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The Armenian Diaspora in the 21st Century
Following is the text of remarks delivered by Dr. Dr. Razmik Panossian, during a panel discussion, organized by AGBU Young Professionals of Los Angeles (YPLA), entitled: The Armenian Diaspora at a Crossroads – 21st Century Challenges..
The purpose of this panel is to look ahead, into the 21st Century, as we examine the Armenian diaspora. There are five factors that are important because they will shape Armenian politics and society for the foreseeable future. If we are to understand the diaspora of the future, we must look at it in the context for these factors.
The first point has to do with Turkey. It might seem odd to start a discussion of the Armenian diaspora with Turkey, but what happens in Turkey is going to have a profound impact on Armenia and Armenians. A Turkey that is democratizing further poses both an ideological challenge for the diaspora (it can no longer be dismissed as a repressive and violent state à la “Midnight Express”) and a political one (the politics of Genocide recognition will change as more and more academics and civil society voices in Turkey start speaking about the murderous past of the country).
Second, the economic integration of the South Caucasus region is progressing rapidly, while Armenia is left behind because of the closed borders. Whether we think globalization is a positive force or a negative one is not the issue here. It is a reality in the region as the economies of Turkey, Ukraine, Russia, Georgia, Azerbaijan and even Iran (to a limited degree) further connect with one another. Armenia’s long term well-being cannot be separated from the economies of its neighbors.
Third, the “democratic deficit” in Armenia continues, unabated, with high rates of corruption, the absence of rule of law, a “mafioso” economy run like a fiefdom (it is said that 44 families control about half of the GDP of the country) and poverty levels that are staggering (40% of children in Armenia live below the poverty line). As a result, every few years, Armenian politics goes through a major crisis. Beneath the veneer of stability there exists a structurally weak political and economic system. The diaspora must understand this and react appropriately based on facts. Shoving problems under the carpet does not do anyone any favors.
Fourth, the possibility of war over Gharabagh is always there. If there is another war, how will the diaspora react? Much like the early 1990s or less enthusiastically? Moreover, if there are US or Israeli strikes against Iranian nuclear installations, Armenia and the Western diaspora will be in a very difficult situation. The open border with Iran is a crucial trade link Armenia cannot afford to lose. An Iran at war against the United States or Israel will put the diaspora in the US in a strenuous bind.
Finally, the fifth point is the changing nature of the diaspora itself. The “centre” of the diaspora has shifted from Lebanon to Los Angeles, and in the future might shift to Russia as the hundreds of thousands of Armenians in Russia begin to organize. Identity in diaspora shifts too, as well as its politics. How will Armenians of the United States cope with these changes is an open question.
What it means to be Armenian is a fluid and ever changing process. In the 21st Century, as in the past, there will be many ways of being Armenian. Let me give some examples: I once witnessed a 15 year old school boy in Armenia, born, raised and going to school there ask the following questions to his father as we were driving by the Akhurian River, near the border with Turkey. The boy asked “where is Mount Ararat, in Armenia or in Turkey?” “what is Ani?” and “what religion are the Turks?” He did not know where the national symbol of Armenians, which he saw every day, was; he had no clue of existence of the famous Armenian medieval city of Ani; and he did not know the most basic difference between Armenians and Turks. And yet, no one would – or should – deny that he is Armenian. Contrast this with the extreme nationalists in Armenia, the Tseghagrons, a representative of whom told me: “national blood must stay pure. Hence, mixed marriages and cultural hybridity are not acceptable. The onslaught of the West must be rejected. For example, Western concepts such as human rights, feminism, etc. are foreign to Armenian values and must be opposed.” Two Armenians, living in the same country, and yet so different.
In the diaspora, the differences are even more pronounced: Armenian speakers and non-Armenian speakers, traditional community organizations maintaining schools or holding cultural events and System of a Down signing about genocide (heavy metal Hai Tad!), Kim Kardashian and the newly emigrated from Armenia…. What unites all of these people is not a specific set of “objective” cultural markers – none exist that is common to all – but a sense of being Armenian, perhaps a sense of history, and a connection to a homeland, however (abstractly) defined. Admittedly, the examples I am giving are extreme cases, but they are indicative of the scope in the diversity of being Armenian.
In 21st Century this kind of multiple ways of being or multiple identities will continue. It will simultaneously diversify and connect further due to new technologies and social media. Armenians’ success as a nation depends on their ability to adapt to these changes, and yet to maintain a sense of Armenianness.
As we look toward future, let’s keep an eye on the past. Whenever there has been a major innovation, you will find Armenians there – e.g. becoming Christian, the alphabet, the printing press (Armenian was the 10th language in which books were printed in early 1500s), pioneering trade networks that ushered in the first stage of globalization in the 17th and 18th centuries, adopting nationalism in the 19th Century and Communism (by some) in the early 20th, etc. The same thing will happen in the 21st Century. There will be Armenians in the diaspora 100 years from now, except we will not be able to recognize them based on our definitions and practices of Armenianness, just as our great-grandparents will not recognize us based on their notions of what it meant to be Armenian.
Razmik Panossian is the author of the critically acclaimed book, The Armenians: From Kings and Priests to Merchants and Commissars, published by Columbia University Press.