Ground Zero: Back to the Question of the Diaspora

Illustration by Armine Shahbazyan.

Will the 2020 Artsakh War be a turning point for the diaspora to reassess itself and define a new agenda? Will a dividing line be developed in the diaspora’s mindset before/after the war, in the service of clarifying perceptions and definitions of its status quo, and in prioritizing the practical initiatives undertaken with its limited human and financial resources?

Five observations form the basis of formulating such questions

A Permanent Transitory State

Firstly, the diaspora, the organized Armenian communities that emerged in the 1920s and recognized themselves as the survivors of the 1915 Genocide and their descendants, thought of itself through its dependent relationship with the homeland. In the words of Avetis Aharonian, the first intellectual who conceived it conceptually, the diaspora could not be a “natural” state; it is a condition of “waiting.” [1] From Shahan Shahnur’s perspective, the “retreat” of national identity in the diaspora threatens a new kind of national death through assimilation.[2] Borrowing the concept from Kersam Aharonian’s 1964 book, On the Road to the Big Dream, the only “salvation” from this fate is repatriation, the “big dream.” This paradigm, though never formulated as a diaspora theory,[3] characterized the stateless condition of the Armenians living outside their homeland. It gave birth to diaspora institutions that were founded to preserve the status quo of the Armenian identity and aimed at organizing the social life of the communities. Preserving the identity was the aim of some of the more prominent cultural organizations like the Hamazkayin Educational and Cultural Society (1928) and the Tekeyan Cultural Association (1947).

 

Net Emigration

Secondly, the crisis of this paradigm came in the 1970s, when diaspora studies emerged in academia and provided new venues of thinking about the national dispersion outside the homeland. The crisis did not lead to any significant renewal of diaspora institutions, but it was a starting point for an incipient critical thinking that came to provoke and challenge the comfort zone that the diaspora “establishment” found itself in. The new ways of thinking about the engagement with identity came to stay and provide the bases upon which a diaspora agenda seems to emerge. With the Karabakh movement, the earthquake, the independence of Armenia and the euphoria of the victory in the 1991-1994 war, the diaspora agenda was put on hold. It seemed that time had come to dismantle the diaspora, or at least to redirect the financial and human resources allocated toward the preservation of Armenian identity and the struggle for the Armenian Cause to the homeland. Some hoped for the start of a continuous flow of repatriation.The reality turned out to be completely different. Not only was there no mass repatriation, only exceptions, there was actually mass emigration out of Armenia, mainly due to socio-economic reasons, which, without much thought, was labeled the “New Diaspora” as opposed to the “traditional” diaspora. This simplistic and easy way of labeling the novel context of diaspora, only added to the confusion on both the cognitive and practical level. Intellectuals like Vahe Oshagan who would dare to voice a demand for a return to the classical orthography and question the national slogan “one culture” at the First Armenia-Diaspora Conference in 1999, were rare. Their alarming calls to the diaspora to sober up, like Oshagan’s article “The Danger,” which was republished in the May 3, 2020 issue of Gamk newspaper in Paris,[4] found only scarce echo. In the 1990s, diaspora was thought through the prism of Armenia-Diaspora relations, with the Armenian State as the one setting the agenda, with little if any, and in any case ad-hoc, input of the diaspora.[5] Yet, at the turn of the 21st century, some initiatives, including the modernization of teaching methods for Western Armenian, the digitization of archives, the inclusion of Western Armenian in online projects, the first public polls about diasporan realities, and so forth show the return of an autonomous, authentic and renewed diaspora outside or parallel to the Armenia-Diaspora agenda. This in turn might open the way for a paradigm change and maybe even the formulation of the diaspora theory.

 

Post-Pandemic Shifts

Thirdly, it is already evident that COVID-19 , which has caused a public health crisis of a global magnitude, has ushered in a period of civilizational transition. In the widespread uncertainty of the pandemic, there is one concessional understanding that, even after the pandemic is overcome, we will be facing a “new normal,” rather than expect a return to an already familiar “normal.” It is difficult to directly see the impact of this newly formulated reality and its concrete meaning, even if there is no shortage of everyday examples. And perhaps it is the discourse developed in an attempt to comprehend this “new normal,” that might lead to a collective understanding of changes that are happening/will happen/need to happen. That which is a fact for all of humanity cannot be ignored in the Armenian world generally, and specifically in the diasporan reality.

 

Blanking Out the Trauma

Fourthly, soon after the end of the 2020 Artsakh War, a political analyst speaking about Yerevan said, “Life has returned to normal.” This definition of “normal life,” which seems inevitably outrageous in the immediate aftermath of the war and the humiliating surrender, was not so wrong in the simplest, literal sense of the word. After all, daily life imposes itself on the average citizen. This statement, however, avoids the more detailed discussion of this “normal,” in the sense of the impact of the post-war, post-defeat catastrophe on social processes and the political struggle. It leaves an impression of “lightness,” insinuating that the 44-day war was not a war, but rather an event already past, an out-of-the-ordinary occurrence, and even its most catastrophic implications for the future can be analyzed through everyday logic. It is a bit similar to the sophist wordplay of the government attempting to “rationalize” or “normalize” the catastrophe, of which they are responsible, but “not guilty” to quote the infamous self-apologetic statement of Prime Minister Pashinyan in one of his post-defeat interviews on an Armenian TV channel. The return to a “normal life” in the diaspora also is inevitable in its simplest sense, as everyday maintenance of the institutional dynamics in each community should continue its routine. But if we relocate the issue from its uninteresting banal state onto a different level of analysis and consider the “shock” factor caused by the war, communities going from mass mobilization to absolute paralysis, then the question of “healing” becomes inevitable. What does post-war normalization mean for the diaspora? What kind of political social construction processes should determine this (new) normalization? How would/should the diaspora conceive its healing from the shock of November 9, 2020 after believing, or wanting to believe, for 44 days that “we will win?…”

 

Ground Zero

Fifth, in his 2021 New Year’s address, Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan said, “We should build Armenia anew.” A couple of sentences later, he also spoke about the challenges of the new year: “The very first minutes of 2021 should become a ground zero from where we start our national ascent.” He welcomed 2021 as “the dawn of a new era, the year of our national and state rebirth.” There is no need to elaborate on the Prime Minister’s simplistic and nonsensical speech. However, the last few lines of this hollow address, despite its bloatedness, rightly remind us of the necessity of a restart. What is difficult to imagine is how the rebuilding of a “new” Armenia will commence from “ground zero” starting from the first minutes of 2021. Only 11 days into the new year, during the meeting in Moscow, it became known that the post war “shocks” (one of the terms used by the Prime Minister), ground zero from where the national and State rebirth was supposed to start, had not yet been fixed. What is relevant to the topic of this article is that the defeat in the war and the degrading capitulation agreement that Pashinyan signed also brought the diaspora to “ground zero.” The widespread mobilization over the course of the 44 days of the war that had kept the communities “on their feet” was abruptly interrupted. With the enthusiasm of the slogan “We will win,” naive as it might have been, there was the belief that the resistance of the Armenian army on the battlefield would be able to halt a much stronger enemy from reaching its goal. The shocking reality surfaced after November 9 and, without a doubt, showed that the enemy had not only achieved its goal with this war because of our humiliating defeat, but also because the Armenian authorities did not deliver the right messaging to inspire hope and had no answers to questions about the national survival.

What does “ground zero” mean for the diaspora? How do you forge a “new normalization”  at “ground zero?”

“Ground zero” became visible in the diaspora in the months following the war. The spontaneous pan-Armenian mobilization that electrified all communities and brought the diaspora communities and those who had migrated from Armenia closer, after November 9, was already handicapped following the shock of defeat. The reason was, firstly, their realization that the slogan “We will win” was not only a lie but also self-deception, naive patriotism that is typical of the lack of critical thinking in diaspora.“And now what?” … The unavoidable question did not have an answer, not even  a road map to search for that answer. This too is characteristic of the lack of independent thinking and the collective psychology of “dependence” on the homeland, and typical to the diaspora paradigm.

In fact, the Artsakh movement, the earthquake and independence created a unique opportunity for the institutionalization of a stable system of Diaspora-Armenia ties. There were efforts exerted to this end, and surely a process was initiated. But it was never confirmed, consolidated; it did not even complete its first stages. Instead, it resulted in the diaspora’s psycho-intellectual and yet very real dependency that would now explain and define diaspora’s post-war ground. The diaspora did not live the trauma of war and defeat, and it will not experience it in the painful, real, direct and decisive manner as the families of the 4,000 who died in the war, the over 10,000 wounded and handicapped soldiers, and dozens who are still in captivity. The diaspora will also not bear the social and economic consequences of the war as the Armenians of Armenia will. Yet, the war and the defeat were also a shock for the diaspora.

At its “ground zero,” the diaspora experiences the trauma of the war through the concern for the current state and the immediate future of the homeland, questions about the meaning of its identity, the risk of loss of interest toward Armenia and the Armenians in the countries where there are diasporan communities, and the challenge of the strong blow to the international prestige of Armenia and the Armenians. For diaspora Armenians, collective identity or “belonging to the same nation” has an especially “subjective” meaning.[6]

This “subjectiveness” should not be perceived in the liberal sense of a society being the sum of individuals; but, through the importance of the decision of each individual to belong to a collective identity, to be aware of being part of it. Therefore, the trauma of the war and defeat, first of all, leaves every Armenian facing three, albeit never before publicly formulated, questions: What did I do during the war? How was I affected by the defeat? And what now?

It is the answers to these questions that will likely be most detrimental to the continuation of choosing to remain an Armenian in the diaspora true to the “art of living with faith” [7] that three consecutive generations so successfully learned and implemented after the Genocide and until the independence of Armenia.

The 1965 politicization of the diaspora brought the recognition of the Armenian Genocide and the question of just reparations to the international agenda, generating global interest towards the Armenians. Even the embryonic successes of the Armenian Cause that had started from  “ground zero,” brought to the diaspora international prestige, visible in academia, literature, art, entrepreneurship, politics and other domains.

The diaspora was so globally entrenched in different processes that the smallest, the most vulnerable, the most wounded, the most daring, and the State with the least favorable geopolitical conditions in the former Soviet Union, quickly found its place in international relations right after the independence. Possibly nothing will illustrate the respect enjoyed by the diaspora pre-independence as the phenomenon of Charles Aznavour’s song Pour Toi Armenie. “The world has stood up, the world is with you, for you…” say the lyrics, and it is not difficult to show how true this was at that time. As to why and how the “world remained silent” during the 2020 war, it is a question the Armenian authorities might one day want to understand in order to realize that neither the “Tiger of the Caucasus” nor the praise of a “democratic revolution” by The Economist are necessarily indications of an established or developed State, or social and economic progress. With the same token, however, the diaspora tooneeds to ask the same question in an attempt to understand why its mobilization did not have the effect that it had before independence…

The diaspora traces its “ground zero” to the Genocide and the decade following the sovietization of Armenia. These were the years of the formation, rationalization and purposeful organization of the diaspora. However, a return to that “ground zero” after the 44-day war is not possible. Not only because the historical backdrop is different, but because there is no current leadership in the diaspora that has the vision that the leadership had back then, after the Genocide and after the Sovietization of Armenia; political parties no longer enjoy the authority and credibility upon which they once assumed the key leadership role in organizing the communities.[8] Moreover, any attempt to revert to the diaspora processes that were once initiated following the “ground zero” would be, as Karl Marx put it, history repeating itself, “first as tragedy, second as farce.”

For the diaspora, there is no return to “ground zero.” Rather, the war and the defeat, should bring back from oblivion the issue of the diaspora’s crisis, and the questions that were formulated in the 1970s: “What is the Armenian and Armenianness within the space of the diaspora? A predefined and conclusive existence? An idea? Or an existential state of being, a value that is re-defined continuously? What are we to do with this Armenianness? Cherish and preserve it? Or live it?” [9] These questions that are in line with Heideggerian existentialism are perhaps the most accurate description of the crisis of the diaspora that signal the need for a paradigm shift. These questions also coincide with the transition of Western academic schools, specifically American, from the birth and development of diaspora studies that views diasporas as “exiled nations” to a discipline that started to study the diaspora as a “transnational” phenomenon.

Can that which was already in process on a cognitive/intellectual level lead to the modernization of social institutions that view the “new” with an instinctive conservatism? This question today will hardly inspire anything more practical than an interesting mental exercise. The turning point that was 1988, consciously halted, suspended or diverged every diaspora project, including the discourse of a paradigm shift, “towards the homeland” as was stated in the decision of the 24th General Assembly of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation that took place in February of the same year, and is perhaps most symbolic in as far as determining the fate of the diaspora.

In the excitement of post-independence, Artsakh’s liberation and the end of the first war, few dared to navigate against the crowd-pleasing current and throw into circulation a provocative challenge that said “towards the diaspora”, called for a public discourse and invited those who might or might not have been acquainted with Francis Fukuyama’s theory and were announcing the “end of the history,”[10] who had turned “repatriation” into a “single thought” (Pensée unique)[11] and were silencing the question of the diaspora, to be vigilant. Only a few, basically Vahe Oshagan, as was noted during an online discussion following the end of the 44 day war about diaspora identity and “return.”[12]

This “return” had started with the practical initiatives that were literally taken in the 21st century and which, consciously or subconsciously, supported the proposition that Armenianness should be “lived about the diaspora. Some of these practical initiatives are mentioned in the first observation at the beginning of this article. Still, they can in turn be categorized into five sections: 1) Renewed interest toward Western Armenian and the belief that the “retreat” of the language is not an irreversible process; 2) An increase in the number of digitization of archives, not for the sole purpose of “preservation” (“survival”) but to also make them available to anyone in the world who would like to get acquainted with them or use them for research and other purposes; 3) Conferences whose topics are not only about studying the past and learning lessons, but discuss a long-term vision for the diaspora and the Armenian nation; 4) Inquiry into new ways of understanding diaspora identity; 5) Investments in the internationalization of the Armenian culture.

In addition, the Armenian Cause and the demand for reparations should be mentioned. This, however, is a topic for a separate discussion.

Those who will continue to perceive these five points as preservation of the Armenian identity will not be able to (will not want to?) see the paradigm shift that has started in each of these sectors. The diaspora is no longer perceived as Armenians living abroad, whose fate is predetermined: assimilation/death or repatriation/salvation. Rather, it is perceived as an existential state of being in the Sartresque sense, where one is aware of the conscious alternative to choose to be an Armenian and is ready to presume the commitment of living Armenian.

For the diaspora, the war should not be a turning point through a return to a “normal life” but through a “new normalization” of life. This concept coincides with one of the rational/philosophical takeaways from the coronavirus pandemic. Simply, the pandemic only accelerated the pace of all the changes that were already taking place internationally. But the direction of this change relies on collective decisions that are in competition with one another on different levels. By the same logic, the “new normalization” of the diaspora requires the acceleration of diaspora projects and the expansion of their scope. These processes will in turn accelerate the paradigm shift in the diaspora. Will they result in a Diasporan Agenda or Project? It is a question that diaspora community leaders should think about; and a challenge for pan-Armenian organizations largely based in the diaspora, but still unable to move away from a narrowly focused Armenia-Diaspora agenda.

 

Footnotes

[1] “Armenian people, realize that this is a state of waiting. Believe that you will return to the land of your ancestors, the land of the brave. We came not to stay here, we came to return. … We are guests here. And we have a cause, a judgment. We have a country. ” Excerpt from Avetis Aharonian’s last speech, given in Paris in 1934, during which he suffered a stroke. Vardges Aharonian, “Avetis Aharonian: Life and Work,” Volume I, Boston, Hayrenik Press, 1947, p. 69.  [Original in Armenian, non-official translation into English by author. The same procedure would apply to all non-English texts quoted literally in the article].
[2] “[L]’être en Diaspora et la menace de mort qui pèse sur l’Arménien en exil” (Krikor Beledian, Cinquante ans de littérature arménienne en France. Du même à l’autre, Paris: CNRS Editions, 2001, p. 196).
[3] If the diaspora is an “unnatural” phenomenon for a nation, what is the point of making an effort to create a special “theory” and turn it into a separate field of study?
[4] A careful observation will not escape the bitter irony of fate that this cautionary article has been republished in a periodical that has since ceased to exist.
[5] This affirmation does not negate a process of consultations with the diaspora on an ad-hoc basis, through the more or less institutionalized structure of the Ministry of Diaspora. But the fact is that, in 2019, the authorities of the day, without any hesitation, in a completely one-sided decision, ignoring public opinion and initiatives of public or professional consultations, with a stroke of a pen, dissolved a state structure that had been in existence for over a decade without any moral accountability. The responsibility does not lie unilaterally with the local authorities, but also with the diaspora, which did not initiate the creation of levers for the diaspora’s involvement in the decisions of the Armenian government. The diaspora did not even have the courage to bring such levers to the agenda.
[6] “The subjective sense of belonging.” Razmik Panossian, The Armenians. From Kings and Priests to Merchants and Commissars, London: Hurst & Company, 2006, p. 22.
[7] The reference is taken from the recurring lines of the folk song “Flooded” by the Brazilian alternative rock band Os Paralamas do Suceso. Os Paralamas do Suceso was established in 1977 in Rio de Janeiro and has been popular since the 1980s. The song was translated into Spanish by the band in 1996 as “Inundados” and became very popular in Latin American-speaking countries. “Flooded” is about the living conditions of the most impoverished areas in the big cities or in the suburbs – known as “favelas” in Brazil and “Vizha Miseria” (district of misery) in Argentina. The song says that life there is a challenge every morning because there is no hope of salvation for “the sons of the same agony” who, as the song says, have made themselves “the art of living by faith without knowing what to have faith in.”
[8] According to the results of the 2019 Armenian Diaspora Survey conducted in Lebanon, Romania, Quebec (Canada) and Argentina, the biggest challenge for communities, according to 36% of public opinion, is the lack of “a strong, far-sighted community leadership.” 77% of respondents said they have “no Armenian political affiliation.” See Public Opinion of the Armenian Diaspora. Armenian Diaspora Survey | 2019 https://www.armeniandiasporasurvey.com.
[9] H. Kurkdjian, Experiments on Deportation, Paris, “Armenian Diaspora” series number 1, 1978, page 111.
[10] Francis Fukuyama, “The End of History”, The National Interest, No. 16, Summer (1989), pp. 3-18.
[11] “Pensée unique”: A critical/analytical notion used in European intellectual circles in the 1990s that with a leftist perspective criticizes those who say neoliberalism is the only legitimate (legitimate) socio-economic process, and from a rightist perspective opposes the concept of totalitarianism, national centralism. In both cases, there is a lack of alternative thinking that is the target of criticism. The use of the phrase can often be found in the articles of the Le Monde Diplomatique in those post-Cold War years, targeting, among others things, Fukuyama’s thesis as an attempt to justify the absolute domination of neoliberalism.
[12] This refers to the 27th Online Audience of Aztag Daily (April 7, 2021), the speaker of which was Haig Oshagan and the subject was “Diaspora: identity and return.” The press report article of the event can be reached here, and the transcript of the conversation that followed viewed here.

Ahead of the 106th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide, observed on April 24, EVN Report’s April issue entitled “Diaspora” focuses on the realities of the Armenian diaspora and attempts to understand the multi-layered, multi-dimensional nature of the ever-changing Armenian diaspora. Today, in the post-war reality, it is important to redefine and recalibrate the relationship between Armenia and its diaspora.

Guest editor Varak Ketsemanian, a PhD candidate in Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University, writes: “Not only did the past year bring unprecedented threats to the Armenian state and the diaspora as living and dynamic units, but it has also cracked open a Pandora’s Box, unleashing a whole wave of new problems and issues that both sides were not ready to confront. The military defeat we witnessed on the battleground also signaled the defeat of long-established patterns and tropes of Armenia’s relationship with its diaspora and vice-versa. The articles of this special issue are humble efforts in this regard.”

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