Accountability, adapting and moving forward in the diaspora

The Armenian diaspora in the United States takes great pride in its accomplishments and legacy–and rightfully so. Theirs is a remarkable story. The challenges of maintaining the identity and infrastructure of diaspora institutions to promote culture, religion and national rights while providing a significant amount of support to the homeland should never be underestimated. This is nothing new for Armenian Americans. In my youth, our communities raised funds for our brethren in the Middle East to help build their capabilities, particularly in education. This parallel path has been a part of diaspora history for decades and was elevated to new heights with the independence of Armenia in 1991. Every community and organization has done its share, rising to the challenges even as needs have increased. The latest tragedy in Artsakh has given particular visibility to our enduring strengths, as well as our weaknesses.

Before continuing, I would like to clarify a related point. It concerns me that in the general media, and even in some Armenian media, the people of Artsakh are referred to as “evacuees” or subjects of a “forced evacuation.” Most interpret “evacuate” as a removal following a natural disaster such as a wildfire. I suggest the term “deported” or “deportee,” since there was nothing natural about the exit. People were in an extreme state of fear given the Azeri aggression and left with what they could bring. It was the modern version of 1915, with horses and wagons replaced by cars. Deportation is a component of genocide. Let’s call it what it is. The Azeris, predictably, have the audacity to state that the exodus was “voluntary,” but the military carnage and continuous intimidation prove otherwise. 

The global Armenian nation has at times struggled to be assertive in addressing changing needs, but has never been short on compassion. Currently, many volunteers from America have gone to Armenia to help with the overwhelming task of providing support for the Artsakh refugees. We should all be proud of the volunteers who have put aside their grief to selflessly distribute food, secure housing and offer comfort to those experiencing what our grandparents did. A friend of mine from California is in Armenia volunteering with colleagues from the ARS in Yerevan and Syunik. This is the Armenian nation at its very best – putting aside personal constraints and committing wholeheartedly at a time of extreme need. It is an attribute that enables recovery and an eventual return to prosperity. 

Volunteers from around the world at the Aram Manoukian Youth Center in Yerevan

There are times, however, when our emotions can be a limiting factor. Diaspora organizations and institutions serve the needs of constituents in their locations and evolve in response to changing needs. The AYF was created in 1933 but has adapted to regional structures when communities have evolved. The AGBU established a “Young Professionals” wing in recognition of the emerging need for professional networking opportunities. After five generations, assimilation has not eroded the diaspora’s identity base. There are two factors that slow the impact of identity dilution: periods of migration that replenish the base and a solid connection to the homeland. We have experienced the former with emigration from the Middle East, Armenia and Baku over the last 60 years. In the last 10 years, the identity connection with Armenia has accelerated, through numerous youth- and professional-oriented programs. Some institutions, such as the church, have created impressive immersion programs, but have been slow to respond to the intermarriage reality and societal (secular) barriers.

The common thread between all these examples is that self-assessment has not been a traditional strength of the diaspora. Change has been driven primarily by reaction, not action. We wait for a problem to fester, then make attempts to mitigate the negative impact. The CEO of a company I once worked for told me that great companies never lose their appetite to improve, even during periods of success. In such a diverse and dynamic environment as the diaspora, we should have control mechanisms for continuous self-evaluation that trump authority, egos or defensiveness. We have no such mechanism to improve our effectiveness. We depend on individual organizations for improvement. Some have the leadership, and others don’t. This raises the question: Is the diaspora organized for success with the homeland? I have observed an emphasis on promoting one’s organization at the expense of macro goals and collaborative opportunities. Some pan-Armenian initiatives have emerged, but aside from an organizational presence in Armenia, the model has not changed. If we are to optimize the vast resources of the diaspora and explore new initiatives, such as in the defense industry, we need new collaborative models within our existing structure and new public-private ventures. This starts with bold leadership that has the resources to make a difference.

We all have opinions on the causes of the loss of Artsakh and where to assign blame. Assigning blame has never improved reality and only provides temporary emotional outlets. Most of the concern is directed towards the Armenian government. This is not unnatural. When you lose something, the initial response is to blame someone other than the image in the mirror. We have to focus on where we can make a difference. Most of us in the diaspora are not citizens of the Republic of Armenia. Our relationship is based primarily on an endearing love of the homeland, which is manifested through generosity and commitment. We also tend to be free with our opinions without regard to their impact. 

It is healthy and essential to conduct critical reviews of our performance in the diaspora. When it comes to advocacy for Armenia, are we focused on what the homeland wants or what we think is in their interests?

It is healthy and essential to conduct critical reviews of our performance in the diaspora. When it comes to advocacy for Armenia, are we focused on what the homeland wants or what we think is in their interests? Currently, Armenia is attempting a western alignment, which makes U.S.-Armenian advocacy convenient and popular. What would be our approach if Armenia advocated a strategic relationship, for example, with Iran and India? Would we still view it in Armenia’s interest to advocate a western alignment? How would it affect advocacy work here in America? 

Diaspora support must be at least loosely aligned with Armenia’s foreign policy. If we are to take credit for advocacy wins, such as foreign aid or U.S. recognition of the Armenian Genocide, then we should also accept our failure to influence U.S. policy as it relates to Artsakh and the Azerbaijani aggression towards Armenia. While our advocacy efforts address various subjects such as Genocide recognition and education, with Armenia’s survival at risk, America’s foreign policy toward Armenia is the priority. There are three branches of the United States federal government – judicial, legislative and executive – with numerous checks and balances, but foreign policy is essentially developed in the executive branch through the State Department. The legislative arm, Congress, has oversight, non-binding and review capability, but is not the main driver. Anyone who witnessed Sen. Menendez’s Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Artsakh saw the limitations of Congressional oversight. The PR firms and think tanks that influence the State Department should be considered an area of investment. 

We just suffered a devastating and frustrating lobbying defeat in this country with the Artsakh catastrophe. The United States did little to end the blockade or prevent the military attack and watched as Armenians were deported from their native land. Our failures represented the intersection of idealism and pragmatic self-interest. It may be time to consider shifting our tactics. Can we honestly say that the hundreds of statements and non-binding proposals of support from elected Congressional officials had an impact? The Armenian diaspora in France is producing results, seen in the French plan to deliver military defensive hardware to Armenia. Europeans have observers on the ground along Armenia’s border with extended commitment. America has offered support after the fact through USAID. There is a fear that the limited diplomatic support Armenia has received from the U.S. will be significantly diluted as a result of the Israel-Hamas war. Meetings with Congressional officials create the perception of influence but have delivered very little in terms of impact. This is a difficult message, in part because of the respect I have for the staff and volunteers of the ANCA and Armenian Assembly of America. They worked tirelessly for our people. I would suggest that we internalize this reality, assess the root causes and consider alternatives to improve the impact.

In an earlier column, I said that times of crisis create a crossroads. We have the choice of feeling sorry and directing blame, or we can take an honest look at ourselves, assess what we can control and take bold, corrective action. These are difficult times, but enlightened leadership should display no fear of new thinking. We should shed the distractions that distort our view of the critical goals. Pan-Armenian thinking should motivate our organizations to mobilize the diaspora to increase its impact in critical areas and open new opportunities. There are many collaborative models to consider that have been proposed in recent dialogue. Patriotic leaders should never be satisfied with sub-optimal processes. When opportunities are identified where collaboration can deliver greater impact, we should embrace those options and subordinate our affiliations in favor of the one that counts—the Armenian nation.

Stepan Piligian

Stepan Piligian

Stepan was raised in the Armenian community of Indian Orchard, MA at the St. Gregory Parish. A former member of the AYF Central Executive and the Eastern Prelacy Executive Council, he also served many years as a delegate to the Eastern Diocesan Assembly. Currently , he serves as a member of the board and executive committee of the National Association for Armenian Studies and Research (NAASR). He also serves on the board of the Armenian Heritage Foundation. Stepan is a retired executive in the computer storage industry and resides in the Boston area with his wife Susan. He has spent many years as a volunteer teacher of Armenian history and contemporary issues to the young generation and adults at schools, camps and churches. His interests include the Armenian diaspora, Armenia, sports and reading.

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