Editorial, 30 July 2016
The split began when large numbers of Armenians left Armenia to settle in Cilicia as they fled the 11th and 12th century Seljuk invasions. From 16th century on Turkish/Persian hostilities further split the two segments of the nation as the occupying empires fought for dominance over Armenia. The disconnect between eastern and western Armenians became more severe with the arrival of the Russians who challenged the Ottomans and Safavids. The two solitudes of Armenians became even more extreme when Armenia was Sovietized. For the next 70 years Armenia was on the dark side of the moon for many Diasporans.
The separation of the two arms of the nation created different dialects, mindset, folklore, priorities, music, and literature. The two cultures were also impacted by odars—Russian and Iranian in the case of eastern Armenians and Turkish, Arab, Western European and American for western Armenians.
But despite the Iron Curtain, Diasporans rushed to help Armenia during the 1988 earthquake and the Artsakh War. The Diasporans and citizens of Armenia hugged and behaved like long-lost brothers and sisters after Armenia and Artsakh gained independence. Euphoric Diasporans rushed to the homeland, thirsty for Hayastan’s water and air. They wanted to see Holy Echmiadzin, Mt. Ararat, Keghart, Lake Sevan, the Opera… and they wanted to talk in the mother tongue with bus drivers, policemen, store salesmen and bank tellers. They wanted to hug Yerevantsis on the street. For the first time in their lives they felt the exhilaration of truly being at home. The Armenian victories against the Azeris added spring to the Diasporan psychic uplift. The children of the Diasporans, living thousands of miles away from the homeland, began to connect with their parents’ “mythical” Hayastan. They were proud of Artsakh War heroes and the recovery of Armenian lands. They wore the tricolor on their lapels and adorned their cars with the flag. The Diaspora –individually began sending aid (money, equipment, expertise) and open businesses. Fundraising global telethons were organized, Diaspora professional groups held meetings in Yerevan to explore ways to contribute to Armenia. Eventually, all three Diaspora-based political parties moved their headquarters to Yerevan.
But the heady days didn’t last long. There was a viper in the garden: in fact, many vipers. Diasporans began to hear of corruption, arbitrary rule of law and the callow regime’s indifference to the widespread poverty. They became aware of vanishing Diaspora donations. They heard about donated medical equipment winding up for sale in Moscow. They heard about the fraudulent elections, the oppressive government bureaucracy and monopolistic oligarchs who conspired to bankrupt Diasporans who had launched businesses in Armenia. Betraying the attitude that Diasporans are cash cows, the Levon Ter-Petrossian government charged Diasporans $1,000 to grant them passport. The Diasporans saw the miserable conditions their compatriots lived in Hayastan. They heard of the excesses of the oligarch-Catholicos Karekin II. Diasporans learned that it didn’t matter whether the country was ruled by Ter-Petrossian, Kocharian, or Sargsyan: all three leaders headed undemocratic governments. The problem was systemic, cultural, and deeply ingrained. Body politic was sick.
Diasporan warmth towards the homeland began to cool. The All-Armenia Fund barely raised $10 million in the past year. That’s less than half of what it raised in the halcyon days. Revulsion with Yerevan authorities set in and transformed into indifference towards Armenia because Diasporans—three-quarters of the world Armenian population–could see they had no way of making a difference in Hayastan. Diaspora’s disgust with Armenia’s authorities further “enhanced” the two solitudes.
Again and again Armenia sought Diaspora’s assistance but not its views. After a while the Diaspora refused to be taken for suckers, in the graphic North American parlance. Some Diasporans continued to assist but bypassed the heavy-handed, bureaucratic and corrupt authorities. It was a difficult option but the only way donors could be certain aid would reach its target.
The Diaspora/Armenia relationship became more complicated as a result of the three Diaspora political parties’ reluctance to criticize the Sargsyan regime in the misguided belief that the Diaspora should support Armenia no matter what. Meanwhile, the Armenian Revolutionary Federation, the biggest Diaspora political party, joined Sargsyan’s coalition government. The “indifference” of the Diaspora parties to the plight of the citizens of Armenia widened the fissure between the citizens of Armenia and the Diasporans.
Thus the Two Solitudes drifted even more. Diasporans continue to be interested in what’s happening in Armenia: they want to help; some still own apartments and have minor investments; they visit Hayastan, but, as the song says, “the feeling is gone”.
Diasporans have concluded that peaceful reform is impossible: elections, rallies, demonstrations to bring about democratic change have been met by repression. The weak state has a strong government. Until recently many Diasporans believed citizens of Armenia—cowed and weakened by the authorities—didn’t have the gumption and leadership to bring about democratic change after all many citizens, who could have made an impact, had left the country in disgust and despair. Thus it is no surprise that despite their revulsion of domestic violence, many Diaspora were encouraged by the Sasna Dzrer action.
No one knows how the Erebuni police station crisis will impact on how Armenia is governed. Sasna Dzrer has tapped the vein of discontent but were it to succeed in toppling Sargsyan, it wouldn’t necessarily mean Armenia would be on easy street: Sasna Dzrer and others who oppose Sargsyan have not shown that they’re capable of tackling Armenia’s economic, social and foreign policy challenges. But one thing is certain: continued Sargsyan rule will guarantee further misrule, economic paralysis and emigration. How can Armenia defend itself when the population is thinning? How can Yerevan support a credible army when it doesn’t have the manpower and the tax base?
The 40 or so oligarchic families have no intention to change their ways. As long as the invalid is breathing, the leeches will hang around. They have charted their future: some have dual citizenship/landed immigrant status in faraway countries; money and property in foreign lands; some family members are already overseas…buying $45-million villas in Southern California. If their situation becomes untenable these plutocrat clans have probably arranged safe passage for themselves and for their ill-gained wealth to Moscow, Dubai, London, and Los Angeles.
Zareh Sinanyan, former mayor of Glendale, is advocating constructive dialogue between Armenia and the Diaspora. Sinanyan believes Diaspora’s power (financial, human, knowledge, know-how) is limitless and that it can have a huge and positive impact on Armenia. He says Diaspora support is “limited, reactive, not systematic, and at the spur of the moment.” Meanwhile historian Knarig Avakyan of Yerevan is advocating mass migration of the Diaspora to Armenia/Artsakh. The ex-mayor and the historian ignore two facts: unless there is concrete improvement in Armenia’s governance and a diminution of the oligarchic regime, the Diaspora will maintain its distance. Yerevan’s scattering medals to every other Diasporan Tom, Dick and Harriet will not reverse the confidence tide. And unless the Diaspora is assured that Sargsyan will not hand Artsakh to Azerbaijan, there can be no rapprochement between the two solitudes and emigration to Armenia will remain a dream.
Earlier this month Ashot Grigoryan, president of the Forum of Armenian Associations of Europe declared there’s a secret deal brewing between Aliyev and Sargsyan whereby Armenia will give parts of the liberated territories and Artsakh to Azerbaijan for a few billion dollars. Anti-Sargsyan activist and Artsakh hero Jirayr Sefilyan has expressed similar views. For doubting Sargsyan’s intentions and for demanding the president’s resignation, Sefilyan was put to jail. That action precipitated the armed occupation of the police station.
Unless there’s a radical improvement in Armenia’s governance and Sargsyan declares Artsakh is not on the negotiation table, it’s possible that Armenia—to paraphrase T.S. Eliot (“The Hollow Men”)–will die not with a bang but with a whimper. If it dies, it will be murder, not suicide.