Armenian Diaspora groups are feeling a need to broaden and deepen their commitment to helping Armenia’s political and economic development. Participants at a Diaspora conference, held in Los Angeles on December 4, focused not only on such hot-button issues as Genocide recognition, they discussed ways to help Armenia battle corruption, promote tax reform and encourage the development of civil rights. Many attending the one-day academic event, which was convened to discuss issues relating to the Armenian Revolutionary Federation’s 120-year history, expressed concern about Armenia’s present economic and diplomatic situation. The Armenian economy is struggling to recover from the 2008 global financial crisis, while Yerevan’s efforts to normalize relations with its two hostile neighbors -- Turkey and Azerbaijan -- remain stalemated. The event was co-sponsored by the University of Southern California’s Institute of Armenian Studies and the academic journal, The Armenian Review. Participants generally lauded the Armenian government’s conduct in the foreign policy sphere, in particular Yerevan’s decision to suspend efforts to normalize relations with Turkey. Some experts at the conference maintained that the question of the 1915 mass slaughter of Armenians in Ottoman-era Turkey, a tragedy that Diaspora groups insist meets the criteria for genocide, remains a stumbling block for the normalization of Turkish-Armenian relations. Armenian National Committee of America Executive Director Aram Hamparian hoped for more sober assessment in Washington, Ankara and Yerevan to develop a framework for better relations. “The foundation for any meaningful Turkish-Armenian relations is a truthful and just resolution of the Armenian Genocide,” Hamparian said. “The [Armenian-Turkish normalization] protocols failed by and large because they tried to avoid that reality.” Domestic issues, in particular widespread corruption and inequitable income distribution, generated a lot of discussion at the conference. Hrair Dekmejian, director of USC Institute of Armenian Studies, suggested that Armenia’s national security could be enhanced by reducing graft and closing the income gap. Other attendees took aim at the Armenian tax code. Recent changes in Armenia's individual tax code eliminated a deduction from the gross income before tax, and introduced something of a flat tax, imposing similar rates across a variety of income brackets. Ara Khanjian, a professor of economics at Ventura College who has worked at the Economic Ministry of Armenia, described the new framework as “extreme” and “unfair,” especially for low-income Armenians. He went on to suggest that, as the Armenian economy struggles to regain a sense of equilibrium, the Armenian government needed to take a more active stance in the regulation of commerce. Dekmejian, the USC institute director, said the ability of various Diaspora organizations to assist Armenia’s recovery would benefit from greater coordination and more outreach. “There are huge numbers of Armenians [abroad] who have nothing to do with anything Armenian,” he said. Conference co-organizer, Asbed Kotchikian, the editor of The Armenian Review, cautioned members of the Diaspora against being quick to judge the actions of the Armenian government. He added that members of the Diaspora tend to have a romanticized notion of their homeland and harbor unrealistic expectations concerning the capabilities of the government in Yerevan. “What gives you the right, living here in Los Angeles, to decide whether or not Armenia should open the border with Turkey?” Kotchikian, who has lived and taught in Armenia, said, referring to the Diaspora community in the United States. “If you haven't had experience living in a state, being a citizen where your rights are being violated and so on, you cannot have strong feelings about it.” According to Kotchikian, the violence in Yerevan that followed the 2008 presidential elections has awakened desires among many in the Diaspora community to promote civil rights and environmental protection in Armenia. “It's very fascinating to see in the last two years the number of people talking about these things or trying to do something,” he said.
Liana Aghajanian is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles.