Diasporan Aid to Armenia in the Post-Independence Era
Special to the Armenian Weekly
The following article is adapted from a presentation delivered on May 23, in Yerevan, at a conference organized by the USC Institute of Armenian Studies titled “End of Transition: Armenia 25 years on. Now What?”
As the title suggests, I wish to explore certain aspects of Armenia-Diaspora relations, focusing on charitable assistance over the past 25 years. Specifically, I would like to track how diasporan giving has evolved—or, rather, cut a serpentine path forward, moving from what I would call emergency/immediate aid to more rehabilitative/developmental assistance today. I will be painting a picture with a broad brush, seeking to identify broader processes and trends, so I ask readers to accept this as a work in progress.
As Ronald Suny has noted, 25 years present a good occasion for a retrospective look at Armenia since independence. At the same time, the number 25 is a bit arbitrary, and hardly exact as a marker. Here we have a case in point: If we truly wish to track charitable assistance—at least in its most recent phase—then we really must go back to the late Soviet era (i.e., roughly 30 years). At that time, Armenia-Diaspora relations were a much different affair: Operating within a tightly regulated, closed environment—e.g., through official agencies such as the “Spiurk Committee”—homeland-diaspora relations existed in a limited sense. But the relationship denied most diasporans any meaningful involvement beyond tourism, cultural exchange, or symbolic support. That limited relationship opened up quite abruptly, of course, because of the turmoil that enveloped Armenia in 1988: First, there was the Karabagh movement and the changes it brought. Later, there was the devastating earthquake that struck northwest Armenia. Those two events, in a sense, tore asunder the fabric of Armenia-diaspora relations as they had been, creating a rough-and-tumble environment that became more open, more diverse, and eventually more fruitful.
The Late Soviet Years
Let me begin with some reflections on those late Soviet years. As we know now, the Karabagh movement unleashed a host of forces that eventually shook the entire Soviet Union. It began in 1987-88, as the Armenian majority within Nagorno-Karabagh asserted the region’s right to self-determination by petitioning Soviet authorities, seeking to secede from Azerbaijan and unite with neighboring Armenia. Within a few months of these efforts, Armenians in Yerevan had responded with massive solidarity efforts, featuring public rallies that grew to nearly a million in size by Feb. 1988. It was really a tremendous moment in time—whether in Armenia or abroad—as we could see the limits of Soviet reforms literally being tested before our eyes. Armenians essentially took Mikhail Gorbachev at his word, peacefully challenging him to stand by his pronouncements regarding glasnost (openness) and perestroika (restructuring), and specifically the claim that Moscow would seek to rectify historic wrongs and “fill in the blank pages of history.”
At the time, diasporan Armenians observed these developments from a distance. True, there was a smattering of diasporans inside Armenia, either as journalists, exchange scholars, or other visitors. But, for the most part, the organized diaspora was “watching closely from afar,” as it were. It was a diverse diaspora, yes, but also unified by the strength of its national consciousness and a sense of unfinished business: Due to the conditions of its formation—genocide, exile consciousness, and often alienation from Soviet Armenia—there was naturally a thirst to engage with Armenia more substantially: that is, through the affairs of state and society. So, as 1988 unfolded, diasporan Armenians looked in earnest for a day when they could return and make a difference.
As it turned out, that day came rather quickly: Shortly after the million-strong rallies in Yerevan, Azerbaijani mobs responded with brutal pogroms in the city of Sumgait, killing dozens of Armenians and driving out many others. Soon, Karabagh was in a state of siege, with the looming threat of all-out war. During the course of 1988, a state of emergency prevailed throughout Azerbaijan, Armenia, and of course Karabagh itself.
Within this environment, diasporan Armenians quickly got to work: They began rallying outside Soviet embassies and consulates worldwide, they began meeting with international human rights groups about the developing situation, and they began raising money to help Karabagh’s Armenians defend themselves. So there was a flurry of activity, to be sure. But this heightened attention was consummated only later, when things really began to change: The Dec. 1988 earthquake was of enormous proportions—not only physically, but in terms of the human toll. With thousands killed, thousands more injured or beneath the rubble, and with massive infrastructural damage, Armenia’s authorities were really not prepared to respond. Indeed, Soviet central authorities were not prepared, either. It was really beyond their means to address the emergency effectively.
As they faced this crisis, Soviet authorities took a bold step: They actually opened up the gates a bit, allowing various outside groups to enter Armenia to tender emergency assistance. This included not only large international firms like Americares and Doctors Without Borders, but a host of diasporan entities as well. This, I believe, was a “watershed moment,” as it represented the first real exposure to Armenia of large numbers of diasporan Armenians. (When I say large numbers, by today’s standards it may not seem so large—ranging from many hundreds to several thousand—but at the time it represented a major intervention.) What was remarkable was not just the quantity but the quality and diversity of intervention: Nurse-practitioners, psychiatrists, architects, builders, emergency response teams, and many others—often Armenian—would come to address the needs of those hit by the earthquake.
In this time of need, the diaspora’s mindset was rather simple: “Give early. Give often. And don’t ask a lot of questions.” In fact, the organized diaspora was “hardwired” to give unconditionally because it felt right to do so, in a sense. Don’t get me wrong: The needs were immediate and pressing. But the diaspora also gave because it felt good to give. Now, I do not say this to demean the assistance tendered in any way. But the act of giving was as important as the end result itself. Let us not forget that the organized diaspora had largely been denied any meaningful interaction for so many years.
This mentality, along with the situation itself, led to predictable results: Diasporan support was overwhelmingly about immediate assistance: There were no milestones, no metrics, no long-term goals on what we were trying to achieve. It was all about helping now. Indeed, with Armenia still firmly ensconced within the Soviet sphere, why think long-term anyway? Almost no one could imagine that within three years the Soviet Union would collapse. Rather, our diasporan leadership largely thought, “We’ll go in, we’ll help, we’ll engage, while Armenia and the Soviet Union will continue down their path.” Nobody, other than a precious few, could really imagine that by 1991 Armenia would be independent, with all of the associated pitfalls and possibilities.
The Early Years of Independence
For better or for worse, short-term mentalities would carry over to the early independence era. If they were a one-off at first, emergency reflexes soon became an ingrained habit, an ongoing pattern. Why? To begin, let’s recall that Armenia’s early years of independence are often labeled “The Years of Cold and Darkness.” Massive economic dislocations, the war in Karabagh, and blockades by Azerbaijan and Turkey together created an Armenia that struggled to survive, one in which every day was an act of improvisation. In such a milieu, the organized diaspora again came together, this time to organize “Operation Winter Rescue” and similar initiatives, gathering tons of warm clothing, blankets, foodstuffs, medicines… anything that might be required to endure the long hard winters that extended into the mid-1990s and beyond. Due to these developments, the diaspora became further trained—“hardwired,” if you will—into thinking about assistance as an emergency affair in which you don’t ask a lot of questions but just “get to it.”
I am encouraged to say that—in a halting, lurching fashion—this relationship has begun to change. There are numerous reasons, but one important factor was the advent of government-led developmental assistance in the mid-1990s. This began most prominently with the “Hayastan” All-Armenia Fund… better known as Himnadram. Without denying its various flaws and ills, I must say that Himnadram established a model for large-scale, strategic development projects that the entire diaspora could embrace. (Recall that one of its first large projects was to build the Lachin Corridor highway that connects Karabagh to Armenia, creating the vital contiguity essential for both.)
The development of Himnadram was one of those focal points that began to train our attention on long-term development. But there were inadvertent side-effects as well. The move away from knee-jerk, emergency assistance wasn’t all in the name of progress and enlightenment. No, as Armenia moved into the 1990s, other things were happening as well: For one, the legitimacy that authorities enjoyed at the beginning of independence had begun to erode. If most Armenians were happily casting a ‘yes’ vote for independence in ’91, by ’96 disaffected voters were storming the barricades, most notably when incumbent President Levon Ter-Petrosian won re-election in a result widely viewed as fraudulent. As Armenia slid backward in terms of economy, social justice, corruption, and the rule of law, the legitimacy of authorities had naturally eroded.
This trend would carry over into the realm of humanitarian assistance: Increasingly, donors were no longer willing to ignore issues of corruption, asking, “Where is my money going? How is my money being spent?” Others were no longer willing to ignore issues of social dependency, asking, “If we continue to hand things out to the populace, will this create a culture of handouts? Will Armenia’s citizens expect the diaspora to aid in perpetuity, or can we start helping-people-to-help-themselves?” Indeed, some of us asked if the diaspora was being sold short: e.g., treated as a milking cow rather than as a partner in the rebuilding of Armenian state and society. Questions such as these began to be asked more frequently, more insistently, beginning in the mid-’90s and thereafter.
At the same time, international humanitarian organizations such as CARE, USAID, EU Humanitarian Aid, and the International Red Cross also shifted from aid distribution to developmental work. The transition was difficult, but many such groups found it necessary to shift away from immediate needs and toward the paradigm of “sustainable development.” These trends also would affect the path taken by diasporan Armenian groups.
Developments Leading to the Present
During this transition, there emerged a three-pronged response among diasporan Armenians: First, much of the traditional diaspora—the classical organizations and their networks—mostly continued doing what they were doing. Second, there were donors—particularly large donors, who had gotten burned or fleeced by corrupt officials—who became disenchanted and pulled back. And third, there were others who moved in a different direction, who became more determined, more intent on forging ahead, and who established their own mechanisms for tendering assistance. Some philanthropists simply got tired of writing checks to others. For example, my own boss—James Tufenkian—got tired of writing checks and established his own foundation in Armenia: In doing so, he gradually hired and trained his own staff, implemented projects directly on the ground, and introduced international best-practices into his organization. I could easily point to other examples as well.
Over time, we have seen a move increasingly in the latter direction. Again, it is not a complete move; rather, I would call it a lurching, incomplete move. But what you see is an engagement with Armenia that is broadening and deepening today. It is no longer about sponsoring immediate needs: It is not about soup kitchens and orphanages anymore. It is also about aiding civil society groups, promoting education and creativity, and investing in those seeking to improve themselves and their living conditions across Armenia.
Most broadly, I would argue this: To really make a difference, assistance must change situations at the institutional level; otherwise, it is not sustainable.
However, this is easier said than done: For many (especially from afar) this is a more difficult and complicated way of getting involved in Armenia. For one, it requires critical engagement—knowing laws, mechanisms, and the way the system functions—in order to advocate for change. Few are willing or able to do that. Even those foundations run by diasporans often shy away from this, because it could entail “rocking the boat” with authorities, because it requires not simply standalone efforts but integration into civil society, or simply because they do not have the capability or know-how.
In closing, let me add that something else is going on simultaneously, which interweaves crucially with the topic at hand. While all of the above has been happening, social change in Armenia has been ongoing: After the flurry of democracy in the late ’80s and early ’90s, Armenia retrenched in many ways. Much of the citizenry, for understandable reasons, reverted to a state of passivity, inertia, cynicism, often looking up at the authorities as the source of all ill, or as the source of all possible remedy… which ultimately became a convenient excuse to do nothing! The idea of grassroots activism—more broadly, social movements as practiced in much of the rest of the world—really had not hit the ground by the 1990s, nor even by the early 2000s.
In fact, only in the last decade has there been a creeping move toward a different kind of ethos: the formation of a real civil society, where people—often from below—start organizing around issues of environment, public health, public space, consumer rights, gender inequality, and other issues. Gradually, we see the emergence of different groups seeking reforms or concessions from those in power. Such groups don’t necessarily seek all-or-nothing solutions (which was often the public’s tendency in the past). Instead, we are seeing calls for targeted, incremental change: Whether it’s the drive to protect Teghut, the activism in defense of Mashtots Park, or the 100 Dram Movement, people—especially young people—have begun to organize for change from below.
This trend presents a great opportunity for the diaspora—an opportunity to finally cross that thick red line, moving from the realm of humanitarian assistance toward something else. Whether defined as solidarity, exchange, or critical engagement, this “something else” is more lateral, more proactive, and unafraid to become a part of the lifeblood of the country. By adopting this spirit and approach, the diaspora can refashion itself to say, “We are not here to help Armenia; we are here to be Armenia.”
Indeed, such voices were heard at this week’s Homeland-Diaspora conference—not always at its center, but certainly at its margins—demanding more than the usual rhetoric and sloganeering.
As people rise to address the historical tasks of the day—social justice, rule of law, corruption, depopulation—they point toward a homeland-diaspora relationship that might become more real, more durable, more demanding… something that goes beyond charity and embraces our social and national well-being.
Readers may view the original presentation below:
 From Suny’s presentation “Where Did All the Transitions Go? Façade Democracy and Authoritarianism in the Post-Soviet World,” delivered at the same conference in Yerevan, May 23, 2017.
 Gorbachev made these comments in Feb. 1987, at a meeting with editors and other leading media figures, saying there should be “no forgotten names and no blank pages in history and literature.” (Pravda, Feb. 14, 1987.)
Antranig Kasbarian is an Armenian Weekly contributor and former editor. He works professionally as a Trustee of the N.Y.-based Tufenkian Foundation, pursuing a range of charitable/strategic projects in Armenia and Artsakh. In the Eastern U.S., he currently serves as a member of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF) Central Committee.