Armenian Diaspora Critical of Yerevan Authorities

The once-solid relationship between the Armenian government and the diaspora appears to be under strain.

Armenian Diaspora Critical of Yerevan Authorities

The once-solid relationship between the Armenian government and the diaspora appears to be under strain.

Billed as a harmonious reunion of Armenians from the homeland and those living abroad, the Second PanArmenian Forum in Yerevan last week exposed diaspora disgruntlement over the government's political and economic record.

The official Armenian media portrayed the conference, a gathering of 3,000 Armenians from 48 countries, as a successful event, but several prominent diaspora representatives used the occasion to criticise the government for corruption and inefficiency.

The forum, held on May 27-28, was the biggest get-together of Armenians from all over the world since the inaugural meeting in 1999. Estimates of the total number of Armenians worldwide vary between six and a half and eight million, with the majority of them living outside Armenia.

The first rumblings of discontent emerged prior to the conference, at a board meeting of the most powerful diaspora organisation, the Hayastan All-Armenian Fund - which has spent more than 75 million US dollars in Armenia and Nagorny Karabakh over the last ten years. Two of the group's most famous trustees, the benefactors, Louise Simon Manoogian and Vatche Manoukian, failed to turn up. Both have poor relations with the governing regime of Robert Kocharian.

In the conference's opening speeches the head of the Armenian church, Catholicos Garegin II, sounded the first critical note. In remarks clearly aimed at the current leadership of the country, he said that his joy at the establishment of Armenian statehood had been eclipsed by Armenia's serious unemployment and emigration problems.

Poverty and abuses of power were causing lack of trust and alienation amongst the population, the patriarch said, and "it seems that we do not value our statehood, which we paid for with the blood of our sons and for which we endured such privations". He said the country was suffering from a loss of its cultural and moral values.

It was significant that these sections of the Catholicos' speech were not shown by any of the Armenian television channels, all of which are now loyal to the governing regime.

In his speech, President Kocharian made a special appeal for greater involvement by the diaspora in the Armenian economy, which needed massive investments. He grudgingly admitted that his government suffers from corruption, malpractice and red tape.

Two leading diaspora delegates were more blunt. In the first plenary session, Ara Abramian, a well-known businessman and the leader of the Union of Armenians of Russia, which represents the largest Armenian community outside the homeland, declared the country's leadership must reduce levels of corruption, clan protectionism and bureaucracy.

Abramian was echoed by the chairman of the board of directors of the powerful Armenian Assembly of America, Peter Vosbikian, who urged the Armenian leaders to make transparency of government a strong priority. He proposed the creation of an authoritative body bringing together members of the diaspora and the homeland to formulate ways of pulling Armenia out of its current crisis and encourage emigrants to return.

"The crisis cannot wait, the time has come to act," said Vosbikian. However, his call went unheeded, as the government is reluctant to call the current situation in Armenia a crisis.

More scepticism surfaced in discussions on the media. When the chairman of state television Tigran Nagdalian proposed the creation of an "Armenian CNN", the diaspora reaction was cautious. That was not just because the latter has doubts about the objectivity of state television but because the top officials who would be put in charge of the proposed station are all presidential appointees.

When the editor of the pro-government newspaper Aiots Ashkhar said that the channel was needed "for the propaganda of national ideas" it virtually killed off the project. Other diaspora delegates expressed their worries about the closure of two non-state television companies, A1 Plus and Noyan Tapan.

On the whole, however, most guests refrained from open criticism of the authorities, out of deference to their hosts. This led some observers to say that greater openness was required, if Armenia and its diaspora are to work together better in the future and overcome the misunderstandings and stereotypes that have grown up between them.

"Representatives from the diaspora should say openly that they are fed up with Armenia and that corruption here is widespread," said Viken Cheterian, a Swiss Armenian who is director of the recently-opened Caucasian Media Institute. "Everyone is aware of it, but they do not say it. The issue is a taboo subject. If we don't overcome the existing problems together, it will be impossible to define the borders of cooperation between Armenia and the diaspora."

Despite the differences, the forum took the decision to implement seven new projects. They were: the computerisation of schools in Armenia and Nagorny Karabakh; the opening of a research centre on the Armenian Genocide; the creation of an on-line "university" of Armenian studies; a joint commission, where local and diaspora scholars can meet to discuss academic projects; a new project to help Armenian students; the creation of a new medical centre in Yerevan; and the opening of a Diaspora Museum in Yerevan.

Overall, the official Armenian media, presented the forum as a completely successful pre-election venture for Kocharian, who is standing for president again next year. To those who participated in the conference, a different picture emerged; they had no chance of engaging in proper discussion, because of poor organisation and strongly polarised views. Serious work needs to be done to overcome these problems ahead of the next gathering, planned for three or four years' time.

David Petrosian is a correspondent with Noyan Tapan news agency in Yerevan.

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