As we examine ways to better integrate the diaspora and the homeland, it is clear that the perceived attitudes of both parties is an obstacle. Granted these are generalizations, but if you have spent any time around the community, these are not new comments. There are thousands of diaspora Armenians who have a sincere love for Armenia and an earnest desire to make a difference. No argument. There are also many who have an overt distrust for the leadership and carry that perspective into their reluctance to participate. Given human nature, negative views always have a stronger impact and become part of the problem.
In my travels, I hear two types of comments that bear reviewing. The first is a general commentary about how “backward” or “inefficient” it is to operate in Armenia. This view, at its best, reflects a frustration by “westerners” with the fledgling democracy of Armenia, and at its worst represents an unintended attitude of superiority toward fellow Armenians. The other set of comments are personal attacks towards leaders (“this one is a crook” or ”they are all ex-KGB.”) You get the point. I have engaged in many discussions with fellow Armenian Americans in an attempt to understand and build upon these perspectives. In order to make sense of this, we should first try to put our comparative comments in context. As Armenians Americans, our opinions on democracy are based on living in the greatest example of a democratic institution and, unfair as it may be, it is inevitable that we compare our experience to any emerging democracy.
The democratic legacy of the people of Armenia has been limited. For hundreds of years, prior to the First Republic, the Armenian people were subject to Turkish oppression in the west and limited national identity under the Persians and then Russians. There were precious few opportunities to develop democratic traditions. The first real opportunity came in 1918 with the fledgling democratic Republic of Armenia. Just as the roots of institutional democracy began to take hold during the next two and a half years, that process was put on hold with the Turkish/Soviet annexation. The priority instantly shifted to survival. When Armenians earned their freedom in 1991, similar to 1918, they were not prepared with professional technocrats, seasoned bureaucrats and a market driven economy. The previous system, along with its economy, collapsed leaving devastation everywhere. Have we forgotten the early years when heating fuel was unavailable and our brethren chopped down trees to survive? Similar to virtually every ex-Soviet nation, the system was manipulated by a series of oligarchs who were positioned to inherit the former state assets. The early days of “independence” were wrought with institutional corruption. Yet, we sit here in America and judge the infancy of democracy in Armenia. Can they and should they be better? Absolutely. We should never lower the bar and the quality of life for the citizens, but failure to meet those expectations does not justify abandoning Armenia because we don’t like the pace of improvement or the leaders. Our commitment is to the land, the common people and a continuance of our civilization.
New democracies should be the beneficiaries of past lessons. In theory, the “learning curve” should be reduced. This assumes, of course, an educated population and a desire to mature. Armenia has both. What has been missing so far has been the emergence of leadership with competence and patriotism. I believe those days are arriving with a new generation. Even with the geopolitical complications, Armenia is not starting at square one. The greatest asset of Armenia is its people. It is not the buildings, churches and mountains. They are wonders of our culture and beautiful, but the most valuable possession is and always will be the people of Armenia. This is why it is important when you go to the homeland to engage with its citizens. When you visit schools, meet the students. Talk to people on the streets, and experience the soul of Armenia in the villages. Despite the “advancement” of our world civilization, we know that democracy is under attack in many locations on this earth. We live in a privileged oasis in America. All nations, regardless of their historical perspective, have to grow into their identity. We live in the greatest democracy, yet when this country was formed, the voters of this new democracy were only white male landholders. The enslavement of another race led this country to a Civil War during which over 600,000 Americans died in a domestic war that wounded generations. Women were granted the right to vote in this country after Armenia secured that right with its new republic. The treatment of Native Americans is also a tragic part of our history. All nations learn and grow from their errors. We work to make America better despite its imperfections. We live for the ideals it stands for. This is all Armenia deserves. We should temper our judgments in the context of the slow path of development. The current generations have been blessed to experience independent nationhood since 1991. Perfect…no. Miraculous, yes. No Armenian from 1375 (fall of Cilicia) until 1918 and from 1921-1991 experienced the free soil of Armenia. We have that privilege. Stand with Armenia like a parent who loves his children. I understand the frustration and even criticism. There is a significant difference in criticizing when committed to the future of Armenia and open-ended commentary with “no skin in the game.” I prefer we shore up all our energy, our passion, our skills and our criticism (perhaps in the form of a solution) with our undying commitment. This is what has enfranchised those of us in the diaspora. Of course, that must be reciprocated by our brothers and sisters in Armenia, but it is always wise to start by looking in the mirror. Remember, the only real difference between us is that many of our grandparents were forced out of the west and rebuilt their lives in the Americas, Europe or the Middle East. Many of our compatriots in Armenia and Artsakh were either indigenous to those regions (eastern) or Western Armenians who migrated east behind the old Russian lines during the war period. That’s it. The rest is the cultural impact of generations living in different geographies. Those differences can be challenging, but what we have in common is a bond to the territory and a five thousand year-old civilization. It doesn’t matter if you live in LA or Boston, or where your ancestors came from, Sepastia, Kharpert or Artsakh. Look deeper to find the true links and apply that to your view on Armenia. Governments come and go. Leaders have limited tenure, but the mountains, the culture and the people are eternal.
I recently read an intriguing comment from a reader. His view was advocating for a personal commitment to Armenia (repatriation), but the implications of his comments were much deeper. He spoke to the need for increasing the population to counter the “brain drain” and national security risks. There are essentially two ways to grow Armenia’s population: an increase in the birth rate and repatriation from the diaspora. Both causes have an economic and quality of life component. The birth rate of Armenia is less than 2.0 which essentially says that it is below the sustainable level of 2.1. Most people factor in affordability when deciding to have children. When the economic environment is difficult and the political considerations are unstable, it does not promote an increase in the birth rate. The government can offer “promotions,” like tax incentives and other windfalls, but there is no substitute for creating a prosperous environment. The people of Armenia want nothing more for their children than any of us in the diaspora: a reasonable education and the opportunity for a good life. Migration occurs primarily when economic opportunities or societal issues become intolerable. Patriotism is noble, but it doesn’t feed the children and provide a future. A functioning government with policies that impact all the people in their daily lives is what counts. With the uncertainty created by the recent war, there is no greater immediate priority: housing, jobs and education.
Repatriation has many branches but can invigorate a nation. Again, a healthy environment is necessary for substantial repatriation. Yes, some repatriate for purely patriotic reasons to bring their skills and passion to the country, but the opportunity will always be understated if the environment is not healthy. Aside from the economic environment, legislative action is required to adjust residency requirements, tax laws and citizenry rights to allow Armenians from the diaspora to contribute to Armenia with full vesting. Obviously, the most desirable state would be moving to Armenia and earning citizenship, but there are large opportunistic gaps between full time diaspora and full time in Armenia. Armenia must start with a vision that it is a home to all Armenians in our global nation. This means that we can define a respected existence for those who may have a less than full time commitment but have substantial ways to contribute. The “snowbird” concept is recognized here as people who have joined another community in a warmer climate and have built an identity. Instead of climate being the motivation, our love for Armenia must be encouraged so that those who cannot move full time are offered a way to participate. Many may, of course, become permanent residents over time. The greater the options, the higher the probability of presence.
The economy generating opportunities and a stable prosperous nation will continue to dominate the challenges. Casual statements of criticism and mistrust from afar do not contribute to the solution. The greater our commitment to solutions, the more credibility our commentary carries. When we take “shots” at Armenia, it’s leaders or other stereotypes, most of us perceive these casual dialogues as harmless. They are not! At this critical stage in Armenia’s development, all of our resources should be focused on adding value. If we criticize, it should be coupled with a potential solution. Public discourse that reflects a disconnect between the diaspora and Armenia helps feed the aggressive and criminal behavior of the Turkish alliance bent on the total destruction of our nation. Diversity of thought and debate have critical roles to play in a democracy, but much of the “informal public” commentary lacks proper channeling. We can never abandon Armenia. We do this for the brave residents in Tavush, our resilient compatriots in Artsakh and for generations yet to be born.