora has to be an agent of change.
    The unanswered question is how the Diaspora is going to accomplish that.
    We have many organizations in the Diaspora. There is no unity, no common purpose, no focused vision,no meaningful leadership.W are ragmeneted and rudderless.
    We can all continue to cry about the economic/political conditions in Armenia, and advocate change and urge the Diaspora to play an effective role, but I have yet to see a real workable proposition/ recommendation on how to make that reaaly work.
    Vart Adjemian

    • Vart,

      The only way diaspora can change things in Armenia is through massive repatriation and building new districts for them in Yerevan and elsewhere in Armenia. This way they can build houses, shops, schools etc and run them the way they want, and because they will be more progressive than locals, locals will learn from them quickly. This way in a few years many diasporans will be represented in the government and things will change gradually. For a change to happen there should be demand.

      We have a very progressive youth; very different from Soviet middle age generation and even my (post Soviet) generation. They are brave, open-minded, they understand that instead of sitting and complaining, they have to stand up to change things.

  16. Dear Sella,
    I am busy these days entertaining fellow Compatriot from Yerevan and his wife,togetherwith my wife.I just came across your above `post addressed to me.
    Thanks for your kind wishes.May God also bless you and yours to carry on…
    Now then, in your last post above you mention exactly what plans I have indicated in my articles months ago…in
    This means that your thoughts are in parallel with mine.indeed NEW TOWNSHIPS ought to be built by repatriates and house them,plus businesses..etc-.
    On 19th Oct. I finally decided to go public writing a 3 page MESSAGE addressed primarily to the pres. of RA,Serge Sargsyan,w/ref to vaious issues.This I did because my viewpoints-articles and memoirs DO NOT COINCIDE WITH THOSE IN OUR PRESS. Then I have , in addition to emailing to most of our weeklies here in.U.S .And one in Europe,sent to more than 3 dozen individuals and shall send more.If therewas a way this Forum would admit long such Essay-like posts,I would be more than content.
    Nonetheless, those 3 pages are in Armenian and really for our reborn Republic and its President.For me ,while he is at the helm,he is my president.Some people think i don´t criticize him.Quite the contrary,but I know where not to cross the margin…and do it in a civil and polite fashion.
    I only hope his chief of staff(whom I know personally) will print and hand it over to him,or at least brief him on those ¨¨suggestions¨¨ of mine to him.
    Best to you and those who do their best for our Patria,the Republic of Armenia and Armenians all over the Globe….
    Hope soon very soon, things will turn to the better in RA and people from all over will by and by repatriate.Indeed, best way would be in the manner I describe through AN ORGANIZED WELL FUNDED REPATRIATION, BY OUR SO FAR NON EXISTANATN ¨¨¨n a t i o n a l i n v e s t m e n t t r u st f u n d…..¨¨¨ but we´ll see…
    I also commend your understanding that our Youth both in RA and Diaspora, whom I denominate in my writings as the AUXILLIARY of the bodies and councils that hopefully will be established,will by and by take a stgand beside us the elderly and ESPECIALLY THE MIDDLE AGED WHO ARE ON THE SCEN AT PRESENT BUT NOT YET FORMING RANK AND FILE-AS described in my essays-articles

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