A Frank Discussion About the ARF

Suzanne Khardalian

BY SUZANNE KHARDALIAN

In analyzing a key organizational challenge for political parties in general and particularly social democracy in Armenia it is a well established fact by now that social democratic parties, including the Armenian Revolutionary Federation, are for the most part unable to engage the citizens.

During the last 20 years, the ARF has been perceived as a campaign vehicle and administrator of certain stigmatized ideas rather than a core institution standing unyielding and firm with the support of an extended ideological community. I have written about this before, as to why membership in Armenian political parties is in catastrophic decline (incidentally, it is a global phenomenon).

A few months ago I read about a group of young Armenians joining the ranks of the ARF.
The article, true to its more than centenary tradition, was written in the familiar vernacular, so if one were to change the date of the article it would sound exactly the same whether it was written in the 60’s, 90’s or today—2013. It would read something like this: “The future generation, the proud bearers of our national identity, the guardians of a national dream/vision…” Despite the lengthy sentences highlighting devotion and fidelity and some words of wisdom, the article conveys nothing but anonymity, shrouded in a certain mystery. I happen to know that indoctrination and membership in the party takes place through special ceremonies. Yet for some reason the new members become and stay anonymous, much to the dismay of the many newcomers.

I cannot but empathize with the disappointment that the youth might feel about the long-awaited moment of becoming a member of a desired party, yet it is all so very solemn and equally unceremonious in many ways. Pride—a feeling of belonging and the right to extend your new acquired identity to the public—remains very anonymous.

While I think celebrating ARF membership is very appropriate, and a legitimate expectation after years of loyal anticipation, the local organizational bodies should be especially mindful since such a romantic desire to become a member of an organized social democracy is certainly very rare among young people today. We all know that the majority of the youth are not keen on party membership in general and, seems to me, not very interested in social democracy.

For young people, interest in politics is already seen to be nerdy, but wanting to become a member of a party sounds worse. And of a party that is seen to be on the way to being passé? Remember, for today’s youth, the 1980s are considered to be a “several hundred” years ago.

Today, becoming a member of a party is deemed the oddest thing a teen could do, as weird as wearing school uniforms.

That is perhaps one of the biggest changes that the party—the ARF and its organizational institutions—must respond to. Party membership or belonging to a formal or an informal social network that are ideologically committed to a party, such as the ARS, Homenetmen, the student associations (in ways similar to other popular parties) used to convey a natural sense of belonging and identity—a way of engaging in and understanding the community.

Even with all the individualized and mixed and opposing interpretations of its ideology (a topic that needs public discussion by itself), for generations being a member of the ARF with its ideology was a natural manifestation of who you were and what you thought about the world.

But times have changed. Far fewer people today believe that membership in a political organization or even a much less formal commitment to its sister organizations, is a necessary expression of who they are.

There are a several reasons for this reality, and even the ones that I do know would fill pages that I don’t have here. In any case, the gambit is that less and less people will stick to their party even when they find its momentary policies displeasing. What I have in mind is of course the elections (presidential, parliamentary or municipal) in Armenia with its bizarre ways and consequences. But the interpretation has always been the same in the aftermath of the elections in Armenia. We all complained about the existence of adequate citizens. There is of course something attractive about the notion of “lack of enlightened citizens” and holding them accountable for their performance.

But there is also something to be said for our political parties—and I am more concerned about the ARF, and its social democracy—which are supposed to serve as the nexus of both physical and imagined communities that command loyalty even when one is in disagreement or even mad at the ARF.

This does not imply a non-critical loyalty to one’s party, but what I suggest is an enhanced commitment to it, that allows for using one’s voice and seeks to institute changes from within the party before considering the transfer one’s loyalty to another party.

Yet those who belong to this category are largely people for whom their relationship with the party is an identity-related feature—those who are on some level emotionally involved with their party—those who are increasingly disappearing from politics. This is very unfortunate yet a reality that cannot be pushed aside.

Today’s ARF with its social democracy is clearly failing at the basic function of conquering its voters’ hearts in addition to their minds, of making them feel at home, emotionally as well as intellectually. There has been some useful and absolutely necessary debates within progressive circles and beyond about the right policies. We have spoken at lenght about the role of the party, its language, modernizing its image and strengthening its organizational structures and its campaign strategies. Several of these issues, however, only touch upon the issue I discuss here. Yes, it is true that language and policies impact one’s sense of identity, but neither of these address the major issue directly or as a distinct problem of its own.

A successful political organization such as the ARF should offer more to the citizens. They should try to construct communities where (especially young) people feel at home and where they find is an important expression of who they are.

Identities today are more complex and multi-layered than they were 30 years ago. As you might expect, binding individuals as closely to any one single layer, as was once routinely possible, is not only traditional but almost impossible at the political fringes. Through our reductionist worldview and the primitive insider/outsider dichotomy we have often created very cohesive communities, though for the most part small ones.

Clearly, the aforementioned means and strategies, if continued to be adopted today, would end in catastrophe. The goal must be one, even if the emotional involvement achieved would become weaker.

However, there must be some debate about how we should weave ARF and its social democracy with our increasingly complex patterns of identity—the new Armenian identity.

It should be about how to better intertwine ARF’s ideology, its social democracy with other, more popular, layers of identity to which it retains an affinity with modern issues, such as civic organizations focused on human rights, environmental issues and social justice, to name a few.

Unfortunately I am far better at raising the issue than at offering possible solutions, but I do believe that the answer must start with building or reinforcing community spaces, both physical and virtual. I also know that such activities require enormous investment, money and time, both of which the ARF, and its shrinking staff are increasingly are in need of. So it is no surprise that this aspect of the ARF and its social democratic organizational and ideological decline receives little attention.

The challenge is enormous and even if we direct more resources to tackle the problem the returns may be very slim. One thing is certain: there is no way to recapture the golden age when the ARF was an organic part of every Armenian community life around the world. But a political organization that accepts its gradual degeneration to become a mere campaign machine is beyond doubt doomed in the long run.

Suzanne Khardalian
is a documentary filmmaker based in Stockholm, Sweden. Her films include “Back to Ararat,” “I Hate Dogs,” and “Grandma’s Tattoos.” She contributes regularly to Asbarez.

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22 Comments

  1. Sevag said:

    Why are such articles published? She even states it is a complaint, and of course with no suggestions for a solution. I agree not everything is a picnic, but why publish an article that shows that the party as a doomed? every organization has its ups and downs and during the down period is when it is normally adapting to the changing environment it is in, changing for the future. Why does the party’s newspaper publish an article which publicly states “I also know that such activities require enormous investment, money and time, both of which the ARF, and its shrinking staff are increasingly are in need of.” – Bravo why don’t we just publish all of the ARF’s secrets. Speculation leads to suspicion, doubt, and gossip. Someone who has been busy travelling the world and filming documentaries probably rarely goes to meetings or is involved – if they are a member at all – or would be active within their own community. i am sure many members of the party who tirelessly work hard for their communities would not appreciate this dark look at what is a wonderful organization, whom without, we would not have many of the communities we have today.

  2. Arpine said:

    a core problem, Suzanne, although it should be noted that when we speak of ARF, we speak of ARF in Spyurq and ARF in Armenia, which, to me, is 2 different things. I myself find most of my political ideologies in ARF, and this is not to say ARF is perfect and is the same old party that the founding principles claimed it to be. As we speak about ARF or any other political party in Armenia, the dispute takes us even further. We are facing a huge problem and its consequences of politically ignorant people and youth. Being a member to a party, and this mainly applies to Republicans and Prosperity has all kind of motivations but political. You may ask the members of these political parties if they know any of the basic principles of the parties they belong to, and you will find they they do not even know the structure of the parties. These are the young people who would at the very same way, become masons, for some people believe you can get rich as soon as you become a mason. A very few of them who, for example, became members to Heritage or HAK, were quite consciuos why they did it, they joined the opposition, and again few of these have even read the basic political principles to which these parties adhere to.. The only party that you have at least to be aware what the ideologies are when you become a member, is ARF, simply because you cannot become a member in just one day. This is to say that political life in Armenia is so much deeply in mud that becoming a member to a certain political party is mostly viewed as a chance to earn some extra money or, in best case, to get some job, especially before and during elections, cuz then, you can become an observer and if you act well (which is quite relative) you can get your share. As long as the youth are viewing membership as a job, we cannot have politically educated and conscious people who will fight for what they believe, cuz mostly, most of them, believe in money. So does the fathers of the parties they belong to:our government and progovernmental parties. This is so sad!

  3. Antranig Bedrossian said:

    Mrs Suzanne Khardalian is saying what I have been thinking and saying in Montreal for a number of years now. We have the same petrified situation in Montreal, Canada. Issues touching the society, the environment and civic considerations should be part of ARF agenda in the communities as part of a broader identity and spaces of action. This will a better expression of ARF social democracy in the Diaspora. In Armenia, ARF needs to act according to the true principles of social democracy, with involvement in social, civic, environmental and women’s and workers’ rights. Then, the organization can be renewed from within and carry its mission among the Armenian people. Genocide issue, although not to be discarded, should not blur the vision of ARF activists and leadership. In Armenia., ARF leadership is running after its interests and it is not in touch with day-to-day aspirations of the population.

  4. Arman said:

    I’m a small government conservative. For me the phrase “social democrat” is difficult to understand. It has almost no meaning. I don’t care about political parties. What I’d like to say is that Armenians must look inward and find their strength as individuals. Then they can come together as a strong nation. If Armenians place their hopes on a magical collectivist approach where a small pseudo-elite is tasked with finding a desperate answer, all the while engaging in hopeless compromising with questionable forces, the nation will not find the settlement it seeks, and those collectivist pseudo-elites will fail the nation. They can not deliver the results they promise to the sheepish masses. I recommend individual empowerment first. We ought to make the elites fear the common man. Look at America. It’s being plundered by crooks from all sides. They steal the people’s money in the name of the people. THROW THEM ALL OUT OF OFFICE!

  5. Purag said:

    The problem, with all due respect, is not that youth do not want to identify as a member of a party anymore–we very much do. The problem is that the ARF doesn’t embody their beliefs. Our perception of the ARF is a conglomeration of what our parents have raised us to believe as well as what the AYF and AYF Juniors programs have been preaching; our parents are fixated on pre-immigration ideals, and the AYF on century-old righteous purpose. The Armenian youth of today are trained to enter the political world completely unprepared and with a skewed sense of the world around them–any proactive or progressive idea is entirely their own and not cultivated by these youth organizations. This is the 21st century, and times really are changing, but joining a party is not a matter of being raised into it, but rather a process of finding one that encompasses your beliefs. The ARF is only the embodiment of the same pre-immigration beliefs, so the surprise is the incompatability of our personal beliefs with those of the ARF doctrine. Sevag said that we shouldn’t be giving away “secrets.” One, it is not a secret, since the power of the ARF has noticeably diminished; and two, we certainly should know the ” secrets”–as people with a future in its ranks, we have the right to know its current situation. How, otherwise, are we to prepare to leave it better than we found it? The organinzation is blessed with the existence of such powerful assets that the youth have the capacity, energy, and desire to control and utilize for the greater good, but is taking absolutely no advantage of them. The solution is three-fold: 1) Allow for more expression and acceptance of differing beliefs in youth prorgrams. 2) Educate youth about the current political state of Armenia and America (or the location you are in), as well as the state of the ARF. 3) Modernize the ARF’s prescribed ideology; not too drastically, but not too minimally either, so as to attract the eager, 21st century minded young Armenians.

  6. rita said:

    The problem with the youth is not that they do not want to become members of parties, or are not interested in politics or social democracy. The problem is the ARF does not follow its own ideology, or its own program, it often acts in opposition to it. The leaders of the organization are intolerant and backwards, and when progressive youth who actually believe in socialism and democracy and justice start to see this, they have no interest to be involved in a party of hypocrites. Also, the idea that criticism and change should come from within the organization is detached from reality. There is no mechanism within the organization to push for change or progress, it has been attempted many times and those who have tried have been punished or kicked out of the organization. The ARF is at a state of failure, unable to engage the Armenian youth, and continuing to be a narrow minded organization that contributes nothing to the progression of our nation.

  7. Suzanne khardalian said:

    It seems to me that it is very difficult and painful to have a frank discussion about the role of ARF. I amonly trying to open a dialogue about one of the most important issues in our modern history. We can not just pretend that it does not exist. That everything is just fine. We need to walk right into the eye of the storm. And come out with a new strategy that guarantees our collective security, and give new life to our dreams and visions for a better life.

    • bigmoustache said:

      1.Look past to the last 10 years at how many gains we have made in politics. Thanks to the ANCA and other affiliated organizations, MPs, politicians, states etc that have recognized the Armenian genocide or given their support to artsakhs independence. 10 years ago i wouldn’t believe in these possibilities could happen. We have made a lot of gains internationally and organizations like ANCA (which is like a sister organization of the ARF) have gotten many Armenian involved in our cause.
      2. Its thanks to the ARF that my community center/school/church where i was raised was built! and running to this day. Now we have an Armenian high school!
      3. During the artsakhs independence it was the ARF that first bought money, arms and flak jackets to the fedayis organizing them into groups etc, Way before Hayasdan joined.

      To summarize the ARF is always there to protect us from harm, even in the diaspora like Lebanon, and when things are peaceful they work tirelessly to keep our agoump lights running and to make gains on the political arena.
      The fact is people get old and no longer have that same fire for action, that’s why our young generation in Beirut took matters into their own hands.
      What is needed now is action and fire like those boys in Lisbon except this time our fight should be against corruption and nepotism which is the biggest threat to our national security in Armenia. We need a regime change and to purge those parties of corruption so that we never go back to being ruled by mafiosos who even get away with murder.
      The older generation might be cautious about such a move but if this continues the younger ARF generation will take matters into their own hands.
      Most people don’t see the work being done behind closed doors and think nothing is being done unless were fighting like fedayis or exacting justice from Turkish officials but please understand all the gains made on the international level are thanks to ARF, ANCA and student organizations.
      The only way the ARF can guarantee our collective security now is by regime change, which i admit has been slow. But if things continue Im sure its the younger generation of tashnags that will implement a change. Like how they cleaned the streets of Beirut of criminals and drug dealers..

  8. Garo Ghazarian said:

    ARF is still alive. Is it well ? It is better in some venues than others, relatively speaking, given its structure, hierarchy and its standard operating procedures. Is it in need of review and a revamping of its modus operandi ? Yes. As for a frank discussion of all matters relevant to ARF’s role in Armenia and in the Diaspora, there are tell tale signs which lend hope to us all, despite such signs being consistent with those of the pace of a snail. Nevertheless, as long as there is progress, there shall soon be (I PREDICT) though not perfection,but something which will be a much improvement. Patience is a virtue. Historically, ARF has been a patient collective (123 years). Let us also be patient yet proactive in assisting the party which has given so much to Armenians worldwide. Change is on its way. New choices will yield new and favorable consequences to all Armenians. I, for one, remain hopeful. Time of course, will tell. In the meantime, do remain engaged.

  9. Hratch said:

    First of all, the youth of today have learned not to trust any large organization or entity. With mass media, the corrupt ways of most organizations has been exposed like no other time in history. Religious figures, bankers, corporations, politicians, governments, media outlets, celebrities….etc…have all proven themselves to act in self interest only. The apathy of the current generation is a direct consequence of the trend around the.

    As for the political elite, they have also been swept up by the dog-eat-dog culture. The purpose of leadership has transformed from service of community and nation to service of cronies and personal interests.

  10. George said:

    What about the fact that we just gained independence from socialism? The ARF- and all other socialist parties- need to get their heads back into reality and not think about a dream world that can never be. Name one country socialism has ever helped. Political parties are destroying Armenia and you want more participation in them?

    • Ara said:

      Georger, According to the “Failed State Index”, out of 178 countries, the best countries in the world are:
      1) Finland
      2) Sweden
      3) Norway
      4) Switzerland
      5) Denmark
      6) New Zealand
      7) Luxembourg
      8) Iceland
      9) Ireland
      10) Australia
      11) Canada
      12) Netherlands
      13) Austria
      14) Germany
      http://ffp.statesindex.org/rankings-2013-sortable

      In almost all these countries, during the past 60-70 years, socialist parties controlled governments for many years. These socialist parties, while they were in power, created social-economic programs that until today contribute to the well being of their societies.

      • bigmoustache said:

        thank you for that. some people who are the product of american media don’t know what socialism means. we gained independence from communism. here in canada our taxes pay for everything including health care

  11. Haik said:

    Without dropping names like an old transmissions; my grandfather back in 1941 wrote a book “Armenien Der Arische Vorposten in Vorderasien” it was in German for obvious reasons (he was versed in over 9 languages including ancient Armenian and Homeric Greek) …for his trouble in 1944 he was given free lodgings in Camp Vladimir Siberia, courtesy of an Armenian traitor, who receive a medal for that! YES A MEDAL!…Back to the article of our patriot lady, Tashnag, Hunchags, or whatever, it won’t matter when it comes to the bigger picture…we never had a unifier; even the savage next door had an Ataturk; we as people need to look at ourselves and ask the question why the Turks have reinvented themselves so successfully and enjoy 75 percent of Armenian territory…
    PS by the way when my grandmother lived in deportation and got abused in Communist militia stations, the only support she received was from former German POWs my grandfather befriended in Siberia…

  12. armenian said:

    Politics is total lies.. they just steal and steal and steal.. our only hope is in a strong army and that every Armenian be willing to fight and die for our civilization.. if not were all doomed to become niggers.

  13. Garen Yegparian said:

    Thank you Suzanne, not just for writing this, but for most of the commentary it has engendered, too.

    Along with much of what has been said, their is aniother factor to consider as well, that described in the book “Bowling Alone”. While this book is a study of the decline in participation in groupa and in the U.S., I suspect the problem is worldwide. And the declining participation is not just in political groups, or large groups, or old groups, but across the board. So on top of any other, specifically Armenian and political aspects of this quandry, we should be aware of this broader phenomenon and act accordingly.

  14. Khachig said:

    The ARF doesn’t look for members among those who would join the organization based on whether its “in fashion” or “passe”. That would be as bad as having someone like this guy above as a member.

    • suzanne khardalian said:

      let us agree on one point. Needs and priorities do change with time.
      second: I am not suggesting that the ARF should adopt fashionable ideas, unless you believe that environmental issues, decent education for all, healthcare and freedom of speech and freedom of thought, democracy, and responding to the modern needs of our nation are just fashionable ideas.
      third: members make an organization, do we choose to leave out the new generation that has a new approach to life-needs and a new understanding of our national security, genuine accountability and an honest openness?
      we need to embrace our compatriots….ARF needs to show more love ….

  15. Harb said:

    Nobody is against decent education or democracy–The ARF or any other political group, doesn’t get points for such obvious hygiene stances. At it’s core it is socialist-national socialist to be more specific. At its most fundamental level-it’s defining level–it is out of sync directionally with a great many Armenians. It seems stuck in the 19th century.

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