The Diaspora must act as an agent for change in Armenia

Published in The Armenian Weekly
8 October 2012
By Houry Mayissian

The National Assembly of Armenia voted on Oct. 2 to remove former Foreign Affairs Minister and Prosperous Armenia MP Vartan Oskanian’s parliamentary immunity. Oskanian is being accused of money laundering in what is widely perceived to be a political move to impede his return to active politics.

Around the same time, activists from Armenia and the diaspora gathered in New York and then in San Francisco and Los Angeles for the Armenians and Progressive Politics (APP) Conference to discuss a range of issues from foreign policy, to civil society development and the rule of law in Armenia. While the presentations delivered at the conference are yet to be made public, there was a clear call from many of the speakers for the diaspora to be more active in the promotion of democracy in Armenia.

Ironically, the two events couldn’t have coincided better. Two decades on, the disconnect between independent Armenia’s realities and the diaspora’s understanding of these realities is striking.

In the past 21 years, entrenched Soviet legacies of corruption and a lack of respect for basic freedoms and fundamental rights have hindered the democratization of Armenia. A strategic alliance with Russia, a country that faces its own serious challenges when it comes to democracy, has not helped. Some have even argued that the lack of a peaceful resolution of the Nagorno-Karabagh conflict has allowed Armenia’s rulers to cling to power and derailed democratization.

While the challenges for democracy to take root in Armenia have been many, the agents for change have been few.

Some external powers have tried to fill this role, yet have been limited in their ability to drive true change. A case in point is the impact Armenia’s integration into various European structures has had on delivering internal change.

Armenia undertook formal obligations to adopt democratic reforms as part of its membership in the Council of Europe (since 2001), the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (since 1998), as well as cooperation with the European Union particularly under the European Neighborhood Policy starting in the mid 2000’s.

Successive Armenian governments embarked on a series of legislative reforms in the judicial, electoral, human rights, and fundamental freedoms spheres. Constitutional reforms were adopted, election laws were reformed and refined time and again, and legislation relating to freedom of assembly and media freedom, to name a few, were amended in cooperation with experts from these organizations.

In practice, however, legislative reforms have failed to translate into behavioral change. In what democratization experts call cost and benefit calculations by governments, the potential threat posed by putting these reforms into practice has surpassed any benefit that may come out of implementing behavioral change. In other words, when it comes to democratic reform triggered by external pressure, the ruling elites in Armenia have talked the talk but failed to walk the walk.

In recent years civil society and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have emerged as potential change agents in Armenia. NGOs were quick to mushroom in Armenia following the disintegration of the Soviet Union. It has been argued that the Armenian NGO sector has been influenced by the availability of funds from donors who have not only played a role in shaping the issues raised but also the solutions proposed, often resulting in a mismatch with the local context (see Ishkhanian, A. Democracy Building and Civil Society in Post-Soviet Armenia, New York: Routledge, 2008).

While civil society in Armenia faces significant challenges, a number of civic initiatives have been able to rally and maintain enough popular support to register small successes. We have seen examples in the fields of environmental activism (for example, the “Save Teghut” initiative), domestic violence, and the protection of public spaces (the campaign against the demolition of Mashdots Park).

Some of these initiatives have also resonated with the diaspora. Such was the case of the anti-domestic violence initiatives organized in the U.S. following the murder of 20-year old Zaruhi Petrosyan, beaten to death by her husband. By and large, however, the diaspora’s involvement in Armenia’s democratization has remained minimal.

There needs to be a deeper understanding in the diaspora of the serious threats that corruption, the absence of rule of law and accountability, and persistent violations of human rights constitute to the long-term viability of the Armenian state. More than 20 years after Armenia’s independence, it is high time for the diaspora to open its eyes to these realities and reassess its role in bringing change to Armenia.

What can we in the diaspora do? To begin with, we need to start talking about the serious internal issues that threaten Armenia today. We need to start talking about them not in a way that feeds into already well-established stereotypes, but in a way that creates meaningful public discourse and seeks solutions.

Do we have a vision for Armenia? What is it? How do we get there? These are the questions we need to be asking ourselves today as individuals and communities. The imperative for internal reforms in Armenia must become a topic of mainstream concern and discussion in the diaspora if we are to find ways to affect positive change in the country.

The structures and processes by which the diaspora can influence the course of democracy in Armenia is a topic that warrants serious discussion and one we are yet to start. However, in trying to bring change to Armenia, the diaspora can find an important ally in civil society. A generation of young and motivated Armenians who want better for their country exists in Armenia today. Let’s reach out to them, learn from them, empower them. They may become the country’s next leaders.

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the emergence of an independent Armenia, the priority for the diaspora was to provide immediate relief to an impoverished country devastated by an earthquake and a protracted war. Now it is time for the diaspora to re-consider its priorities in Armenia and act as a much needed agent for change in the country.


Armenia at 21: A different type of reflection

As thoughts on Armenia 21 years after independence pour in from all parts of the world, for me the anniversary triggered a different type of reflection: a look at my very own journey with this 21 year old country.

My very first memory of any physical existence of Armenia is from years ago. I couldn’t have been more than 6 or 7. I’m talking late 80’s. I vaguely remember a drive to donate clothes either for the survivors of the earthquake or for Artsakh Armenians. I’m not too sure. And I remember giving away generously.

My memory fails me on the details. But this donation campaign is engraved in my mind as the first time I engaged in a tangible way with an otherwise abstract presence. I have come a long way on my Armenian journey since those days. If there is one thing true for both the child and adult, however, it is the feeling that I have an obligation towards this country.

I grew up attending an Armenian school in Lebanon, spending my spare time as an active badani. I knew my fedayee history inside out. At one point, I even wanted to become a film director when I grew up so I could produce a Hollywood blockbuster of Malkhas’ Zartonk. It would be viewed by millions of people and tell the world of the heroic deeds of Armenians fighting against oppression at the turn of the century.

However, when I was asked to contribute to a badani publication about the second Independence of the Republic of Armenia (sometime when I was 12-13), I was completely lost for words because I really did not know much. In the pre-Google era this meant I had to look at the magazines and papers available at home to try and find out some information about the topic. And finally, in one editorial, I came across a line that said the second Republic was born following a referendum (hanrakeve) by Armenians in favour of independence. It didn’t matter that at the time I didn’t know what a referendum meant; I could build the rest of the article by stressing the importance of freedom and independence for the Armenian nation.

Later as editor of the Hay Tad page at Aztag Daily I gained a deeper understanding of the issues surrounding the Armenian Genocide, worldwide recognition efforts, Armenian-Turkish relations and Nagorno Karabakh. I regularly wrote news and articles about these issues. From how US presidential candidates spoke about the Armenian Genocide to the propaganda of the infamous (Azerbaijani) ‘Karabakh Liberation Organisation’; you name it, I wrote about it.

My first visit to Armenia was in 2001 as part of a pan-Armenian youth jamboree. It was all about quenching that thirst familiar to all of us. I embraced the physical existence but avoided – unconsciously – the harsh realities it came with.

When during a discussion session on Armenia-Diaspora relations, a participant from Armenia declared that Diaspora Armenians are not really Armenian unless they chose to move to Armenia and help the country, it was a confronting moment. I was upset and offended. What did she know about my circumstances and my feelings for this country!

On this trip, there was magic too. The disgustingly big fly that managed to make its way into the room of the hanragetsaran I was staying in on my first ever night in Armenia wasn’t a source of disturbance. It too was Armenian!

It was when I was studying at the University of Oxford and researching my thesis on Armenia’s democratisation as part of its European integration that I was confronted with Armenia’s realities head on. I had chosen a topic where I didn’t have much positive to say about Armenia and a lot of negative. The thesis I was going to write was going to end up on the shelves of one of the most ancient and admired libraries of the world to stay there forever. Was it ok to criticise Armenia in this way? I struggled.

In retrospect, I am grateful for that eye-opening experience. As I read and wrote pages and pages on human rights, fundamental freedoms, elections and democracy in Armenia, the regulatory reforms standing in sharp contrast to the stubbornly persisting unacceptable practices, I came to understand and embrace a new Armenia. And this new Armenia was no longer only about the Genocide or Karabakh. Nor was it only about the clash of opinions or poverty. And it wasn’t about the magic. It was very much about the harsh realities of today.

As we celebrate Armenia’s independence, I think it is important that we also evaluate our own journeys with Armenia both at a personal and collective level. After all, it is people who make changes and if we’re unwilling or unable to see the problems, we are incapable of changing them.

My Armenian journey has come a long way but I know it still has a much longer way to go. Armenia is many things for me today. Its problems distress me, anger me, sadden me, sometimes even disillusion me. I know there is too much to be done. And I understand I need to do my bit as well.

But you know what? When, once in a while, I think of the view from the Cascade to which I was waking up every morning for two weeks earlier this summer; when I remember the vibrant buzz in the streets of Yerevan late every night; and when I think of Armenia’s golden apricots, I can still hear music. There is nothing wrong with magic once in a while.