In the Shadow of Moscow: Armenia Rebuilt by its Diaspora

In the Shadow of Moscow

Armenia Rebuilt by its Diaspora

Le Monde diplomatique
January 2004

By Vicken Cheterian

If you had been in Yerevan, the Armenian capital, last summer, you
wouldn’t have been able to visit any museums, since they were shut for
restoration; city streets and pavements were closed while being
rebuilt. Thanks to a generous donation from the US-Armenian
billionaire, Kirk Kerkorian, the city has been given a new look. Since
2001 Ker kor ian, owner of MGM studios in Hollywood and hotels in Las
Vegas, has allocated $170m for roads and housing in this vulnerable
earthquake region. Money has been lent to small businesses and to
provide employment for 20,000 people. The sum is a third of the annual
national budget.

Gerard Cafesjian, another US-Armenian, is spending $25m to renovate
the Cascade, a complex of stairways and workshops linking central
Yerevan with the Monument district, where he plans to build a modern
art museum (1). The diaspora is starting to return to Armenia, and its
activities make a difference. The population of Armenia is 3.8 million
but there are twice that many in the diaspora, with major
concentrations in Russia, the US, Georgia, France, Iran and
Lebanon. After the earthquake of 1988, which killed more than 25,000
and destroyed a third of the industrial potential, the diaspora sent
immediate massive aid. In the past two years investments have replaced
aid, supporting economic activities from software companies to hi-tech

Politically, relations between Armenia and its diaspora are
complex. Traditional political parties from the diaspora have
influence in the country, for example the Armenian Revolutionary
Federation (Tashnaktsoutyun) and the Liberal Democratic party
(Ramgavars), which have branches and media. But there are major
divergences and misunderstandings.

In 1988, at the beginning of the popular movement in Armenia, the
diaspora parties called for calm, in tacit support for the Soviet
authorities. With their traditional fear of their Turkish neighbour,
the Armenian parties thought that the weakening of the Soviet
(Russian) power in Armenia would expose the country to a Turkish

After the Soviet collapse, Armenians from Marseille, Cairo or Boston
came to Armenia and suffered from culture shock. They wanted to invest
but did not understand the subtleties of Soviet bureaucracy, the new
rules of a wild market economy, or the corruption or rela tivity of
the laws. Many lost their investments within months. The
disappointment was so great that some started talking of taking refuge
elsewhere. To make matters worse, the first president, Levon
Ter-Petrossian, did not appreciate the presence of organised diaspora
organisations in Armenia. In December 1994 a number of Tashnak
activists were arrested, their media closed and party activities
abolished. With Robert Kocharian’s accession in 1999, relations
improved: the activists were released and the Tashnaktsoutyun became a
junior partner in the government. It now has three ministers.

To change things, the Armenian state organised two major conferences
in 1999 and 2002, inviting the diaspora to invest. The current foreign
minister, Vartan Oskanian, born in Syria and US-educated, played a key
role in both (2). A number of organisations actively lobby for the
Armenian cause, increasing the importance of this tiny nation
internationally. The Armenian Assembly of America and the Armenian
National Committee of America, two powerful lobby groups in
Washington, are struggling for the recognition of the genocide of 1915
and for a favourable US policy towards Armenia.

Recently Aram Abrahamian, an Armenian-Russian oligarch, launched the
World Organisation of Armenians with the direct blessing of President
Vladimir Putin of Russia. In Yerevan they fear this is another
manoeuvre by the Kremlin to increase its influence, not just on
Armenia, but on worldwide Armenian communities. Other analysts think
that, in this period of Duma elections, Putin is interested in winning
the favours of 2.5 million Russian citizens of Armenian origin (3).

The enormous effort by the diaspora to support Armenia has taken funds
away from its community organisation just as its identity was starting
to change under pressure from new migration trends and in a decade of
globalisation. This has weakened traditional Armenian community
structures, such as the parties, church and schools (4). Though the
overall influence of the diaspora is increasing in Armenia, its impact
on political, social and economic decision-making remains limited.

Vicken Cheterian is a journalist in Yerevan.


(1) See

(2) The Armenian foreign ministry and its policy were influenced by
the diaspora. The first foreign minister was US-Armenian Raffi
Hovannesian, son of the famous historian Richard Hovannesian. After
his resignation in 1992, foreign policy was mainly the domain of the
presidential adviser, political scientist Gerard Libaridian, born in
Lebanon and later a US resident.

(3) See Sophie Lambroschini, “Russia: Putin Plays To Armenian
Diaspora, But For What Purpose?” RFE/RL, Prague, 13 October 2003.

(4) There are 390 Armenian schools outside Armenia, according to
ArmenPress, Yerevan, 20 November 2003.