A free, independent, and united Diaspora?
SANTA FE, N.M. – Within days of one another, prominent activist and columnist Harut Sassounian and Policy Forum Armenia (PFA), a think tank, issued proposals for a trans-national representative organization for the Armenian Diaspora.
In his February 25 column, Mr. Sassounian outlines “a unity framework representing Armenians throughout the Diaspora” in a body with a membership of 350, meeting “periodically”, with a chairperson or speaker and committees and sub-committees on “culture, language, religion, education, foreign affairs, rights of Armenian minorities, relations with Armenia and Artsakh, Genocide recognition, demands for redress from Turkey, and financial matters.”
Such an institution would represent the Diaspora to foreign governments and international organizations, as well as lobby for Armenian issues, besides creating more formal ties with the Homeland, among other functions envisaged.
PFA included its version of such a project as part of its report Armenia-Diaspora Relations: 20 Years Since Independence unveiled on February 28. PFA’s proposal (p. 50) is more detailed, envisioning a Diaspora organization consisting of six branches – “plenary assembly, governing board, permanent secretariat, steering committee, policy council and budget and finance commission” – each with a specific sphere of activity.
The secretariat would carry out day-to-day functions headed by a secretary-general, “the first official of the Armenian Diaspora”, much like in the model of the United Nations. The plenary would meet every four years, the governing board once a year, with the steering committee fulfilling the governing board’s functions in between meetings, and a policy council acting in advisory capacity.
Both proposals discuss the need for such an institution in terms of relations with the Homeland, and also with regards to better organizing Diaspora communities, especially in political terms.
PFA’s report particularly highlights the negative impact of factionalism in our communities, which could also be mitigated by such a representative body.
Mr. Sassounian mentions in his article as well that already-existing Diaspora groups could be supplemented by a trans-national body rather than be replaced by one.
He also suggests that the experiences of other peoples in this regard be researched before embarking on such an endeavor.
PFA mentions instances of formal, institutional ties in such places as Italy, Croatia, Colombia, Panama, Algeria, Mozambique and other countries, which involve official legislation and diaspora representation in national parliaments.
There is no doubt that a better-organized and more representative Diaspora could serve a positive role for all Armenians and for Homeland-Diaspora ties in particular.
However, two immediate challenges for such a project come to mind.
Firstly, the logistical challenge. How to locate and canvass Armenians, quite literally, all over the world? Has there ever even been a real census of the Diaspora? One would be hard-pressed to come up with a concrete figure for a voting population, much less delineate electoral districts that span the globe.
Further, how to carry out the voting? With technological advances of the day, it might be feasible to come up with an electoral list entirely online and hold elections that way. But just how representative would that be? Many Armenians of the older generation and those who live in the developing world would be left out.
Additionally, I would readily admit that experiences worldwide leave us with much skepticism with regards to elections and people’s attempts at governing themselves as such. The top-down, top-heavy approach is well-established and prominent in most of the world, whether or not a given regime is democratic or a republic in name. Most corporations, to give another example, function that way as well.
Our organizations in the Diaspora do not, in my opinion, have the necessary resources or manpower to convert to more representative practices. I would even argue that the way things are currently make these organizations more effective.
Secondly – and more significantly – there is the challenge of legitimacy. Who would organize such a venture, and why would the entire Diaspora go along with it?
There is one essential issue at stake in this question, which I fear many in the Diaspora often overlook.
The natural divide between the Homeland and the Diaspora has always existed, but since 1991 there has been a distinct, categorical differentiation between the two, namely that Armenia is a full-fledged, sovereign state, subject to international law. The Republic of Armenia has embassies, seats at the UN, the Council of Europe, the OSCE and elsewhere.
The Diaspora, on the other hand, is by its very character largely communal-based and does not – can not, in fact – aspire to anything more.
(This is what makes the immense efforts of Armenians in the capitals of the world, and particularly in Washington, even more impressive. A handful of dedicated and resourceful people face up to all the machinery and machinations of a well-consolidated and powerful state, Turkey, and frequently come out on top.)
I would like to offer that any Diaspora-wide organization will have to have its basis in the official Homeland. This is what makes our era today so valuable, for it is an opportunity which the Diaspora has never had throughout history.