Since February 2021, I have been Principal Investigator on a British Academy-funded project exploring migration from and to Armenia among 18-35 year olds, whether from the Republic of Armenia, Artsakh, Syria, Russia or elsewhere. I can’t speak Armenian or Russian. I’m not a Caucasus specialist and had never visited the region before 2019. I come from a former colonial (mega) power –– Great Britain. Genocide does not figure in my family history. Our research team does include Armenians, but as one interviewee insisted (with a grin), “You are the big, white, powerful guy.” Another commented sadly, “You don’t know what it means to be threatened with non-existence.”
So what have I learned so far and what can I contribute as a privileged outsider? How relevant are the concepts of nationhood and migration employed in the UK to the Armenian context? What policy pitfalls (of Western countries) might Armenia avoid as it becomes a destination country for different groups of migrants?
I am not big or a guy. But my three trips to Yerevan (June 2019, May 2022, August 2022) taught me that the interviewees cited above were right. I knew previously that I was from a stable, secure country but not what that means in either personal or academic terms. I now understand how my biography frees me from historical concerns, allowing me to deploy abstract academic concepts without fear. In 2019, I didn’t “get” why many people spoke of their fear of “the Turks”, nor did I like it; (I also have Turkish colleagues). But the trauma of the 2020 Artsakh War, the loss of Velvet Revolution optimism, and fear for the future security of the country permeates our survey as well as our focus group and key informant data. Phrases like “the war is not over” and “we are alone” recur. Since September 2022, I have been checking the news daily. I often think about presenting in a Yerevan State University teaching room, decorated with photographs of three students who died in 2020 –– boys not much older than my own son.
At the same time, I have fallen in love with Yerevan––such a beautiful place, and so hospitable despite my stupid questions. I can see, however, that life is difficult for many and that there is increasing pressure on resources. On previous visits I have loved sitting in cafes, people watching, and eating lovely food. By August, I was less comfortable. Were there more beggars? Perhaps. Increases in food and rent prices were obvious. We visited a food bank for Ukrainians. People continue to joke and laugh, but, we wondered, was some of the ostentatious partying a way to deal with feelings of insecurity? Suddenly Yerevan felt like middle Europe in the 1930s or 1940s: a crossroads, full of people from different places, with different histories, living with different temporalities of trauma related to different conflicts, and the sense that everything could change in a moment.
How can one incorporate these realizations and this context into work on migration – a field rightly criticized as ahistorical and Euro-centric (focused on people moving from the “Global South” to the “Global North”)? What might the relevance of approaches and concepts developed in a multi-ethnic, multi-religious former colonial metropole like the UK (where many people have family origins in former colonies – Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Jamaica, Nigeria) be to a country that has only recently emerged as a destination (or “host”) country for migrants? Which approaches might Armenia best avoid?
Despite Armenia’s restricted resources, there are many recognitions of Armenian hospitality and generosity in our data. Coming from a country and continent that is increasingly hostile to newcomers, Armenia feels civilized by contrast. Former British Home Secretary Priti Patel suggested that “illegal migrants”––a term used to dehumanize often desperate people and to situate them as threats to social and economic security––should not be rescued from the sea. As one Syrian-Armenian interviewee, a former student in Manchester told me, Armenia “is much friendlier than your country.”
Coming from a multi-ethnic society however, I was initially confused by the terms used by respondents for immigration like “repatriation” and “return to the homeland”. Even for people who had never previously set foot in Armenia? Given the diasporic history of Armenians and predominantly ethnic understanding of Armenianness, these terms make sense, as does the policy focus on “returnees” or “refugees”. How well do such current approaches and terminology reflect the broader experiences, both positive and negative, of ethnic Armenian newcomers? How might language and policy better describe the arrival of non-Armenian newcomers––Indians, Iranians or now, Russians––without adopting the dehumanizing approaches of many European countries?
Despite a shared ethnicity, many Syrian-Armenians found their initial time in Armenia quite difficult. Understanding their experiences exclusively in ethnic terms obscures the different (Middle Eastern/Levantine and Soviet) histories and related cultures involved. Even if their cuisine is adored, some Syrian-Armenians feel that their recent war and Russian involvement in it is forgotten. They also found some aspects of social and business cultures in Armenia difficult to negotiate. Some felt discriminated against racially; an Iranian-Armenian had been called Arab.
Understanding attitudes to and the experiences of ethnic Armenian newcomers therefore requires a more-than-ethnic lens. The importance of moving beyond the association of migration (and “integration”) with ethnicity has increased since the introduction of a new visa regime with India in 2015 and now war in Ukraine. There is little government policy as yet to facilitate the long-term residence of such newcomers, but our data contributes to the understanding of the everyday experiences of Russians and Ukrainians, and suggests the need for historically-informed understandings of their circumstances.
Interestingly, all Syrian-educated Armenians felt that Armenians from Armenia preferred Russians to them. It seems that attitudes towards, and experiences of, migration to Armenia are profoundly affected by Soviet-Armenian history and its legacies. From a UK academic perspective, such observations suggest the relevance of theories of decolonization. Some Russian newcomers (academics) that we spoke to agreed, seeing themselves as associated with the colonial “metropole” now (somewhat ironically) displaced to the “periphery”. They criticized some fellow Russian citizens’ attitudes to Armenia as nothing more than a transit point to elsewhere.
It is also clear, however, that European notions of colonialism (and decolonization) do not fully “fit” the Armenian situation. Indeed, how can theories based around one colonizer or metropole be applied to Armenia, situated as it is between several colonizing powers? The complexity of the relationship with Russia is clear in our data. Despite post-independence Armenian language policies, Russian language and culture remain a key element of the identities of those educated in Soviet times. Russia is associated historically with Armenian survival, even as recent events related to Armenia’s current security may change this. Meanwhile, these interviewees viewed “Western” media sources with more suspicion than the Russian newcomers cited above.
In contrast, younger Armenian respondents trusted the “West” more. Some expressed sadness at the influence of (primarily Russian) corporations on the country. As one put it: “We are not an autonomous country.” This was not however discussed in terms of colonial oppression, and there was little resentment of Russian newcomers, something that might change with recent rent increases. Indeed, there was a pragmatic concern to learn better Russian, but also hope that the presence of non-conformist Russians would help to effect social change. One interviewee said, “I think that these people will break Armenian stereotypes because here we see men from Russia …with earrings… or with dyed hair… But now the more we see it, the more normal it becomes for us. And yes they bring new life, new spice to our lives. [laughter] I love it…I love them.’’
Thus, non-Armenian Russians may not be viewed as completely “foreign”. This raises some important questions as to how far ethnicity should be equated with nationality or “Armenianness” and how current perceptions may change if many Russians (and Belarusians and Ukrainians) stay, alongside Indians and Iranians.
Most people we spoke to did not know anyone from an Indian background personally, although an Indian comic was mentioned. I would describe Shafi al Kaprio––given his facility in the Armenian language and integration into Armenian culture––as “Indian-Armenian”. In the UK, such hybrid terms are common. Despite the different languages, ethnicities and religions involved, immigrants to the UK have become British––like our new Prime Minister––and influenced British culture profoundly. Alongside racism, a less ethnic and more “civil” notion of national identity has developed, reflected for example, in the Scottish Government’s use of “New Scots” to designate all newcomers to Scotland. Scotland, like Armenia, wants more immigrants. The Scottish Government does not however control immigration, so its stance may be somewhat performative.
When I asked our interviewees whether Indians could become Armenian, the response was “never” or confusion. This response may reflect the very ethnic designation of nationality in former Soviet states. It may also reflect the current lack of security, not to mention historical trauma and continued lack of recognition of the Armenian genocide by many countries. I was asked whether I trust my fellow citizens from different cultural and ethnic backgrounds. Not everyone does. At the same time, I cannot imagine the UK otherwise.
I come back to the observation about my not knowing what it means to be threatened with non-existence. Perhaps if I were, what I am suggesting would be unthinkable. However, as Armenia becomes a destination country, some things may need rethinking and things will change anyway through everyday interaction. Younger Syrian-Armenians we interviewed––having learned Russian at school and spent most of their lives in Armenia––felt proudly (Republic of) Armenian, telling us that they wanted to defend the country.
The notion of civic (or non-ethnic) nationhood is perhaps too abstract and fragile to appeal in a country under such threat. However, Yerevan and Armenia have previous, long histories of multi-ethnicity to which the fascinating paintings of Sedrak Arakelyan attest. Over time, a reconsideration of this history (and the potential advantages of Armenia’s situation at a crossroads) may be required, alongside a more immediate facilitation of longer-term residence for those arriving from elsewhere. In any case, I hope that Armenia will avoid the hostility to newcomers seen in many European countries, and that my reflections will be understood as those of a “good faith observer” rather than another “Western supremacist” as Kevork Oskanian put it in these pages recently
You will be the judge.
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