Can the Armenian Diaspora Bring a “New Management Culture” to Armenia?

by Kristin Cavoukian, Senior Fellow

This February, Prime Minister Karen Karapetyan invited the Armenian diaspora to be part of the country’s future by contributing to government-led reform efforts. He implored recognized educators and scientists to “bring in a new management culture.” While it is heartening to hear Armenia’s politicians admit they do not have all the answers themselves, this message was troublesome in a number of ways, many of them typical of the appeals to the diaspora made by Armenian authorities since the country’s independence. Moreover, it came on the eve of Armenia’s first election since the country’s presidential system was replaced with a parliamentary one. The motives of Armenia’s ruling elites, and the irregularities observed during the referendum, have been discussed at length, and do not need rehashing here. But Karapetyan’s message, at the height of election season, presented an opportunity to discuss the role the diaspora is being asked to play in Armenia’s development and reform, and by extension, its politics.

The first point to address is Karapetyan’s insistence that the diaspora’s “sense of pride and dignity depends on [the] Homeland’s prosperity.” While diasporans do feel pride – and shame – based on conditions in the Republic of Armenia, diasporic identities are complex and multi-layered, and cannot be reduced simply to mirrors reflecting developments in the homeland. As regards that portion of diaspora pride and that does stem from the homeland, economic prosperity is neither its only, nor its most important source. Diaspora Armenians also want an Armenian society that is open and inclusive, and a state that is just, fair, and democratic.

The second point is that, while Karapetyan concedes that Armenia needs to become more open and tolerant of “other value systems”, the fact that he couples this with “keeping to our traditional values” calls into question the degree of openness he intends. Armenian officials have often positioned themselves as the protectors of so-called traditional values, but while Armenians abroad have adapted to and adopted aspects of their various host country cultures, over their long period under Soviet rule, Armenians in today’s Republic of Armenia similarly adopted many aspects of Soviet and Russian culture. As a nation, we must move beyond the idea that there are any pure, dyed-in-the-wool Armenians anywhere in the world, or that anyone has a monopoly on Armenian traditions and values. Moreover, the discussion of traditional values often justifies discrimination and violence against women and LGBTQ Armenians in the name of the “traditional Armenian family.” This deplorable behavior can unfortunately be found to varying degrees all over the world. In Armenia, the fact that pro-“traditional values” forces have closely aligned themselves with like-minded people in Russia makes this clear. Sexism and anti-gay prejudice are not uniquely Armenian values, and can be legitimately opposed within every society they plague.

All too often, Armenian officials invoke these familial and traditional-values tropes to assert their position as the central node in the global Armenian nation. The centrality of the Armenian state would need less vociferous defending were it not for its rampant corruption and increasing authoritarianism, which serve as a consistent source of embarrassment for large swaths of the Armenian diaspora. Successive Armenian elections have been increasingly less free and less fair, and governments have become less and less accountable to the public. Diasporans should be wary of calls to lend legitimacy to the illegitimate and the corrupt in support of a “strong” and “united” Armenia, and should instead support legitimately elected governments that act in the public interest. To do so is not to thrust foreign values on Armenians, but merely to insist that Armenian officials follow their own laws, obey their own constitution, and live up to their own professed values. When the Armenian government is at odds with its people, diaspora involvement should take the side of the Armenian citizenry, in recognition that “the nation” is in fact the people, and not the government of the day.

If there is one bright note in Karapetyan’s appeal, it is the refreshing absence of an overt plea for the diaspora to “help Armenia” by way of charity, philanthropy, or investment. The diaspora has engaged in a lot of this “help” over the years, with mixed results. Armenia is no longer the fledgling state of the 1990s, struggling to keep the water running and the lights on. Instead, it is a country of extreme inequality, where extraordinarily wealthy people (many of them government officials) possess the wherewithal to address the majority of Armenia’s development shortcomings themselves. Scholars who study diasporas around the world have noted that, once an independent state has been established, it is typical for diaspora funds to gradually shift away from assistance to the government, and toward support for civil society.[1] Yet 25 years on, the Armenian diaspora’s aid has somehow remained stuck in “life support” mode. Instead of continuing to support the government’s development priorities through state-led vehicles such as the Hayastan All-Armenian Fund, diasporans looking to contribute financially to the betterment of Armenia would do better to redirect their money toward NGOs and other local groups fighting for social change, from think tanks, to women’s groups, to environmental organizations, to alternative media sources free of government influence. And of course, diasporans should prioritize the passport over the pocketbook and connect with Armenia in person – not because doing so is the key to safeguarding their endangered Armenianness (as the Minister of Diaspora has often suggested), but because doing so enriches the lives of both resident and visitor.

Karapetyan is correct to see the diverse experience, knowledge, and skills of the diaspora as a potential resource (he compares this to the oil and gas of Armenia’s neighbours), as cliché as this claim has become. But neither Armenia’s authorities, nor the diaspora, should discount the expertise and ideas of Armenian citizens (and repatriated diasporans) working in opposition or civil society organizations, whose familiarity with conditions in Armenia far exceed those of Armenians abroad. Diasporans called upon to lend their talents to the government should seek out like-minded scholars, activists, and experts living in Armenia, and draw the government’s attention to their ideas and experience. In other words, the government’s responsiveness to the diaspora should not come at the expense of, or be a replacement for, responsiveness to its own citizenry.

Finally, ensuring the integrity of Armenia’s elections should be a vital concern for Armenians everywhere. Too many of the country’s post-Soviet neighbours have slid away from nascent democracy and become “competitive authoritarian” regimes[2] holding sham elections, and independence means little if Armenian citizens are not free to choose their own government. We are now all too aware that battles not fought legitimately at the ballot box will be fought in the streets, and that citizens whose votes are not counted will vote with their feet.  It was encouraging to see prominent members of the Armenian diaspora, such as Arsinee Khanjian and Serj Tankian, promoting diaspora election observation, and serving as observers themselves during Armenia’s April 2, 2017 parliamentary election. However, as with many aspects of diaspora-state relations, short-term action is no substitute for long-term engagement. In this case, international observers expressed alarm at vote-buying, intimidation of voters, and pressure on public servants to vote for certain parties, not to mention unequal media coverage of opposition parties. Since these types of violations are not necessarily observable at the polls on election day, there is a danger that diaspora observers could inadvertently lend credibility to fraudulent results by suggesting, on the basis of their own short-term observations, that fraud did not take place.

Building an Armenia in which we can take pride begins with ensuring its government is one whose legitimacy we can all respect. A “new management culture” ultimately begins with new management. Armenia deserves genuinely free and fair elections so that its own citizens can determine who that management will be. An engaged and committed diaspora can help, but only if they keep their wits about them, and are in it for the long haul.

 

[1] Shain, Yossi and Martin Sherman, 2001. “Diasporic Transnational Financial Flows and Their Impact on National Identity.” Nationalism and Ethnic Conflict 7, 4: 20-21.

[2] Levitsky, Steven, and Lucan A. Way, 2002. “The Rise of Competitive Authoritarianism.” Journal of Democracy 13, 2 (April). 51-65.

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The Turbulent World Order, Armexit, and the Promising Prospects of a US-Armenia Strategic Alliance

4

An open letter published on the anniversary of July 31, 2016, when Sasna Tsrer temporarily laid down their arms to continue the rebellion.

The turbulent world order, which emerged after the Cold War, has created a promising prospects for: (1) the liberation of Armenia from Russian colonial rule (Armexit), which was founded upon the regional architecture shaped by the Russian-Turkish treaties of 1921, and (2) a US-Armenia strategic alliance, an alliance that can resolve strategic problems of both parties and ensure the pursuit of their national interests in a very important inter-regional and inter-civilizational knot that encompasses Armenia.

The logic of this post-Cold War world order is becoming more and more prominent also in the foreign policy doctrine of the number one world player, the United States. According to Zbigniew Brzezinski, the US foreign policy will hereinafter rely on the “You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours” principle, which presupposes fewer rules and more pragmatism (“Last conversation with Zbigniew Brzezinski”, “Aravot” No. 104/5444, June 6, 2017).

Specifically, this principle envisages:

  • Rejecting the normative/rule-based approach to trans-democracy; and
  • Ensuring broader US global presence via proxies, by giving its allies an opportunity to carry out active US foreign policy tasks.

In the meantime, the US is toughening its policy toward Russia, which will keep Russia preoccupied with its domestic problems, unable to pursue its Eurasian integration plans and colonial, revisionist aspirations towards its neighboring states. Such a significant revision of US foreign policy creates enormous opportunities for establishing US-Armenia partnership aimed at utilizing its massive potential. If they can adequately balance the normative and pragmatic considerations in bilateral relations in favor of effectiveness, both the US and Armenia will gain new and very serious leverage for pursuing their strategic interests.

Armenia can become a valuable ally for the USA due to the following factors:

First, by helping deprive Russia from its North-South geopolitical axis. As a result, Russia will no longer be able to combine the North-South axis with its main West-East axis and to act as a self-sufficient geopolitical complex in all parts of the Eurasian region. Today, Russia has that North-South axis, which allows Russia to be a global player through its military component, having Armenia as its unique colony-garrison. By cutting off its ties with Russia, getting rid of the Russian presence, and becoming a US ally, Armenia will effectively neutralize that axis. By losing Armenia and its foothold on the North-South axis, Russia will be forced to limit its ambitions towards the greater Middle East. Simultaneously, as a result of being deprived of the ability to be an independent global player, Russia will have to also limit its ambitions along its West-East axis, and to embrace the prospect of being integrated into a civilized world.

Second, by ensuring integration of Iran with the West and act as a corridor between Persian Gulf and Black Sea. Armenia is a bridge between West and East not only geographically, but also by its centuries-old culture and experience in that role, a role typical for Armenia and for Armenians. The Armenian Diaspora and younger generation are essential factors that vastly improve Armenia’s chances on this dimension.

However, Armenia can only deliver on these two issues, if it becomes an independent state with relevant territorial, communicational, human, and material resources. In reality, Armenia is occupied by a colonial power on the basis of architecture formed by 1921 Russian-Turkish treaties (which were in direct violation of international law), with the declared rationale being that Armenia needs Russia. The tools for this control are Armenia’s colonial administration and pro-Russian political elite. Interestingly, not only Armenia’s ruling elite is pro-Russian, but so is the overwhelming majority of the country’s opposition.

These are important obstacles: there can be no US-Armenia strategic alliance without eliminating them. These reasons also rule out political transformation in Armenia through Ukrainian or Georgian scenario. In such a situation, the US’s tailored approach and support for establishing Armenia as an independent state is crucial. All of the components of the system colonizing Armenia should be reexamined. None of these components should be part of tomorrow’s Armenia that will come to substitute what we have today.

To succeed in Armexit, become a member of the family of civilized nations, and perform its mission of a bridge-mediator, Armenia must undergo the following changes:

  • Substantially renew its political elite and create a national government to replace the colonial administration;
  • Free itself of dependency on Russia and its presence (including forfeiting membership from the CIS, CSTO, EEU and closing the Russian military bases from its territory);
  • Acquire the necessary regional and communicational capabilities necessary for a sovereign state by adjoining Artsakh and Nakhijevan; and
  • Ally itself with the US and the West and regain its traditional role as a bridge-mediator for Iran and the region.

Such developments will also limit the joint Russian-Turkish leverage over Armenia, something that will significantly increase the possibility of moving the Armenian-Turkish relations from the deadlock.

Naturally, the need to revisit region’s architecture, take into account the Iranian factor, and ensure the integrative mission of Armenia in general would require that the US-Armenia and West-Armenia relations be built on pragmatism and not have their hands tied by normative considerations. Specifically, pragmatism suggests that to be effective, Armenia should refrain from becoming a NATO country and instead should adopt unique military-political relations, which are just as meaningful content-wise but are free of NATO-imposed limitations and restrictions.

Prior to this, the embryo of tomorrow’s US ally Armenia needs to be created in today’s Armenia. This cannot be done by the US efforts to put the pro-Russian administration and elite of today’s Armenia on the right track. That embryo can be created by adequately supporting national forces and civic/political activists, who represent the people of Armenia and their interests. The support should be sufficient for self-organization, establishing the people’s power and a national government. The remainder of the issues can be solved through joint efforts.

It should also be noted, that the embryo will be viable if it is shaped outside of the current colonial system and is guided by law (which among other things gives people the right for rebellion) and constitutionalism. It cannot survive if it is conceived in an environment governed by today’s system of rules, including “the parliamentary format” that has become the tool of the ruling regime.

The 2016 April war and Sasna Tsrer rebellion resulted in a revolutionary turnaround in the public consciousness of Armenia. The people in Armenia are ready to get rid of Russian colonialism and to ally themselves with the US and the West, to take over its traditional place as a full-fledged member of the civilized community. It is now voluntarily opening itself to the world and hope to build effective and mutually beneficial alliances.

 

Signed/

Jirayr Sefilian, Coordinator of the Founding Parliament Secretariat (in detention)

Garegin Chugaszyan, President of the Founding Parliament (in hiding)

Varuzhan Avetisyan, Member of Sasna Tsrer’s Coordinating Committee, Spokesperson (in detention)

Garo Yeghnukian, Member of the Founding Parliament (in detention)

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The Armenians and Claims for Reparations: Their Sovereignty Challenged?

by Raffi Philippe Kalfayan

Reprinted with author’s permission from http://repairfuture.net.

The issue of reparations for the Genocide of Armenians may appear quite out of phase with the current state of Armenian-Turkish relations, as well as with the respective emergencies in both countries regarding infringements on civil rights and liberties and security threats. However, although these relations suffer from the weight of history and the understandable distrust that has set in, repairing past damages is a possible option to build foundations for a new era. Setting aside the specific situation of each country, this article examines where the case for reparations stands, which solutions are contemplated, and what the current policy of the Armenian State is on the question of the Genocide and its consequences. Philippe Raffi Kalfayan points to some persistent factors in the way Armenians have been handling their destiny so far, showing their impact on the treatment of genocide reparations or regarding territorial claims.

I- The Armenian State as an indispensable player

There have been enough research studies and conferences discussing this issue to enable us today to outline a possible strategy of actions in order to obtain reparations for the genocide of Armenians, both materially and morally.

Individual compensation for loss of property, whether belonging to private persons (family) or legal entities (company, religious institution) may be claimed in front of Turkish courts by those holding titles or deeds or by class action, as in the United States, in view of reaching settlements. Those actions are private initiatives but they do not address the damages of the collective crime. Practice also shows that with the passing of time, the nature of individual claims in terms of property tends to “collectivize”—i.e. to merge into collective claims, and this for several reasons: because proof of assets becomes harder to gather, the kinship and interests of beneficiaries less obvious to ascertain, and the procedural obstacles such as the statutory limitation period and jurisdictional competence harder to overcome.

Collective reparation, on the other hand, aims at the very essence of justice for a mass crime. It touches on national (meaning pan-Armenian) and strategic interests (economic compensations, borders, safeguards against repetition), and calls on international law (truth, remedy, restitution, compensation and satisfaction) because the whole community of nations is concerned with fighting impunity and preventing the most heinous crimes against humanity and peace.

At present, there is no judicial forum for litigations that would enable descendants of victims to assert their rights to reparations, particularly because Turkey’s consent is required. There are many objectivelegal reasons for this, which would take too long to explain here. However, a series of actions could be undertaken which would pave the way towards reaching a legal decision stating the responsibility of Turkey for past violations and thus the liability of its government to indemnify. There would be two distinct mechanisms used in these stages of the process: the first would be an interstate mechanism (a claim for an advisory opinion from the International Court of Justice) which would require the intervention of the Armenian State at the United Nations to obtain a favorable vote by the General Assembly or Security Council. As for the implementation of claims, the favored second mechanism would proceed from the founding of a Claims Commission, a negotiated administrative process. It would naturally be dependent on Turkey’s consent to enforce the decisions made.

Any process of collective reparation will depend in fine on Armenian-Turkish bilateral relations for three main reasons:

1. Turkey will prefer a global agreement with the Armenian side, settling all individual or collective claims once and for all;

2. The resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh question, although separate from the genocide question and Turkey, is imposed as a precondition to any relationship with Armenia.

3. Third parties consider that the genocide question touches on relations between the two countries. Indeed, the European Court of Human Rights has found in the Perinçek v. Switzerland case (Lower Court, 17 December 2013) that the matter in litigation was “an issue pertaining to relations between two States, namely Turkey and Armenia, the people of the latter country having been the victims of massacres and deportations.”

As for territorial claims, which are often raised by Armenians but are also a goal for some political parties, it should be recalled that they are in no way connected to the issue of reparations for the genocide of Armenians, and this for two main reasons:

1. Ottoman Armenians did not have any land autonomy or independence within the Ottoman Empire (from the 14th century up to the genocide);

2. States have exclusive authority over such claims and any territorial dispute must be settled by peaceful means only, the recourse to coercion being prohibited by the United Nations Charter.

The retrospective study of bilateral or multilateral treaties that directly concerned Armenians, with or without their participation, from the 18th to the 21st century underlines several facts:

1. Russia became the imposed or consenting tutor for the protection of Orthodox Christians (the “Eastern Question”), then of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire (first reference to them is found in the 1878’s San Stefano and Berlin Treaties);

2. The power struggle between Great Britain and Russia in the region determined the fate of the Armenians, according to the military or ideological alliances of the Ottoman Empire, then of the Kemalist Republic;

3. The only treaty elaborating the creation of an Armenian State, i.e. Sèvres (1920) and its fate  illustrate that political game;

4. It is a Russian-Turkish Treaty which defined the borders of the Caucasian States (Moscow, 1921), confirmed by the latter states in the Treaty of Kars signed on 21 October 1921. The issue of the sovereignty of those Bolshevik Transcaucasian republics in Kars is debatable.

In conclusion, the examination of the legal-political solutions at hand, the demands that Turkey might voice and the possible discussion of territorial claims clearly make Armenia’s involvement indispensable, but they also raise the issue of the real sovereignty of Armenia as a state.

II- The Republic of Armenia’s current policy for the recognition of the genocide: a dead end for reparations.

So far, Armenia’s policy has limited itself to the famous pan-armenian declaration of 29 January 2015focused on supporting the process of political recognition of the Armenian genocide though out the world. The Armenian Foreign Affairs have also engaged in a  “prestige diplomacy” to show that Armenia is at the forefront of the fight to prevent genocides—a commendable policy but quite removed from the concrete actions needed to seek justice for the past crimes.

On that particular subject—i.e. defining a strategy or launching specific actions—the Armenian State remains in an observer’s position and the organization created specially to study these topics under the aegis of the Armenian constitutional Court is meant to centralize studies, analyses and initiatives on the subject, but not to take action.

It should also be noted that the Armenian State has been daunted by several litigations which faced  with disappointing outcomes, such as the Perinçek v. Switzerland  case and the Chiragov v. Armenia, both held before the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights.

Armenia’s lack of executives and of financial means, its refusal to use the skills in the Diaspora, and its blatant dependence on Russia generate a sort of inertia. Hence arises a risk on the legal and political planes, because, on the one hand, the time for legal action is not eternal and, on the other, ground is lost to the adversary.

This attitude entails three damaging consequences:

First, it has a direct influence on the mainstream secular or religious Armenian organizations in the Diaspora, who are traditionally legitimist. The “Dashnaksutyun (or Armenian Revolutionary Federation), the political party spearheading the Armenian cause and making the strongest claims, has coalesced with the government and thus reduced its freedom of initiative.

Secondly, the resulting stagnancy is the worst possible scenario for the question of reparations but also for the recognition of the genocide of Armenians. (For instance, on 30 May 2017 in Baku, President Erdogan’s first adviser could state that Armenians never stopped clamoring for recognition of the genocide but refused any investigation on the facts.) The Republic of Armenia and the Diaspora both operate on a reactive rather than proactive mode, involve themselves in useless actions and expose themselves to diplomatic and judicial attacks from Turkey and its allies. As recent proof of that, on another legal-political case which the Republic of Armenia is faced with, Azerbaijan has called on the Security Council and the UN General Assembly to rule on the illegality of the Armenian occupation and of the activities of third parties in Nagorno-Karabakh, citing a “Legal Opinion on Third Party Obligations with Respect to Illegal Economic and Other Activities in the Occupied Territories of Azerbaijan.”  (Report submitted on 10 April 2017).

Thirdly, the passing of time and legal inaction may block any possible recourse for Armenian claims or reduce them to purely symbolic measures. The older the violation of international law, the harder it will be to identify the specific damages and the more symbolic, collective and memorial the reparations will be. Territorial claims would be even more problematic: constant jurisprudence from international jurisdictions state that in the absence of earlier claims repeated through time, it is assumed that the appellant has accepted the situation as it is. We can only observe that no such territorial claim has been expressed, either by the Soviet Republic of Armenia or by the current Republic against Turkey. However the attitude of the parties is essential to establish the grounding for claims and the passivity of a party is considered as tantamount to giving up its entitlement or claims.

Conclusion

The questions of reparations for the genocide of Armenians or the separate issue of the territorial claims of Armenia on Turkey are naturally and undoubtedly connected to Armenian-Turkish relations.

If some initiatives in the field of reparations coming from the Diaspora in the name and interests of descendants of victims are possible and commendable, they will only be marginal to the central issue of material and moral reparation for the genocide. And that issue cannot do without the involvement of the Armenian State within a global agreement to be found between Turkey and Armenians.

The chronology and contents of the treaties concerning Armenian populations in the Ottoman Empire, as well as the bilateral or multilateral treaties signed between Turkey and Armenia, but also the circumstances and geopolitical stakes of the international treaties of Sèvres and Lausanne illustrate to what extent Armenians and Armenia have been pawns, whether willingly or submissively, of a war of influence between great powers.

The sovereignty of Armenia does seem to be at the heart of issues concerning Armenian-Turkish relations, and consequently of the question of reparations as well. The new “cold war” waged by the United States and Europe against Russia and the constant threatening of Iran by the West and Israel even further complicate the reading of Armenia’s fate, “protected” as it is by Russia and friendly tied with Iran.

All these power games now crystallize around the resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. The Armenian-Turkish protocols signed in Zurich in 2009 aimed covertly to resolve that problem, and they failed for that reason. The legal-diplomatic action launched against Armenia by the Azerbaijani government cannot be just an isolated initiative: it is a new way of putting pressure on Armenia. The Republic of Armenia is caught in a vise between its wish to restore its relationship with Turkey and its vital interest to protect the Nagorno-Karabakh, however without giving itself the means to regain sovereign control of its destiny.

All efforts must focus on bolstering Armenia’s sovereignty and rebuilding trust. Without disavowing the strategic alliances of today, a sovereign policy on the part of Armenia would be reassuring for Turkey and encourage it to pursue a dialogue towards a global and strategic bilateral agreement which would include the writing of a common narrative and reparation for damages caused in the past. Conversely, Turkey would be well-inspired to show its political sincerity by implementing provisional measures without delay, such as: suspend its official denial policy, put an end to its hate and discrimination speech and open an investigation into the past events, inviting in representatives of the civil or political society including members of the Armenian minority.

Raffi Philippe Kalfayan is a prominent French-Armenian lawyer, a former Secretary General of the International Federation for Human Rights, and the coordinator of the Action Group for International Reparation for the Armenian Genocide. This presentation was part of the colloquium “Which Future for the Armenian-Turkish Dialogue? Balancing memorial issues and international relations” that took place in Yerevan on 17 February 2017. The colloquium was organized by Yerkir Europe in partnership with the French Embassy in Armenia, the French University in Armenia (UFAR) and the Fonds d’Alembert project of the Institut Français.

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The Abandoned American, Prisoner of Conscience Garo Yegnukian

Garo Yegnukian, a U.S. citizen, was arrested on July 20, 2016 and has since been illegally held in pretrial detention in Armenia’s old KGB prison. Garo has been a victim of political persecution since 2012 for being outspoken against the current despotic regime. He has also been active in matters of civil society (from saving city parks and landmarked structures to pursuing justice for murder victims of the oligarchic regime). Members of the regime along with their crew of thugs have, on several occasions, threatened Garo and his family, vandalized his personal property and even assaulted Garo and his family members (including underage children).

The Armenian courts have committed countless violations of Armenian law and international norms over the past 11 months. The baseless charges, which carry a sentence of up to 20 years, and groundless evidence against him (handful of tapped phone conversations) are invasions of freedom of speech since that is all Garo did, he spoke.

Garo has also been denied his right to a speedy trial. If tried separately for those phone taps, Garo’s trial would last a maximum of 1 month. There are no witnesses, no evidence, no victims; the judge would listen to the phone taps and determine innocence or guilt. The prosecution chose to join his case with 13 others and the court denied 3 different motions to separate the case and by doing so will ensure that Garo remains locked up for the duration of the trial which could take years; up to 5 or 6 years.  An unprecedented bail amount has also been denied without any sort of substantiation. The judicial system in Armenia is not independent and serves the interest of the regime. Thus Garo’s human and legal rights have been continuously violated and will continue to be violated unless there is outside intervention.

Garo Yegnukian was born in Soviet Armenia in 1959 from where his family (parents, grandmother and brother) emigrated in 1971. After an arduous journey, they arrived and eventually settled in New York City in 1973. Garo went through the NYC public school system. In 1981, he graduated from Pace University with a BA in Marketing and, in 1988, graduated from St. John’s University Law School.  He was admitted to the New York State Bar. Garo worked continuously from the day he arrived in NY at the age of 14 until his arrest in July of 2016; first at a printing press then with the family automotive business which his father had established. The family business proved to be successful and they expanded into automotive accessory manufacturing and entered the real estate business (Yegnukian Realty Corp.) which currently owns and manages property in five U.S. states.  Garo, his wife of 25 years and their 5 children, born in NY, lived comfortably in the Forest Hills Gardens neighborhood of NY. The Yegnukians had truly achieved the American Dream.

Garo always had a keen interest and maintained strong ties with his homeland. This connection heightened with the 1988 earthquake in Armenia, the fall of the U.S.S.R. and the subsequent independence of Armenia. Garo has been a member of the Union for National Self-Determination for 29 years, the first and only democratic organization functioning within the Soviet Union. During a trip to Armenia in late 1990, Garo and his father, Hagop, discussed the possibility of making a partial move to Armenia. On board the return flight Hagop suffered a debilitating stroke, which left him wheelchair bound and in need of constant care. During the next 18 years Garo, along with his family, cared for his father until his death in July 2008.

On July 1, 2009 Garo’s family of 7 finally made that partial (he kept his home and business dealings in the U.S. and continues to pay U.S. taxes) move to Armenia. His dream and aspiration all along was to bring his notion of that very American Dream that he had achieved in the U.S. to Armenia. That endeavor led him to prison.

Garo, initially, wanted to put his vast experience to use in Armenia and using his entrepreneurial skills to create business opportunities. He soon realized this was not possible in a corrupt environment where thievery is rewarded and honesty punished. Instead Garo immersed himself into matters of civil society, human rights, democracy and benevolent activities. One such example is the establishment of the Rights and Support Foundation in 2013 which provided legal support to civil activists that were being politically persecuted and financial support to the families of those that were incarcerated for such activism and were political prisoners. Ironically, less than 3 years after establishing and funding Rights and Support, Garo too became a political prisoner.

That Armenia’s modern day Soviet style totalitarian government is punishing him is no surprise but that he is the ONLY U.S. citizen being held as a political prisoner in Armenia and the U.S. State Department and U.S. Embassy have remained relatively silent about his case for the past 11 months is of utmost concern. The U.S. government has done so much for political prisoners in other countries, some of them not even U.S. citizens. However, Garo Yegnukian’s case seems to have fallen through the cracks of justice.

Garo is seeking two things: justice and the chance to bring the virtues of the American Dream to a far corner of the world. Your assistance, support and guidance in this effort is invaluable. Please help in bringing awareness to Garo’s predicament.

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Arthur Sargsyan, “The Bread Bearer”, is Dead; The Ruling Power in the Republic of Armenia Bears Direct Responsibility for it; Self Proclaimed Representative Institutions in the Diaspora Hold Indirect Responsibility by Keeping Silent

Thus, “the bread bearer” (“Hats Perogh”) died on Thursday, March 16, 2017 at 15:00 (Yerevan time).

The man had braved police roadblocks on July 26, 2016 to bring supplies to the insurgents (“Sasna Tsrer”) who had stormed and held the headquarters of a police barracks in the Center Yerevan from 17 to 31 July.

Artur Sargsyan decided to remain with the members of the commando until their surrender on 31 July. Imprisoned on that date and then charged in his turn with participation in the armed operation, he was released on 30 December 2016, following an intervention by his lawyers before the European Court of Human Rights. The Court, alarmed by his state of health, had found it incompatible with detention.

But the Armenian judicial authorities again handed Artur Sargsyan to custody on 9 February 2017 for two months under a false pretext. He started a hunger strike on 10 February until he was bailed out on 6 March following a mobilization of all parliamentary political parties, with the notable exception of the Republican Party (presidential majority). The delegation of parliamentarians who had visited the Prosecutor paid for the bail.

This death is the tragic culmination of actions taken by a weak and contested executive power that runs the country in disregard of the opinions, rights and freedoms of its citizens, making it every day poorer economically and weaker politically on the international stage.

The act of “Sasna Tsrer”, although going against the present-day laws, was an expression of the despair of the Armenian population, especially of veterans who fought on the Karabakh front in the 1990s. They wanted their opinions to be heard in the ongoing negotiation process. The population had had an impulse of sympathy for these men. Artur had decided to show his sympathy by an act of bravery. This act turned him into a symbol for the population.

The political and judicial authorities of the Republic of Armenia are directly responsible for the death of Artur Sargsyan. The fragile health of this veteran of the Karabakh war was putting them under an obligation to respect the principles of necessity and precaution before any detention. They have violated these obligations.

The Attorney General and the Minister of Justice must resign.

Beyond the commando members of the “Sasna Tsrer”, whose health of some is somewhat unsteady, there are also some 30 political prisoners arbitrarily detained or sentenced to abusively long prison sentences.

Will the regime continue to put in prison all the voices that rise to stop this organized suicide?

The self-proclaimed representative institutions of the diaspora are also responsible for the death of Artur by their silence. The only worthwhile struggle is to defend and protect the most valuable property of the Armenian Nation: its national home and its inhabitants. The security and future of Armenia and Artsakh will only be possible on this condition.

If these self-proclaimed representatives do not understand it, then they have to leave.

And what about the moral and humanistic bankruptcy of our high religious representatives? Neither the voice of Etchmiadzin nor the voice of Antelias were heard to save Artur Sargsyan from death.

On this day of sadness and deep emotion, we, the signatories of this communiqué, demand for the release of all political prisoners and call on the population not to sell its votes in the forthcoming elections.

Thus, the sacrifice of Artur will not be in vain. It is an appeal to the conscience.

March 17th 2017

Assembly of Armenians in Europe

Armenisch-Akademischer Verein 1860 e.V. (Germany)

Support Committee for Political Prisoners in Armenia (France)

Renaissance Arménienne (France)

Renaissance Arménienne (Belgium)

Groupe des Cent (France)

Coopération Arménie (France)

Charjoum (France)

Hayasa (France)

Azat Dzayn (France)

Nor Zartonk Europe (Turkey)

Policy Forum Armenia (United States)

Social & Cultural Centre “ARMENIA” (Greece)

Justice for Armenia (London, UK)

Armenian Renaissance (New-York/New Jersey)

Geopolitical Club (United States)

Hayduk Association (United States)

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Frequently Asked Questions Regarding the Armed Standoff in Yerevan on July 17-31, 2016

The writing in Armenian can be translated as "A person who loves his motherland," or "Patriot."

Graffiti in Yerevan showing the leaders of the Daredevils of Sasoon, with the word “Patriot” written underneath. Robert Nikoghosyan Art.

The biggest political event of the passing 2016 in Armenia undoubtedly was the takeover by a group of gunmen of a large police compound in downtown Yerevan in July. The events that followed revealed amply the scale and the severity of economic, social, and national security-related problems facing the Armenian society. While we have covered the events and their aftermath substantially since July, it is only natural for us to end the year with a set of questions and answers about what took place during those two critical weeks for Armenia’s modern history.

Question: Who were the members of the armed group and why did they choose the particular timing and method to express their grievances?

Answer: On July 17, 2016 an armed group of activists and former freedom fighters calling themselves Sasna Tsrer, the “Daredevils of Sassoon”—echoing a medieval Armenian folk story—took over a large police compound in Yerevan. Their declared objective was to stop Armenia from an imminent economic and demographic demise and prevent a future Russia-brokered defeatist deal in Artsakh (the Armenian name for Nagorno-Karabagh Republic).

Citing the history of fraudulent elections in Armenia, police brutality against peaceful demonstrators, widespread corruption in all three branches of the government, and existence of political prisoners, the gunmen indicated that they were left without options to channel dissatisfaction with the handling of the country’s affairs and achieve a meaningful change in the country’s governance.

Q: What were the main demands of the group?

A: The group demanded:

  1. Release of political prisoners;
  2. Resignation of Serge Sargsyan, to follow by formation of a government of national unity.

The use of force by the Daredevils was not a mechanism for overthrowing Sargsyan per se, but instead was intended to spark a nationwide protest as a way of replacing his regime.

The public protest rallies that followed were peaceful. However, on July 29, during the protest action in Sari Tagh district of Yerevan (in close proximity to the occupied police compound), plain-clothed police brigades and connected criminal thugs instigated violence, by using metal bars, wooden clubs, tear gas, and stun grenades and forcing civilians to run for safety. Dozens of protesters were wounded, including some with severe burns from the use of grenades.

Q: Were there any casualties and hostages taken during the standoff?

A: Upon the takeover of the base, the group held hostage eight police officers, including a general. During the attack, a police colonel exchanged gunfire with the Daredevils (emptying his gun on the approaching attackers) and became the only fatality on that day. While on the compound, the hostages were treated with respect and kept in conditions similar to those of the gunmen. They were even entrusted with guns during an impromptu ceremony on the compound to honor the deceased police colonel. All hostages were released unharmed in a show of good will by July 23.

As police started using sniper fire and wounded a number of gunmen, medical personnel were asked to remain on the compound to care for the wounded. They too were treated with respect and eventually allowed to leave unharmed.

One other police officer, who was wounded during the takeover, died in the hospital. A third officer was shot and died in strange circumstances while inside the car guarding the compound.

Q: Did the armed group pose any danger to civilians?

A: No, the group did not harm any civilians. On the contrary, thousands of people in Yerevan organized daily rallies in support of the Daredevils. In addition, there was an outpouring of support for the gunmen from elsewhere in Armenia and the Diaspora communities worldwide. Social networks and independent media outlets were flooded with posts and articles praising the gunmen for endangering their lives to bring change in Armenia.

Q: How did the residents of the nearby neighborhoods and elsewhere in Yerevan respond to the takeover of the police compound?

A: The first day after the takeover of the compound, the residents of the neighborhood were evacuated by the police and the entire area was surrounded by police troops, not letting civilians re-enter the territory. There were numerous incidents where the residents tried to break through the police wall to get closer to the armed group.

One civilian, Arthur Sargsyan, eventually broke the police barricade with his car—despite being shot at by police numerous times, as evident from the bullet marks on his car—to deliver food to the gunmen, who were deprived of food and water by surrounding police. He chose to remain on the compound until the Daredevils laid down their arms and despite his very poor health remained in police custody (along with the Daredevils) until his release today, December 30th.

Q: Did the sides honor their part of the agreement reached during the mediation process?

A: At least on three important occasions the Armenian regime and its representatives reneged on their previous commitments and failed to deliver as promised.

First, the regime failed to provide continuous Internet and media access promised to the Daredevils in exchange for releasing the high-level hostages.

Second, the police assured the Daredevils that it will allow them to bring one of the wounded members out to the ambulance. However, when the leader of the gunmen, Pavel Manukyan, his son Aram, and another gunman carried a wounded gunman to the ambulance, the police shot and wounded all three of them. They were taken to the hospital with severe life-threatening wounds.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Serge Sargsyan reneged on his promise (made through a negotiator) to meet the leader of the Daredevils, Jirayr Sefilian (arrested in June on charges of conspiracy against the government), if/when the group lays down arms.

public-support-to-the-gunmen

Q: Has the group managed to spark a public movement as initially intended?

A: Yes, it did. The takeover of the police compound has sparked protest actions across Armenia, with an estimated 10,000-20,000 protesters marching in Yerevan on a daily basis starting on July 23. Other cities, such as Gyumri, Vanadzor, and Hrazdan, also manifested protest actions against the regime and in support of the Daredevils. The resulting civil movement was for a brief period consolidated and led by prominent opposition politicians, activists, and intellectuals, a number of whom were subjected to persecution and are presently under arrest.

Q: Now that the members of the group laid down their arms, are they expected to be treated fairly by the regime and its law enforcement apparatus?

A: Independent media and social network reports provided evidence of mistreatment of the Daredevils, who laid down their arms on July 31. Those who were wounded receive even harsher treatments in prison medical facilities that are not fit for keeping wounded individuals. They endure abuse and brutality on daily basis by police and Armenia’s successor of Soviet KGB, as also reported by the defense lawyers.

The government has also pursued the family members of the Daredevils, used indiscriminate detention, scare tactics, and outright brutality. Since the surrender of the gunmen, following their laying down of arms, the regime severely limited and in some cases banned visits by defense lawyers and family members.

Finally, the regime also moved to arrest senior members of the “New Armenia” Public Salvation Front, Andreas Ghukasyan and Garo Yegnukian, on trumped up charges of intending to aid the gunmen. They continue to be kept in prison to date along with Jirayr Sefilian on much abused and criticized “pre-trial detention”.

Q: Does their arrest imply the end of the standoff?

A: While the standoff itself is over, the movement that it sparked is unlikely to end any time soon. Given the severity of the social-economic, demographic, and national security/geopolitical problems facing Armenia at present, the movement that was created as a result of the actions of the Daredevils is expected to survive their arrests and even get stronger if the regime proceeds with the Russian-brokered deal in Artsakh. Besides, the police brutality and the ongoing crackdown on political dissent in Yerevan will without doubt expand anti-government action until a different societal equilibrium is found. The regime no longer has the monopoly on violence and it could face different types of assaults by its own population if it continues to mishandle the country’s affairs.

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The Temple is Crumbling: The Corruption of the Armenian Apostolic Church

churchDiscussion at the Toronto Colloquium

By Annie Demirjian, Senior Fellow

We were always told that the Armenian Apostolic Church is the bastion of religious, moral, cultural and national strength.  Over centuries, whether fighting the armies of Genghis Khan and Tamerlane, protecting the citizens from the brutalities of the Ottomans, or protecting against cultural assimilation in western countries, the Armenian Apostolic Church stood as the temple rock of its people. Perhaps this is why the Armenian Apostolic Church is considered a National Church, a cornerstone by which many Armenians identify themselves first and foremost.

Today, the foundations of this ancient temple appear to be crumbling, as testified by two Armenian clergymen at an event organized by the Armenian Renaissance Toronto Chapter at the Westin Prince Hotel on December 1, 2016.  Some 100 community members turned up to listen to guest-speakers Reverend Armen Melkonian from Belgium and Reverend Mardiros Berberian (via Skype) from Moscow.

Both priests have been alienated and effectively excommunicated by the Church hierarchy in Etchmiadzin but continue to preach in their communities unofficially. In both instances, the respective parishes have decided to forego the authoritarian ultimatums of the Mother See in Etchmiadzin, opting rather to support their local priests.

At the discussion, both priests made it clear that this narrative is not about them personally, and that they are not critical of the Church as an institution. Rather, their expression of concern relates to its governance in light of ample evidence of an inability to accept feedback and implement reform. This represents the beginnings of a dangerous trajectory. While for centuries the primary clergy and head of the church were elected by the church’s Supreme Synod, the Catholicos today has instead chosen for the first time to appoint current ruling clerics, who are thus no longer accountable to the people they are designated to serve.

The speakers presented facts and arguments attesting to the Armenian Church’s authoritarian dogma, refusal to reform, and general growing irrelevance to the needs of its communities in the 21st century. Worse, in the specific case of our Mother See, the Holy Church of Etchmiadzin, there are troubling examples pointing to the idea that the Church has become a puppet for corrupt Armenian politicians and oligarchs. What was most worrying for both clergymen is that the Church appears to be losing its moral, spiritual, and cultural compass, which has to date been a symbol of pride for Armenians, who find deep meaning in their nation as the oldest to accept Christianity as a state religion in 301 A.D., to be followed by Emperor Constantine of Rome only in 304 A.D.

Examples of corruption and dogmatism of the church hierarchy provided by Rev. Melkonian and Rev. Berberian were numerous. The Armenian communities throughout diaspora are beginning to hear of these authoritarian, opaque, corrupt, and/or undemocratic decisions taken by the Church hierarchy. However, key issues and emerging problems are still relegated to the realm of whispers, behind closed doors. The reason for this is that to date, the church is indeed considered a national institution, and above all, a holy one; problems such as these are not to be discussed in public.

It appears that decades of such behavior and governance, and a large body of evidence attesting to a complete unwillingness for reform from within, are bringing the Armenian church today to a point of no return. Communities in countries like France and Switzerland, who have experienced the dark side of this behavior, remain completely broken with hundreds if not thousands of disillusioned Armenians turning away from the Mother See.

Below are some of the specific problems cited by the speakers:

  1. shunning voices of reform, who seek to bring the church “into the 20th century”;
  2. banishing internal dissent by those who dare to speak against corruption and abuses, which includes the full “de-frocking” of several hundred priests (since the entry of this Catholicos) who have dedicated their lives to our Church;
  3. nepotism, cronyism, and undemocratic parish elections in Armenia and throughout the Diaspora (more notably in Canada, France, Switzerland, and the US);
  4. lack of transparent elections, instead handpicking followers and parish committee members and overriding local processes that are compliant with norms and rules in respective countries;
  5. demagogic priests who exhibit traits of power- and money-hungriness (as a direct outcome of poor quality selection, education, and leadership of priests); and
  6. outdated church institutions that are inflexible to the needs of the communities they are purported to serve.

The audience in Toronto was clearly uncomfortable discussing these taboo issues. After listening to the speakers, some raised concerns and asked questions. Yet few had clear or coherent recommendations or solutions to help move the Church and our communities forward. Rev. Melkonian presented four recommendations:

  1. We must return to the fundamentals of our religion: values, spirituality, and religious teaching are and must be the cornerstone of the historical Armenian Church;
  2. We must bring back the rule of law and implement proper church and parish rules and regulations to ensure heightened transparency and accountability, specifically as they relate to Church elections;
  3. We must hold the church hierarchy accountable; we must remind them that the Church exists because of the people, and not vice versa; and,
  4. We must recall collectively that no one is above the law, and that the church and priests should be held accountable to elected members.

It was not difficult at the Toronto convening to detect the frustration, disappointment and disillusionment of the Reverends Melkonian and Berberian. At the colloquium, both men were appealing to the Church and its citizenry to act before it is too late. It was indeed a “cri du coeur” of sorts, which begs the question: who, if anyone, is listening? Are our Armenian communities who have fought so hard to exist (particularly since the Genocide) ready to stand up against our centuries-old Church, the one institution we have held above all others? It would seem the first step would be to acknowledge that our beloved Church has become entangled in corruption and abuse, and that the time for action is now.

Several of the examples cited by Rev. Melkonian were ones that many of us could in all likelihood attest to on a personal level. Most Armenians today would agree that the Armenian Apostolic Church has become a relic; quite irrelevant, and lacking in religious essence and guidance. Our Churches throughout the world in all their glorious architecture sit largely empty with the exception of high holidays; their calling to spiritually ‘uplift’ our Christian communities on a consistent basis appears to have fallen flat. Our youth—the millennials and even baby-boomers—have left the church in droves and gone elsewhere for spiritual guidance and sustenance. The infiltration of cult religions (particularly in Armenia) that have gained popularity is a testament to the vacuum created by the complacency of the Armenian Church. Local priests have become relegated to acting as nothing more than shopkeepers, opening their church doors for a 3-hour service on Sundays and keeping them closed for the rest of the time. There is no accommodation for early, late or shorter services; no willingness to adapt the language or format for better access to those who would seek it.

Today, I only go to church to hear the Gregorian liturgy because of its innate beauty and uplifting qualities. There is little more most of us can learn from or glean out of services administered by well-meaning priests whose own spiritual leadership is failing them so spectacularly. What happens in the coming decades when our children opt to listen to the best sharagans from around the world on the Internet? Who will fill our churches and follow the word of Christ as we have learned it? That some priests are corrupt in the Armenian Church is not a big debate. The real challenge today is to see citizens—like you and me—come forward to expose these abuses and hold the Church accountable to the people they serve.

Let’s start the Church reform conversation and have those priests and informed citizens who have the courage to speak out lead the way. The time is now.

 

Annie Demirjian was an executive with the federal government in Canada and served at the United Nations for 14 years as head of the Democratic Governance and Director of Political Affairs. She is presently the Director of Glendon School of Public & International Affairs, York University.

P.S. PFA touched upon the issue of church reform first in its State of the Nation Report on “Armenia-Diaspora Relations: 20 Years since Independence” issued in January 2010. See Appendix “Armenia-Diaspora Relations: the Role of the Church” (p. 52).

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