Tigran Yegavian: Armenia-Diaspora Gap Has Widened, No Mutual Trust
Hetq talks with Tigran Yegavian, a journalist specializing in the Middle East and the Caucasus about Armenia-diaspora relations, the Armenian community in France, Armenian-Turkish dialogue and other topics.
How would you assess Armenia-diaspora relations today? Do they trust one another?
No, on the contrary, there is no mutual trust. The war showed us that the gap between Armenia and diaspora has deepened more than ever.
We can say that the threads of trust have been cut. There is no healthy basis for developing a practical relationship.
Until now, the connection between Armenia and the diaspora was based on two things - the first was tourism, the second for humanitarian assistance. Investments with limited impact can also be mentioned. Unfortunately, this is not only the problem of the current authorities, but it has an earlier origin, dating before the independence of Armenia, the independence movement.
Diaspora Armenian organizations were not ready to accept that Armenia would become an independent state, because they were concerned that by losing the Russian guarantee, we would become a target for pan-Turkism. In other words, the main problem was about the idea of statehood.
In general, diaspora Armenians are people without a political mind, who have an abstract idea about Armenia, the nation, the Armenian Cause, and the state. They cannot understand, in a normal way, what it means to have a state. The war proved to us that we are a nation without a state culture. We do not distinguish between the concepts of nation and state. Even the current government, which has an office of the Commissioner for Diaspora Affairs, could not develop relations based on interests. The main mistake of the authorities was that they could not draw the potential of diaspora Armenians to Armenia, and for the diaspora, Armenia and Artsakh are abstract things. For them, the main topic is the Genocide. That is, they focused on memory, not realizing that they have their own role, a political role, to play in Armenia to transform the system of Armenia.
How interested is the French-Armenian community, of which you are a representative, in the social and political life of Armenia?
When talking about the French-Armenian community, it must be emphasized that the community was formed in three stages. The first, in the 1920s, was formed by Genocide survivors. The second, were the Armenians who migrated from the Middle East, from Syria, Lebanon, Iran in the 1970s. The third were the Armenians who migrated from Armenia to France after 1991.
The Armenians who came from Armenia could not find their place in the traditional structures of the community. That's why the approaches of the groups are different. In general, French-Armenians are not much interested in the social and political issues of Armenia. They neither follow nor understand the complexities of political life there, while those from Armenia follow events more actively, but unfortunately, they could not create their own structures. They may be many in numbers, but few in quality.
We can also notice a conflict between the classical diaspora and Armenians coming from Armenia, who have different approaches to identity. In contrast to the classic diaspora, which is focused on the Genocide, the Armenian Cause, the newly arrived are more interested in the everyday life and social life of Armenia. We are now facing a new problem - how to repair our Armenian structures in the diaspora, which have been outdated for a long time. Whenever we talk about the diaspora, we must always consider that it is a strategic lever for Armenia.
When you mention the problem of repairing outdated structures in the French-Armenian community, what challenges does that community face?
As I said, we have a very outdated system. We wasted much time focusing only on Genocide recognition. We lack an agenda to understand the role of the French-Armenians in the public life of France, in Armenia and in the diaspora as a whole.
First, Armenians enjoy great respect in France because Armenians are able to get along with everyone. Our history shows that Armenians are a mediating people, they are a bridge between different nations, but we do not understand this important thing. Second, I should mention that we are the most politicized diaspora community, which is due to the political culture of France, as well as the arrival of Lebanese-Armenians.
Lebanese-Armenians once formed the most powerful political center in the diaspora. After emigrating to France, they revitalized the community system. It should not be forgotten that France is the only country where the anniversary of the Armenian Genocide is officially celebrated. Third, the foundation of Armenia-France relations is very weak. Bilateral trade is only 80 million dollars, and unfortunately, French-Armenian businesspeople are not very present in Armenia.
There is another taboo that interests me. If we consider that 70% of Armenians live outside the borders of Armenia, we do not have a French-Armenian or an American-Armenian deputy in Armenia’s National Assembly who will represent the diaspora and voice its concerns.
For example, when talking about Armenian-Turkish dialogue, one gets the impression that the goal of the authorities in Armenia is to neutralize the attitude and speech of diaspora Armenians. Or that the prime minister says that the Armenian issue is only the diaspora's business. This is very worrisome for me, because it is necessary to realistically consider the interests of diaspora Armenians and what they have to say. Unfortunately, the Armenian authorities do not want to listen to this concern.
What should the Armenian government do to strengthen ties with the diaspora. Do you see any movement here?
There are various topics, for example, the issue of dual citizenship, which was completely blocked during the time of Levon Ter-Petrosyan. They did not want diaspora Armenians to receive Armenian citizenship. Only after the constitutional changes of 2005 did the situation changed. The second problem is the political participation of diaspora Armenians.
Armenia is in such a difficult situation that we no longer control our destiny. Put crudely, there are two choices on the table. One is that Armenia becomes a province of Russia or enters some type of unified federation with Russia, for which there is no other similar example to compare. The second option, albeit a little illusory, is the diasporization of Armenia.
What does it this mean? Instead of focusing on the financial resources of the diaspora or humanitarian assistance, focus on the diaspora’s human resources. That is, how to employ diaspora Armenians in various fields? How to renew structures in Armenia with new blood.
In a post-Soviet country like Armenia, most structures that existed in Soviet times have been preserved. For example, we don't have two legislative bodies. Why don't we have a senate, with diaspora Armenians, who would be elected indirectly, would have few powers, but would have a role, an opportunity to present their ideas. This is a topic that nobody in Armenia is interested in. But if you want to develop a vision, you should think about how to establish the state system of Armenia so that we have a healthier position in the world. We are doing the exact opposite now.
How can Armenia attract diaspora Armenian talent?
There were some positive initiatives, for example, the iGorts program (A program which invites diaspora Armenian professionals to serve in the public sector and the government of Armenia -ed.)
The idea was very good and encouraging. If we want the diaspora to heal, then that change must come from Armenia itself. That is why we need to attract diaspora Armenian talent, newly graduated university students, professionals from various fields, to create new infrastructures in Armenia.
If we talk about immigration, the main obstacle is certainly the socio-economic situation of Armenia, but also the lack of infrastructure. If there is no infrastructure, you cannot bring talented people here, with their families, to create a new ecosystem around them.
Russians now coming to Armenia have brought their infrastructure, their businesses, their money, their schools, and social organizations. Armenia became a platform for them. Although such efforts are also made in the diaspora, they are individual in nature, not united, and those who come, come to achieve some ideal. If we want to mend Armenia-diaspora relations, we must destroy all the slogans, those ‘one nation, one culture’ and similar slogans and normalize relations because Armenia is a normal country with normal people.
Armenia may not be heaven, but it's not hell either. It's just a country that you must go to for one purpose. Unfortunately, this awareness is not present in the diaspora. But if we can prepare a new educational class, attract students with international programs. This is another way to bring young people here. It is not only Armenia that needs the diaspora, but the diaspora also needs Armenia.
Does the diaspora welcome the ongoing process to normalize Armenian-Turkish relations? What prospects do you see for Armenia from this dialogue?
Here, there are two concepts that should be separated.
When we talk about the regulation of relations between the two states, diaspora Armenians have nothing to say, because the diaspora is not a state. Diaspora are colonies, they are individuals. Normalization of relations concerns only Yerevan and Ankara. I and the diaspora have no right to interfere.
But when we talk about reconciliation, the diaspora has something to say as the descendants of Genocide survivors. Diaspora Armenian structures should participate in the process so that our monuments in western Armenia are protected and repaired.
Unfortunately, I do not see any prospects in this dialogue, I have the impression that the Armenian authorities are trying to gain time so that Turkey does not pressure us, or we neutralize the danger of Azerbaijan. There is no strategic vision and agenda here, and the authorities of Armenia are simply engaged in crisis management.
We do not learn the lessons of history well. We forget that Turkey only understands the language of power. If it has an advantage, it will certainly always use it.
For example, in 2009, Armenia's position in Armenian-Turkish negotiations was stronger, because Artsakh was under the control of Armenia. Now they demand much more - the Zangezur corridor, and that Armenia backs down from the international recognition of the Genocide.
For Erdogan, diplomacy is trade, and Armenia does not have much to offer in this context. On the other hand, the diplomacy of the two states is quite different. The Turkish diplomatic school is one of the best in the world, but in Armenia they barely understand what the state and statehood are. That's why you should always approach this question carefully and not emotionally
Returning to the topic of French Armenians, is the Armenian community there united or are there divisions?
Naturally, like everywhere, the community is divided in France as well.
In 2001, French-Armenians created an original format that does not exist in other diaspora colonies. A united council was created, which was supposed to represent the whole community with one voice to the French authorities. We’re talking about Coordinating Council of Armenian Organizations of France (CCAF),
It has two co-presidents: Murad Papazyan, (a member of the Bureau of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation), and Ara Toranyan (the editor of Nouvelle d'Armenie magazine). The two co-chairs speak with one voice and defend Armenian interests.
Now. there are two or three competitors who want to neutralize the CCAF and take its place. During the 2020 Artsakh war, two such groups exploded on the scene – the Armenian Movement and the Armenian-French Council. They pursue different agendas. Unfortunately, these two movements started courting the Armenian government. Diaspora Commissioner Zareh Sinanyan paid attention to them and thus caused damage to French-Armenians. Our legitimate institutions were weakened. That's why the CCAF co-chairs are very dissatisfied, especially with Zareh Sinanyan.
Regarding Murad Papazyan, who was recently barred from entering Armenia, do you think the Armenian government is guilty of political persecution, or is there something else at play?
It is a completely personal matter. The excuses presented by the National Security Service are false and groundless, as if the ban is related to the demonstration organized during Pashinyan's visit to Paris.
According to some, the reason for the ban is the recent visit of Nikol Pashinyan’s wife, Anna Hakobyan, to Monaco and Nice where she met with so-called dissident Armenian organizations that have secret connections with Turkish intelligence services. The CCAF and Murad Papazyan were deeply disillusioned.
When Papazyan made a statement on this topic, he seemed to have crossed a red line, and that's why his entry was banned. We have the right to like or dislike Murad Papazyan, to disagree with him, but to ban the entry of a person who is one of the famous defenders of Hay Tad (Armenian Cause), a businessman who has lived and fought for Hay Tad for thirty years or more, is a very negative message that the Yerevan authorities are sending to the diaspora.
And in this sense, they seem to serve the Turks. They want Armenia and the diaspora to grow apart, to weaken the connection, and for Nikol Pashinyan to deal only with the issues of the Republic of Armenia, and not with the Armenian cause.