Raffi Hovannisian was asked by a reporter recently, “What would you like to say to the diaspora?” His response, “You’re asking me the wrong question. You should ask the diaspora what they want to say, and I will listen. Do they want to be part of building a more democratic Armenia? If so, I will listen.”
During previous elections, the diaspora has, for the most part, remained silent. Today, with the internet, social media, and live coverage of the election and its aftermath, information has become more widely available, allowing the diaspora to not only be more informed and connected, but more involved. However, in the current state and projected future of the country, the diaspora must utilize this critical opportunity to get involved in a deeper way if it cares about the survival and prosperity of Armenia.
What role can the diaspora play? Do they have any power? Does it matter to the locals if the diaspora gets involved? The diaspora already does its part in other spheres; do they have any business getting involved in daily politics if they don’t live in Armenia? To answer some of these questions, I turned to local activists who were at the time writing letters to Serj Tankian asking him to come to Armenia. When asked why they wanted him to come, they responded with confidence that if Tankian were to come to Liberty Square, he would have a vital role to play in Barevolution. After all, in his written exchange with Tankian, Sarkisian replied to more questions posed by a diasporan expressing concerns about the election than he has to the thousands of citizens protesting outside the presidential palace. One might argue that Tankian may have no business in Armenia’s local politics, but he is still able to make an impact.
Why is it vital that the diaspora join the movement? Since the last presidential election, roughly 180,000-250,000 people have left Armenia, mostly right after the election. Political instability, loss of hope in the system, monopolization of the country’s resources, poverty, and unemployment are all to blame. Studies on population and emigration trends show that at the current high rate of emigration and low birth rate, there will only be one person left in Armenia by 2048. The diaspora has been fighting for years for the survival of the Armenian state, carrying out the mission of Hai Tahd (Armenian Cause). Surely, Armenia’s depopulation and domestic plight should become part of this mission.
Since regaining independence two decades ago, Armenia has faced no shortage of regional and internal challenges. It has endured a devastating earthquake, a war with neighboring Azerbaijan for Nagorno-Karabagh, and a blockade from two of its four neighboring countries. This prompted the diaspora to focus on aid to Armenia—and rightly so. Armenia needed first-responders such as charities. Diasporans sent food and clothing, or wrote a check to a trusted charity, and felt good about doing their part. Now, more than 20 years later, the diaspora’s approach towards Armenia must shift, as Armenia has reached another phase in the effort to build a stable republic.
Today’s ailments and key threats to the nation’s survival include widespread emigration, human rights injustices, environmental degradation, regional hostility, and the suppression of pluralism and diversity of opinion in the private and public sectors. Oligarchs and mafia, all of whom are widely believed to have ties to the sitting president, currently monopolize the country’s thin resources, neglecting investment in economic development and in a viable middle class. Therefore, today’s Armenia needs partners, activists, and human-rights defenders. The Gyumretsi of yesterday needed emergency earthquake relief, but today she needs a partner in justice, making sure her voice is heard and her rights and resources are protected.
One does not need to be a rock star in order to play a role in changing Armenia’s future. Diasporan efforts can play a major role in providing moral support, resources, or pressuring both the Armenian and foreign governments to not legitimize fraudulent elections. To sustain claims of legitimacy, the Sarkisian camp has relied on congratulations from not only foreign heads of state but Armenian Diasporan organizations. The initial OSCE assessment of the presidential election was favorable, which most foreign leaders then echoed. After local activists intensely protested the OSCE’s findings, the latter altered their final report to state, “The analysis of official results shows a correlation between very high turnout and the number of votes for the incumbent. This raises concerns regarding the confidence over the integrity of the electoral process.” Unfortunately, the damage was done, as the preliminary report had already informed the decisions of several foreign governments to congratulate Sarkisian. The local effort by activists could have been bolstered by diasporan efforts abroad to pressure foreign governments to follow suit and reassess their conclusions about the election. American-Armenians certainly have the power to write to their congressional leaders in such issues, as do their European counterparts.
There are many examples of diasporans who have physically joined the effort. Inspiring stories are being told around town of people quitting their prestigious jobs to fly to Yerevan to support the wave of change. Although this kind of commitment is not possible for everyone, drastic measures are not necessary; moral support can also go a long way. When local activists were asked what value diasporan support would offer them, and what kind of support they would like to see, they stated, “The homeland is not only for the locals. It is the homeland of all Armenians. In the last 20 years we have reached out to the diaspora asking for aid through charities. we cannot tell them now to not get involved. We shouldn’t have two agendas and split our resources. The diaspora should be involved in this process bringing its resources and connections towards concrete actions for Armenia.” Recently, the board of the Armenian Law Student’s Association at Southwestern Law School wrote a letter to Amnesty International, urging the launch of a supporter mobilization campaign to assist in collective efforts towards a more democratic Armenia.
Barevolution is a nationwide movement joined by different groups working towards the goal of a more democratic, citizen-driven republic. Like every movement in history, change will not come overnight. It will require a committed group united in the struggle willing to defy the status quo fighting for the mission of a better tomorrow. The involvement of the diaspora in Armenia has always been a controversial topic, but I decided to address it in this article because the alarm is ringing loud. Armenians in foreign lands needs to hear it before it is too late, because today the diaspora needs Armenia as much as Armenia needs the diaspora. The injustices in Armenia are making our nation ill, and they call for an emergency departure from the status quo. The diaspora has the resources, the far-reaching network, and the ability to organize and lobby a cause. Armenia is looking for partners, investors, and activists to make the average citizen’s voice heard. Our parents’ generation fought to see an independent Armenia. This generation will be tested to see if they are able to create a stable, democratic republic for all—including the diaspora.
Tania Sahakian has worked with numerous Armenian organizations over the last decade. She moved to Armenia from Los Angeles two years ago. Sahakian served as a monitor during the 2012 parliamentary elections and the 2013 presidential election in Armenia. She has experience working in elections in the U.S. and Europe, including the U.S. presidential campaign in 2008 and several senatorial and local elections. This is her first opinion piece for the Armenian Weekly.