Dr. Hratch Tchilingirian, a scholar and lecturer at the Oriental Institute of the University of Oxford – specializing in Eastern Christianity and Armenian Studies – spoke to CivilNet about the current Armenia-Diaspora relations.
Following the recent developments in Armenia and changes in the dynamics of Armenia-diaspora relations, is there a need to redefine what is diaspora?
When speaking about the Diaspora, I always point out that the diaspora is not a country that could be compared with Armenia. The diaspora is primarily a collection of communities. The term diaspora is a description of a state of being rather than statehood or a unified group of people. This is very important to keep in mind. As such, we have to talk about diasporas, in the plural, rather than one entity.
Secondly, in terms of engagement with Armenia or things Armenian, we have to be very practical when we talk about the diaspora. We are not talking about or shouldn’t talk about the seven, eight million Armenians living outside Armenia. While numerically true, I don’t think we could talk about millions of Armenians in practical terms. Institutionally, the diaspora, in my view, is primarily seven organizations: the three churches (Apostolic, Catholic, Evangelical); the three political parties (SDHP, ARF, ADL), and AGBU. The rest of the structures in the Diaspora are under these seven organizations, give and take some exceptions. Of course there are academic institutions, local cultural and educational organizations outside the orbit of these seven organizations, but the traditional structures of the diaspora are those seven. I single out these seven structures because they are transnational entities – they have a presence or institutional footprint in multiple diaspora communities around the world – as opposed to those that are local organizations or exist in only one country. So, before talking about the position of the diaspora regarding Armenia or Armenian issues, perhaps we should talk about how the seven leaders of these seven organizations should come together in a room and articulate a joint position, to set priorities on a national level, and so forth. Of course, this might sound very naive and simplistic. I’m sure others have thought about this. I’m not saying anything new or unique. I’m sure there are reasons why our organizations or leaders have not come together…
Given that we are talking about already established organizations, political parties, and the church, which have already confessed allegiance in one way or another, decided for themselves their course of action, would such a dialogue be actually possible? Can it happen without one or another organization caving in or succumbing to the will of the others?
Obviously, there is some dialogue, some cooperation among the organizations, perhaps not as satisfactory as expected. However, the process is much more complicated. I think there is some discussion among these organizations. Also, what we are seeing recently is that we have other interest groups, whether through social media networks or new initiatives, prompting, forcing, pushing this discussion into the public sphere―whether through organized campaigns or petitions―prompting these leaders to action.
We complain of the lack of democracy in Armenia. Can we say the same about the diaspora, where the individual or the small group of like-minded people are never heard or taken into consideration, however constructive their approach or suggestions might be?
We have issues of transparency in the diaspora, but there is some democracy―most organizations have elected executives, even though the numbers are small, they claim to…
At least in Lebanon such organizations are self-producing, often times membership is hereditary, so the integration of the fresher sector of the diasporan society into this leadership of seven is somewhat difficult.
Just as a footnote, we could talk about eight organizations, if we consider that the Apostolic Church has two branches, Etchmiadzin and Cilicia. What we are seeing now, at this juncture in our history, besides the traditional Diaspora community organizations, is a new thinking―professionals, academics, activists, people who have bigger vision or expectation from our communities―who are trying to open an inclusive space for ideas or opinions that are not necessarily shared by the traditional organizations.
What we see recently with the open letters and petitions, these are people who are coming forward with their own initiatives, who themselves feel marginalized and are showing resistance to the “leadership groups.” And they don’t belong to the leadership groups. So are they really being inclusive or are the individuals being more outspoken or have more tools at their disposal?
When I say inclusive, at least some of the people that I’ve spoken with in the traditional Armenian organizations, I think there is a realization that they don’t have any other choice; that it’s time to open up, listen to the new generation. Even some political parties have internal disagreements, which we might not read in the papers, but I’m sure we know anecdotally that there is an internal dynamic of disagreements or differences of views, so on. So, there is a process. But, I believe, in order to be more effective in these efforts, whether for political transformation or reforms, we have to be more concrete, more specific. If we are making a big announcement to the diaspora to help or engage, who is the diaspora? No one in the diaspora takes that as addressed to him or herself personally. We have to be more specific. If we need assistance or contribution, for instance, in the education sector, we have to go and ask people who are the experts, who are in the universities, who have the expertise, and ask specific individuals or a group of people who would take that as a personal invitation to help with a specific matter or problem. Psychologically, a lot of times people withdraw from a scene, when they’re asked to do something and don’t feel capable or don’t have proper resources to help. They withdraw because they feel inadequate to contribute. And sometimes our national problems are so overwhelming that many people prefer to withdraw to a secure corner and have their own…
This misperceived diaspora needs to restructure itself and it needs to impact Armenia positively – can these processes, in your opinion, exist in parallel?
My final and perhaps controversial answer to your question would be what I said in the beginning – let’s not think of the diaspora in terms of eight million Armenians living in some one hundred countries. But the diaspora, the type of people that you’re talking about, is perhaps a few thousand people, say, three to five thousand people, who can actually make a difference. So the challenge is to mobilize that segment―those, who are aware of the situation, those who are connected emotionally, intellectually. And again, my caution is that it’s a limited number, let’s say five thousand people in the diaspora, who would actually make a difference. Rather than saying Dear Diasporan, which most people do not take it personally or identify with, we have to be more specific: we have to say Dear academic, Dear activist, Dear bank president, so on, we need help in these areas, here is an opportunity to contribute to Armenia’s development.
Interview by Roubina Margossian