Members of the Armenian diaspora have played a significant role in Yerevan since 1991. During the early stages of talks about Karabakh, Gerard Libaridian, a US citizen, was the key architect of Yerevan’s approach. Moreover, Raffi Hovanissian, the first foreign minister of Armenia, and Vartan Oskanian, who followed him in that post, were also members of the diaspora. Such people played a role both in Armenia and in the countries from which they came.
A key example of the latter is the role the Armenian diaspora in the United States played in getting the Congress to pass Section 907 of the Freedom Support Act, which banned all US government assistance to the Azerbaijani government, even though Armenia was receiving more assistance per capita than any other post-Soviet country. While the diaspora sent few of its members to fight in the war against Azerbaijan, it did help provide aid to refugees and stepped up its lobbying effort on behalf of Yerevan’s positions (Koinova 2009, p. 6). And the conflict itself helped unite diaspora organizations that had been at odds for other reasons.
The first president of Armenia, Levon Ter-Petrossian, was concerned that the involvement of radical Armenian diaspora in Yerevan’s policies might cause problems, but even he was not opposed to having the diaspora work for Armenia abroad. Because of his concerns, the 1995 Constitution banned dual citizenship, but because of the diaspora’s power, his administration created a special passport for diaspora Armenians giving them all rights and privileges of a citizen except the right to vote, to be elected to office, or to serve in the armed services. Some in the diaspora denounced this approach as one designed to “milk” the diaspora for assistance without being willing to take its advice (Libaridian 1999, p. 103).
Ter-Petrossian’s policy toward the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, however, did not satisfy many in the diaspora, and it was their opposition to his approach that limited his ability to make concessions toward an accord, something he hoped to achieve because of his recognition that only through a settlement could Armenia hope to achieve economic growth (Ter-Petrosyan 1997). Diaspora anger at his pragmatism in this regard is one of the reasons that he was driven from office, replaced by the more radical Robert Kocharian, who, coming from Karabakh, took a harder line on that conflict. The new president also convened conferences with the diaspora and pushed the diaspora’s anti-Turkish line in his own statements. Kocharian’s government attempted to use the diaspora to attract investment to Armenia, and some diaspora-based companies did come in. But the result of this was that the Armenian government lost ever more control over the country, effectively ceding it to the diaspora groups.
Since the Russia-Georgia war of August 2008, the situation has changed in the South Caucasus. It forced Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan to turn to Turkey in an effort to find a path to the world given that Georgia was no longer a bridge but a wall as far as Armenia was concerned. But his steps in this direction infuriated many in the diaspora who view any ties with Turkey as anathema and who gave him a chilly reception when he sought to sell the protocols as necessary for Armenia’s survival and growth. And many diaspora groups have sought to torpedo these accords by raising the issue of Karabakh independence and the events of 1915.
Throughout the post-1991 period, the actions of the Armenian diaspora show that Yerevan does not control its foreign policy but rather is limited in its actions not only by the power of other states but also by the actions of people who are ethnically Armenian but not citizens of Armenia. Nowhere is that clearer than in the economic sector where Armenia continues to suffer because it is not able to take part in regional pipeline and other projects. Some in Armenia are beginning to recognize this and to take a more moderate position on Karabakh, but until Armenia can act like a country rather than as a branch office of the diaspora, the people of Armenia will suffer.
Hayrumyan, Naira (2010) “Initiative: Karabakh Starts Lobbying for International Recognition”, ArmeniaNow.com, 29 April, available at
http://www.armenianow.com/karabakh/22780/karabakh_recognition (accessed 13 May 2010).
Koinova, Maria (2009) “Conditions and Timing of Moderate and Radical Diaspora Mobilization: Evidence from Conflict-Generated Diasporas”, Global Migration and Transnational Politics, Working Paper no. 9, October.
Libaridian, Gerard J. (1999) The Challenge of Statehood: Armenian Political Thinking Since Independence, Watertown, Mass.: Blue Crane Books.
Ter-Petrosyan, Levon (1997) “Peace or War: Time to Rethink”, Respublika, No.209 (1534), 5 November.