NEW YORK — 2016 is the year in which the status quo was challenged around the world and it’s no different for Armenia. That’s why Justice Armenia has marked the first week of 2017 as the kick off for “The Diaspora-Armenia Reset.”
This event will take place on Thursday, January 4, 2017, 7:30 pm at the Tribeca Film Center in New York City. The intention is to change the conversation about how the Diaspora and Armenia relate and explore their respective roles and responsibilities, if any, to work together toward new objectives.
The dialogue begins with an up-close look at the systemic corruption in Armenia that impacts the very foundation of democracy—namely free and fair elections. To that end, “Referendum Rewind”—a specially commissioned, hour-long film by independent filmmaker Robert Davidian— will help set the stage.
In the same vein as academy award winning filmmaker Michael Moore, Mr. Davidian follows his camera into the fray, as voters head to the polling stations to decide whether to reform the constitution of Armenia. The film presents a real-time glimpse into the nation’s political life and the state of mind of various stakeholders—from everyday voters and political thought leaders to party operatives, civil society activists, and international election observers, including several from the Diaspora.
“It has always been our belief that Armenia is too small to withstand the injustices that are imposed on everyday citizens,” states Ara Araz, co-founder of the two-year old Justice Armenia, a community organization spawned in response to the alarming rates of emigration that have persisted for almost as long as Armenia has been a sovereign state.
“While it’s easy to pin the blame on basic economics, many emigres are motivated to leave because of the pervasive corruption throughout society. This prevents them from living up to their potential to be productive, self-sufficient citizens,” Mr. Araz further explained. “Poor governance has shown itself to be the main reason why nations fail. The overlap of oligarchy with a fragile democracy has cast too wide a shadow on Armenia’s future for too long.”
But massive electoral fraud is just one dimension of the false start to democracy that for many years was not even on the radar of the Diaspora. Up until about four years ago, the subjects of corruption, emigration and oligarchical rule were not even up for public discussion. In 2012, Justice Armenia’s founders organized the first of the “Truth or Consequences” community forums. And once the proverbial ice was broken, it unleashed other likeminded events across the United States, Canada and Europe.
“In the wake of the bloody takeover of the Yerevan police headquarters last summer, certain elements of the Diaspora began to take serious stock of challenges that have been percolating in Armenia for some time,” states Tamar Hovsepian, Executive Director of Justice Armenia and a native of Armenia.“ Now we may be at the boiling point. So the Diaspora is scrambling for solutions while in-country activists are grappling with how to manage a backlash by authorities. This has put Armenia’s political life on a collision course. We need to find a detour before it’s too late,” she added.
Since the hostage taking and crackdown on protesters, various high profile Diasporans, ad-hoc community groups and even a few more established Diasporan organizations have issued statements addressing human rights violations in Armenia. This suggests that now is the pivotal moment to hit the reset button on Diaspora-Armenia relations.
To help consider these issues, Justice Armenia has invited Nate Shenkkan of Freedom House to participate as a guest speaker, as a follow up to the film. Mr. Shenkkan is the Project Director for Nations in Transit, Freedom House’s annual survey of democratic governance from Central Europe to Eurasia. He previously served as Senior Program Officer for Freedom House’s Eurasia programs, covering Turkey and Central Asia.
His recent research on Central Asia focuses on the regional economic crisis and the evolution of the Eurasian Economic Union treaty in the wake of the Ukrainian revolution. He is the creator and host of The Central Asianist Podcast, a regular interview series with experts and journalists covering the region. Prior to joining Freedom House in 2012, he worked as a journalist in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.
Mr. Shenkkan’s reporting and analysis has been published in Foreign Affairs Online, The Atlantic Online, Eurasianet, World Politics Review, and Russian Analytical Digest. He was the lead researcher and co-author of two Freedom House special reports including The Struggle for Turkey’s Internet and Democracy in Crisis: Corruption, Media and Power in Turkey.
Ara Araz will serve as moderator for what is expected to be a constructive Q&A that helps generate new ideas on how the Diaspora can help promote democratic values. This includes participating as election observers in the upcoming Parliamentary elections set for early April 2017. To facilitate this effort, Justice Armenia is currently organizing a group delegation under the banner 2017 Transparency Tour.
This 7-day group visit to Yerevan from March 29-April 5, 2017, will be an immersive experience for all who wish to gain clarity on the stakes and the players in Armenia’s pro-democracy movement. It will also give them an opportunity to share lessons and experiences about citizen obligations in promoting and preserving liberty—an ongoing civil society-building effort that will unite Diaspora and Armenia based on common ideals. For more information about this unprecedented trip to the homeland, go to www.justicearmenia.com/transparencytour