Keeping Armenian traditions alive. Image by Photolure
Among the many aspects that one can explore about the discourses of the Armenian reality, the primary question that I want to tackle in this short piece is the following: After more than 25 years of Armenian independence, what can the role of the Armenian Republic be in shaping a discourse that would not only speak of Armenia in terms of a “homeland” [Hayrenik] but also a genuine state [Bedaganutyun or Etat]?
Given the multifaceted nature and complexities of such an inquiry, my purpose in this article is to focus on a few aspects, which I believe are the most important. Thus, I argue that after 25 years of Armenia’s emergence on the international scene, as an independent state, there remains the need for a new educational curriculum or program that places greater emphasis on the concept of “State” [Bedaganutyun] rather than mere “homeland” [Hayrenik] bringing thus the analysis of the institutional foundations of the Armenian Republic to the forefront of our critical discussions. Such a curriculum would not only bring Armenian students closer to the institutional realities of Armenia but can be instrumental in their healthy politicization. After elaborating on these points, I will conclude by suggesting a few ways in which such a program can be shaped and disseminated.
The Concept of a “State”
What does it mean to place greater importance on the concept of “State?” The answer to this question lies in our understanding of some of the dynamics that underlie the politics of the Armenian Diaspora. One of the first facts that any keen observer of the Armenian reality would accept and comprehend is that throughout the quarter of a century that followed Armenia’s independence, there is still a miscommunication and misunderstanding among the various constituents of the Armenian Diaspora on the one hand, and the Armenian Republic on the other.
Despite bearing its conventional name as “The Armenian Diaspora” [Haygagan Spurk], the latter cannot and should not be looked at as a politically, culturally, and socially monolithic unit. Moreover, in spite of the continued struggle for the recognition of the Armenian Genocide, which remains one of the few agendas that unites large swaths of the Armenian Diaspora, there exists fundamental differences that impacts the ways in which each constituent part of this Diaspora sees itself in relation to the other communities and most importantly Armenia, the homeland. This, in turn, creates, as the history of the Armenian people in the 20th century has demonstrated, different visions and political programs regarding the future and the governance of the country.
A few examples in this regard would be elucidating. Whereas the Armenian Revolutionary Federation [ARF], one of the key institutions and players in the Diasporan politics, understood and depicted Soviet-Armenia as an occupied and anti-national [abazakayin] territory, other political organizations such as the Hunchakian Party, the Armenian General Benevolent Union [AGBU], regarded it as the best case scenario. Such conflicting ideologies, exacerbated by Cold War politics often produced cycles of violence, among which the 1958 clashes in Lebanon are the most remembered. Whereas the pre-1991 period was mostly characterized by the rivalries among the Cold War blocs, the aftermath of independence did not crystallize into a one discourse regarding the nascent republic.
In the early 1990s, as the clashes in Nagorno-Karabakh were gradually turning into large scale military operations, political forces in Armenia, including but not limited to Levon Ter-Petrosyan’s Pan-Armenian National Movement and the Armenian Revolutionary Federation which had recently re-established itself in the country, vied for authority. In the new political configuration that marked the early 1990s, discourses regarding the republic’s future remained strictly divided along ideological and party lines. With Ter-Petrosyan’s resignation in 1998, the ARF returned to the political scene, having been hitherto banned during the former’s presidency.
A quick overview of the relationship that the Armenian Diaspora has established with Armenia throughout the past 25 years demonstrates the ways in which both, the primary Diasporan organizations, and the Armenian authorities were “preoccupied” with more urgent affairs, such as emerging victorious out of the Nagorno-Karabakh War, procuring the material needs of the 1988 Gyumri Earthquake survivors, and ending the political stalemate and the harsh economic situation of the mid 1990s. Naturally, the rapid changes of the Armenian political arena had its various repercussions in the educational, social and cultural dynamics of the Diaspora. Among such influences, the formulation of Armenian history textbooks were greatly impacted, most particularly the sections dealing with the late 19th and 20th centuries. Thus, Armenian schools (in the Middle East or North America) that are closer to the ARF in one way or another, started using textbooks that revolved around a few fundamental themes, such as the history Armenian Genocide, the First Armenian Republic, the party itself, and finally the Karabakh War, skipping thereby the long history of Soviet Armenia.
Not only did such “survivalist” themes over-emphasize the importance of wars, massacres, and Genocide in the political ethos of the Armenians but rendered students oblivious to the historical and political significance of state institutions. The teleological linearity through which Armenian history is taught in the Diaspora hampers the students’ critical abilities to gauge and assess changes, transformations, ruptures, continuities, and relationships, concepts so dear to historians. Moreover, history textbooks are often marked with an excess of symbolism such as, a lost fatherland, victimized “nation,” Christianity, Church anthology, battlefields to name only a few. Such textbooks failed to evaluate the key institutions such as the First Armenian Parliament (in 1918), emerging ministries, the relationship between the Czarist, Armenian and Soviet Armies, the institutional ruptures and continuities between the First, Second and Third Republics etc… Consequently, we are still waiting for a full appraisal of the parliamentary experience of the First Republic, and its implications on modern Armenian political thought. The current shift from a presidential system to a parliamentary one, at this historical juncture (almost 100 years after 1918) might be suggestive. Hence, Armenian students in the Diaspora matriculate without having a firm grasp or at most having a vague idea of the foundations on which a state stands and their Armenian counterpart.
The Gap in the Historiography
Although one needs to be fully aware of the traumatic impact that gruesome historical episodes have had on the Armenian identity, particularly in the Diaspora, this historiographical trend continued even after the independence in 1991. In other words, Armenian history textbooks became timeless objects that not only encapsulated the abovementioned themes and represented them along the various ideological and party lines, but remained more or less silent on the post-1994 period. Thus, one sees a clear historical and historiographical gap when it comes to the appraisal of the post-independence timeframe. As such, the dominant and often ubiquitous discourse has evolved to become one that revolves mostly around symbolism or romanticism [for a lack of better term], often invoking abstract notions such as “homeland” or “fatherland” yet without a clear understanding that goes beyond the mountains, lakes, historic sites and churches that make up the “homeland”. Therefore, the fundamental question underlying the historiographical consciousness among the Diasporan Armenian schools became or remained “How did the Armenian State come to be?” without fully integrating the “What are the foundations that are necessary for the stability and survival of this state?” This may explain the causes of the frequent miscommunication between various Diasporan constituents and the Armenian State. Furthermore, it explains the Diaspora’s excessive immersion into “philanthropic humanitarianism” as an easy and often cheap form of Armenian patriotism.
Notwithstanding the material benefits that such humanitarianism has brought to Armenian infrastructure, Armenian authorities often saw such financial contributions as a check towards Diaspora’s involvement in Armenia’s domestic affairs. Only recently did this trend start to shift to more professional involvement marked by volunteerism, repatriation efforts, and part-time project managements involving experts and pundits from the Diaspora.
Steps Towards a Solution
Some of the roots of this problem lie in the educational system I explained above. As part of a solution to this issue, I have argued for the need of developing an educational curriculum that would deconstruct the multiple understandings that various Diasporan communities have of “Armenia.” Such a deconstruction involves the peeling off of the multiple layers of meanings and values that have been attached to this notion throughout the decades, including “nationalistic,” “cultural,” and “unique” to name only a few.
Throughout the decades, traditional Armenian communities of the Diaspora, and the recent communities formed as a result of the exodus from Armenia, have come up with various visions of Armenia, conditioned by the linguistic, social, cultural, political and ideological factors of their respective environments. Thus, what Armenia came to signify for the Armenian escaping the war in Iraq or Syria may be totally different for the case of an Armenian from Argentina or Russia. In the end, however, what this deconstruction would initiate is a process by which a common denominator or a consensus would be reached at and that is the ontological truth about Armenia’s being not only “homeland” but also an independent, internationally recognized, geographically demarcated, and a sovereign state with its political, legal, and social and institutional implications.
There is a slight but a fundamental distinction here, between the notions “homeland” and “state”: whereas the idea of a “state” is inclusive of the “homeland,” it does not always work the other way around. The “state” invokes a legal and a political category that is internationally recognized, and contains an objective truth, whereas the term “homeland” may invoke or appeal to different subjectivities among which sensibilities of loss, or geographical imaginations that may stretch from the plains of Mush all the way to Javakhk, are only some examples. Once we achieve this epistemological deconstruction, it is only then that we can effectively build up the curriculum explained below.
I believe the upcoming parliamentary elections in Armenia would be a good starting point for such a project for two main reasons. First, although the Armenian National Assembly [Azgayin Joghov] has existed since 1995, its current revamping into a more powerful and responsible political body, enshrined by the new constitution, talks to the abovementioned idea about the relationship between institutions, and a State [Bedaganutyun].
Although the Armenian Revolutionary Federation, has been advocating a parliamentary system in Armenia since the early 1990s, this call has not sufficiently reverberated throughout the institutions that it has settled in various Diasporan communities, including schools, cultural clubs, and centers etc… In other words, after two decades of Armenian independence, it seems that we still have not fully comprehended the essence and the mechanisms that undergird state machinery. This brings us to the second reason, which relates to the newly invigorated roles that the Ministries of Education and Diaspora should play in the emerging government.
It is imperative for the Ministry of Diaspora to fully engage in professional and productive initiatives, and refrain from portraying itself as a mere bestower of medals and honors. Appreciating the need for elaborating a discourse that centers on such concepts as “Institutional development,” and “State-building,” I see the realization of this curriculum development primarily through the orchestrated and continued efforts of the two above-mentioned ministries, the trans-regional networks of key players such as the ARF, and the large financial resources of important organizations such as the AGBU, the Armenian Prelacies among others.
Therefore, now that more than 25 years have passed since Armenia’s independence, these institutions can and should have a key role in reshaping the new discourse in the Diaspora, at least on the educational level. Equally important, however, such an initiative also requires some changes within the Armenian republican authorities’ perception vis-à-vis its Diaspora communities, as being a resource for professional involvement and development rather than mere financiers. The establishment of a central educational committee based in Armenia, and formed of historians, sociologists, as well as high school instructors is one way of realizing such projects. Moreover, the extension of such critical debates into the educational sector within Armenia is also essential. In other words, Armenian students in the Republic should also be trained to assess the Diaspora as a resource with professional potential and not merely a lobby for Genocide recognition or procurer of material wealth.
Although this is certainly not a call for the elaboration of one central thesis that explains the past 150 years of Armenian history, the concerns that such a new discourse should tackle are more tangible. In other words, taking the year 1994 as a starting point, I envision such an endeavor to be a civic anatomy of a “state” that would raise fundamental questions such as “What are the political institutions that are lacking in Armenia?” “Is there a particular State model that Armenia should follow?” “What is the role of civil society in the political processes of a state?” “How should civil society behave in the face of multiple security, social and economic challenges of the state?” “How do political parties work and what role do they play in a post-Soviet environment?” “What are the ideals and values that the state institutions or the national constitution should embody?” Such methodological questions should not only be addressed at the level of a few elite entrepreneurs or artists from the Diaspora but should also find its way into the more common spheres of the community, rendering thus larger segments of the Diaspora an organic part of this process.
Furthermore, addressing such healthy debates at a school level enhances the students’ skills in political and critical thinking. Although such questions may seem to be only relevant to the field of political sciences, sociology or history, I believe it is imperative to utilize the analytical tools that such disciplines provides us with and make them available to the larger Armenian community. Hence, the primary concept that such a curriculum would embody is not merely a narrative of the Armenian Republic’s historical path, but also the ways in which Armenian state institutions evolved, developed and are or can be sustained.
To recapitulate and conclude with some final thoughts, I believe what is truly lacking in the discourse of the Armenian reality about Armenia is the civic component that can be complemented by the introduction and formulation of a program initiated by the ministries of education and diaspora in Armenia and supported by the leading organizations that we cited above. Having fully acknowledged that this article touched upon the tip of the iceberg, it has addressed an issue that is modest in its nature and scale.
The much-needed reinvigoration of the Armenian government in the aftermath of the April elections can mark a starting point for such projects. It is in this respect, that the leading organizations of the Diaspora including the ARF and the AGBU among others, can truly present themselves as a valuable asset, whose trans-regional influences, channels and connections can be effectively utilized for the dissemination of such educational endeavors.
The introduction of the civic component in the form of an anatomy of a state into the contemporary political consciousness and parlance of Armenian students can be conducive to a healthy politicization rendering the latter more cognizant of the institutions to which they may potentially contribute in various capacities. The past 150 years of Armenian history have witnessed various stages, and forms of politicization ranging from the revolutionary mobilization of the 1890s and early 1900s against an ossified communal structure supported by an Imperial rule to the genocide recognition campaigns of the 1970s and 1980s. In the same token, there is currently the urgent need for a healthy politicization following the post-elections period and marked by a renewed discourse of Armenian institutional formation and state building.