An ubiquitous frustration and a tacit sense of helplessness has produced a level of desensitization that has created a new normal: Armenia is a politically corrupt country and we just have to find a way to live with it. This normalization, which is both fomenting a new reality and thus reinforcing and indirectly legitimating the country’s existing political system, is extraordinarily fascinating. But what is so fascinating about it? Not only has this normalization spread to the Armenian Diaspora, it has become reinforced by the cultural, social, and political organizations that represent their respective Armenian communities. The persistence of systemic corruption, institutionalized injustice, patrimonial politics, and personalized hyper-capitalism remain fundamentally contradictory and antithetical to the values, principles, and political goals that many of these Diasporan organizations espouse. Within this context, what explains their well-orchestrated silence and relative lack of critique, even in a constructive fashion, of Armenia’s political leadership?
A three-tiered framework is presented to address this conundrum. First, by Diasporan organizations, one is clearly referring to the powerful Armenian lobbying organizations in the United States, and to an extent, in Europe, along with well-resourced charity or philanthropic organizations that remain apolitical, but engage in cultural and educational projects. For the sake of analytical parsimony, we will concentrate primarily on the Armenian National Committee (ANCA), along with emphasis on the Armenian Assembly of America (AAA), and the Armenian General Benevolent Union (AGBU). What explains the normalization, by such powerful Armenian Diasporan organizations, of the political system in Armenia? The second framework concentrates on the highly-successful stratagem utilized by the Sargsyan Administration to co-opt these Diasporan organizations, hence marginalizing any serious criticisms against the Armenian government. The third framework addresses the difficult and paradoxical position of the Diasporan organizations; a position that the Sargsyan organization has methodically manipulated to allow for these organizations to advance the interests of the country, but fall short of either criticizing or contradicting the government. The outcome has been a complete alteration in the relationship between the Fatherland and the Diaspora: whereas in the past Armenia was heavily dependent on its Diaspora, this dependency has been reversed (politically and culturally, but not so much economically), as the Armenian government welcomes everyone with open arms…but with strings attached.
The purpose of this analytical article is not, in any way, to criticize, but rather, to understand and explain. The work done by Armenian Diasporan organizations is immense and profound, both in scope and breadth. The amount of work and organization undertaken by the ANCA, both at the grassroots level and in Washington, along with its operations in conjunction with various chapters throughout the world, makes this Diasporan organization an impressive lobbying power.
Entrenched in local as well as national politics, the operational scope of the ANCA has been crucial to the political health of the Armenian Cause and the Armenian identity in the Western world. Similarly, the Armenian Assembly of America, while primarily concentrated in Washington, is an extraordinarily successful and highly-resourceful Diasporan organization, whose efficient and effective lobbying activities, coupled with the utilization of research institutes and educational endeavors have profoundly contributed to the advancement of Armenian issues. In the realm of charity, the AGBU remains unmatched: with an annual budget nearing $50 million, AGBU is the largest Armenian charity organization in the world. Seeking to preserve and promote Armenian heritage throughout the world, it also undertakes numerous projects in Armenia: building and renovation of schools, funding higher-education, renovation of historic churches and monasteries, and development of healthcare programs and clinics throughout the country. Collectively, these organizations espouse and advance democratic values, human rights, social and historical justice, along with the preservation of culture, language, and heritage. Contextually, then, the question once again poses itself: what explains the normalization, by such powerful Armenian Diasporan organizations, of the political system in Armenia?
The common denominator for all these organizations, of course, remains Armenia; Armenian reality is reduced to a single genesis: the homeland. While ideological, organizational, and strategic differences are visible and many among the Diasporan organizations (and yes, there is much conflict as well), one objective remains absolute: the advancement, protection, and prosperity of the Armenian homeland. Not to over engage in the jargon of a political scientist, but Armenia’s advancement is contingent on democratic development (institutions, checks and balances, equal application of the law, alleviation of corruption, etc.) and modernization (transition from post-Soviet hyper-capitalism to a service sector economy that has open competition); Armenia’s protection is hinged on a powerful and professional military (meritocratic leadership, reforms in military doctrine, decent standards and conditions for soldiers, etc.) and competent diplomacy in international affairs; and finally, prosperity is contingent on the successful development of the previous two factors, for an Armenia that is advancing and is protected will inherently produce prosperity. That none of these considerations are anywhere close to being attained is evident to all. How have we dealt with these shortcomings? Normalization!
We have normalized the relative underdevelopment and systemic shortcomings of the Republic of Armenia by providing an extensive laundry list of excuses, and then proceeding to explain and justify these excuses. Indeed, we have normalized the political system in Armenia. And how have the powerful Disaporan organizations responded to the shortcomings in Armenia’s political system that have not led to satisfactory advancement, protection, or prosperity? Conformity, followed by normalization.
The Republic of Armenia deems its Diaspora to be one of its most important resources. Aside from the obvious economic assistance and cultural affinity, the powerful organizations in the Diaspora provide Armenia robust assistance in diplomacy and international affairs, serving as an extraordinary form of resource to a relatively resource-scarce country. At the same time, when the political values and activities of the regime in power contradict or are not coterminous with those of the Diasporan organizations, Armenia’s government faces a serious dilemma: it fears conflict or complications with these organizations, which, again, it considers to be an extremely important resource to its national interest. Learning from the errors of the Ter-Petrosyan Administration, the Sargsyan Administration orchestrated a three-tiered approach to placate and absorb organized political dissent from the Diaspora.
First, it co-opted the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF), the most powerful Diasporan political organization and the parent organization of the Armenian National Committee. Second, noting the high-level of competition and tacit conflict between the Diasporan organizations, the Sargsyan Administration took advantage by appeasing the AGBU (unbounded access to Armenia, as long as AGBU sustains its apolitical posture), and thus offering it the same, if not more, socio-cultural access as ARF-linked organizations. Third, appreciating the difficult position of the AAA in relation to the ANCA, it agreed to offer the same level of coordination to the AAA as it extended to the ANCA, under the presupposition that dissent or criticism are contradictory to the national interest. Simply put, the Sargsyan Administration concocted the following logic: it would be a crisis of legitimacy for a lobbying organization to criticize that for which it is lobbying for; as such, coordination and, through time, co-option, will reinforce a mutually beneficial aversion to critiquing Armenia’s government.
On December 28, 1994, the Ter-Petrosyan Administration banned the ARF and its primary media outlet in the country, Yerkir, claiming issues of national security and pending threats of political violence. The conflict between Ter-Petrosyan and the ARF had been boiling for several years, but the arrest of the party’s leadership and the banning of the party from the country produced another side effect: a rupture with the ANCA and all ARF-affiliated organizations throughout the Diaspora. The response from such Diasporan organizations was vehement, intense, and extraordinarily critical…and rightly so.
The evidence presented by the Ter-Petrosyan administration was, dubious at best, and inconsistent with the behavior of a burgeoning democracy. The largest lobbying organization in the Armenian Diaspora, and more importantly, in the United States, not only took on the President of the Republic of Armenia, but maintained a continuous and well-orchestrated criticism of the government, both through media and political outlets. Contextually, the ANCA’s barrage against the Ter-Petrosyan regime was consistent with the principles that the organization espoused, and if exercised to its logical conclusion, a necessary source of soul searching and constructive criticism for the newly-formed Armenian reality: is this what the Armenian world dreamed of when we all dreamed of an independent Armenia?
To fill the Diasporan vacuum, the Ter-Petrosyan Administration turned to the AAA and AGBU to counter-balance the ARF’s influence in the U.S., thus maintaining lobbying leverage in Washington, while appointing Raffi Hovannisian as Foreign Minister to both construct a political bridge with the Diaspora as well as further marginalize the ARF. This strategy avoided further rupture with the Diaspora, while preserving some of its lobbying and diplomatic resources. But the complications with the ARF-affiliated organizations only continued and intensified. This was most robustly demonstrated in the harsh and methodical criticism of the 1996 presidential elections, as the ARF-affiliated Diasporan organizations unleashed on the government for the beating of protesters, insertion of the military unto the streets, voting irregularities, and the closure of opposition headquarters. Were these Diasporan organizations correct in their criticism of the Armenian government; were their claims substantiated by the developments in the country? Of course they were: democratic values, political pluralism, open and fair elections, due process, and equal application of the law were all disregarded and violated by the government.
So… what happened? Clearly the political system in Armenia did not change much with the collapse of the Ter-Petrosyan Administration. Were these same violations present in the Kocharyan Administration? Certainly they were, if not worse in certain circumstances. Were the ARF-affiliated Diasporan organizations as vocal in their response? Obviously not. However, there still remained instances of selective constructive criticism, whether the ARF was officially or tacitly part of the governing coalition.
All of this, however, changed in 2008 with the election of Serzh Sargsyan. Pre-election negotiations, common in many electoral systems, had been taking place between the Republican Party of Armenia (RPA) that Sargsyan led, and other potential junior partners: the Prosperous Armenia Party (PPA) and the ARF. Sargsyan’s strategic co-opting of the ARF materialized during this stage. Namely, whereas under the Kocharyan Administration the ARF regained political presence, its capacity as a functioning or influential force was, at best, quite minimal. Further, the Kocharyan Administration had not developed a cogent Diaspora policy that required conformity from the mainly powerful Diasporan organizations: Kocharyan had no qualms with ignoring either the lamentations or the sharp criticisms leveled against him from the Armenian Diaspora.
Sargsyan’s policy, from the outset, was quite different: he would engage, accommodate, and then co-opt the Diaspora; he had learned from Ter-Petrosyan’s lessons of antagonizing any of the powerful Diasporan organizations, while also observing the loss of potential from Kocharyan’s relative indifference toward Diasporan concerns. Since Ter-Petrosyan had contributed to the fissure within the Diasporan organizations (AGBU-AAA vs. ANCA), Sargsyan sought to manipulate this to his advantage. Noting the relative scope and power of the ANCA, the co-option of ARF was, in essence, the co-opting of the most powerful Armenian lobbying organization in the world: Armenia’s interests, and by extension the positions and activities of the government, will be protected and advanced abroad, while domestically, the ARF, for its limited electoral status, will receive a much healthier chunk of the political theater. This was best expressed by ARF Supreme Council Member Gegham Manoukian, “We all know what happened from 1994 to 1998 when the Armenian authorities refused to work with the ARF,” noting that “the ARF, as a party that operates in 30 different countries, is a force with which any government would need to work.” This stipulation of ARF’s might in the Diaspora is, obvious to all, not an accidental interjection into the coalition-negotiations: Manoukian thus concedes that ARF’s power in the Diaspora is linked to its political posturing in Armenia, and within this context, Sargsyan was not simply attaining a domestic coalition partner, but rather, a Diasporan power “that operates in 30 different countries.” The ANCA, and all of its global lobbying chapters, had also become Sargsyan’s junior coalition partner!
Collectively, to gauge the normalization of Armenia’s political system, and the orchestrated silence of the Armenian Diasporan organizations, four short case studies will be addressed: the fallout from the 2008 presidential elections; the 2009 Armenian-Turkish Protocols; the 2015 Electric Yerevan Protests; and the 2016 Sari Tagh Protests.
The post-election upheavals of 2008 were the worst that Armenian society had witnessed since independence. The March 1 events were not only defined by the regular array of beatings, crackdowns, voting irregularities, and violation of civil and human rights, but also extensive media and internet censorship, only to be supplemented by police violence that shocked Armenian society, culminating in the death of 10 individuals. In comparative terms, the Republic of Armenia had not witnessed this level of domestic violence or citizen deaths; nor the state of emergency that led to the mass arrests and suspension of opposition parties and civil society. In relation to the fiasco after the 1996 elections, which saw a robust response from the Diasporan organizations, the fallout from the 2008 elections was far more severe, with the loss of life not even comparable. What was the response of the powerful Diasporan organizations to these developments? Collective silence, without a note of criticism, while in the case of the ARF, complete support and backing for the activities of the government. This clearly begs the question: How did the most powerful Armenian Diasporan organization, which had so rightfully and consistently critiqued, challenged, and, in multitude of cities through the world, organized protests against the injustices of the Ter-Petrosyan Administration, come to tacitly condone and support the more severe injustices of the incoming Sargsyan Administration? How can the core values, principles, and mores that defined and shaped these organizations of the Armenia Diaspora be reconciled with these tragic developments? Clearly, Armenia’s political system had not really changed from the 1990’s into what it was in 2008; so what had changed? Answer: the normalization of the political system by the organized representatives of the Diaspora.
The 2009 Turkish-Armenian Protocols, at times referred to as the Zurich Protocols, was perhaps the most divisive issue between the Sargsyan Administration and the ARF, for not only did the ARF leave the coalition, but the ANCA, for the first time, publicly opposed a policy of the Sargsyan Administration. The remaining Armenian organizations remained rather aloof, since they did not perceive this as an existential issue, but for the Dashnaktsutsyun, this was non-negotiable. But a survey of the positions and pronouncements made by the ANCA in opposition to the Protocols did (or did not) do two things: 1) it did not directly call out Sargsyan or criticize his administration; and 2) leveled criticism against the Protocols themselves, the political parties involved, or the U.S. administration for pushing through the Protocols.
Contextually, a narrative was constructed where the President was insulated from criticism, while only the policy, in of itself, was attacked. However, as the ratification of the Protocols lost steam by 2010, this potentially explosive issue, in essence, became a non-issue; Sargsyan’s Administration walked away unscathed from any form of lasting complications with the Diaspora.
While the ARF did not rejoin the government until forming a new coalition in 2016, its posture remained one of soft opposition; however, in instances when the ARF did criticize the government, or what one may call soft or cautious criticism, the ANCA displayed similar posturing. The narrative, however, remained rather similar; criticism of a specific policy or issue, but a concerted effort not to specifically target the administration or hold it accountable. The events of Electric Yerevan, or the “No to Plunder” movement in 2015, demonstrate this pattern. A spontaneous student-led protest against increasing electricity prices, Electric Yerevan caught everyone off guard, as civic organizations and opposition parties stood in solidarity with the protestors, with the Sargsyan Administration tacitly displaying some sympathy. The initial spark of this spontaneity, however, were the youth activists of the ARF, who immediately protested outside the Public Services Regulatory Commission once the price hike was decided. While the initial gathering was dispersed by the police in a show of force, the outcome was a much larger civic engagement, which forced the Sargsyan Administration to proceed with caution.Yet this initial show of force did lead to widespread criticism, including condemnation from the ARF leadership. ARF Supreme Council members even joined the demonstrators, while commentators for Dashnak media outlets in the U.S. openly criticized the corruption and economic woes that culminated into street protests.
The protests ended when the Sargsyan Administration engaged the youth representatives, suspended the price hikes, and proposed the hiring of a foreign auditing firm to untangle the problem at hand. While the outcome was a tacit victory for civic society, and a well-calculated show of restraint for the Sargsyan Administration, an analysis of the scope of pronouncements or comments from representatives of the Diaspora’s leading organizations were consistent with previous patterns. The AAA and the AGBU refrained from any involvement, as the former exercised silence in compliance, while the latter, in its tradition of being apolitical, displayed consistency by refraining from involvement. The ANCA refrained from directly commenting, referring to the comments of ARF’s leadership, which displayed a familiar narrative. Criticism was leveled against the following: the electric company and its Russian owners; the general state of the economy; the behavior of mid-level law enforcement; and a general concern with systemic corruption. Direct and specific criticism of the government, of the president, or any leveling of responsibility on the administration remained absent.
Whereas some form of soft, indirect criticism was observable from the ANCA when the ARF was outside of government, this, once again, quickly changed when the ARF rejoined government in a new coalition with the RPA in 2016. The memorandum that was signed by both parties was heralded throughout the Diasporan outlets, with the ANCA even posting the entire text on its website. In the same fashion that the ARF and ANCA responded to the events of March 1, 2008 (as coalition members), so too they responded when the Sari Tagh Protests broke out in the summer of 2016. It is important to note that a distinction is being drawn here between the activities of the Sasna Dzerer, and their occupation of the Erebuni police precinct, and the protests that took place in Sari Tagh. Analytical scope is applied to the brutal crackdown by the police on the protesters, as opposed to how the police treated the Sasna Dzerer group. The latter, for obvious reasons, is outside the scope of this analysis. Within this context, the position of the Armenian Diasporan organizations on the Sasna Dzerer situation is quite tenable; but their position on the degree of barbarism that was displayed toward protesters and journalists alike reinforces the extent of their co-option by the Sargsyan Administration.
As the events unfolded, and once the outcome was documented and verified, there was widely-held consensus that excessive force, provocation, and in some instances, targeting of activists and journalists, were utilized by the police and interior ministry troops. The response of the leading Armenian Diasporan organizations, however, was one of complete silence. This was quite astonishing, considering that the various Armenian communities of the Diaspora were quite upset and vocal; with protests against the Armenian government springing up in Southern California. Interestingly so, after President Sargsyan conceded errors on behalf of his government, and even apologized to the media and journalists that were harmed, did we see the ARF offer similar lines of criticism; however, the leading Armenian Diasporan organizations refrained from addressing the violation of civil rights and the subjection of Armenian citizens to police brutality. Contextually, there was a greater effort to heal and move on, as opposed to explain and demand accountability. Simply put, the perceived stability of the country had to be extolled over addressing the pestering wounds: and needless to say, stability has become a euphemism for normalization.
If the following two counter-arguments are presented as retorts to the analysis in this article, it is suggested that such would be counterproductive: 1) criticism of Armenia’s government is viewed as criticism of the country itself, and as such, it plays into the hands of our enemies; or 2) Diasporan organizations do not have the luxury of moralizing or engaging in politics, if they can help the Armenian people in any way they can, then they should; indeed, the lesser of the two evils. The national unity/patriotism discourse, as suggested in the first argument, borders the immature; to suggest that honest self-criticism is not tenable among Armenians is to suggest that we, indeed, have a very unhealthy society, where we must reduce ourselves to denial and sycophancy, as opposed to constructive criticism and truthful discourse. In essence, true patriotism is the latter. If, by any level of this discourse, we reduce ourselves and deny the ethical high ground, we will become no different than the lackeys and apologists that define the Aliyev regime.
This is why honest discourse, self-criticism, and objective assessment of our reality is essential. The second perceived retort revolves around claims of pragmatism; but this, of course, is also misconstrued. To reduce the relationship between the Armenian Diaspora and the Fatherland to one of “lesser of the two evils” not only smacks of incoherence, but it remains, ontologically, a tragedy. In all honesty, how sad is it when the bar for Armenianness is reduced to the “lesser of the two evils?” If we seek the betterment of Armenia, and it goes without saying that we all truly believe that this is what all of the Armenian Diasporan organizations want with the entirety of their hearts and souls, then perhaps it is time for us to have an honest discussion about this relationship. This does not suggest that the Diaspora should force, demand, threaten, or leverage the Armenian government to reform itself or the political system: that’s naive, untenable, and unrealistic. However, I do believe that Armenia’s government, and the growing political culture, is ready for a discussion, because this relationship might be privy to the Laws of Unintended Consequence. The Sargsyan Administration does not take the Diaspora for granted; but it does expect the Diaspora to know its place. Let’s have an honest public discourse, with our government, about what exactly that place is!