Vicken Cheterian

The Armenian Diaspora and its future

There is a growing pessimism towards the future of the Armenian Diaspora. "It has no future," we often hear. "The Armenian can not survive away from his homeland," is often repeated. "We will finally be assimilated" is the conclusion. The answer suggested is that the Diaspora "returns" to their homeland, to Armenia. Or else, they will be assimilated. 

The large Armenian Diaspora is passing through radical transformation, and is facing unprecedented challenges. The demographic weight of the Diaspora is moving away from the traditional Middle East countries where Genocide survivors created new communities in the 1920s. Instability and lack of security in Egypt in the 1950s, Lebanon during the war 1975-1990, the Islamic revolution in Iran 1979, Iraq’s long wars under Saddam Hussein. The same is happening now in Syria where the Armenian districts of Aleppo and the Armenian town of Kessab turned into battlefields.

This permanent instability of Near Eastern countries that emerged from the fall of the Ottoman Empire is pushing Armenian communities away from the region where they lived for millennia to new horizons. The same is happening to the population of Armenia. The Karabakh conflict and the economic difficulties caused massive population displacement. Far away California or Moscow today has larger Armenian population than Beirut or Gyumri.

Demographic shifts accelerated pre-existing developments. Two main identity characteristics, which defined the Armenian identity for ages, have lost their influence. Affiliation to the Armenian Church or one of the Armenian confessions for centuries was the primary reference to Armenianness. However, the process of secularisation that already started in the 19th century brought to the decline in the importance of the church. In the 20th century Armenian language replaced the gap that evolved by becoming the marker of the Armenian identity, through a series of diaspora institutions, like schools, newspapers, literature clubs, charitable associations. However, recently we have witnessed a sharp decline of Western Armenian usage, to the extent that UNESCO has placed it on the list of endangered languages.

Demographic shifts of Diaspora communities, the decline of the importance of the Armenian Church, dwindling numbers of Western Armenian speakers, are serious challenges. But all this is not unprecedented, if one takes into consideration Armenian history. On the contrary, most of these challenges have been always with us for at least the last millennium. The fall of Ani to the Byzantine armies, followed by Seljuk invasions, the 13th century earthquake that destroyed Ani, Shah Abbas and forced displacement of Julfa population towards his capital, Isfahan. The centennial is still fresh in our memory about the type of threats to Armenian existence that started under Abdul Hamid and reached genocidal level under the Committee of Union and Progress. 

Armenian existence has never been taken for granted. Different communities have been constantly forced to migrate. Each migration obliged them to redefine their identity, their existence. How to find a new economic role under new conditions and preserve contacts with the old country?  

Therefore, this new wave of pessimism towards the Diaspora should have a different cause. For a millennium the weight of Armenian identity, culture and economic development was based in the Diaspora communities. Far away cities become centers of Armenian life: Isfahan, Venice, Madras, Tbilisi, Beirut and others were reputed as capitals of the Diaspora. What is new is the appearance of the Armenian statehood. After the collapse of the Soviet Union (1991) the appearance of the Republic of Armenia introduced a fundamental change within the internal universe of Armenianhood. Instead of having a network of communities, since 1991 we have a strong center, which is the government of Armenia. Today, the Ararat valley has become the uncontestable center of new Armenian life. It is a land where Armenian is spoken, and Armenian culture develops. Since 1991 Armenian communities throughout the world transferred their attention and efforts towards that center, towards Yerevan, to help the young statehood born in difficulties: the consequences of 1988 earthquake, war in Karabakh, blockade by Azerbaijan and Turkey, etc. This massive effort to help the young state came with a price: the weakening of Diaspora institutions from where material resources were diverted towards Armenia. 

Every Armenian who lives in the Republic of Armenia, is faced by two-three which live in the Diaspora. Outflow from Armenia is superior to repatriation towards the homeland. In other words, those who claim that the Armenian identity is linked to Armenian homeland have to face this powerful reality; this outmigration cannot be ignored.

There is another fundamental problem that is the assumption that Armenians can live only in a "nation-state”. The Armenian people have lived for centuries in political systems that were not nation-states. To see the future of Armenians through a nation-state version is very poor indeed, if we look at it in perspective of our history. In the age of post-modern the Armenian Diaspora is already a mature international, global network. Moreover, the Armenian nation-state that we have is the product of post-Soviet developments, a very poor version in itself. Today, having a land-based anchor in itself is neither necessary nor sufficient condition for the survival of social groups. In the age of globalization international networks are replacing the former nation-states. Isn’t the Armenian Diaspora a similar network forged under the pressure of millennia?  

However, the Diaspora will not survive long if we continue to ignore its needs. Armenian Diaspora organizations should lead modernization efforts, to be able to serve our future, not our past. We need to develop new institutions that can inspire new generations in their new needs, so that they find positive values in the Armenian identity and culture. A quarter of a century after Armenia’s independence it is time so that the Diaspora and its needs becomes once again the center of our preoccupations.