Blog: Does the Armenian diaspora foster political tensions in the Caucasus?

Last week while scrolling through Facebook I came across this advert for the ANCA, an American group of diaspora Armenians that exist to support Armenia and the Armenian culture. The advert at first concerned me; the militaristic, propaganda-like message seems better suited to a fascist regime than an advocacy group that claims to promote understanding and dialogue.

ANCA

Sadly militaristic and nationalist views aren’t anything new to Armenia. The Armenian identity is very much tied to resisting the persecution they have faced in the past and often this manifests itself in unsavory forms of nationalism and cultural pride that sometimes toe the line of racism, and sometimes leap head first beyond it.

In the early 20th century, following the atrocities of the 1915 genocide the Armenian population, now spread across many countries, struggled to maintain their cultural identity. Like many heavily-persecuted minorities their culture became something that required protection in order to survive.

Today, almost 100 years later, the battle to protect Armenian culture is still ongoing. But with a widespread supportive diaspora and many groups dedicated to preserving the Armenian identity it is difficult to argue that the Armenian culture is still as persecuted as it once was.

The persecution of Armenians that culminated in the genocide of 1915 has led to strong popularity among many nationalist groups within the Armenian culture. Groups such as the ASALA established themselves on a platform of anti-Turkish nationalism and identity politics that proved popular among the downtrodden Armenian population.

Many of these groups engaged with the mainstream political process of Armenia, hoping to change the face of Armenia through legitimate political channels. The nationalist Armenian Revolutionary Federation formed during the time of the Ottoman Empire with the intention of uniting various groups of repressed Armenian minorities. Now the group, still active in among diaspora Armenians is popular with many for its strong stance against Turkish genocide denial.

Members of the ARF are among some of the most vocal in condemning Turkey’s actions and push for reconciliation in a way that could easily be interpreted as undiplomatic. Members of the ARF’s youth division are often closely tied to the quasi-traditional practice of burning a Turkish flag each year on April 24th, the day of genocide remembrance in Armenia.

A Turkish flag is burnt outside Yerevan's opera house, April 24th 2014.

A Turkish flag is burnt outside Yerevan’s opera house, April 24th 2014.

As the nations of Armenia and Turkey slowly rebuild diplomatic bridges many political factions within Armenia see the flag burning as an embarrassment. This year the head of the ARF himself claimed that his group would not be involved in the act. Despite his words many looked on as the officially condemned act of flag burning occurred once again.

The behaviour of ARF members at first might indicate an unpleasant anti-Turkish sentiment among many Armenians until you begin to investigate the group and their supporters. Despite their headline-grabbing actions the ARF is not a broadly supported group, they hold just 5 of the 131 seats in the National Assembly of Armenia. Where the ARF gets much of its support is in fact largely from diaspora Armenians, especially America – where it receives a huge amount of its funding.

The ARF is further supported by groups set up by diaspora Armenians who aim to support their efforts, the most notable of this being their American partner group – The ANCA, the same group mentioned in the beginning of this article, who used military-esque rhetoric in a ‘call to action’ against the Azerbaijani government.

The heavily-American backed ARF is a vocal party when it comes to genocide recognition but the actions of their members is seen as counter-productive in the strive for reconciliation by much of Armenia’s political establishment. When the growing majority are struggling to make bilateral and peaceful agreements with Turkey the flag burning angry rhetoric of ARF is something that we must recognise as an outlier of Armenian politics. The nationalist supporters, though they claim to represent Armenian interests are in fact nothing more than embarrassing radicals whose actions are supported by a culture of Armenians that no longer live in the country.

The support that various nationalistic groups receive from foreign bodies not only indicates an obvious link between the Armenian diaspora and nationalism but also shows us the surprising influence that foreign bodies can have on the politics of Armenia.

But genocide recognition isn’t the only issues in which the diaspora holds sway. A range of highly charged political issues in areas from the Nagorno-Karabakh conflicts to the Armenian Orthodox Church are all heavily influenced by diaspora Armenians, especially when it comes to rich Armenians.

Karabakh is just one such example of where the wealth of the diaspora has shaped the political landscape of Armenia. The regions infrastructure has been highly bolstered by wealthy Armenians and the joint efforts of the diaspora. Roads, schools, sanitation – many areas have been funded by foreign money, allowing the government to continue its efforts to control the region with the added benefit of not having to worry about the realities of keeping a war-torn region like that up-and-running.

lachin-corridor-gori-highway-sign-01Last year the ArmeniaFund telethon in America raised thousands of dollars to build roads in and between Armenia and Karabakh. It was an example of the Armenian diaspora acting against the policies of their nation in a way that shaped the political landscape of a foreign nation. America, like many countries views NKR as a part of Azerbaijan yet in this case a small number of their citizens turned from the political majority and international consensus to change the face of an ongoing conflict.

But to compare all of the diaspora to the affluent American-Armenians of Glendale and the likes would be wrong. Armenian culture is divided between native Armenians and the diaspora, but within that diaspora are a huge range of subcultures and groups all sharing different perspectives and outlooks on Armenian culture. It is not fair to say that Armenians living in Iran for example have the same level of power as European-Armenians might. Within the diaspora influence is centralised within the groups of Armenians that represent the culture’s most affluent, the American, Canadian, French and German Armenians to name a few.

Obviously there are hundreds of cases in which the support of wealthy diasporans is hugely beneficial to the Republic of Armenia, but when support from the same groups adds in some way to many of the problems that the Caucasus faces we must begin to ask whether the power the diaspora can hold is a positive force or not.

When groups such as the ANCA provoke racial tensions betweens Armenians and Turks, Armenians and Azeri we must question whether we can still consider their mission a moral one.

When groups such as the ArmeniaFund help perpetuate a war in which young Armenians and young Azerbaijanis fight and die we must question whether their money can still be considered a charitable donation.

It is easy when looking at the political climate of Armenia to simplify what is a very geopolitical and cultural situation. And the diaspora too are not exempt from this. Across the world there are millions of Armenians living away from their historical homeland and the culture that remains there. It has been almost a hundred years since many Armenians were driven from Armenia, decades since Armenian diaspora cultures began to flourish and develop independent of Armenia’s natives. There are millions of Armenians who have lived outside of the influence of the Soviet Union, the influence of modern Russia, or of Europe, the war with Azerbaijan, the earthquakes or any of the other huge factors that have shaped modern Armenia. Armenian culture and the culture of diasporan Armenians are not the same, both have changed independent of each other for many years. Somewhere along the line we can argue that the two cultures diverged, what was left were two very different groups with some shared values but generations of historical and political context between them.

As the Armenian diaspora continued beyond Armenia their influence over grew. It grew to the point where we can begin to question the use of their power. At this time in modern Armenia we must ask ourselves if it is right for one group to hold such influence over a culture with whom their only real connection is a small part of their shared history.

***

Tom Ana is a British-born activist, blogger and NGO worker currently living in Yerevan, Armenia. He is the editor-in-chief of Caucasus Equality News. You can follow him on Twitter here.

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