During these times of disappointment and uncertainty, it is natural to share slogans that reflect our feelings, particularly towards the homeland. One of the more common expressions is that we “stand” with Armenia or that we “support” the homeland. During the recent 44-day war, support in the diaspora was unconditional. An incredible surge of fundraising was heartfelt and a reflection of the empathy the diaspora has for Armenia and Artsakh. The shock of the defeat, loss of life, displacement of citizens and territorial loss put the diaspora in a difficult position. As the facts began to emerge about diplomatic capability and military readiness, a new wave of cynicism emerged that the Pashinyan administration had not experienced. With speculation about the use of funds and the tragedy of the outcome, the hope faded and the fears of loss were reintroduced. Nothing in the last few months has steadied that consternation as political squabbling and border incursions have prevented Armenia from entering a period of recovery.
The relationship between the western diaspora and Armenia has always been about hopes and dreams versus the suboptimal reality. Most of those in the established communities in the diaspora were raised with an idealistic, almost romantic, notion of Armenia. Whether it was pre-independence or since 1991, we dream of a prosperous and democratized Armenia that we are eternally proud of. The current reality has been slow to embrace that vision. A post-Soviet corruption hangover and a political environment that throttled economic growth have dampened the spirits and created uncertainty in the relationship of the diaspora and Armenia. Are we tourists and outsiders whose primary function is to pump money into the economy? Are we a source of repatriation to the homeland, particularly where that Armenian community has a suspect future? Should we strive for a dual citizen campaign that combines the best features and add a citizenry component of legitimacy to our relationship? Perhaps the answer lies in a structured and organized combination of all of these approaches that builds a oneness for all Armenians in support of the homeland.
While our relationships recover from the impact of current events, there are a few observations that seem to be particularly relevant. Despite the efforts of many respectable individuals, we have not made enough inroads in the trust factor. A vocal plurality from the diaspora is openly critical of the way Armenia is run, but feels powerless to impact the outcome. Likewise many of our brethren in Armenia become defensive and tell those from the diaspora to be careful about influencing the internal matters of the country. There is no judgment here…simply a clear observation.
In my view, tangible improvements in this area are a prerequisite to aligning the talent of the diaspora to the needs of Armenia. In particular, I see this as high on the priority list of the High Commissioner of the Diaspora Zareh Sinanyan. Removing the barriers to achieving functional integration is essential. Many of the programs advocated are confidence-building measures to have an impact and build trust. A number of diasporan organizations such as Aurora, COAF, Tufenkian Foundation and others are pushing forward with innovation and determination. Armenia-based NGOs are operating with equal vigor. We are in need of a mega-accelerator for this objective. The new government needs to do more legislatively and from a leadership perspective to enable trust and substantial progress.
Given the current environment, it is an opportune time to ask ourselves the question, “Just what do we mean when we say we stand with Armenia?” Is it unconditional love? Are their constraints on our support based on our value systems? How do we manage our support with the ebbs and tide of government effectiveness?
There are those in the diaspora who do not trust the government and institutional structure resulting in an aloofness or estrangement with the homeland, particularly with the issues of competence that have been debated. On the other hand, there are the idealists, whose support is not constrained by current events and is essentially unconditional. These are the two extremes in our current diaspora reality. In my view, both have serious flaws. We should avoid positions that are not supported by at least a strong plurality. Obviously, we have a moral and personal obligation to Armenia but should temper that with promoting values that are important for Armenia.
A case in point is the essential nature of continuing to build on the democratization of Armenia. Despite the current chaos, Armenia cannot afford to retreat from democracy in the name of national security. They are interdependent. As a western diaspora, we should not be advocating democratization because it is a system of governance that we are comfortable with in the diaspora, but rather because it is the path to stability and prosperity in Armenia and Artsakh. Advocating what is healthy for Armenia will go a long way in building trust. Armenia should not be run by remote control from an influential diaspora, but by building trust that these ideas will pass the litmus test of contributing to Armenia’s prosperity.
These are extremely important questions to reflect on as Armenia sits at yet another crossroad on June 20. Fear and anxiety are running high. There is a strong perception that we cannot manage national security (i.e. borders, Artsakh etc.) without some setbacks of democratic institutions. This is a false pretense. Unfortunately, politics and campaigns in Armenia are heavily focused on personalities rather than policy. The electorate should be much more vocal about its expectations to the candidates, and the various factions should use the competitive process to draw out policy differentiation. The Velvet Revolution was a prime example of non-violent intolerance of corruption and other impediments to democracy. The challenges of the current political crisis do not change that experience. The electorate clearly articulated their expectations that the status quo was unacceptable. A vocal pre-election electorate through the media and public campaigning will contribute to holding the parties and candidates accountable, rather than the inverse.
We must always believe that we can make a difference.
Today, the main focus is on a beleaguered incumbent who is perceived as discredited versus a past leader who is viewed as a national security advocate based on his relationship with Russia. There are always strong perceptions when personalities rather than policy take the lead. It would create a much more productive environment if there were equal passion for the challenges. The mystique of personalities and rhetorical speeches is easier to manage than substantive policy positions. This is a reflection of relatively low expectations on candidates from the electorate or peers. This is a failing of our political environment when the electorate views their chosen candidate as the savior of a dysfunctional nation. Protecting our borders in Armenia is essential, but it must be combined with an expansion of democratization.
When we declare that we stand with Armenia, there are several interpretations. I would suggest that we must all stand with Armenia, and our options are within that premise. Removing ourselves at this time due to frustration with the leadership and the direction of the country will only increase the probability of failure. We must always believe that we can make a difference. When we stand with Armenia, we advocate for our dream and vision of a prosperous and democratic nation. Contributors to that vision not only have a right, but a responsibility to advocate for the pillars of that aspiration. It also means that we speak up with a pure heart on the gaps between the vision and the current reality. Advocacy must speak to contributions to the vision. No one needs to articulate why returning to corruption is unacceptable. We need to debate the alternatives in a productive manner. It is very hard to do within the current political dynamics, but the parties that differentiate their policies will have a future as the electorate becomes more sophisticated.
For most of us, our love for the dream of a prosperous Armenia is unconditional. It will remain as long as there are freedom loving Armenians. Patriotism is given to the ideal, not to individuals or parties. When Armenian citizens vote, it is hopefully an act of expressing their patriotism through a choice. Leaders exist to fulfill that mission. Today the order is a bit confusing. It is not unusual in a democratic state. Choices are a reflection of freedom and the ability to embrace diversity of thought. It works when, even in disagreement, we all have honorable intentions. That’s another reason to raise the bar to debating policies rather than personalities. The diaspora has a unique role in this process. Most of the diaspora cannot vote in the upcoming election, but any vision of a prosperous Armenia must include the integration of the diaspora. Again, the diaspora has a responsibility to contribute positively to the discourse and nation building. We must all be respectful of the institutions that govern our relationship. Armenia has a responsibility to embrace the diaspora and not fear its presence. From my experience in life, relationships blossom when there is a shared vision and values. These are the components of trust. We are not there, but thankfully God graces us with opportunities to be better every day. During critical times such as the current state, we learn a great deal about ourselves as a nation. Are we the descendants of those who found a way to survive, recover and prosper countless times or do we want to argue our way into irrelevance? Be part of the solution!