The Case for Repatriation:

The Case for Repatriation:

Why both Armenia and the Diaspora Need Repatriation to Survive

In the past there had been several waves of repatriation, which have strengthened Armenia and made the realization of the Armenian nation-state project possible. In the rapidly changing, globalized world of today, repatriation may become indispensable not only for the survival and development of Armenia as a country, but also for the survival and development of Armenian identity and culture globally.

Text : Mikayel Zolyan


Reasons to be proud, reasons to be concerned
Every year in April Armenians all over the world are paying their respects to the memory of the victims of the Armenian Genocide. For many Armenians it is also an occasion to reflect on the road that Armenians have come in the course of the last century, as well as to think about the future of Armenia and Armenians. Compared to hundred years ago, when the very existence of Armenians as a people was under severe threat, Armenians have come a long way. Today Armenia is an established independent country, with all the attributes and institutions of independent statehood, from armed forces to a central bank. It not only survived the chaos and confusion of the first post-Soviet years, but withstood the challenge of war and blockade. The descendants of the refugees from the Genocide have formed communities all over the world, which have, in most cases, combined integration into host societies with preservation of Armenian identity. As a sign of confidence and pride that is associated with Armenian identity today, in a sharp contrast to the fear and humiliation of hundred years ago, many Armenians, who are addressing the memory of genocide on social networks, are using the hashtag “Turkey failed”.

And yet, among Armenians, both in Armenia itself and in Diaspora communities, one can often sense a certain nervousness about the future of the Armenian people. While achievements are undeniable, there are also serious challenges both for Armenia as a country, and Diaspora as a system of communities. The challenges are very different: Armenians of Armenia are facing a deteriorating life standard caused by stagnant economy, corruption and lack of rule of law. The situation is further complicated by the security threat related to the unresolved conflict with Azerbaijan and problematic relations with Turkey. As a result, more and more Armenians become alienated from the Armenian nation-state and see the solution to their problems in leaving the country. Armenians in Diaspora communities in the West, and to a lesser extent in Russia, are in a significantly better situation when it comes to security and quality of life. However, they are facing the challenge of maintaining their identity and heritage, being exposed to the assimilating influence of the host society. Finally, some of the Armenian communities of the Middle East are struggling to maintain their cultural heritage amid deteriorating security environment and growing religious radicalism.
Obviously, there is no single answer to all these different challenges. However, I believe that one of the answers to these challenges will be a massive repatriation of Armenians to their historical homeland. In the rapidly changing, globalized world of today, repatriation is indispensable both for the survival and development of Armenia as a country, and for the survival and development of Armenian identity and culture.

Why do we need Repatriation?
There is hardly even need to explain why a large-scale repatriation would be indispensable for Armenia as a country and as a state. It is no secret that today Armenia is losing population. The quarter of a century of independence saw hundreds of thousands of Armenians leave their homeland. Falling numbers of population are affecting all spheres of life: emigration means empty villages, depressive regional towns, closing schools and, most worryingly from the point of security, not enough young men to serve in the army. The effects of population loss on the economy, such as the reduction of the workforce and of the size of the market, are detrimental. The positive consequence of the migration flows, the influx of remittances that helps fuel the Armenian economy today, is hardly sustainable in the long run: temporary migrants tend to settle down, inviting their families to join them and thus over time the transfers will be dwindling. The brain drain has an abysmal effect on not only on economy and security, but also on education, science and culture. A mass repatriation could overturn this dynamic. People are the most important strategic resource in our age, and repatriation would be a boost to Armenia’s economy and security. The repatriates would not only bring with them investments, but what is arguably more important, skills, knowledge, and inter-cultural expertise.

While it is obvious how Armenia will benefit from repatriation, it may be somewhat less clear how it would benefit the Diaspora communities. One could argue that Armenian identity has survived and even thrived in the Diaspora communities for hundreds of years, even at times when nothing remotely resembling an Armenian nation-state existed in the homeland. Therefore, one could say, it just might be true that Armenian identity and culture do not necessarily need to be associated with a nation-state in order to survive and develop? However, such an argument does not take into account the changes that the age of post-modernity and globalization has brought. The old model of Diaspora communities, as relatively closed ethno-religious communities, can no longer work. It worked until recently in the relatively archaic Middle Eastern Countries, but today the communities there are threatened by instability and religious radicalism. And this model is unsustainable in the Western countries, (including Russia, which in terms of its societal model can be considered a post-modern Western society, albeit with some local specifics). Maintaining a closed ethno-religious community defined by religion and language is virtually impossible in a modern post-industrial society, with its modern technology, diversity of lifestyles, and high level of social mobility.
To an extent the problem of maintaining identity in modern industrial and post-industrial societies was solved by Armenian Diaspora communities through focusing on the historical memory, particularly memory of the Genocide and the demand for its recognition, as the centerpiece of Armenian identity. It allowed people of Armenian origin, who had lost connection to Armenian Church, language or traditions, to identify and participate in the community life through this focus on historical memory. However, it is questionable to what extent this model can work in the long run. It is hard to predict what could be the effect on the Diaspora Armenian identity of a development like the Genocide recognition by Turkey, or of potential geopolitical changes that will affect “the Armenian Cause”, e.g. possible emergence of an autonomous Kurdish state in Kurdish-populated areas for Turkey. True, such developments seem utopian today, but in a rapidly changing world of today it is difficult to exclude anything. Even if none of this happens, over time the issue of Genocide recognition is bound to lose its emotional appeal, as the time passes and generations are changing. Obviously, memory of the genocide is not likely to disappear in any predictable perspective, but, with the passing of time, the genocide-based Armenian identity will become largely symbolic. Armenians in the Western countries, thus, will repeat the fate of many other ethnic communities, who have largely assimilated, while maintaining only some symbolic aspects of their identity.
Therefore, in order to maintain their identity and culture, Diaspora communities may need to go through a significant identity transformation, and the most obvious direction of such a transformation would be focusing on the connection with Armenia as a country. There are signs that Diaspora identity is indeed becoming Armenia-centered, at least to a higher extent that was the case before. The last several years provided several examples of this, and participation of numerous Diaspora Armenians in the monitoring of the recent elections was the most recent sign of this trend. However, if this interest in the affairs of Armenia is not accompanied by a repatriation of significant numbers of Diaspora Armenians, this interest in Armenia’s affairs is likely to remain just another aspect of a largely symbolic identity.

Lessons of the Previous Waves of Repatriation

Obviously, there may be significant differences in the forms that repatriation may take with regard to communities in different countries. While it may be relatively easy to organize repatriation of Armenians from Middle East or Post-Soviet countries, it would be hard to imagine hundreds of thousands of Armenians from West Europe and North America, leaving their countries and relocating to Armenia for good. But one could imagine a higher extent of mobility between Armenia and Diaspora communities, turning the flow of migration, which today is mostly one-sided (away from Armenia) into a two-way street. In any case, repatriation does not mean that Diaspora communities will disappear: in the globalized world, the mobility between the homeland and the Diaspora can be quite high, meaning that the lines between “Diasporans” and “Hayastantsi” will become more blurred.
In the past there had been several waves of repatriation, which strengthened Armenia and made the realization of the Armenian nation-state project possible. Arguably, the very existence of Armenia as a nation-state would have been impossible without several waves of repatriation. Even if we look only at the last hundred years of Armenia’s history it is impossible to deny the importance of repatriation. During the first decades of the Soviet rule thousands of Armenians came to Armenia from various parts of the former Russian Empire. Of course, the largest groups of repatriates came from the big urban centers of the Caucasus at the time, Tbilisi and Baku, as well as from various other parts of the Caucasus and the Soviet Union. In fact, this wave started earlier, during the short-lived independence of 1918-1920, and together with the flow of refugees from Western Armenia, it shaped Armenia for the years to come. Another wave of repatriation was the Great Repatriation in 1946-1949, which mostly consisted of Armenian Genocide survivors and their ancestors, without which it is difficult to imagine the “national renaissance” of the 1960s.

With the Karabakh movement and the achievement of independence repatriation again became a part of Armenia’s life and has remained such till today. In some cases it was a result of forced migration, as was the case with Azerbaijani Armenians in 1988-1990, Iraqi Armenians after 2003, and Syrian Armenians since 2011. However, in addition to these waves, there was a more or less stable flow of repatriates from various parts of Diaspora since the early 1990s. This flow sometimes became more intensive and sometimes it grew weaker, but it never ceased completely. The repatriates have been bringing with them their education, their investments, and their different cultural backgrounds, enriching Armenia’s life.
What does the experience of previous repatriation waves teach us? It has not always been successful. Particularly painful are the memories of 1946-1949 and 1988-1990. In both cases, the repatriation ultimately turned into reverse migration. Some of those, who came in 1940s, left as soon as USSR allowed emigration, and many of those who arrived in 1988-1990 soon left Armenia settling in Russia and in the West. In both cases there were objective reasons that accounted for the difficulties and traumas. In 1946-48 the repatriates came to Soviet Armenia, seeing it as their homeland, but found themselves in a totalitarian Stalinist dictatorship. In the early 1990s the repatriates were mostly refugees, unwilling victims of a conflict, who found themselves in a country devastated by earthquake and war. But objective factors, such as totalitarism and war were only part of the picture: to a certain extent, the obstacles that the repatriates faced were also a result of subjective factors, such as the inability of Armenian state institutions to solve the logistic problems arising from the influx of large numbers of repatriates.
However, there was also a deeper underlying issue that acted as an obstacle to repatriates’ integration: the host majority was often not ready to accommodate the newcomers, particularly the cultural and sometimes linguistic differences (whether different dialects or lack of knowledge of Armenian). On the other hand, faced with the difficulties of the repatriation, the newcomers sometimes chose to stick to their old community identities, rather than fully integrating to the new environment. Unless the problem of intolerance to difference within Armenia and Armenia Diaspora is dealt with, any massive repatriation can hardly be expected to result in a long-term success, even if all the logistical issues are dealt with adequately. The experience of previous waves of repatriation teaches us that, in order to be successful, repatriation needs a society that is open to and tolerant of difference. Moreover, a massive repatriation inevitably will lead to a serious redefining of Armenian identity, both in ethnocultural (“hay”) and civic-territorial (“hayastantsi”) forms. Repatriation and the process of redefining Armenian identity will go hand in hand, one will reinforce the other. This may seem somewhat of a utopia today. But so does a massive repatriation.