The Armenian Diaspora and lobbying during wartime

The Armenian Diaspora and lobbying during wartime

We have sat down with Mr Eric Hacopian, a political consultant and strategist with over 25 years of experience in American politics. Eric has lived in California and moved to Yerevan around 3 years ago and is currently actively working with Civilnet as a host and commentator. In 1997 Eric started his own political consulting firm EDH & Associates specialising in general consulting, direct mail and television aspects of political campaigns. 

Interview : Viktorya Muradyan

 

We are all aware of the huge potential that the Armenian Diaspora represents. But often we forget that their genuine motivation cannot replace the professional work of lobbyists. Is there any functioning Armenian lobby abroad, especially in the US and if so, is it coordinated by the Armenian Diaspora or by the Armenian Government?

There’s advocacy and there’s lobby and they are different. In the case of advocacy, it’s more community organisations and grassroots type of efforts led by ordinary people that are being involved. On that front, specifically in the US, Armenia has been active for many years and those organisations have had different levels of success. Unfortunately, where we have entirely lacked is in lobbying which is far more based on money and access, and not just the grassroots aspect of it. As the American body politic itself has become more corrupt and less responsive to the demands of ordinary people, the grassroots aspect of lobbying has become less relevant. 
Up until recently, the Armenian government hasn’t really been serious about lobbying while Azerbaijan has been exceptionally serious about it. Since they don’t have any grassroots influence, they have been actively working with different lobbyists and are spending a lot of money. We see that in Europe as well.
It was only a couple of weeks before the Second Artsakh war that the Armenian side officially hired a lobby firm, and that firm was tied to the former Senator 97-years-old Bob Dole’s presidential campaign. This choice tells about the seriousness of the Armenian side. 
Although the organizations which are lobbying for different Armenian causes have varying levels of success and do the best they can with resources they have, the money-requiring professional lobbying is a different thing and it should more be the responsibility of the Armenian Government. The fact that we are not using professional lobbyists and not raising money to go that route shows that we are behind the times in our effectiveness.

What are the principles that the Armenian lobbying abroad should follow to be successful and able to compete with a very well-funded and omnipresent Azerbaijani lobbying and caviar diplomacy?

Any kind of lobbying campaign is about telling an effective and targeted story. You can parcel up the Armenian narrative into different aspects of American or European politics. For example, one of the primary driving forces of the Republican party in the US at the grassroots level is the religious right and Armenian organisations have done absolutely nothing to use these very strong Christian right organizations in their favour. Armenians have also been very active among the American Evangelical ranks, but failed to effectively use their potential too. President Trump was responsive to the religious right and if we had that card to play, we would have had better results in getting US engagement during this war.
On the more progressive front, we have the human rights and self-determination angle, which is a great story to tell as well. 
Lastly, we have to understand that it's always easier to hate an individual than it is to get into the middle of some complicated conflict. Aliyev plays this tolerance guy to the West and then plays a neofaschist in his own circles. We just have to take his words and make him pay for it. It is a lot easier to vilify him than to vilify the whole Azerbaijan. Aliyev can be very quickly made into a cardboard villain because of the racist, almost neo-fascist nature of the statements that he routinely makes and openly translates into English. But we have not done that. Our narrative has to be much simpler. You can’t fight people’s biases but you can play along with them. It is very easy to convince Westerners of an Oriental despot, because that’s what they expect. 

 

There is a huge ideological gap between the Armenians from the Diaspora and Armenians from the Republic of Armenia, and it has become more visible right after the signature of the deal ending the second Nagorno-Karabakh war and particularly now when we have a very tense domestic political environment. Where do you think that detachment from the local reality comes from?

We can’t exaggerate this detachment, because almost everyone is upset about the outcome of the war both in Armenia and in the Diaspora, it’s just a question of how you respond to it. The impression of the Diaspora (especially the American one) of what is going here is far more drastic than it is, partially because the TV networks and channels that broadcast from here are all controlled by the opposition so they’ll turn every 500-person demonstration like the country’s falling apart. There is a tremendous level of misinformation, some of it intentionally pushed by certain Armenian political actors here and abroad for the wrong reasons. So the main difference and dichotomy is in there.
People here are far more grounded in reality, even though that reality is not a favourable one and they are not happy about it. Without generalizing, the Diaspora and the American Diaspora specifically is most detached from reality about what is really going on. Negative news always spreads out faster than positive news and there is not much room for nuance, that’s the key. At the end of the day, you have to ground yourself in reality, you have to look at it with non-romantic eyes, be resolute, strong, not blink, you should be as radical as the reality itself. Small countries like ours can’t afford romantic politics. 

Over the decades, the Armenian Diaspora and particularly the one in the US has always had its own agenda separate from the official Armenian foreign policy objectives. It has been extensively focusing their efforts on the Armenian Genocide awareness. Do you think that if those efforts have been coordinated with the Armenian Government and diversified years ago, Armenia would have a different political standing abroad?

I am exceptionally critical of the Armenian foreign policy establishment because frankly on some level it does not even exist. What we've found in this war is that we have unimaginative diplomats that don’t know the basics of the region we’re living in, they don’t have the basic relationships. Our country was isolated. We have had diplomatic fails and visionless approaches for many years. So I don’t know what advice they would give to Diaspora organizations that could be of any use.
It is true that there can be a fair case made with Diaspora institutions’ obsession with the Gencoide issue. But if that’s what a significant number of Diasporans care about, those organizations are going to be responsive to that. Genocide issue is very complicated because in the Diaspora it has this function of preserving identity and I don’t want to be too critical of it. But it’s true that we would have been better off if we paid more attention to the Artsakh issue than to the Genocide because that involves the lives of people today.

 

Can you name any considerably important accomplishments (besides some American companies cutting ties with Turkish Bayraktar drone producer) that the Armenian Diaspora has achieved during the Second Nagorno-Karabakh war?

No. It brings me no joy to say it but as a political collective we entirely failed. All of our institutions both in Armenia and in the Diaspora have proved to be mediocre, unimaginative and visionless. That is why we failed.
Most of those companies were easy to pressure because they are situated in California or the West Coast. A lot of good people came here and did a lot of good things, they pushed boundaries with their activism, which was great to see. But this is not about questioning the motivation or the willingness of people to engage and do things, it’s a question of effectiveness. And as far as the effectiveness goes, we failed on that front.

Armenian community in Luzern, Switzerland

 

You’ve referred to the West’s indifference during the Nagorno-Karabakh war as a ‘’harsh education’’. It is undeniable that the narrative ‘’The West won’t let Azerbaijan to escalate the conflict further’’ has been prevailing for many years in the Armenian politics. And that myth has been busted quite quickly during this war. Have we been overestimating our importance to the West or this kind of aloof Western response has been truly a surprise to everyone?

Yes, I think we have exaggerated our importance overall and we have certainly exaggerated our importance to the West. We just need to understand where we are in the pecking order of the world and that we don’t count, because we haven’t done anything to make us count. What they told us was ‘’Your lives don’t matter’’, but why would we think our lives mattered? The world sees a much worse scenario in Yemen but hardly anything is being done about it. So you either toughen up and strengthen yourself, or you’re going to be in the same situation, because they don't care if we live or die. We need to understand that, embrace it and act upon that.

 

The coverage of the protests organized by the Armenian Diaspora abroad has been mostly about the violence & provocations between Armenian and Azeri communities, or local residents’ dissatisfaction with the Armenians blocking the roads, rather than about the cause of the protests or about Nagorno-Karabakh. Do you think it is just laziness of the American media or a deliberate avoidance of putting the topic under the spotlight?

There’s a phrase in American media which says “If it bleeds it leads”. You can have a 150.000-person anti-war peaceful demonstration and if three people get into a fight, that will be the lead story.
Additionally, there’s this inherent bias in the Western Media against people who look like us. We don’t fit into the victim narrative: we are not Muslims, we look white, we are Christians so obviously we have to be the oppressor, we are not Kosovars, Uighurs etc.  
We there’s an obvious racist attitude that the Western media demonstrates, especially in the English language press. They question why “these little brown people” are fighting each other, why they can't be civilised like Finns and Swedes? What is wrong with Karabkah being under Azeri control? After all there are Hungarians living in Romania, like it’s the same. They have no context of what that would mean. 
So part of it is just basic racism of Westen press corps and part of it is very inherent bias against the Christians of the East..

Humanitarian aid before being sent to Armenia, Sweden

 

The Armenian Diaspora often feels upset thinking that the Armenians in the Republic consider them only as cash cows but never really give them a chance to participate in the decision-making locally or engage in other initiatives. Is there any truth behind this reasoning? Has there been a lack of support of the Armenian Government to actually engage constructively and more long-term with the Diasporans or the lack of willingness of the Diasporans to visit Armenia other than for touristic purposes?

Is there anything that the Armenian Government has done in the last 30 years based on long term planning or approaching it in some sophisticated fashion? Hardly anything. So why would the relationships with the Diaspora be any different? We’re expecting too much from our mediocre failed institutions. On the other hand, the Diaspora itself has underperformed. This is a two-way street. There are a lot of individuals who do great work and I don’t want to take away from that or to downgrade what they do. However, these are exceptions and not systematic efforts, especially when you compare it with the potential of the Diaspora or to other similar institutions of other nations. Diaspora institutions need to understand that Armenia is an independent state and building a state is expensive. It requires far greater commitment and far more serious people to create networks. We have some of the finest doctors, academics in the world, but we don’t have a single world-class hospital or university in Armenia. So the Diaspora and Armenia have failed each other, but the amount of Diaspora’s commitment and role is exaggerated and marginal. We need to move from charity to development.

 

How do you see the future development of the Armenian Diaspora grassroots activism in the post-war space? 

The one good thing that this war has done is that it has activated a lot more people, a whole generation of young people who weren’t even aware or didn’t even care about anything Armenian. So the base of activists who want to do something has grown dramatically.
In a short-run, outside of engaging in specific things in Armenia like job-creation or charity initiatives, the Diaspora should use Azerbaijan’s words and actions and prosecute them in the eyes of the world. We should have a campaign that is focused on remedial cessation and the removal of Artsakh from the control of territory of Azerbaijan.

What advice would you give to the young Diasporans?

It is always better to come here. Firstly, because it’s where it really matters. Secondly, the nature of “Hayastan” and the fact that it’s very small allows you to have a tremendous impact here. It’s one of the cases, where a small number of dedicated individuals can actually make a huge difference. In today’s world, it is very easy to be active in a thousand places. So move here, or come here part of the time or at least be engaged in something very specific. However, everything that you’re engaged with has to be focused on one thing alone which is excellence. One thing that needs to be driven out of the system is mediocrity, because we can’t afford that.
We need to get better at everything, we need to be humble and understand what our failures are. But we should not be despairing whatsoever as there’s so much going on for this country. Imposing our will on our problems can be achieved by not tolerating mediocrity.

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