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The New Challenges of the Armenian Diaspora

  Standpoint of Diaspora

The New Challenges of the Armenian Diaspora

Taline Papazian


Taline Papazian

Researcher at the University of Southern California, Institute of Armenian Studies

The article below is a transcript of a talk given during the colloquium "Which Future for the Armenian-Turkish Dialogue? Balancing memorial issues and international relations”, which 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.

In 2016-17, we were faced with a series of particularly tense events in Turkey and in Armenia. The factors contributing to that tension are mostly political, with an armed dimension as well in both countries, but they are independent from one another. It seems that since the failure to ratify the Armenian-Turkish protocols, the two countries have been moving along parallel tracks, no longer connecting, although there could be many points of junction if only some political will to have a dialogue existed. Since July 2016 and the failed putsch attempt against Turkish President Erdogan, news events from Turkey have been regularly  by the international media—and particularly in Europe. The foreign political class as well is paying attention too, after years of turning a blind eye on arbitrary detentions, academic sackings, and the silencing of progressive opinions in Turkey, could no longer afford to ignore the sometimes extremely brutal repressive measures of the AKP government against dissenting or even just differing voices. These events are starting to be recognized and, not being an expert on Turkey, I shall not dwell on them.

Less known are the creaking noises of a perilous domestic situation, with many things at stake for the future of Armenia. Before saying a few words about it, let’s take a step back to look at the evolution of relations between the Diaspora, Turkey and Armenia over the last 15 years or so. In the lines below, I propose to brush a broad, empirical overview by focusing on the (French) Diaspora-Armenia pole, drawing from my experience of various French communities and my research work in Armenia over the last ten years.

The three entities–Armenia, Turkey, the Diaspora—so-called to make things simpler, refer in fact to a host of various players at very different levels of action: at state, national, transnational and individual levels, to name but a few. Amidst that apparent disorder, many movements have emerged since the early 2000s which promote new actors, new challenges and new dynamics in an ever-changing triangular configuration.

Let’s enter it through its diasporic pole, examining the recent evolutions of the most constant political and social issue: the Genocide of Armenians. The first notable change can be noticed in what we might call the “unfolding” of the collective actions in connection with the genocide issue, like the unfolding of an origami figure with paper sides previously hidden from view. Some fifteen years ago, the Genocide issue entirely revolved around the formal recognition of the genocide by sovereign political powers, including the Turkish state, although it was not the primary target anymore, locked as it was in its denial policy. Collective action regarding the Genocide issue thus centered on the political struggle and the memorial aspect of the question. Since the mid-2000s however, the Genocide issue has displayed two other facets of the problem: the fight against negationism and, separately, the question of reparations. Unfolding these three facets (so far) had the effect of placing the Armenian Genocide issue on the public political agendas of several countries where Armenian communities are traditionally present, or not; on the agenda of national and international law, the latter being a long and arduous process; and on the agenda of international relations. And it occurred with interactions and even contradictions between the three entities mentioned above, as was seen for instance during the negotiations of the Armenian-Turkish protocols.

The second change, which developed alongside the first one, was the appearance of new community actors which allowed different voices from those of established institutions to be heard. In France, the established structures leading the political battles are the CCAF (Conseil de Coordination des Organisations Arméniennes) and the Dachnak Party (Armenian Revolutionary Federation). Of course, both still play a major role in relation with public authorities in their respective countries, but they no longer hold a monopoly on the issues connected to the genocide. In the last years, the representational deficit of established institutions—never corrected in spite of the criticism and several reports addressing that problem—plunged them into a crisis of legitimacy in many ways similar to what modern states are going through, in particular such insufficiently democratic states as Armenia and Turkey. This lack of representativeness allowed many new social players from the French Armenian community to get heard, particularly on the issue of genocide hidden in its “folds”. The emergence of a “diasporic civil society” followed—i.e. a constellation of organizations outside large institutions, of people sometimes outside any structures, or individual members of those institutions personally dissatisfied with them and wanting to act independently. This global phenomenon has been facilitated by the internet and social networks and in the case of the Diaspora, it shows a specific paradoxical trait: the extreme fragmentation of opinion over very few topics. These new community actors allow other voices or viewpoints to exist and to  be heard on various other facets of the “unfolded” question of the genocide. They use new strategies of action and communication, launch collaborations with partners in Armenia and/or Turkey, and thus contribute to creating transnational relations between civil societies. In terms of structuring, this diasporic civil society is only in its beginnings and, in order to become efficient, it must gain power by weaving grassroots networks between these various players and, in a second stage, push established institutions to revise the terms by which the community is effectively represented.

The problem of Genocide negationism in France offers an illustration of that point. Negationism disseminated directly and indirectly by the Turkish state into the French society has increased substantially since the mid-2000s. Established institutions chose to react to that problem by implementing a bill condemning these ideas. And for various reasons, since 2012, the successive drafts of that bill have always failed midway to becoming law. In 2016, community officials received several unfavorable signals as to the chances of success of ever passing the bill. But there are other options to fight denial than a law making it a crime—among which the legal possibilities of existing laws against racism. However, while experts and activists of the community, as part of Diaspora civil society, are heard voicing their request to discuss other possiblities, these other options are just ignored by official “diasporic public policies”.

These positive changes are partly due to the legacy of Hrant Dink: ten years after his assassination in Istanbul, his legacy is noticeable in the balanced position of politically conscious segments of the Diaspora. On the one hand they follow Turkish news events, showing suspicion in front of the revisionist maneuvers, the handling of official speeches by the State—down to the farce of the Gallipoli centenary in 2015 purposely held with lavish pomp on the very date of 24 April—and on the other hand, they are receptive to the changes in the civil society of Turkey—hence their interest in the dissident voices of Armenians in Turkey such as the Nor Zartonk organization or the political stance of Garo Paylan within the HDP Party. The wish to hear Turkish intellectuals, members of its civil society, its human rights organizations, whose concerns now connect with those of the Diaspora, is clearly shown by the presence of an increasing number of Armenian organizations and/or individuals at 24 April commemorations in Istanbul. On the Diaspora side, taking part in these events was first initiated by players coming from the civil society before they were joined by large institutions.

Let’s briefly zoom now on the second pole: Armenia. In fact, under that word lies at least one great dividing line, between the state and society. From the point of view of the Armenian state, the question of the genocide is above all a foreign policy issue, involving the crucial dimension of Armenia-Turkey relations. It is also an issue used in domestic policy: responding to public opinion, Armenian governments have been using it since the 2000s to bolster the legitimacy of their rule. On the foreign policy front, the Armenian government considers that it should be the main decision-maker. As far as the normalization of relations with the Turkish state is concerned, this assumption is justified. However, when that question comes to include the reconciliation between peoples and/or societies, the citizens of Armenia and of the Diaspora—or rather of the many and diverse Diaspora communities—have a legitimate say in the process. These discrepancies are not so surprising in a country where the ruling class are not legitimate representatives in the eyes of most citizens. The outcry from the Armenian society, as well as the diasporic communities, on the day after the signing of the 2009 Zurich Protocols has shown how poorly prepared the Armenian societies were to the reasons and stakes for these protocols. The Armenian government conducts its political relations with the Diaspora mostly through symbolic, even token gestures: first by trying to channel these relations through the Ministry of the Diaspora created in 2008, then by choosing to speak essentially and almost exclusively with established institutions (CCAF, UGAB).

Of course, the main question is whether these changing socio-political parameters may lead to lasting transformations in the years to come. It seems that political and geopolitical times do not play in favor of this happening. Since the putsch attempt against AKP in July 2016, M. Erdogan has been able to strengthen his personal power and tighten the Turkish presidential regime. The Armenian government of Serzh Sargsyan, which obtained a relative majority in the parliamentary elections of April 2017, is however very weak in tackling domestic issues, apparently incapable of improving the economic and social situation of the country.

Nevertheless, the evolution of civil societies in Armenia, Turkey and the Diaspora does seem in motion and quite certainly in large part irreversible. We can only wish that in spite of the negative development of established powers and unwillingness of rulers to support the progress in their civil societies, the latter will manage to build bridges to a brighter future on all three sides of the Armenia-Turkey-Diaspora triangle.



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