Understanding Ourselves: Questions of Genocide, Independence and Identity

Participant of last week's Diaspora issues conference


The implication of the title of the April 27, 2013 conference held at USC (“Independence and Beyond: In Search of a New Armenian Diaspora Post – 1991”) is that because there now exists an independent Armenia, the Diaspora must change. This is obvious. What is not as obvious, but goes to the core of the matter, are the realities and underlying assumptions that were highlighted by Dr. Stephan Astourian’s presentation in the last panel, “(Re)Defining Diaspora and Nationalism.” His main argument was that by not pushing a Genocide based agenda, the first administration of Armenia undermined that which is so fundamental to the Diaspora, subsequently the Diaspora itself, and thus Armenia’s relations with it for years to come.

Much of the Diaspora had been dreaming of a free and independent Armenia for decades, whether as an immediate necessity or as a longed for ideal. Yet when the dream finally became a distinct possibility and then a tangible reality, — that at a time of war and blockades and when the country was reeling from the disintegrating Soviet economic system—the fact that Armenia gave priority to its survival and survival of its own people, was, and continues to be interpreted as a rejection of the Diaspora, and a serious problem. Such people expected that this new state, facing existential challenges, give priority to the issues that topped the diasporan agenda: Genocide recognition and issues of Diasporan identity. This has always seemed quite strange to me, to say the least. Why didn’t the Diaspora support the Republic of Armenia as the core of its identity instead of Genocide? Why couldn’t it make that shift…? And why did the Diaspora feel the new Armenia owed the Diaspora the adoption of the latter’s agenda, why did and does the Diaspora feel entitled?

Now that’s not quite how it happened, and I said “much of the Diaspora” because while for decades the call for a free and independent Armenia was its motto, by the 1980s, the largest Diasporan political party, the ARF, had changed its position. While still espousing and preaching the ideals of a free and independent Armenia to its lower strata and the public, the party policies had in fact taken a major shift toward supporting a Soviet Armenia, as evidenced by arguments presented by its leader in official ARF publications in the late 1980s. In this case, then, I must also ask, why did this happen? And why did the Diaspora, or at least a great portion of it, then give itself the right to feel that Armenia owed it anything when it became independent, if not the other way around?

I asked a few people after the conference why it was that once a free Armenia existed, the Diaspora was, and is, still questioning and in some cases refusing the idea that Armenia should be the core and center of the Armenian nation… why a state-centered nation is even a question. I received two answers: “because it is not the state they wanted,” and, “because they did not lift a finger to help create it.” If that is indeed the case, it is quite sad. The first speaker of the panel, Dr. Asbed Kotchikian suggested that perhaps the Diasporan fixation on Genocide is holding it back. I will go further, and suggest that while Armenia is rife with problems: if one is to argue that the first administration of newly independent Armenia is at fault for tainting Diasporan-Armenia relations by refusing to take on Genocide issues as many Diasporan organizations expected, then truly, in this matter, the main pathology lies within the Diaspora, and its own identity issues and insecurities – at least that portion which feels that argument has any merit. That is, many Diasporans did understand the situation in the new republic and provided help in many ways, and others came to understand the situation with time. But there still remain those who seem unable to recognize that Armenian administrations have primary responsibility for the people who live on Armenia’s territory and that the republic was not created to resolve the problems of the Diaspora.

If we do indeed want to move forward, towards a stronger Armenian Republic, a stronger Diaspora (whatever that may mean), and a stronger, unified Nation, then we must address these problems directly. I hope that future such conferences tackle the issues of Diasporan genocide-based identity and self-entitlement, and perhaps even the malignant effect they have had on relations with the independent republic, directly. To that end, I have titled this piece with a suggestion for the title of such a conference.


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  1. Steve said:

    I enjoyed your opinion, but I think you missed the point about independent Armenia’s failure to address the Genocide issue being a problem for the diaspora. If anyone is held hostage by the genocide it is the citizens of the Republic of Armenia. It is they who have had their ability to live in a viable and sustainable state denied to them because of the usurpation of half the first Republic’s recognized territory (Kars Ardahan, Nakhechvan etc) not to mention the legal title held by the first Republic to Wilson’s awarded territory.
    It is they ( the citizens of Armenia) who have been denied their legal patrimony of those rich territories and personal wealth of the Armenia victims that the Republic of Turkey continues to enjoy the fruits of which with impunity.

    Any responsible government of the Republic of Armenia would have placed this as item #1 on their foreign policy agenda. It is only by demanding the criminal to disgorge himself of his ill gotten gains are you then able to guarantee the security of your citizens. Azerbajian’s belligerence in dealing with Karabagh the last 20 years is based on the impunity with which not the rest of the world, but the Republic of Armenia has allowed Turkey to enjoy.

    As diasporans we recognize that we were created by the Genocide but our physical existence is not in immediate jeopardy, the same cannot be said of the citizens of Armenia who continue to be tormented and vitimized by Turkey and its disciples. Sadly repeated rulers of “independent” Armenia have been more concerned with the rapid privatization (personal looting) of young Armenia’s economy rather that securing it for future generations and posterity.

  2. VY said:


    While you raise some interesting issues in your analysis of the Conference, somehow, as Steve notes, you’ve missed the point. You have basically diluted the Conference into just one of the panels and then drawn generalized conclusions from it. The Conference explored the complex process of the emergence and development of the Armenian Diaspora and the dialectics of the Armenia-Diaspora relationship in light of the post-1991 Armenian independence. In that context, many theses were presented and questions asked. Among them: The multilayered identity of a Diaspora that had emerged despite the efforts of organizational infrastructures to define it uniformly, be it within the framework of a Genocide narrative or some other overarching story of displacement; the conflation of Western and Eastern Armenian language and culture as a necessary element of “return”; the pain of an “abandoned Diaspora” due to some misplaced notion of its disappearance with the emergence of the independent Republic; and, many other complex questions whose answers lie more in our commitment to the search than our assertive pronouncements of ordained wisdom. Your question to some of the attendees to the Conference as to why the Diaspora is “still questioning and in some cases refusing the idea that Armenia should be the core and center of the Armenian nation” hints to such a wisdom which, many of us, would not have the audacity to have. The issues at hand are much more complex and multilayered. Unfortunately, as you imply, a mere “pathological dichotomy” cannot be revealed by way of a simple incision. Through no fault of our own, the Diaspora-Armenia bridge is also a schism, a paradox of sorts. To define it as an “either-or” phenomenon does a disservice to the rich Diasporic as well Hairenik-building experience.

  3. Ara said:

    –My impression is that in your fourth paragraph you are attacking a straw man. I attended the conference and my impression was that almost everyone would have agreed that the Republic of Armenia is “the core and center of the Armenian nation.” Only a tiny minority might have questioned that. Considering the Republic of Armenia as the center of the Armenian nation doesn’t negate the importance and the significance of the Diaspora. The nature of the identity of the Diaspora is a separate and complicated issue that VY eloquently commented about it.

    –With respect to your third paragraph, by the end of 1980s, when the Soviet Union rapidly weakened, the threat of Turkey towards Armenia dramatically increased. Therefore the ARF, which was demanding independence of Armenia for long time, became concerned and urged the people of Armenia to be careful. When you love something you don’t want to lose it and you would like to protect it. Obviously this generated a paradoxical situation for the ARF, who was the flag bearer of independence of Armenia. Fortunately for Armenia, the fears of the ARF didn’t materialize and Armenia safely gained its independence, but unfortunately for the ARF, because it lost some of its political capital. I wish that during 1988, ARF didn’t urge the people of Armenia to be careful with respect to independence, but I understand and I don’t blame it. They say, hindsight is 20/20 or “it is easy to be a Monday night quarterback.”