Where is the outrage? Our passivity is alarming!

The global Armenian nation has a well-deserved reputation as a peaceful and valuable community. Whether in the homeland or our vast diaspora, our people have opted for civil relations internationally and contributed to the development of our earthly civilization. There have been times in our history when our affinity for peace has been confused with a tendency for passivity. They are not the same and should not be viewed as interchangeable. A peaceful nation is usually connected with respectful behavior and a commitment to avoiding conflict. This clearly describes Armenia, particularly in modern times when its military actions have consistently been in a defensive mode. One can advocate for peace, but if the other party seeks violence, then defending your rights comes into play. 

This is the story of 1918 and more recently of the Republics of Armenia and Artsakh. Passivity means accepting the current reality with minimal resistance. If one lives on the eastern and southern border regions of Armenia, they experience a commitment to peace but not passivity. The people of Tavush, Kapan, Goris and the surrounding villages know the difference between praying for peace and accepting oppression. If you frequent the cafes of Yerevan, you might find a different perspective. Patriotism and activism are more of an academic exercise, given the geographic distance from the challenges facing the border regions. There is a more urbane and casual approach to what our border regions experience each day. It is far more complicated in the diaspora. Most diaspora Armenians possess an opinion on the issues of peace and the risks of passivity, but the physical distance and cultural aloofness enable opinions without commitment. Thankfully, many in the diaspora have discovered an identity that allows for “skin in the game,” either through philanthropy, dual citizenship or onsite participation, but the majority remain on the periphery. The challenges facing Armenia’s sovereignty over the last 30 years have sharpened our understanding of the mission of the diaspora. While contributions have evolved from financial support to NGO development and repatriation, the diaspora has struggled with its public political support role. This is partially due to the diversity of what we refer to as the diaspora. Is it the role of the diaspora to support the republic or to express views that may be independent? What is patriotism? I wish the struggle was limited to a difference of perspectives. Unfortunately, ambivalence is a major concern.

This political identity challenge is partially hidden from view because of the strong public infrastructure of our organizational foundation with groups such as the ANCA, Assembly, ARS and AGBU. Technology and marketing platforms have inflated the public perception of these groups, which benefits both Armenia and the organizations. They are led by patriotic Armenians with notable commitment. In spite of these impressive foundations, our best work is done through programs that are organized over time, not with sudden changes in our political environment. In the last two years, Armenians have suffered physically and psychologically with the atrocities committed in Artsakh. The illegal blockade and forced deportation of the entire population are surreal reminders of the genocidal policies of Ottoman Turkey. The diaspora’s response through humanitarian aid has been admirable. Our generosity knows no bounds for our brethren. To the extent that local parishes have organized efforts or national groups have mobilized, it has been inspiring and meaningful, albeit time consuming. Our political responses have been less effective. 

Free Armenian POWs silent protest, Cambridge, Mass., May 2021 (Photo: Knar Bedian)

I am particularly concerned about the lack of public outrage over the up to 80 hostages held by Azerbaijan, including civilians and former government officials of Artsakh. We should not be surprised by the Azeri criminals. They have consistently violated international law for decades through humanitarian and territorial violations and human rights abuses. This is a country that commits genocide through blockades designed to starve an entire population and ignores the international court they have committed to honor. Azerbaijan is an uncivilized dictatorship, and we know this. We should focus on the passivity of our response to Azerbaijan’s hostage taking. These are not POWs held in accordance with an international convention. These are political prisoners held as hostages to extract a political ransom. We have failed to display a sustained public outrage demanding resolution.

We live in a time when the national media is flooded on a daily basis with pictures of the Israeli hostages held by Hamas. Despite the atrocities committed by Israel in response, with the complete devastation of Gaza and over 25,000 lives lost (majority of them women and children), the focus remains on the hostages. One of the ways our passivity manifests is through rationalization for inaction in the diaspora. Many Armenians say it is unfair to compare ours to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. There is some merit to this argument, but where are our posters, vigils and demonstrations? While our compatriots rot in Azeri prisons, our inaction is depressing. Are we numb over the volume of atrocities? Are we fatigued by the continuous losses? Have we become overwhelmed with a belief that our actions don’t count? Or is it that we simply don’t care? I have asked these questions of many Armenians in the American diaspora. As you can well imagine, there are a variety of responses, ranging from ‘It is our leaders’ responsibility’ to ‘No one is listening.’ Perhaps the most alarming response that I have encountered comes from individuals with negative opinions of some of the prisoners. I found this to be particularly unfortunate. Our hostages should be viewed only as fellow Armenians held by a barbaric enemy. Anything that connects inaction to political views is irresponsible and keeps us in political infancy. Our limited activism on the Armenian hostages is an example of the challenges facing the diaspora politically. How can we declare our solidarity with our imprisoned brethren yet offer little in terms of meaningful support? Maintaining awareness in a world crowded with tragedies is an important role of the diaspora. It is important  to distinguish between legal advocacy, such as litigation filed with the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) on behalf of the jailed hostages, and the type of public activism we are all capable of in every diaspora community.    

The activists who fight against Azeri oppression and community passivity usually take a long-term view of this work. It is important that they not become disheartened by underwhelming support. They understand that it is always a well-organized minority who works to inspire the majority. We should be thankful for their dedication, but the best way to honor their commitment is to become and stay active.

Community-based activism has two primary purposes. The first and most visible is to influence decision makers in government or other important circles. Another objective that is often taken for granted is to keep the Armenian community itself aware, informed and energized. Maintaining generational continuity in activism is critical to sustaining our advocacy campaigns. The ANCA and Armenian Assembly both operate with a core of dedicated resources who are ardent activists and financial supporters, but they actually represent a small plurality of the community. This is fairly typical of how community activism works. They count on the peripheral majority to support public programs such as demonstrations, educational programs and lobbying. Our performance to date on current issues is questionable. Sustainable public events are infrequent. There are noble efforts sponsored by the AYF and Zoravik that need stronger public support. The activists who fight against Azeri oppression and community passivity usually take a long-term view of this work. It is important that they not become disheartened by underwhelming support. They understand that it is always a well-organized minority who works to inspire the majority. We should be thankful for their dedication, but the best way to honor their commitment is to become and stay active. Our hostages in Azerbaijan need our public support to keep the focus on their release. It is not enough for us to occasionally share our private disgust with the crimes of Azerbaijan. If the Armenian community does not display its unrelenting commitment to reversing this tragedy, then what can we expect of third party mediators? We must garner our energy and channel it effectively in the public domain. There are too many problems in this world to resolve in a timely manner. Influence, visibility and aligning interests determine who gets rewarded. 

Armenia and Azerbaijan are engaged in volatile peace negotiations that at some point will address territorial integrity, border demarcation and the hostages. It should be our role to keep the spotlight on the illegal incarceration of the citizens, soldiers and public servants. During the Artsakh blockade, I shared the work of two New York Armenians who sponsored a daily (weekday) vigil in front of the United Nations to bring attention to the genocidal blockade denying the people of Artsakh basic human necessities. It was very effective, because it was simple and sustainable. It attracted a diverse audience of Armenians, who established relationships that have opened new avenues. Their work was visible in Artsakh and gave hope to those suffering that they were not forgotten. 

It is important to advocate for land and rights, but the release of our hostages is comparable to providing humanitarian relief to our Artsakh refugees. The eight former members of the Artsakh government are brave individuals who consciously decided to stay with their people. They didn’t attempt to use their positions for a privileged exit. They were detained as deportees by the Azeri military. There are others who were defending their homes, seeking medical help or simply living in their ancestral homeland. To the Azeris, they are traitors and disloyal, which is reminiscent of the Turkish revisionism that has educated generations that the Armenians were problematic. To all Armenians, they are our brothers and sisters who are deserving of our best efforts to secure their freedom.They must never be forgotten, and we have a responsibility to advocate. The best way to oppose this threat of passivity is to stand tall against the injustices that remain unresolved. Activism dilutes passivity. Each of us is capable of organizing public events to educate and promote an end to their imprisonment. It is here in the diaspora, living in the midst of the European Union, United Nations and their affiliates, that we can keep this topic fresh while the negotiations continue. If you are feeling helpless concerning Artsakh (I have heard this from many), immerse yourself in the humanitarian work of the deportees and the plight of our hostages. It is important work, and you will be making a contribution to reduce dangerous passivity.

Stepan Piligian

Stepan Piligian

Columnist
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.
Stepan Piligian

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5 Comments

  1. I wonder if the lack of collaboration between the ARF and the Government of Armenia has something to do with passivity of our Diaspora. We can be smart enough to disagree, but still be able collaborate.

  2. Charity begins at home, no? Our diaspora political leaders need to lead the charge and organize a response. Otherwise, isn’t this just more useless bellyaching?

  3. I agree with Mr. Piligian. The Diaspora has been way too passive in regard to the 10-months long blockade in Artsakh as well as the illegal imprisonment of Armenian POW’s and civilians by Azerbaijan, which is a testament to the lack of organized leadership in our communities, including the representatives of the Republic of Armenia in the USA, such as the Ambassador and the numerous Consuls, whether official or honorary, whose silence on the aforementioned issues is deafening.

    • I think the main factor is that the Pashinyan administration is (and has been for the past 6 years) anti-Diaspora with the exception of the handful of their supporters. Whatever the Diaspora does will be unwelcome and any failure then will be blamed on us. You know how all these disasters are not their fault but someone else’s. Who wants to work with people like that? Remember when in the UN different ministers were pressing Azerbaijan about Artsakh and then Pashinyan went and said “it is Azerbaijani internal matter”.

      The Pashinyan administration is totally untrustworthy.

  4. The passivity that you write about is just the tip of the iceberg. My observation is that the passivity is just one of the many manifestations of an unhealthy community in the US which is underperforming relative to its wealth and individual talent. The remedies that I propose are long term, financially costly, and politically difficult for existing organizations:

    a) Education is the key to reviving the Armenian diaspora. The goal should be for every Armenian in the US to have a basic knowledge of its language, history and religion. This can be accomplished by setting up schools K 1-8, either affiliated with local churches or independent, somewhat analogous to Catholic parish schools. This will be expensive to set up but needed if the communities are going to be revived and have long term future. In addition, existing programs that encourage youth to go to Armenia either as tourists or for longer visits , should be greatly increased with financial and other incentives
    b) Organize the communities( city, state ,national level) with elected leaders that represent existing organization and new ones that emerge to address the existential crisis facing the Armenian nation. I suggest that they be less ideological, less divisive so that ordinary people with a modest interest in Armenian affairs are welcome to participate. The current model that appeals to “activists” will always attract a small group. The goal is to broaden the engagement of Armenians. It would also help if Armenian Christianity revives spiritually and intellectually and address the complex issues facing the communities.
    c) The organized communities should have significant financial goals to a) be effective in their outreach and b) bench mark their success or failure. We can no longer afford to have another “great successful event” that raises a few thousand dollars. Those are well meaning charitable activities and should continue. But lets not confuse that with Diaspora Economics. A diaspora of several million people should have a budget of at least $ 500 million dollars /year to fund major projects in the diaspora and in Armenia. This money will come partially from rich donors but also from the thousands of Armenians who are now not engaged. Of course it will be very important to show that their dollar contributions are having a positive effect in their communities.
    d) The existing structures in the diaspora are not working very well because they have essentially been transferred from the Middle East. There is a need for fresh thinking for countering assimilation in the US, the changing power structures globally and Armenia’s position in it. There is a need for a rapprochement between Armenia and the Diaspora. The problems are deeper than the current prime minister. It helps if there is a democratically elected leadership that can speak for the Diaspora to the Armenian government and to world bodies like the UN or ICJ.
    e) Lobbying activities by the communities should be benchmarked on how successful are they. For example, Armenian voices have been absent in the current debate about genocide following the ICJ ruling on the Gaza/ Israel war. Armenian scholars have been researching the topic for at least fifty years and should have been one of the leading thought leaders on the topic, writing Op Ed articles in NYT and WaPo. Closer to home, the blockade and ethnic cleansing of Artsakh went almost unnoticed with no consequences for Azerbaijan. Therefore based on this and other lobbying problems in congress, one should make an honest assessment of how effective Armenians are. Organizations such as NAASR, ANC, Armenian Assembly, the Promise Institute, Armenian center at U. Michigan should reevaluate their approaches.

    In summary, I believe there has to be a major overhaul in Armenian thinking and doing in the Diaspora to overcome the passivity.

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