The first 30 years of the Republic of Armenia demonstrated the struggle to produce credible leadership that can address the economic, social and national security needs of the nation. As Armenians, we tend to react to this in a myopic manner. The facts are that almost every post-Soviet nation has been plagued with corruption, border disputes and economic stagnation. The leadership challenge is rooted in the slow evolution of these nations producing individuals that rise through the political system with competence and self-serving intentions. Given Armenia’s current challenges, it doesn’t have the luxury of mediocrity of other more powerful and established countries with deep rooted political systems. As America goes through its current political crisis, stability is maintained by a longstanding system of checks and balances.
Armenia has one advantage that few nations its size can claim. The creation of the diaspora, as a direct result of the Armenian Genocide, began as a scattering of survivors and has evolved into a powerful asset of the Armenian nation. We all are the beneficiaries of its earliest sacrifices which was the establishment of the global infrastructure of schools, churches and organizations that have maintained identity and contributed to the growth of our nation. The diaspora has always been generous in supporting other areas in distress, and since the 1988 earthquake, has been particularly active in the nation building process in Armenia and Artsakh. There are endless dimensions to defining the relationship of the homeland and the diaspora: repatriation, dual citizenship, nonprofit service, frequent visits to name a few. The extent and depth of the relationship asks a question: just what is the vision we collectively hold of the relationship between the diaspora and Armenia? Certainly this relationship has changed since 1991, but will the walls be maintained preventing oneness in our nation?
The Genocide followed by the scattering of our people and the Sovietization of what remained territorially created a fractured nation. We became eastern Armenians in the homeland, and western Armenians became the diaspora. We became pro-Soviet and anti-Soviet. Many rallied around Holy Etchmiadzin while others chose the diaspora-based Antelias (Cilicia). The emergence of an independent state created many new opportunities for the Armenians, one of which was to become whole again. The nation was free and accessible. The Soviet arguments, in large part, ended. Even the church schism showed signs of thawing with new channels of communication. We are a fortunate people. Many diaspora people do not have a homeland that they can call their nation. The Kurds are a clear example. Scattered within at least four nations (Syria, Iraq, Turkey and Iran), they are indigenous but without a sovereign state. Their struggle is to evolve from oppressed to autonomous to independent. Instead of comparing ourselves to the powerful, let us think about the stateless. The question remains: what are we doing with our opportunity? Our leaders thus far have failed to articulate a vision that all Armenians can identify with and thus provide optimal security for this moment in history. This question is particularly relevant as we experience a low point in our recent history with political challenges, territorial loss and human sacrifice. It is a grand opportunity for us to adjust our thinking not simply to react to mistakes, but to build a foundation that has strategic impact.
Last week, we discussed the criteria for leadership based on the needs of the nation and the impact of failing to deliver such. In order to develop such capabilities, we need to address one of the missed opportunities of the last 30 years. The diaspora lost its indigenous status to the homeland over 100 years ago with the expulsion of our ancestors, but it did not lose its eternal connection to the homeland. If Armenia is to thrive and prosper and not simply exist, it must become the center of the Armenian universe for all Armenians, particularly those who populate the diaspora. This is a mutually beneficial relationship. For the diaspora, it becomes a vehicle for identity fulfillment…to contribute to the sustaining of a civilization and erase the dark cloud of dispossession. For Armenia, which has enjoyed only a fraction of what the diaspora can offer, it can acquire solutions to many of the challenges they face. In the 1920s, the diaspora was a remnant of proud survivors who existed with modest means. Their children, grandchildren and now great-grandchildren have become incredibly successful and relatively wealthy with remarkable proficiency in every profession on this earth. Our ranks are blessed with lawyers, engineers, entrepreneurs, politicians, diplomats and military veterans who have a healthy identity for their ancestral homeland. What have we done both in Armenia and the diaspora to enable the integration of our global resources? The sheer amount of volunteers through visitations and nonprofits is encouraging and a good start, but in most cases they are still considered outsiders whose offerings are gratefully accepted. It is woefully suboptimal.
What needs to change to enable this direction? Let’s start with the key stakeholders in Armenia and the diaspora embracing a vision of integration for the nation. In the context of egos, power and control, this is no small task but certainly one we are capable of completing. With a common vision, we can initiate the public and private collaboration that holds great promise for Armenia. For this level of global investment, each party must make tangible progress in addressing the fears of the other that limit progress. Right now, Armenia fears being run remotely by the diaspora with its vast resources. It demands respect for its sovereignty and limits “foreigners” to investment and outside of political decision-making. We are all aware that this is an artificial barrier as “influence” takes many forms in the dynamics of nationhood. The diaspora fears the walls that limit their influence as investors, volunteers or visitors. Certainly some progress has been made with repatriation (full citizenship) and dual citizen status, yet a diaspora model requires a hybrid approach where the talent of the global nation and its resources can be fully utilized without self-imposed limitations. Even with dual citizenship and improved investment legislation, the “outsider” culture persists and limits breakthrough. The diaspora is a convenient single term, but in reality represents numerous disconnected entities. The diaspora must organize itself so it is easier to engage with and not left to countless individual relationships. When relationships become essentially financial, they are fraught with risk. I would suggest that the next Armenian government include qualified individuals from the diaspora that can establish a successful precedent, quell these fears and position Armenia for a surge in talent. The Armenian people have successful individuals in a vast array of professions in nearly every nation on this planet. Applying a fraction of that talent in the areas of defense contracting, diplomacy, economic development and national security will only happen when Armenia is led by people who understand and embrace the term “Armenian nation.”
Today we have literally thousands of diasporan volunteers who work in or for Armenia and Artsakh. They participate with a pure heart and love to contribute to their motherland. Often, they are self-motivated and work diligently to earn the trust of the government. This must change. There should be a pull as well as a push. They should be embraced not only as financial contributors or service patriots, but as the sons and daughters of a proud nation welcoming them home. Thousands of young Armenians should be organized to serve in Armenia not simply to add short term value but to establish a sense of emotional identity with the homeland. The focus should be on the integration of a generation without barriers or artificial limitations. The experiences of the youth “returning” and their perspectives are the barometer of success or failure.
Often we hear the debate in Armenian politics of how to find the balance of competence and experience. Many of the politicians are a product of the Soviet system, and the younger educated generation are inexperienced. As outlined in earlier columns, this is the current dilemma of the political system. Engaging talent from the diaspora could provide a valuable bridge of success by providing experienced and proven talent in areas of great need. It is not a replacement but rather a supplement to accelerate and stabilize a functioning society. The success of Armenians from the diaspora will also encourage repatriation. The “cultural” concerns, real or imagined, are the biggest issue for most considering repatriation. It is even larger than employment because a job or career is easier to answer than concerns that impact your happiness or quality of life. Witnessing the success of others you consider “identifiers” offers real encouragement. When some Syrian Armenians migrated, others looked for their success as part of their decision. I look for the next government to answer the question: who is Armenia for and do we have an inclusive greater vision? This is somewhat analogous to the shameful limitation of women in the political process for decades. Why would a society intent on greatness limit itself to one half of its citizens and eliminate the value of diversity? Armenia, if it chooses, has a resource pool of nine to ten million people, not three. Diversity offers great opportunities, but it is usually constrained by the powerful. Our narrow vision of Armenia freezes our global definition as post-genocide. Our recovery in dispersion and the needs of Armenia and Artsakh demand a reevaluation of our direction. If we manage this opportunity like the disgraceful church schism, then our suboptimal vision will have prevailed. We can teach each other for the benefit of Armenia. Our brethren in Armenia can teach us how to properly integrate in Armenia. Armenians from the diaspora can provide a refreshing replenishment of talent and resources while demonstrating that authority and corruption are not an inevitable package. Our biggest weakness as a nation—our inability to subordinate our individual views for the betterment of the whole—is facing us directly at this time. Will we continue to tolerate a fraction of our capabilities or will the invigorating light of a new vision emerge?