Relations between Armenia and its diaspora date back to the Middle Ages, but they took on a new dimension with the restoration of the Armenian state in 1991. While the diaspora is held up as one of Armenia’s greatest assets, in truth successive Armenian governments have fumbled and struggled to develop a vision with any perspective. Over the past 30 years, each presidential administration has promoted a minimalist approach to their relationship with the Armenian communities scattered around the world. For their part, Armenian diasporan organizations have been unable to make the transition from a traditional model rooted in the memory of the 1915 genocide to a contemporary diaspora model. The purpose of this series of articles is to present several models of home state-diaspora relations that can serve as sources of inspiration for the Republic of Armenia.
By the end of 2022, the Office of the High Commissioner for Diaspora Affairs will organize an important pan-Armenian conference with the purpose of proposing a meaningful roadmap.
Each time the Armenian communities of the diaspora mobilize on a large scale, it is in response to a tragedy (the 1988 Spitak Earthquake), an emergency (the 2020 Artsakh War) or to claim the duty of remembrance (April 24 demonstrations). Never has there been an attempt to negotiate a form of representation in Armenia, or political participation in the construction of the state. In a time of globalization and hyperconnected social networks, the abolition of spatio-temporal distance and the emergence of a “digital diaspora” makes us consider a new role for the transnational Armenian collective.
A Problem of Institutionalization
Seen from Armenia, the diaspora is perceived as being at the antipodes of the social realities of the country, from the concerns of daily life. Initial hopes to bring the diaspora and the Republic closer together collapsed due to an oligarchic system that wanted to keep out competitors, a demographic hemorrhage and resultant brain drain that followed independence in 1991 due to economic collapse, a constitution that prohibited dual citizenship, and the lack of a repatriation policy.
It is a fact that the Armenia-diaspora relationship suffers from a cruel lack of institutionalization, rationalization and regulation mechanisms. A ministry in charge of relations with the diaspora was set up in 2008 with high hopes, but its mode of operation, the style of Diaspora Minister Hranush Hakobyan, who held the office until 2018, evoked the heaviness of Sovietism and the legacy of the old spyurk committee of Soviet Armenia. The Pashinyan Administration brought a modernist veneer to diaspora relations, but without allocating substantial means. Nevertheless, Yerevan takes note that two thirds of the Armenian people live outside the borders of Armenia.
The relative influence of traditional institutions, i.e. the Church and the traditional Armenian political parties should not allow us to forget that there is no voting mechanism for Armenians living abroad, let alone MPs assigned to represent their interests. What can we expect from pan-Armenian mass conferences with officials and empty declarations like the one in 2015 if good intentions are not accompanied by a coherent strategy?
The Fifth Switzerland, an Inspiring Model
It is often overlooked that Switzerland, as prosperous as it is, has long been and remains a country of emigration. At the end of 2021, there were more than 788,000 Swiss nationals living abroad, a figure that is constantly rising, making this Swiss presence in the world more than 11% of the total Swiss population, equal to its fourth-largest canton. Though 75% of the Swiss have more than one nationality, this does not deprive them of any political rights. Since 1992, Swiss nationals living abroad can take part in the numerous votes and referendums that punctuate the life of this semi-direct democracy, unique in the world.
Based in Bern, the Organisation of the Swiss Abroad (OSA), also known as the Swiss community, is officially a private foundation which is committed to the interests of all Swiss abroad. It was founded in 1916 by the New Helvetic Society as the representative body for the defense of what is commonly known as the “Fifth Switzerland”, which comes after the German-speaking, French-speaking, Italian-speaking and Romansh-speaking parts of Switzerland.
The OSA, which became a foundation in 1989, fought for and won the right to vote by mail for Swiss nationals abroad in federal elections in 1992. Since the beginning of the 2000s, the organization has increased its political presence, which has led the country’s four main political parties to be represented there. In 1918, the first “Day of the Swiss Abroad” was organized in Bern. This tradition has been maintained and has gradually evolved into an annual world congress of the Swiss Abroad.
The OSA works closely with the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs (the Swiss Ministry of Foreign Affairs) and aims to strengthen the ties between Swiss expatriates and their country of origin. They accomplish this by providing various services, information and advice on legal matters, social insurance and education. The OSA publishes the bi-monthly Swiss Review in five languages, with a circulation of over 400,000 in 190 countries.
A Democratic Body That Reflects This Multilingual Country
The Council of the Swiss Abroad is the supreme body of the OSA. It is composed of MPs or former MPs. Assisted by a permanent secretariat and some 20 staff, a committee of eight council members and a president prepare the work of the council and represent it externally.
In addition to the OSA, there are a number of specialist organizations that work for the Swiss abroad. These include the Committee for Swiss Schools Abroad, which supports the education of Swiss nationals abroad and represents the interests of Swiss schools worldwide in dealing with the public, the economy and the national authorities. Soliswiss, the “Solidarity Fund for the Swiss Abroad”, was founded in 1958 and enables expatriates to insure themselves against the loss of their livelihood due to political events. The Foundation for the Swiss Abroad, founded in 1930, finances projects and services of the various institutions of the Swiss Abroad.
At present, there is no representation of Swiss parliamentarians from abroad in the two houses of the Swiss Parliament (the National Council and the Council of States). However, since 2004, a parliamentary group for Swiss Abroad, currently composed of 80 parliamentarians from both chambers, is particularly interested with the concerns of the “Fifth Switzerland” through their parliamentary work. For example, they meet at the beginning of each parliamentary session to discuss the impact of legislation on the interests of the Swiss abroad. This can concern a wide variety of issues, such as the free movement of goods, dual nationality, and all sorts of laws that can impact their lives as Swiss abroad.
Every year in August, aligning with the Swiss national holiday, the Organization of the Swiss Abroad organizes a congress, which is held in a different region of Switzerland each year. The different themes are chosen to meet the expectations and interests of the hundreds of participants. It is an opportunity for them to attend conferences, learn about Swiss current affairs, discuss their different experiences and meet personalities from the Swiss political and economic scene. All conferences are held in two languages (French and German), with translation into Italian also available.
In addition to the Congress of the Swiss Abroad, a Parliament of the Swiss Abroad was created in 2015 in Geneva. It is a platform for young Swiss diasporans committed to defending the interests of youth who intend to develop and implement projects in their country of residence, while benefiting from the support of the network of young Swiss people in other countries.
Switzerland and Armenia are both mountainous and landlocked countries of comparable size, though with a large gap in economic development. It is worth noting the number of tools and structures available to Swiss communities abroad to ensure an optimal relationship with the country of origin. The Armenian authorities would have everything to gain by drawing inspiration from them, in particular by mobilizing the material and human resources of the diaspora to concretize new representative structures able to defend the common good and the general interest.
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.
Western Armenian literature does live in many different environments, traditional or innovative. The question, however, is in what conditions or with what prospects? New pathways are necessary to keep it “living.”Read more
Will the 2020 Artsakh War be a turning point for the diaspora to reassess and define a new agenda for itself? Dr. Khatchik DerGhougassian argues that a paradigm shift has started to occur in how the diaspora sees itself and its relationship with the homeland.Read more
Diaspora Conceptualizations and the Realities of the Armenian Diaspora: Some Preliminary Observations
Do diasporas have agency, imagined and conceptualized, to produce collective behavior or are they too vast and heterogeneous to generate any coordinated collective action in unison?Read more
The 2020 Artsakh War was perceived and experienced in Armenia as well as in the diaspora as an existential crisis. Kasbarian argues that the recent nation-wide mobilization made this moment a transformative one.Read more