By Taline Papazian
The Armenian Diaspora - globally - is witnessing the birth of a transnational civil society in the last few years. If civil society in Armenia has been maturing over the last 15 years, in the Diaspora, rise of civic awareness is appearing with a five to ten year delay. This is not a top-down phenomenon: neither driven nor encouraged by diasporan classic institutions, which, on the contrary, are lagging far behind.
Emigration from Armenia and the making of a Diaspora civil society
It comes from the bottom, the bulk of which is composed of Armenians from Armenia well settled in community centers. Based on my observations of the communities in the greater Paris and Los Angeles areas, the "2nd generation" of immigrants makes the most of its demographic mass: children of immigrants, ethnic Armenians either born in community centers or settled in them early in their lives, they have grown up and been educated in foreign countries with long-established communities.
Yet, contrary to third to fifth-generations of Diaspora Armenians, they retain close ties with the homeland through family, language, and some cultural norms. In short, they have been outside long enough to allow acculturation but not too long to disrupt strong and concrete ties with the homeland. If their parents were “losers” of the Soviet Union break up, their children now enjoy better prospects.
This is a positive offspring of the dramatic demographic decline Armenia has been experiencing as a result of mass emigration in the last 25+ years. Whereas their parents were disappointed with some sad realities of the country - corruption, inequalities, lack of justice - their children are willing to take a stand on these issues and others.
In this wide group, there is a very active minority: the “Armeniaporans”. The Armeniaporans are people with a civic awareness of Armenia’s affairs who are engaged within their communities.
Besides “Armeniaporans”, other groups are also challenging traditional outlooks, such as the wall between Western and Eastern Armenian or the differences in mentality between, for instance, a 4th-generation Armenian from France and a 1st generation immigrant from Armenia.
The “Repats”, diasporans who have chosen to settle in Armenia, are bridging the gap between Armenia and the Diaspora(s). The “Spiurkastantsis”, a label I use for individuals belonging to the old diaspora but having created strong and durable ties with post-Soviet Armenia willingly, are also engaging with Armenia either through charities or work. These groups are small however, not more than a few thousands each.
“Armeniaporans” on the other hand are already more numerous than these two groups together, and their potential numbers higher considering the more than 1 million emigrants from Armenia in the last three decades. They challenge traditional borders within the communities, acting outside if not outright against traditional institutions. They want to have a say, sometimes even play a part in, some of Armenia’s challenges when it comes to human rights, freedoms, or democratization.
A momentum in redefining Armenia-Diaspora relations
This group will be key in redefining the role of the Armenian communities vis à vis Armenia, and vice-versa. In Armenia, the first post-Soviet generation has come to the forefront of state building in the aftermath of the Velvet Revolution.
It is no coincidence that some new officials in the team can be seen as belonging to the category of “Armeniaporans”. Having kept strong ties with the homeland yet familiar with diaspora institutions, they are also young, competent, “winners of globalization”, educated in Europe or the US, they benefit from networks outside and inside and are committed to act in their homeland.
The rise of a transnational Armenian civil society is a challenge to the traditional mentalities and structures in the Diaspora but also an opportunity to build more comprehensive and effective links between Armenia and the Diaspora.
Taline Papazian is a Visiting Scholar at the USC Institute of Armenian Studies.