The Diasporan Response to the Karabakh Movement: The Case of France

Illustration by Armine Shahbazyan.

How did the Armenian community in France live the events of 1988? What were the challenges faced in the diaspora and what were the main debates over the question of Armenia’s independence? We’re speaking of an era that the young generation––those under 30––has never known; an era devoid of internet connection or social media.

In 2014, Armenian-American academic Khachig Tololyan, who specializes in diaspora studies, made the following remark to political scientist Taline Papazian about the Nagorno-Karabakh question and the impact of Armenian independence on the diaspora:

“There is no doubt that the struggle for Karabakh and the existence of post-independence Armenia have had a significant impact on the Armenian diaspora, but there are presently no reliable studies which indicate how the impact was felt. We don’t have any studies reliably and structurally documenting the majority of characteristics which make up the different diaspora communities prior to Armenia’s independence.” [1]


A Lack of Understanding of the Subject

Looking back at these old soundbites, there is an obvious conclusion that diasporan intellectuals who were aware of the stakes at the time were few and far between. Equally significant was the impact of the Movement on diasporan Armenian society, making it clear that virtually no one at the time could predict that such a movement could take on such magnitude. In 1987-1988, few French-Armenians could even find Nagorno-Karabakh on a map. Still, several works of precursor research on the issue had gone relatively unnoticed. Historian Claire Mouradian had authored around fifty pages on the topic in her PhD dissertation, which she successfully defended in 1982, before fleshing it out into an article published in 1985.

In the late 1980s, there were no direct phone lines, or even direct flights between Paris and Yerevan. All communication passed through Moscow. Rare tour groups were organized by the pro-Soviet Jeunesse Arménienne de France (Armenian Youth of France) and tightly monitored by the official Soviet tourism agency, Intourist.

When news of the first official petitions by Stepanakert to central Soviet officials first reached France, community leaders were mostly caught off guard. Perestroika and Glasnost, set in motion by Mikhail Gorbachev, had triggered the winds of normalization with the Eastern Bloc and reawakened hopes that the two halves of the Armenian world, separated since 1920, would once again rekindle a new page in their turbulent history. There was a belief that Gorbachev intended to right the wrongs of Stalinism.

Then came November 16, 1987. During a visit to Paris, Abel Aganbekyan, Gorbachev’s advisor on economic affairs, took part in a meeting with the Franco-Armenian community at the Intercontinental Hotel. In the midst of a warm reception, he let slip the comment that “I would like to see Karabakh returned to Armenia. As an economist, I believe it has more links to Armenia than Azerbaijan. I made a suggestion to that effect and hope that it would be addressed within the framework of Perestroika and democracy.” [2] These comments were printed in the French Communist Party’s mouthpiece L’Humanité and would ultimately cause more stir in Soviet Azerbaijan than in the Armenian diaspora. Seen from Paris, 1988 would therefore become the year of possibilities.

Yet that year would start on the wrong foot. The demon of 1915 appeared again, this time in Sumgait, where the anti-Armenian pogroms of 1988 induced a massive mobilization of the diasporan community in France. A crowd of demonstrators made their way to the Soviet embassy in Paris, calling for action against “Fascist Turkey”. Only a small group of outliers dared add the words “…and complicit Gorbachev”. Claire Mouradian was among them. She and several other intellectuals suspected Soviet involvement, intended to stir nationalist fervor between Armenians and Azerbaijanis in order to position themselves as the only guarantors of Armenian security. Yet this theory sparked virtually no reaction in the diaspora. The Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF), a dominant force in the diaspora, remained coy. Its leader, Iranian-born Hrayr Maroukhian, was sensitive to the whims of the socialist Second International, as well as those socialist parties across Europe which were pushing for closer ties with the Soviet Union. The slogan of the day’s ostpolitik had been “socialism with a human face”. Yet within the party, the debate between those who prioritize genocide recognition in the face of negationist Turkey and those in favour of Armenian independence continued to rage. As for Soviet Armenia, in the eyes of those who hadn’t been impacted by the Nerkaght [repatriation drive of the 1940s], it remained little more than a folkloric representation, idealized and oft-stereotyped.

Maroukhian worked to silence dissident voices within his own party, attempting to regain control over the situation, even at the risk of dissociating it from the Karabakh Committee, which by then had gained de facto control over the streets in Soviet Armenia.


A Missed Opportunity

This wouldn’t stop the ARF’s local affiliates from inciting their supporters to flood the Soviet leadership with telegrams demanding that the cause of reincorporating Karabakh into Soviet Armenia be heard. The newspaper France Arménie, a soapbox for the Committee for the Defense of the Armenian Cause, linked to the ARF, largely echoed these calls. On October 18, 1988, at a time when the Karabakh Movement was pleading for support from the diaspora, Maroukhian spoke in Vienna: “Every Armenian must support the Soviet Socialist Republic of Armenia. I insist because Soviet Armenia is the only foundation upon which the political dreams of the diaspora can be built. …It is our duty to squash any anti-Soviet rhetoric abroad…the time has not come to separate the Armenian SSR from the USSR and claim independence when we live in a historic moment.” [3] This declaration, echoing that made on September 29, 1988, by the three traditional political parties of the diaspora, the Dashnaks (ARF), Hunchaks (SDHP) and Ramgavars (ADL) was decidedly hostile to the cause of the Karabakh Committee. It would have the effect of fostering a climate of defiance and mutual hostility between Armenia’s burgeoning democratic movement and the political forces in the diaspora. Did it stem from a fear of Pan-Turkism? An inability to understand the new situation in Armenia? Certainly both were factors, but the context of the last days of the Cold War is also key here, as it translated into a wave of political assassinations and a climate of palpable tension. With the end of the Lebanese Civil War, the diaspora had gone through a period of significant mutation. Nevertheless, that tripartite announcement was a notable, if rare, precedent. Rather than call on the global Armenian population to support the transition toward full sovereignty and multi-party democracy, these traditional political parties came together to halt that process. At the time, fear of the unknowns of a potential independence was so palpable that Claire Mouradian went as far as to dub it “colonization of the mind”.

The diasporan parties’ tripartite declaration was a cold shower for activists in Armenia. This missed opportunity between the nascent Armenian state and the diaspora would perpetuate itself in the form of constant disagreement and defiance throughout the post-independence years, under the presidency of Levon Ter-Petrosyan.

Deprived of support from the traditional diaspora, the Karabakh Movement nevertheless enjoyed access to numerous supporting outlets. Among them were Haratch, one of a few independent and non-partisan diasporan media outlets, headed by Arpik Missakian. The Karabakh Committee’s diasporan supporters were mostly researchers, historians and scientists who had kept cordial relations with their in-country colleagues.

Historian Claude Mutafian was a close friend of Levon Ter-Petrosyan. Patrick Donabedian and historian Anahide Ter Minassian were also engaged. Key figures emerged from the ARF, cutting ties with the party to join this movement. They included lawyer Raffi Hovannissian, who would later become Armenia’s first Foreign Minister (and a presidential candidate in 2013), Dr. George Kepenekian, who would later become Mayor of Lyon, and historian Gerard Libaridian, who would eventually become a special advisor to President Ter-Petrosyan. Libaridian even pioneered the movement by publishing the 1988 “Karabagh File”. In 1989, historian Claire Mouradian and television director Kerope Bagla released a documentary in French, entitled Arménie 88, about the Karabakh Movement and subsequent developments in Armenia. Journalist Jean-Claude Armen Kachikian soon followed suit with another documentary on the same topic called 500 Days of Revolution and Tragedy. For their part, historians Claude Mutafian and Patrick Donabedian published a history book on Karabakh and an educational volume on the same topic.


Revolution and Tragedy

Rarely did footage produced by Armenian television or amateur cameramen ever make it beyond Soviet borders. Claire Mouradian recalls to this day the many translations she made of articles from the magazine “La Pensée Russe” for Armenian media in France, dealing with the various pro-democracy movements across the Soviet space, as well as interviews with Armenian dissidents and hard-to-get pamphlets (samizdats). Armenian students from the diaspora––mostly from the Middle East––enrolled at Yerevan State University, often helped smuggle video tapes out of the country.

But Armenia would soon face yet another tragedy in the form of the December 7, 1988 Spitak Earthquake, quickly followed by mass arrests of Karabakh Committee members. As the diaspora focused on earthquake relief efforts through existing humanitarian organizations (like the French chapters of the Armenian Relief Society and AGBU) or through hastily-created ones (Aznavour pour l’Arménie, SOS Arménie, etc.), the fate of Armenian dissidents and political prisoners––mostly academics and intellectuals––remained unknown. Despite tremendous difficulties, they managed to reveal the faces and names of prominent dissidents to the diaspora, like Paruyr Hayrikyan, who made it to France in 1989. This helped dispel some misunderstanding about Armenia, its Soviet cultural attributes and issues, to a previously-disconnected diaspora, galvanizing French public opinion to support calls to free leaders of the movement from the dungeons of Moscow.

The biggest takeaway from this saga is that, despite joint efforts by strange bedfellows–– the Kremlin and its ally of convenience, the ARF–– to revive age-old fears of Pan-Turkism at Armenia’s doorstep, Soviet efforts to slash support for the Movement ultimately failed.



[1] Khachig Tölölyan and Taline Papazian, “Armenian Diasporas and Armenia: Issues of Identity and Mobilization”, Études arméniennes contemporaines, 3 | 2014, 83-101.
[2] Quoted by British journalist Thomas de Waal in his book “Black Garden Armenia and Azerbaijan Through Peace and War” New York University Press, p. 21, 2003.
[3] Baykar, organ of the Ramgavar party, June-July 1993, quoted by Gaïdz Minassian, “Armenian War and Terrorism,” PUF, 2002, p. 151

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