By Raffi Bedrosyan
When the government of Armenia decided to establish the Ministry of Diaspora in 2008, the objective was to form a partnership between the Armenian state and Armenians in the diaspora and to help strengthen the ties between Armenia and Armenians abroad, by preserving the Armenian national identity in the diaspora and the historic homeland. This was to be accomplished by developing multiple pan-Armenian initiatives in educational, professional, entrepreneurial, cultural, social and sports fields, as well as by combining the talents, skills, resources and capital of both Diaspora and Armenia Armenians. Thanks to the strong personality and leadership of the first and only Minister of Diaspora, Hranush Hakopyan, the Armenia-Diaspora partnership has been founded on a solid base, with many success stories.
But there are also many failures, particularly in the areas of Diaspora investment. When Karen Karapetyan, the prime minister of Armenia, sent an appeal recently to the Diaspora Armenians to strengthen their ties and commitment to Armenia, the response from several Diaspora organizations and activists within Armenia was mostly negative, citing several examples of failed initiatives due to corruption and bribery, even blaming the Armenian government for thinking of Diaspora just as a “cow to be milked.”
So, where do we go from here? Is there room for improvement? Are there better alternative ways of growing the Armenia-Diaspora partnership? Are there different ways of solving recurring issues related to mutual trust, confidence or cooperation between the partners? With the impending elections in Armenia in the next few months, I believe it is appropriate to re-assess the form of governance for the Ministry of Diaspora.
I suggest that, despite all the good intentions, goodwill and accomplishments of the Ministry of Diaspora, there are serious problems between Diaspora Armenians and Armenia. The initial enthusiasm of the first few years is long gone, when Diaspora Armenians were much more willing to visit, live, work and play, and more significantly, invest in Armenia. There is now a general lack of trust and discontent by the Diaspora Armenians toward Armenian government leaders. When it comes to the issue of investing in Armenia, there is widespread conclusion that investments mostly disappear due to bribery and corruption. When it comes to the issue of governing Armenia, there is heavy criticism of the Armenian government leaders. Growing protests by a multitude of Diaspora intellectuals, celebrities and artists against the Armenian government leaders is a testament to that.
Armenian government leaders, as well as Armenians living in Armenia may very well tell the protesting diaspora intelligentsia: “If you want to make a difference, you better move to Armenia, come and live and vote in Armenia, instead of just complaining from abroad’. But I suggest the Diaspora Armenians would have a much more defensible argument, if they focus on improving the relationships between Diaspora and Armenia, and also because the very reason for the establishment of the Ministry of Diaspora is the Diaspora Armenians.
There is an absolute need to reverse the vicious cycle of mistrust, and as a first step, I suggest that the Minister of Diaspora be a Diasporan Armenian. Along with the additional suggestions given below, there should be confidence – building measures taken by the new government in order to encourage Diasporan investment into Armenia again. If the government is successful in creating credibility and a level playing field for investors from abroad, the source of potential foreign investment would not only be limited to Diaspora Armenians, but would also attract international investors as well, without the need for appeals from the prime minister.
I would like to add the following points arguing my case:
- The Armenian government does not and will not take seriously the diaspora intelligentsia protesting against poor governance. But it would seriously consider any proposal that would improve relationships and flow of investment from Diaspora to Armenia.
- The Diaspora organizations and more importantly, Diaspora Armenians as individuals and investors, would have more control, trust and confidence if the “one window” into and from Armenia is an effective diasporan, with all the facilitations and dealings handled transparently by the Diaspora Ministry, at least until the perception of mistrust has been eliminated.
- As the Diaspora is not a homogenous body but spread in communities worldwide with quite distinct resources, capabilities and characteristics, it is suggested to have six deputy ministers to be responsible for Armenian Diaspora in Europe, Russia, North America, South America, Middle East and Far East/Australia. These deputy ministers would coordinate all activities related to investment, repatriation, cultural, educational and social exchanges closely with the staff of Armenian embassies in the countries where Armenian Diaspora communities exist. Two examples of already successful implementers in this regard are the Armenian ambassadors in Canada and Austria.
- As an alternative source of funding the Diaspora Ministry activities and to lessen the burden on the Armenian government budget, the Diaspora Ministry could be financed entirely by Diaspora contributions. As an example of the resources required, for a million Diaspora Armenians, even a $10-annual dues could result in an annual budget of $10 million for Ministry staff and activities, much higher than the present finances of the Ministry. This alternative proposal would also trigger a healthy competition among the various political, cultural and religious Diaspora organizations in membership drives.
- Appropriate Diasporan Minister (and deputy ministers) of Diaspora could be selected by the President and government of Armenia, chosen from candidates nominated by Diasporan organizations and public at large. The details for nomination and selection of the candidates can be adapted from a variety of tried and tested processes elsewhere, with obvious priority given to non-partisan, trustworthy and capable Diasporan individuals. Diaspora relations of Israel and India would act as successful role models.
The primary purpose of this article is to open up the subject for discussion by government leaders in Armenia as well as among Diasporan community leaders, political, religious, cultural organizations and interested individuals. The problems have been discussed and argued for many years without any solutions, and it is my hope that by soliciting comments and constructive criticism of this proposal, we can perhaps strive toward a workable, achievable and fair solution to improve the Armenia-Diaspora partnership, for the mutual benefit of all Armenians in Armenia, Artsakh and Diaspora.
(Raffi Bedrosyan is a civil engineer and concert pianist, living in Toronto, Canada. He has donated concert and CD proceedings to infrastructure projects in Armenia and Karabakh, in which he has also participated as an engineer. He helped organize the reconstruction of the Surp Giragos Diyarbakir/Dikranagerd Church and the first Armenian reclaim of church properties in Anatolia after 1915. He gave the first piano concert in the church since 1915.)