On August 28, 2010, Policy Forum Armenia (PFA) presented its State of the Nation Report on “Armenia-Diaspora Relations: 20 Years since Independence” in Glendale. Inaugurated at a high-profile event in Washington, DC on February 28, 2010, the Report came a few weeks after the signing of the Armenian-Turkish protocols on October 10, 2009. It offers a critical assessment of the 20 or so years of engagement between Armenia and the Diaspora and provides recommendations for the future.
Presenting in Glendale Public Library were Dr. David Grigorian, a Senior Economist at the International Monetary Fund, and Professor Asbed Kotchikian, a Political Science Lecturer at Bentley University, both Senior Fellows at Policy Forum Armenia. The event also featured commentaries on the Report from Dr. Seta Melkonian, president of the Monte Melkonian foundation; Sara Anjargolian, Esq., LA-based attorney and photographer; and Dr. Joseph Kechichian, editor of the Journal of the Society for Armenian Studies. Presentations and subsequent question and answer session were moderated by Mrs. Sylva Natalie Manoogian, an International library consultant and President of the Shahan Natalie Family Foundation. See biographies of panelists.
Presenters started off by providing a historical excurse into Diaspora’s formation and a background of the relationship between Armenia and the Diaspora. They then discussed the developments in bilateral relations between the two halves of the nation since Armenia’s independence and conjectured that a drift in relations may have started as early as the inception of Armenia’s independent movement in 1988. Having set the stage, the presenters then offered an overview of Diaspora’s engagement in Armenia on three critical dimensions: economic development, governance and public sector reform, and civil society strengthening. While acknowledging the enormous effort required and the sacrifices made to support Armenia during early years of independence, presenters echoed the Report’s criticism of what has been achieved on these important dimensions and provided reasons behind this outcome.
On the direct economic assistance measure, presenters noted that general lack of political will and the state capture in Armenia have prevented a true economic integration between the Diaspora and the republic. Diaspora’s development agenda in Armenia remains weak or non-existent; it has largely ignored the realm of developing independent and credible public policy advice; and its inability to set up institutional vehicles for investment in Armenia is most unfortunate. Presenters went on to argue that not only has the Diaspora not been able to raise any sizable amount of development-intensive money itself to channel to Armenia, it is yet to play a catalytic role in attracting other, non-Diaspora, investments to Armenia.
On indirect economic assistance, presenters produced a chart depicting a declining US government assistance to Armenia on the backdrop of an increasing assistance to Azerbaijan until 2006. They conjectured that while this trend reflects the overall shift in Washington’s attitude away from Armenia and its prioritization of foreign aid, it may also reflect: (1) the preferences of Diaspora lobbying groups, which appear to place more emphasis on Genocide recognition than assistance to Armenia, (2) the perceived need for that assistance on the ground in Armenia, given the Armenian budget’s improved capacity to provide goods and services, and (3) the declining influence of Diaspora lobbying groups.
Presenters then tackled issues related to governance and civil service reform, as key ingredients for development and growth, as well as issues related to strengthening civil society. They found that on these two important dimensions the Diaspora has failed the test by neglecting the importance of these factors for progress and development. The Report’s assessment of the failure on the global scale to bring the two halves of the nation together was perhaps best described in the following statement:
"The successive administrations in Armenia since independence have effectively stripped the nation of the rewards for its victories: the modern-day examples of audacity, perseverance, and success of unseen proportions. Something that could have empowered and served the foundation for the “new history,” has been turned into a liability of major proportions. The Diaspora did not seem to mind that: the “old history” was still too strong in their minds and hearts and they were not about to let that be replaced by something else. An opportunity given to the nation by its best—the Leonids, Montes, Shahens, and Tatouls of the world and countless others, who still carry the wounds of the Karabakh war and the memories of the short but epic reconstruction that followed—was effectively allowed to be lost by politicians in Armenia and largely unsuspecting-but-effectively-complicit Diaspora."
In their closing remarks, presenters discussed the concept of collective action outlined in detail in the Report and what specific application it can have in the context of Armenia-Diaspora relations. They drew a roadmap for formation of a trans-Armenian institution capacble of internalizing problems described throughout the Report and outlined the basic principles and structure for such an organization.
The three discussants whose remarks followed next commented on specific aspects of the report but also offered general observation on the topic form their own experience. Whether it was Anjargolian, showing the poverty facing residents of Armenia; Dr. Kechichian, describing the diversity of the Diaspora as a source of development and prosperity for Armenia; or Dr. Melkonian discussing the deteriorating relations between residents of Armenia and ordinary Diasporans, they all found the Report useful and constructive in its criticism and recommendations. The discussants agreed that while the Diaspora acted as a backbone to the Armenian statehood during the earthquake in 1989 and the Artsakh’s war of Independence, it has subsequently turned a blind-eye on corruption and poor governance practices in Armenia.
Discussants conferred that many in the Diaspora remain committed to building stronger ties between the Diaspora and Armenia. Going forward, political, economic, and cultural ties with the country would strengthen Diaspora Armenians’ sense of identity and belonging. And while true integration requires trust and years of meticulous work, it is time for the nation to take steps in this direction to avoid new dividing lines with potentially devastating and irreversible consequences. As Anjargolian stated, the existing disconnect between Armenia and the Diaspora is preventing the latter from shaping Armenia’s future. Overcoming Armenia’s challenges would require strong efforts by both the state and the Diaspora and the time to act is now.
Question and answer session followed all five presentations and focused inter alia on issues of human rights abuses in Armenia, challenges of economic development, Diaspora leadership problems, the capacity of Diaspora organizations to innovate and promote change, poverty and migration, etc. The discussions continued at a reception at Abril bookstore. Over 80 participants attended the presentation.
The Report’s presentation was sponsored by ARKA International, Ecumenos Design Studios, Fortune Vodka, Shahan Natalie Family Foundation, Veratarts TV, and Abril Books.
Additional pictures are available from the Photo Gallery.