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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