The huge anti-government protests in Yerevan that toppled longtime leader Serzh Sargsyan on April 23 may have united Armenians. But they also brought into sharp relief long-standing tensions between Armenia's wide diaspora and Armenians in the country itself, with the diaspora's detachment from the protest movement giving rise to accusations that it stood on the wrong side of history.
Since protests in Yerevan began on April 13, rallies in solidarity took place in the global centers of the Armenian diaspora. In Glendale, a suburb of Los Angeles, an estimated 5,000 locals marched to the Armenian consulate. In Marseilles, demonstrators burned Sargsyan’s portrait in the consulate’s courtyard. In Moscow, protesters gathered outside St. Cross Armenian Cathedral, but were quickly dispersed by police.
In the diaspora, support for the protests was far from universal, however, and some of the biggest diaspora organizations kept quiet or endorsed Sargsyan until his resignation.
The diaspora’s single biggest organization, ARF Dashnaktsutyun, largely sat out the protests and thus now appears set to lose influence in Armenia, said Richard Giragosian, director of the Yerevan-based Regional Studies Center, in an interview with Eurasianet. The Dashnaks’ “short-sighted allegiance to the ruling Republican Party has greatly diminished their standing in Armenia,” Giragosian said. “With a few meager cabinet positions, their influence is minimal and their political role is now marginal.”
As a ruling coalition partner with Sargsyan’s Republican Party, the ARF – which functions as a traditional political party in Armenia – endorsed his bid to become prime minister and stood by him until his resignation. Its various branches abroad have taken different stances.
On April 23, shortly before Sargsyan announced he was stepping down, the ARF-affiliated Armenian Youth Federation of Australia issued a statement in support of those protesting in Yerevan. Earlier last week, the Armenian Youth Federation’s chapter for the Western United States produced a similar statement that fell short of endorsing the protests but condemned the use of force. The next day, that ARF branch called on all sides to “work together.”
Part of the variation is geographical. “Diaspora reactions are defined by their country of citizenship,” Karen Aghekian, a Minsk-based editor for Hamatext, an online magazine covering Armenian politics, told Eurasianet. “As the Russian media coverage of revolutions in post-Soviet countries is extremely negative, Russian Armenians in general tend to be apprehensive about similar events in Armenia.”
Last week, the Union of Armenians of Russia said the protest leaders’ “real goals” are the “destabilization of the political situation” in Armenia and economic stagnation. The organization's founder and chairman, businessman Ara Abrahamyan, prides himself on his close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Two of the biggest American diaspora groups, the competing Armenian National Committee of America (ANCA) and Armenian Assembly of America, rarely comment on Armenia’s domestic politics. They focus primarily on achieving formal recognition of the Armenian Genocide in the U.S. and on securing aid to Armenia and to Nagorno-Karabakh, the unrecognized territory carved out of Azerbaijan that is controlled by Armenians. Both groups hailed Sargsyan’s resignation after the fact.
Other, newer groups in the U.S. have taken more critical approaches to Sargsyan's rule. One, Policy Forum Armenia, released a statement in support of the protests. The statement called for a “massive shake up” in the ARF Dashnaktsutyun “that results in a replacement of the current leaders by a young and Armenia-centric team.” It also said that the “main traditional diaspora organizations were largely complicit with the regime and worked against the best interests of Armenia and its citizens.”
Another relatively new player on the diaspora scene is Armenian Renaissance, a grassroots organization uniting chapters in a number of countries. After the Yerevan protests began, its members were instrumental in organizing “Reject Serzh” rallies in Los Angeles, New York and Boston. The group also has taken aim at ARF Dashnaktsutyun: One Facebook post by the Los Angeles chapter shows three ARF leaders with the caption: “Dashnaks should decide – are they with people in Armenia or against ???!!! Simple!!!! And if yes, then FIRE this [sic] 3 dogs in Armenia and save your name.”
‘They keep losing significance’
It remains an open question how much influence the diaspora has on politics in Yerevan. Armenian politicians have long subscribed to the idea of the “Armenia-Artsakh-Diaspora triumvirate,” envisaging a greater Armenia uniting the population of Armenia, the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic (known as Artsakh in Armenian), and ethnoreligious Armenian communities further afield, from Moscow to Beirut to California.
On April 22, a day before Sargsyan's resignation, President Armen Sarkissian issued a statement urging “all the citizens and our compatriots in the diaspora to refrain from straining the situation and exercise restraint.” Yet it's unclear how the diaspora could have done either.
“The role of the diaspora in Armenia’s political life and especially in this crisis is almost non-existent,” Aghekian, the Minsk-based editor for Hamatext, said. “Some of the diaspora’s richest businessmen have access to government, but I doubt they can sway decisions in any way. As for the diaspora organizations, they only keep losing significance and authority, and for good reason.”
But a consistent strain in Armenian politics is the hope for aid from the diaspora. Protest leader Nikol Pashinyan, addressing the crowd at one of the nightly rallies on Republic Square, called on diaspora celebrities including American rock musician Serj Tankian, Canadian actress Arsinée Khanjian, and French signer Charles Aznavour to come to Armenia and join the protest.
“That’s a two-way street. There are people in Armenia who are looking for outside support. And that's natural, to seek reassurance from Armenians living overseas,” said Hrant Gadarigian, an editor for Hetq, a Yerevan-based nonprofit news outlet. “But ultimately, people in Armenia are the agents of change. Because they are the ones who are suffering. Charles Aznavour is not sitting in a marshrutka [crowded minibus] every day.”
Aghekian agreed. “Any form of participation is welcome, but in my opinion Armenian citizens shouldn't be seeking the support and moral authority of celebrities such as Serj Tankian or Charles Aznavour. Quite the opposite: Conscious and responsible Armenian citizens must themselves become such an authority for the diaspora.”
An executive at an Armenian organization in the U.S., who spoke with Eurasianet on condition of anonymity, said that there’s no chance for the diaspora to present a coherent agenda for Armenia.
“The diaspora has no real agenda in Armenia,” he said. “It’s so fragmented and polarized between different groups, organizations, political parties. In real terms, where the diaspora stands – who knows?”
“After the Armenian Genocide, members of the diaspora have never lived in Armenia and thus do not know the complexities of modern Armenian statehood. Most of the diaspora's involvement, if any, is based on sentiments and emotions – nothing practical or concrete.”
Grigor Atanesian is a freelance journalist who covers Armenia.