Vicken Cheterian

Who needs a Ministry of Diaspora?

A wave of protest emerged among Armenians around the world even before the rumors about the closing down of the Ministry of Diaspora were confirmed. Diaspora journalists, intellectuals, political party leaders, have expressed their dissatisfaction with the decision. There were small demonstrations in Yerevan, but also abroad such as in Syria. While a minority protested against the dismantling of the ministry, the majority protested against the way the decision was taken: without consulting Diaspora representatives. A stroke of a pen by the ruler in Yerevan both set up the Ministry of Diaspora ten years ago, but also eliminated its existence. Here, at least, we see no revolution in political culture dominating Yerevan since independence. 

What will replace the Ministry of Diaspora? It is not clear yet. What will happen to the gigantic projects of Pashinyan such as massive repatriation, and attracting investments from the Diaspora? No answer at this stage. The administrative stuff of the former ministry will probably be transferred to a new ministry, such as the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, or to another administrative unit. The elimination of the ministry will place the question of Armenia-Diaspora relation on a lower political level.

The dissolution of the Ministry of Diaspora is a tacit recognition of the failure of Yerevan’s former policies towards the Diaspora. This failure concerns not only the policies of Serge Sarkisyan in the last ten years – during which the Ministry of Diaspora was set up to boost relations with Armenian communities abroad – but also the failure of the republic’s policies towards the Diaspora under the rule of the first President Levon Ter-Petrossian and second President Robert Kocharyan. These policies have been variations of “send us cash and don’t intervene in our policies” and presidents meeting with Diaspora “rich and famous” and taking photos with them. Later, the task of meeting with Diaspora personalities and smiling in front of cameras was tasked to the Ministre of Diaspora Hranush Hagopyan. 

The signals coming from Yerevan since the revolution do not inspire confidence about the possibility of any substantial change. Again, we get the impression that the new rulers in Yerevan have large ambitions that they think to realize with the resources of the Diaspora. But is Yerevan ready to listen or to invest resources to enable the Diaspora carry out such tasks? Pashinyan’s announcement during one of his speeches in December, saying that with the revolution “we have erased the border between the Diaspora and Armenia”, reveals once again a deep misunderstanding about the essence of Diaspora. There is a serious need to think about the quality of relations between two different parties, not to pretend that those two very different entities are only one. Armenia as a state, and Diaspora as plurality of social spaces, organizations and identities, can be equated only in political slogans. Now that the revolution is clearly victorious, do we still need to feed on slogans? 

A quarter of a century after the establishment of Armenia as a sovereign state, no one needs more of empty slogans. What is urgently needed and continuously aborted is capacity to think about the type of relations that Armenia needs to establish with Diaspora communities from which both sides would profit. Such a strategy could be based on sociological understanding of the dynamic relations between the two, the challenges confronted by the parties, and the best investment of limited resources. In 25 years there has been many entertaining events in the form of Armenia-Diaspora Conferences, but only once an attempt to think: an event organized by Gulbenkian Foundation in Lisbon in 2014 which remained without follow-up. 

Yerevan political leaders bear only secondary responsibility in the disastrous state of Armenia-Diaspora relations. Political leaders in Yerevan have understood Armenia-Diaspora relations as a one-way road: resources from the Diaspora communities in the service of Armenia. That political figures in Armenia did not consider the Diaspora other than resources for their own projects is natural. Politicians react to pressures, and rulers in Yerevan react to the needs of their constituencies. Although the Diaspora is Armenia’s major strategic asset, and it needs to grasp the Diaspora in its strategic dimension, yet politicians tend to behave on short-term, reacting to immediate needs. This explains why since 1991 Armenia still lacks two-way thinking about the Diaspora.  

What is missing in the Armenia-Diaspora equation is the voice of the Diaspora. But does the Diaspora have a voice? Who represents the Diaspora and its communities? The Armenian Apostolic Church? The three traditional Armenian political parties? The Armenian General Benevolent Union (AGBU)? All of those traditional institutions have abandoned thinking about the challenges faced by Diaspora communities, to the easier task of “helping Armenia”. Is there anyone in charge of Diaspora politics and representation?

The revolution in Armenia has the potential in opening up the possibility of a new political culture in Armenia and among Armenians. There is also the potential of reviewing the wretched state of affairs in Armenia-Diaspora relations. Yet, Yerevan will not introduce a radical change in this relationship. Only a self-conscious Diaspora about its own political identity could bring such a change. One positive change after the 2018 revolution is that Diaspora Armenians will no more blindly follow the political line in Yerevan. The protests by Diaspora-based publicists and political actors towards Pashinyan’s decision to unilaterally get rid of the Ministry of Diaspora could be a first – although timid step towards establishing a two-way Armenia-Diaspora relationship.