by: Aram Hovasapyan
A prevalent issue that often turns into a heated debate among Armenians is the role and significance of Armenians residing in the homeland and those in the diaspora. This argument creates a burning feeling in me, as I associate myself and feel a sense of belonging with both camps. I was born in Armenia, and lived there during the most dire years of the Second Republic, from 1991 to 1996. My family then moved to America by chance (a relative in America filled out a green card for us on his own initiative), and my parents, like true pioneers, worked hard to achieve the American Dream. We never forget our roots, and we wholeheartedly do everything in our ability to help Armenians at home and in our communities. Fortunately, we are not alone. The fact that my sister, all our fellow interns, and I devoted our spare time to serving, promoting, and helping Armenian causes by interning at the Armenian National Committee of America-Western Region is a testament of the sincere love we feel for our fatherland.
The argument boils up on the topic of the involvement of the diaspora regarding the homeland. Many in Armenia believe that the diaspora should not have a say or the ability to criticize the actions of Armenians in Armenia since diasporan Armenians are considered to be “foreigners.”
I would like to begin by pointing out that the first attempts to establish an independent Armenia after the fall of Cilicia came from diasporan Armenians. Israel Ori was an Armenian born to a melik of Zangezur in the 17th century who spent most of his life abroad in European political circles laying down the plans of an independent Armenia. Joseph Emin, another Armenian who would continue Ori’s legacy in attempting to liberate Armenia from Turkish and Persian rule, stemmed from the Armenian community in Calcutta. How many of us even knew that there existed a community of Armenians in India? Emin lobbied for the establishment of an independent Armenia to the English, Russians, and even to the Georgian king. In fact, it was when he went to encourage the Armenian clergy and leadership in Etchmiadzin (in the heart of Armenia) to join the movement that he was met with the most apathy. Following his frustrating experience, Emin returned to Calcutta where he wrote an autobiography titled, “The Life and Adventures of Joseph Emin, An Armenian.” For this diasporan Armenian, his ethnicity and all the duties he associated with being a proud Armenian were so central to him that he could not help but include the word “Armenian” following his name; it was the core of his identity. Furthermore, a majority of the founding fathers of the First Republic were diasporan Armenians. All four prime ministers of the First Republic (Katchaznouni, Khatisyan, Ohanjanyan, and Vratsian) were diasporan Armenians as well!
Today, the Armenian diaspora goes to extreme measures to better the interests of Armenia and its inhabitants. Dedicated Armenians painstakingly lobby the politicians of their adopted countries to promote the Armenian cause and improve conditions in Armenia. It is through the work of the ANCA that America extends aid to Karabakh – the only country that the US does not recognize but provides financial aid to. It is through the devotion and sweat of the Armenian diaspora in France that President Hollande is attempting to put another bill that criminalizes denial of the Armenian genocide into circulation, despite there being a precedent which declared such a bill unconstitutional during Sarkozy’s term. In fact, the Armenian diaspora is so instrumental in aiding Armenia that President Aliev declared in a speech during the Eurovision 2012 Contest that, “The Armenian lobby is enemy number one for Azerbaijan’s government and people.” Before the Armenian-Turkish protocols were signed (they are yet to be ratified by either country’s parliament) President Sargsyan toured among Armenian communities throughout the world, trying to promote support for the protocols. He was met by fervent opposition and protest almost everywhere, but he had to acknowledge that the diaspora was a force that Armenia depended on and could not ignore. Nonetheless, the protocols were signed, signifying that the Armenian diaspora was to stay out of Armenia’s business.
Financial aid to Armenia from the diaspora further sheds light on the critical role the diaspora plays in the survival of the homeland. In 2011, financial transfers from the outside into personal bank accounts in Armenia totaled 1.960 billion dollars. If one accounts for all other outside contributions such as the cash left to relatives and friends by the diaspora, the figure will be close to the state budget of Armenia in 2011—$3.1 billion. In addition, consider the money so loyally raised by the diaspora in telethons and other donational organs to better the quality of life for our brothers and sisters at home.
Those who support the argument that diasporan Armenians should have no say in the way matters are dealt with in Armenia and should not have the right to criticize the actions of homeland Armenians do not comprehend and appreciate the role and magnitude of the involvement of the diaspora in the historical and current state of Armenia. Diasporan Armenians contribute with the sole aim of helping their homeland; criticizing and yearning for a voice in Armenia is done with that same aim in mind. Diasporan Armenians have seen – often more powerful and tested than Armenia – how critical issues are dealt with and the results the responses lead to. They are in a better position to catch and expose problems and shortcomings in the relatively new Republic of Armenia. It is very much a tendency and tradition fostered and encouraged in countries with longer democratic histories for their populations to address issues that displease them. Diasporan Armenians, many of whom reside in such countries and are reassured by these traditions, utilize this tradition to point to problems in Armenia and offer solutions. Many times, both the problems and offered solutions are ignored by Armenians in Armenia, who deny that these problems could be corrected for the benefit of all Armenians exist.
Other great diasporan Armenians include Marten Yorgants, the writer and singer of “Ayb-Ben-Gim”, “Hayeren Yerkenk”, and other songs that Armenian children of our motherland grew up singing, in order to learn the Armenian alphabet. Richard Hovannisian, the renowned historian and professor who wrote the most comprehensive account of the First Republic and recounted, criticized, and praised the history of Armenia, has resided among the Armenian community in California his entire life. His patriotic son Raffi Hovannisian, who left a successful law career in America and returned to serve his homeland was intentionally not granted Armenian citizenship and left with no papers until months after renouncing his American citizenship in order to be eligible for Armenian citizenship. During the Karabakh war, many diasporan Armenians, such as Monte Melkonian, returned to Armenia and sacrificed their lives for the freedom of their countrymen. Would anyone dare look these men and all the other diasporan figures that I mentioned in the eyes and say that they are not as Armenian and do not have the same rights as Armenians residing in Armenia? Would it be too much for the diasporan Armenian activist whose voluntary work reaches Armenia to expect for his concerns to be heard and responded to? Should the diasporan Armenian who has the “right” to donate and spend extensively in Armenia not have the right to point out and expose problems that, when resolved, would benefit Armenia?
I, along with all Armenians residing in the diaspora love our Armenia and wish to see nothing but its betterment. Armenia is our home and we work painstakingly for our country; our ceaseless and energetic deeds for Armenia’s improvement should reflect that. The diaspora doesn’t claim to be the owner of Armenia, but it is only appropriate that the suggestions, concerns, and criticisms of this crucial and always-helping organ be voiced and properly addressed.
I am writing with great pain because I am a proud Armenian and my parents are heartfelt Armenians. Anything that happens in Armenia is dear to us. We are jubilant about Armenia’s achievements, and at the same time, we feel deeply saddened when our beloved motherland is dolefully stagnating in its hardship. Our hearts are crying out for Armenians leaving Armenia. We want to help our precious country turn into a desired land where many diasporans will repatriate it. In my heart and mind, I am an Armenian, but by my physical existence, I am a diasporan Armenian who is eager to serve his country. However, knowing that I am considered an outsider is a very bitter realization.