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Armenia’s diaspora: Helpful advantage or harmful adversary?

Article by Richard Giragosian

March 21, 2017

Armenia’s diaspora: Helpful advantage or harmful adversary?

For the Republic of Armenia, the relationship with its global Armenian diaspora has always been complex, and at times, even confrontational. Marked by misunderstanding and a deep cultural divide, this rocky relationship is natural, however. The fundamental divergence of interests between an established state and a networked diaspora has usually contributed to division and difference. But in the case of Armenia, there is an inherent consistency of commitment from its diaspora. This element of care, concern and commitment stems from a combination of the core threats facing the Armenian state and the challenge of survival. While obviously rooted in the tragic nature of Armenian history, most notably demonstrated by the Armenian Genocide of 1915, the existential threat has also been more recent, from the devastating earthquake of 1988 to the onset of war over Nagorno-Karabakh.


State vs. nation

While the origins of the Armenian diaspora pre-dated the emergence of Armenian statehood by several centuries, the Armenian Genocide of 1915 is widely interpreted as the ‘starting point’ of reference for the ‘contemporary Armenian diaspora’, as the ‘dispersal of Armenians from their historic homeland in the Ottoman Empire’ and the subsequent ‘partial Armenian exodus from Eastern Armenia after the Soviet takeover in 1920 also contributed—albeit to a much lesser degree—to the ‘diasporisation’ of the Armenians in the 20th century’ with a ‘new exodus towards North America and Europe’.[1]  This was also driven by the underlying geographic divide between the older wave of Armenians seeking refuge in the diaspora from the Ottoman Empire, and with little or no direct link to what became Soviet Armenia. And given the seventy years of the Armenian state within the Soviet Union, bonds and links to the diaspora were only further weakened. This also served as a lingering division between both the identity and the origins of the diaspora and the re-establishment of the independent Armenian state at the collapse of the Soviet Union.


A second key turning point came in the period 1988-1991, as the diaspora’s ‘traditional focus on identity preservation and Genocide recognition’ were ‘augmented by a new concern for the survival and well-being of a new emerging state’ in the wake of the 1988 earthquake and the declaration of Armenian independence in 1991.[2] But such a crisis-driven focus has been difficult to sustain and has been largely inconsistent and sporadic. This transformation of the worldview of the diaspora was matched by a recognition of the diaspora by the new Armenian state. For example, the National Security Strategy of the Republic of Armenia officially identified ‘Armenia-Diaspora relations’ as a ‘significant component’ of national security and recognised the role of the diaspora as offering ‘a serious degree of economic and cultural potential, especially as a means to promote trade, tourism, preservation, development and publicizing of the cultural heritage…to foster Armenia’s global integration and consolidation of democracy’.[3]


But the relationship is essentially asymmetrical, in two contradictory ways. First, in terms of sheer demography, the diaspora is roughly double the size of Armenia. Most estimates hold that while the population of the Republic of Armenia is well below three million, over six million comprise the global Armenian diaspora. Yet conversely, a second defining element of asymmetry is the inherent difference and division between an established, recognised state with its own elected government and a disorganised, disenfranchised and diverse diaspora spanning many countries and divided between several competing power centres. This fundamental asymmetry has never been effectively addressed and has only exacerbated the natural divergence of interests between the contrasting perspectives and interests of the Armenian state and the Armenian diaspora, or ‘nation’.[4]




Diminished returns

Disappointment within the diaspora is also deep, despite the emotional bond and ethnic loyalty to Armenia. That sense of frustration within the Armenian diaspora is driven by a common perception that the Armenian government maintains a policy that is very welcoming to aid, assistance and philanthropy, but which is strictly exclusionary in terms of any diasporan engagement in internal domestic politics. This has bred a resentment that has only been exacerbated by the cultural divide between a post-Soviet, authoritarian government, with a disturbing lack of democratic credentials or free and fair elections, and a more Western diaspora.


As one diaspora-based group noted, ‘twenty years after Armenia’s independence and despite all its efforts, the Diaspora is yet to see a meaningful change in Armenia, one tied to, and be driven by, a modern developmental vision’.[5] This has further contributed to a degree of ‘diminished returns’ as both sides have tended to be disappointed as their unrealistically high expectations of the Armenia-Diaspora relationship have been repeatedly dashed.


Harnessing economic potential

Despite the apparent economic advantage of a well-connected, commercially successful and innovative global diaspora, Armenia has never been able to fully harness the economic potential of engaging the diaspora. The paucity of investment by the diaspora was due to two fundamental impediments. The first, and most daunting disincentive to investment was of course entrenched corruption. In fact, corruption still dissuades many diasporan investors from engaging in Armenia.


And despite gains in regulatory reforms related to the establishment and registration of small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), outside investors still face the burdens of weak contract enforcement, arbitrary tax inspection and a closed economy dominated by ‘oligarchs’ with inordinate market control over the import and export of key commodities. This set of challenges has also greatly reduced the past period of investment in the 1990s, which never recovered and has yet to return.


Against this backdrop, more recent efforts by the Armenian government to attract investment from the diaspora have been hampered by an underlying lack of trust and a disappointing investment climate. In order to overcome these shortcomings in investment, Armenian Prime Minster Karen Karapetyan has instead focused on enticing the “best practices” of entrepreneurial talent and professional expertise, calling on the diaspora to actively contribute to “the reforms underway in Armenia in order to… introduce a new culture of management, and to employ the knowledge and potential of our top-most professionals of the diaspora for achieving pan-Armenian goals,” specifically identifying the sectors of heath care and education as “key areas” for achieving “immediate results.”[6]


That outreach effort is also part of a broader, ambitious programme of reforms announced by the premier after his September 2016 appointment, which include efforts to more effectively combat corruption, improve tax administration and create ‘equal conditions’ for all businesses. To date, however, the prime minister has moved slowly, as his promises have generally been limited to superficial changes in personnel, rather than any demonstrable reforms targeting the sources of corruption.


Political prowess

Since independence, there have been two notable central elements of the relationship between the Armenian state and the diaspora. Over time, each issue has remained a constant, core issue of both domestic politics in Armenia as well as for identity politics within the broader diaspora. While these issues have remained unchanged and unchallenged, they have defined and constrained Armenian foreign policy, as well limiting domestic discourse and debate.


The first of these core issues is the Armenian genocide, which not only influences the country’s troubled relationship with neighbouring Turkey but also directly impacts Armenia’s relationship with its global diaspora. But it is the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict that, as the second essential factor of Armenian foreign policy, presents a much more dynamic and more direct challenge. The inherent challenge of managing a stalled peace process, coupled with the ever-present threat of ceasefire violations and border skirmishes, have only elevated and exacerbated the political significance and severity of the Karabakh issue.


And at the same time, the recent surge in clashes over the Karabakh conflict has further exacerbated the closed, more one-sided nature of the Armenian state’s approach towards the diaspora. While in terms of internal politics, which have been marked by an environment that has only forced out more moderate views in favour of a more militant stand within the domestic political spectrum, it has also limited diasporan engagement.


In the wake of the most serious escalation of fighting in April 2016, however, when a large-scale Azerbaijani military offensive succeeded in seizing and securing territory, there was renewed interest within the diaspora over the threat to Armenian security. This concern was driven by the realisation that the first military victory for Azerbaijan since the 1990s posed a new, elevated threat to state security. Beyond the renewed interest, however, the fact that the ‘frozen’ conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh had entered a new, much more serious combat phase, but also posed new risks to the delicate state of regional security and stability. And this new context suggests a new period of deeper and more determined diaspora support for Armenia.


Such a new period of diaspora engagement will clearly focus on attempts to leverage the political prowess and influence of the Armenian communities in the West. Moreover, it is the Western-based communities, from the United States to Europe, which are more politicised and more deeply assimilated than the other diaspora centres in Russia or the Middle East. Although partly due to the open environment in the West, which fosters a greater and more open opportunity for local political activity, the Armenian community of Russia is the primary economic provider, accounting for the overwhelming amount of remittances or money sent to Armenia from abroad.


But in terms of political prowess in the West, the primary centre is the United States, followed by some European countries. Despite a population of only about 2 million Armenians in the United States, the Armenian-American community is politically active and sophisticated, with key constituencies in several electorally important American states (notably California, Florida, Michigan and New York) and Congressional districts. And the political prowess and influence of the community has steadily increased in the past several decades. Led by two rival political organisations, the Armenian National Committee of America (ANCA), and the Armenian Assembly of America (AAA), the lobbying and advocacy power of this segment of the diaspora has been widely recognised. In fact, many political observers in Washington rate the ‘Armenian lobby’ as the second most influential ethnic-based group, second only to the pro-Israel lobby, and much better organised than its Azerbaijani or Turkish counterparts.


In fact, there is a profound contrast between a well-integrated, politically active and astute Armenian-American community with a grassroots political network and the Azerbaijani and Turkish advocacy and lobbying effort dependent on their respective embassies. This also serves to inherently limit the efficacy of the lobbying efforts by Azerbaijan and Turkey, which is generally seen as a foreign government interfering in domestic American politics. Although both Azerbaijan and Turkey seek to offset this disparity by relying on well-resourced and financially impressive efforts, for the American political system, the power of grassroots constituents and voters almost always hold the upper hand in terms of political clout and influence.


This so-called ‘Armenian lobby’ was also able to exert its political leverage in two pivotal moments. First, in 1992 Armenian-American pressure groups were able to advocate new U.S. legislation that excluded Azerbaijan from a list of former Soviet republics available for U.S. aid. The exclusionary legislation, as part of the Freedom Support Act, imposed a punitive censure on Azerbaijan for its ‘offensive use of force’ against Nagorno-Karabakh and due to its imposition of a ‘blockade’ of Armenia. The legislation remained in force until 2002, when then-President George W. Bush granted the first in a series of annual waivers of the provision.[7]


And second, again in August 2006, it effectively derailed the confirmation of a new U.S. ambassador to Armenia by the U.S. Senate.[8] The nominee, Ambassador-designate Richard Hoagland, was targeted due to his refusal to recognise the Armenian genocide. Although in his confirmation testimony, he did refer to the mass killings of Armenians by Turks in the early 20th century, he was careful to avoid the term genocide in order to conform to the official policy of the U.S. Department of State.


What next?

Despite the rather open divide and divergence between the Republic of Armenia and its global diaspora, there is a profound change already underway. More specifically, the change consist of a new, much less tolerant perspective within the diaspora, where shortcomings in Armenia’s democracy, its string of tainted elections and entrenched corruption will now serve to pose new challenges and demands for accountability. The other side of this change is also emanating from Armenia, which in the face of severe threats to its security over the Karabakh conflict, will be forced to accede to these fresh demands. This has also expanded the relationship between the Armenian government and the diaspora, as the Armenian foreign ministry has increasingly enhanced its own diplomatic strength by relying on support from diaspora lobbying groups. Beyond a reliance on those lobbying efforts in favour of the recognition of the Armenian genocide, this has more recently added an element of supportive advocacy in defending the interests of Nagorno-Karabakh.


And in response to the severity of the threats from the Karabakh conflict, as Azerbaijan has increasingly sought to settle the conflict militarily, the diaspora has been pressurising several Western nations to support Armenia. While this effort has included a campaign of recognition of the self-declared ‘independence’ of Nagorno-Karabakh among U.S. states and European regional governments, it has also been matched by efforts to impose punitive policies against Azerbaijan. These latter efforts have sought to leverage European disdain for disturbing trends of energy-driven corruption in Azerbaijan and moves to curtail civil society by the Azerbaijani leadership.


Thus, while Armenia has yet to become the centre of gravity for the diaspora, the future relationship between the state and its networked diaspora will only reflect a new, more mature and even more equal nature. The real question, however, is whether this enhanced engagement by the diaspora will be sustainable over the longer term.

[1] Policy Forum Armenia (PFA), Armenia-Diaspora Relations: 20 years Since Independence, August 2010,

[2]  Ibid.

[3]  Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Armenia, National Security Strategy of the Republic of Armenia, January 2007.

[4]  Hrant Gadarigian, Analyst Richard Giragosian: “Armenia looks at the diaspora with misunderstanding and sometimes skepticism,” Hetq, January 2010.

[5] Policy Forum Armenia (PFA), “Armenia-Diaspora Relations: 20 years Since Independence,” August 2010,

[6] Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s (RFE/RL) Armenian Service “Karapetian Appeals to Diaspora Armenians for Support,” February 2017,

[7]  Julie Corwin, “U.S.: Confirmation Row Shows Power of Diaspora Lobbies,” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), August 2006.

[8]  Ibid.

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