Reflections on Celebrity Diplomacy & Diasporan Civil Society

A scene from the USC event on January 29
A scene from the USC event on January 29

A scene from the USC event on January 29


The event “Celebrity Diplomacy: Redefining Armenia’s Role in the Diaspora” was a creative initiative, well attended event at USC last Sunday. The USC Institute and its director, Salpi Ghazarian deserve credit for assembling an impressive list of discussants.

The event’s genesis seems from a petition for Justice in Armenia originated by a group of artists on who attempted to engage a wider Armenian audience. The addition of political scholars to the panel of artists gave the event a form of “public scholarship” which made it more interesting to the immediate and remote audiences (streaming). The live streaming and video conferencing heightened the global interconnection.

The intent of this author is not to question whether Diasporan artists should get involved in Armenian electoral politics. I’ll leave that to Vahe Berberian’s (one of the artists) next comedy show. But rather, the intension is to reflect on the larger message that the discussants communicated. While it’s impossible to comment on everything that was said by 12 panelists, I’ll just reflect on key themes.

Overall, the participants conveyed a strong rallying cry to the Diaspora to get engaged with Armenia’s disenfranchised people and its civil society in a global age where boundaries are no longer constraints. (“Everyone in global civil society nowadays gets involved in the matters of the world,” Arsinee Khanjian). Engagement point of views ranged from “engaging beyond traditional celebrations” (Atom Egoyan), engaging without “taking sides in local party politics” (Serj Tankian) or “engaging as one nation and not as aloof bystanders” (Vahe Berberian). The artists seemed to agree on key principles without a prescriptive tone.

An interesting comment from Prof. Anna Ohanyan was that “ballots or borders” or “Security versus Democracy” is a false choice presented by ruling politicians to the Armenian public; meaning, how electoral politics in Armenia tend to often pressure citizens to make choices between external threats/security and good governance and improved national well-being in the last 25 years.

I fully agree with Prof. Ohanyan that the integrity of the “Armenian ballot is as critical to strengthening Armenia’s credentials as well as Armenia’s security.” While this is something the Diaspora’s nationalist orthodoxy has failed to grasp at times, the new generation of Diasporan activists who are in touch with Armenia see this quite clearly.

Are national security matters in Armenia indeed a binary priority over democracy and, more important, economic development matters as previous electoral politics have suggested? Does Diasporan dissent over bad governance need to be necessarily viewed as disloyalty toward Armenia? Some in the audience felt that traditional Diasporan organizations had for too long turned a blind eye to Armenia’s struggling civil society.

Political analyst Irina Ghaplanyan (with an upcoming book titled “Armenia: A Country in Search of Leaders,” due to be released in 2017) advocated interesting points. One of them referred to the “lack of meaning creation” by successive post-Soviet administrations within Armenian society. By this I think Ghaplanyan was referring to the lack of effort by Armenia’s leadership to forge aspects of collective Armenian ideology that articulates processes and institutions that are reflective of the values of toady’s Armenian society (versus just being post-Soviet which is defined more by the past, rather than the last 25 years).

This “meaning creation” effort is very similar to what the founding fathers did for the United States in its formative years, and is indeed an urgent matter. It’s also another foundational opportunity for Diaspora networks to potentially collaborate with Armenian civil society groups in coming years. Clearly neither the immediate adoption of the emblems of the first republic by Levon Ter-Petrsosian, nor the sham embracing of Karekin Njdeh’s nationalist approaches by the Republican Party of Armenia seem to be a substitute for the concept of “meaning creation” that Ghaplanyan is referring to.

Points raised by non-Armenian political analysts from emerging nations around the globe were insightful as well. They confirmed that Armenia’s struggles in governance are not unique. Themes like “gaps in the democratic process don’t get filled without pressure from below and a strong civil society” rang a bell with many of us in the audience. Of particular interest was Chile’s long pathway to democratic transition which always seemed to necessitate pressure. Can pressure from below (civil society in Armenia) and pressure from the “near abroad” (Diasporan networks and advocacy groups) be somewhat effective? Can this be done without a unifying ideology? Or will it resemble Armenia’s fragmented opposition’s attempts at consolidation?

Some good technical issues were also enlightening. For instance, the fact that 119 countries have provisions to allow their Diasporas to vote oversees, but Armenia stubbornly still requires its citizens to vote only at voting stations within Armenia was interesting. The “secrecy of voters’ lists” was also brought up and how it will no longer be a barrier in the upcoming elections (a step forward). Along the same lines, it’s encouraging to hear from Armenia’s authorities that digital cameras will be installed during the upcoming elections in around 1500 voting posts, thus mitigating (or minimizing) potential violations.

The full house audience at USC’s Bovard Auditorium seemed to react positively to the comments of the panel. There was also a “déjà vu” feeling that Armenia which, in proportional terms, has the largest Diaspora of any former Soviet state, has not been able to optimally leverage this “super advantage.”

The lively panel discussion forced me to reflect a bit deeper in the following areas:

  1.  I don’t feel that Diasporan organization have always turned a blind eye on Armenia’s governance demons since 1991. While dissent has not been vocal, many (i.e. groups like the the ANCA and others) have spoken throughout the three administrations. It’s worth noting that there is great diversity in the types of diasporic networks, some of which have access to the government and can pressure, while others can be better linked with the civil society. For instance, the ARF Dashnaktsutyun (a pan-Armenian political party with membership and grassroots presence in both Armenia and the Diaspora and nowadays with access to the government) has continuously lobbied for reforms. Actually, the very historic elections happening this April and which will transform Armenia into a parliamentary republic were the result of a 20 year relentless process by the ARF. I’m happy to see that Armenia’s fragmented opposition, which initially dismissed this important reform, is now actively engaged in the upcoming historic elections. Similarly, the ARF Dashnaktsutyun was also the driving force behind the constitutional amendment of the Armenian Citizenship Law in 2007 that authorized dual citizenship. Here, I agree with Prof. Ohanyan that the Dual Citizenship law is not very liberal (i.e. excludes the possibility of voting outside Armenia) and so far has had a limited developmental value. It will be commendable if the ARF Dashnaktsutyun’s parliamentary bloc along with Diasporan constituents engage after the April elections to further liberalize the Dual Citizenship law.
  2. Just like Armenia’s civil society and opposition, the Diaspora is not a homogenous entity and its identity is fragmented across many dimensions. And while the Diaspora’s “powerful diversity” is an asset, it lacks efficient institutional collaborative platforms. While Armenians have had a Diaspora for a while, there is need for further research in this space to benchmark best practices of other nations with Diasporas. Furthermore, time and again, elections in Armenia showed that they are personality driven because most political parties (and “alliances”) lack ideology. Similarly, today’s liberal nationalism of the Armenian Diaspora is a far cry for a unifying ideology among Diasporans. While the language of the Armenian “transnation” (Tololyan) and now the “Global Armenian” (Vardanian et al) is employed to describe or evoke new identities, in fact there seems to be no substantive collective national identity that can be the source of mobilization and “collective agency” in the face of crises or a national vision in the Diaspora. Here it’s important to note that “political divisions” in the Diaspora can be healthy as it produces debate and discourse. What is not optimal is excessive fragmentation (and apathy) when it comes to dealing with Armenia. The 100th anniversary of the Genocide or humanitarian emergencies cannot be the lowest common denominator that rally communities of the Diaspora. More needs to come from a sense of global and patriotic sense of civic responsibility. Again, that “sense of meaning” that Ghaplanyan eluded to.
  3. Many theorists attribute key socio-economic dynamics in emerging countries to the health of its institutions. Here I’d like to make a strong case that Armenians since 1991 have not invested enough in state building (read institution building) and their emphasis has been on politics and not policy. This is particularly important for a post-Soviet society like Armenia. Research shows that post-Soviet states have usually given rise to dual political systems: constitutional ones (i.e. the form of a constitution, an ombudsman, elections, parliament, etc.) along with an illiberal side representing interests of narrow elites with not much interested in re-investing in the country. Armenia is such a hybrid state. Maybe better than some central Asian states (and Azerbaijan) but less advanced than places like the Baltics. An alternative way to channel civil society engagement (both in Armenia and abroad) might be toward the gap in institution building. State building can indeed happen both within the state and independent of it, within solid civil society institutions. Unless Diasporan civil society commits itself to long term institution building as part of its engagement with Armenia, external election monitoring will not result in anything more than a “hollow state” tarnished by failed institutions and a perfect environment for the Armenia’s oligarchy (“the nexus between Armenia’s politics and business,” Irina Ghaplanyan) to continue to thrive in. That said, and per Prof Ohanyan, “elections are also themselves institutions and they can be a powerful tool for institution building and change.”

I strongly believe that the sensitive issue of the Diaspora’s involvement in Armenia’s affairs should be further argued and discussed from different angles and viewpoints. The discussants at the USC public scholarship forum just scratched the surface of this complex topic.

Lastly, unlike the crowd at the USC Bovard Auditorium, some Armenians still resent the petitioning Diasporan artists and continue to urge them to move to Armenia if they are truly interested in reforming the country. Should the Diaspora’s soft power influence be welcomed within Armenia? Yes – and no. Should it extend beyond Genocide, foreign policy toward Turkey and the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and include governance issues within Armenia? Why not. This, however, will largely depend on how 21st century Diaspora(s) organize themselves (beyond Facebook identity politics and beyond the “election to election euphoria”) and to what extent their civic engagement will differ from the current ad hoc philanthropic nationalism.

I tried to listen carefully to the ideas advocated by the artists and scholars at USC. Arsinee Khanjian’s last comments to me were “We need to be present with them on the ground. It’s important. We need to be one.” Some might feel uncomfortable with these audacious ideals, but Armenians have done so many big and audacious things before and survived for a better day with their stubborn grit.

I didn’t view the event’s artist narrative through confrontation lenses. In the 21st century, I think we have an opportunity to be Armenia’s greatest generation ever. We need to leave the 20th century behind and engage with the promises of humanity’s upcoming dawn. As global citizens, deeply engaged with our roots and people in Armenia in an exciting journey might be something worth trying. The Diaspora can change its narrative, re-imagine itself as part of a modern trans-nation and become transformative again. Not by swapping one leading personality with another like Armenia’s weak opposition has done, but by transcending petty politics and attempting to push progress, just like our public intellectuals once did in the 1860s after centuries of statelessness when our long journey towards statehood began. The Armenian Diaspora networks can indeed get more engaged with Armenia’s young democracy. But, aside from “just engaging now,” further work is needed to determine sustainable pathways. That’s the important message the “Celebrity Diplomats” evoked in me.

Raffy Ardhaldjian is a finance/technology professional and Diasporan Armenian political thinker with an engaged history in social entrepreneurship in Armenia since independence. He holds graduate degrees from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and the University Of Chicago Booth School of Business.


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