Lebanese Armenians and the `Madness’ of Political Alignment

Asharq Alawsat (The Middle East). UK
April 18 2009

Lebanese Armenians and the `Madness’ of Political Alignment

By Sanaa al Jack

Beirut, Asharq Al-Awsat – MP Hagop Pakradounian of the Lebanese
Armenian Tashnag Party [Armenian Revolutionary Federation] was the
first Lebanese MP to win a parliamentary seat in 2009, after winning
the Matn district seat uncontested following the withdrawal of rival
candidate Nazaret Sabounjian [prior to the Lebanese
elections]. Pakradounian was quick to emphasize that his victory will
not affect Armenian participation in these elections with regards to
voting for the Free Patriotic Movement [FPM], and for MP Michel Mur.

This assertion does not negate the `madness’ of political alignment as
seen in Lebanese politics, which has [recently] affected the Lebanese
Armenian community. On the eve of the Lebanese elections, they have
become involved in the political conflict [by allying with Hezbollah
and the FPM, in addition to maintaining their previous alliance with
MP Michel Mur] whereas historically they were only assigned a
proportion of power. The reason behind the madness of such political
affiliation is due to the rapid changes that occurred, which turned
the scene in Lebanon on its head following the sharp divisions between
the March 8 Alliance and March 14 Alliance in 2000. This [new] reality
forced the Armenian politicians away from their [historic] neutrality
and moderation [in Lebanese politics], and resulted in the Tashnag
Party ` which represents the majority of Armenians in Lebanon `
entering the fray, something they had long tried to avoid. Indeed this
occurred to the extent that some were talking about an intensive
campaign to recall members of the [Lebanese] Armenian Diaspora to
return to [Lebanon] and participate in the elections to ensure that
the Armenians did not lose their parliamentary seats to Muslim

Such open radical talk began to disturb officials in the Armenian
leadership, especially since they are known for controlling their
parliamentary bloc, with a wave of legitimate options that enable the
Armenians to have their voices heard in support of Armenian interests
amongst the myriad communities in Lebanon. This is why remarks have
intensified recently with regards to rejecting the nature of the
Armenian community’s political alliances, which is something that the
Armenian community has not done before, and which Lebanon is not used
to. This work is to achieve an immediate return to normality after the
elections, regardless of the current political alliances. There is
also an increased expectation in the prospect of the return of
sectarian politics [i.e. voting along sectarian lines].

In this context, MP Pakradounian said, `Our concern is to restore
Lebanon to civilized [political] discourse away from internal conflict
and [military] mobilization. As for the [political] formula that we
discovered, it suits us. Armenian MPs will choose a [parliamentary]
bloc by deciding themselves so that Armenian decisions are independent
and neutral, and not with one party against another.’

Before dwelling on the Armenian viewpoint with regards to electoral
alliances, we must take a closer look at the Lebanese Armenian
community, which represents the smallest ethnic minority in
Lebanon. The Armenians have been a distinct community since they
adopted Lebanon as their home after being subjected to massacre at the
hands of the Turks during the early years of the twentieth
century. They were able to preserve their Armenian national and
cultural affiliations and their traditions [in Lebanon]. They were
also able to maintain their cohesion and unity [in Lebanon], and it is
as if they were not forced to flee to the historic land of Armenia. It
is also worth noting that the majority of Lebanese Armenians can trace
their origins to the city of Cilicia, which now exists within Turkish
borders. Therefore, the Lebanese Armenian community cannot even trace
its origins to the modern state of Armenia, which only a few of their
children have visited or returned to. As for the Lebanese areas that
the Armenian refugees settled in, they are the suburb of Bourj Hammoud
in Eastern Beirut, and the village of Anjer in the Beqaa Valley, not
to mention a number of other suburbs in Eastern Beirut such as
Antilyas and Jel El Dib.

Bourj Hammoud is the best place to get a clear picture of the Lebanese
Armenian community, and the extent of its development over successive
generations in Lebanon. When visiting this Armenian district in the
1970s, it was apparent that many roads and locations had Armenian
names, and were written in the Armenian language. These include Arax
Road [named after an Armenian river] and Aragats Road [named after a
mountain in Armenia], as well as Camp Marash [named after an Armenian
city] and Camp Sis [names after an Armenian town]. Today this district
has changed and opened up to Arabs and foreigners, and the Armenian
character of the area is no longer so prevalent. Restaurants selling
traditional Armenian cuisine now serve Halal food. This development
was a result of economic necessity that did not affect the elder
population of Lebanese Armenians, some of whom still cannot speak
Arabic fluently.

Asharq Al-Awsat spoke to Gregor, an Armenian Lebanese resident of
Bourj Hammoud. `I came to Lebanon with my mother in 1939. We fled here
after the massacres that wiped out the rest of our family in
Armenia. I was about seven years old. We came by ship to Latakia [in
Syria], and from there we travelled to Camp Sanjak in Bourj
Hammoud. They gave us strips of cloth that were like sieves [permeable
to water] to make tents with and we slept on the ground to avoid the
rain. We lived in these tents for seven months. After that they gave
us reeds that we cut to make huts and beds. We bloodied our hands by
doing this. They also gave us kerosene lamps and barrels of water. We
began to cultivate the land around us, and sold onions and parsley. We
slept in the midst of mosquitoes and malaria. Whenever a storm would
come, rain would pour down and floor our huts. I remember hearing the
sound of women warning each other to watch out for the children so
that they would not be swept away by the floodwater. The next day we
would inspect and see what the flood had carried away.’

Gregor could not hold back his tears as he spoke about this
suffering. He continued and told Asharq Al-Awsat, `When I was fifteen,
I decided to start work in order to help my mother who knitted bags. I
left school, despite her objection, and began work at a silver factory
for which I received two Lebanese pounds a week.’

Gregor told Asharq Al-Awsat that he does not want to forget his
origins saying, `Our blood is Armenian. But we are Lebanese
Armenian. We do not want to live in Armenia ` as some people say we do
` we only want to live in Lebanon.’ Gregor justifies the Tashnag
alliance with Hezbollah and Michel Aoun’s Change and Reform
parliamentary bloc by saying that `[This is] because the big fish eats
the small fish. I support the alliance of the Tashnag party with
Hezbollah and General Michel Aoun. We want to remain a big fish in
Lebanon. We do not want to become a target for the other [Lebanese
political] powers. If it were not for this alliance we would have been
open to attack such as that which took place against us on 7 May

Just like Gregor, the majority of other Lebanese Armenians that Asharq
Al-Awsat spoke to declared their support for the Tashnag party. The
Tashnag party was founded in 1890 in Tbilisi [modern-day capital of
Georgia] to liberate the Armenian people from Ottoman rule. The party
is a source of pride to Lebanese Armenians, which is evident in the
statement of one man who told Asharq Al-Awsat, `Those affiliated to
Tashnag know what steps it should take. The student in school is
confident who he should follow, those that do not lie or betray, those
that protect their friends, family and country. The Tashnag are
revolutionaries. As for the Ramgavar party [Armenian Democratic
Liberal party] they are bourgeois and the Hunchag party [Social
Democratic Hunchakian party] has chosen communism and it is finished.’

The Tashnag, Ramgavar, and Hunchag parties are the three Armenian
parties in Lebanon, and the Lebanese Armenian community rely upon them
politically and socially. However, Tashnag has become an institution
in itself, and includes amongst its members a number of important
political figures who helped the revival and unity of the Lebanese
Armenian community. Tashnag is socialist in its political orientation,
and is a member of the Socialist International, after having entered
Lebanese politics in 1904 when one of the party’s original founders,
Simon Zavarian, set up a party branch in Lebanon. Tashnag was
originally a student movement comprised of Armenian students from US
and Jesuit universities [that wanted to liberate the Armenian people
from Ottoman rule].

Hagop Havkayan, a public relations official in the Tashnag Party,
said, `The Armenians have six MPs in Lebanon. The overall Armenian
population is around 160,000. Those who have a prominent role in the
Armenian community get nominated. Therefore, Armenians vote for
candidates who have been agreed upon by the Armenians led by the
Tashnag Party. Those looking in from the outside would not understand
this simple fact and would be amazed at this unified bloc. These
people do not understand the popularity of the Tashnag Party and its
historical role and struggle for the sake of Armenians.’

In spite of their ideological and political differences, Armenians
give the same answer when asked about the duality of their inherited
nationalism and their Lebanese identity. They would stress that they
endeavoured to form an identity blending their Armenian origins with
their Lebanese nationality in a natural and harmonious way.

A young Armenian man explained: `Armenia is the mother and Lebanon is
the father.’ He rejects the idea that being an `Armenian’ deprives him
of his privileges as a `Lebanese’ in Lebanon. Armenians are `Christian
Armenians’ and not `Christians of Armenian origin’. This must be

Hagop Pakradounian MP rejects any accusation of duality of allegiance
in the case of the Armenians. `It is not true that we are part of some
kind of nationalism and not one of the sects that form Lebanese
pluralism. We are members of the Armenian Church, so we are Lebanese
Armenians. There is no contradiction in that or in us being Armenian
and Lebanese. We are Lebanese citizens, not Armenian citizens. That is
the main privilege. We are all for abolishing political sectarianism
in Lebanon. We might then assume high-ranking positions.’

But the Tashnag Party is an international party, and over the recent
period, it was reported that the international leader of the party,
Hrant Markarian, who is an Iranian Armenian, rejects the idea of
Lebanese alliances. The PR official Hagop Havkayan responded to this
saying, `Indeed we are an international party, the leader of the party
is an Armenian holding Armenian nationality even though he was born in
Iran. We have committees in every country in which we are
represented. We are represented in over 50 countries as a party and in
accordance with the regulations of the party the central committee
convenes in a general conference once every four years to discuss
common Armenian issues and not internal political issues related to
the committees.

There is no intervention whatsoever from the party’s central committee
during the conference in the internal affairs of Lebanon or any other
country. We do not discuss Lebanese internal issues outside of
Lebanon. Our rivals search for justifications to break our alliances.’

As for Minister of State MP Jean Ogasapian, who is affiliated to the
Future Movement in Lebanon, before anything else, he states his
origin. `I am an Armenian Lebanese. I adhere to my Armenian heritage,
my Armenian Church, my language, my culture and my customs and
traditions, just as much as I adhere to my Lebanese identity and
citizenship.’ He adds, `Armenians are distinguished by their
nationalism on the one hand and their integration in Lebanese society
on the other. They have clung to their religion, their rites and their
culture which they inherited from their forefathers. And this has not
prevented them from pledging their allegiance to the land that
embraced them and opening up to the people who welcomed them. So they
interacted with their surroundings and their Lebanese
environment. They even played a role in building the Lebanese state.’

During severe crises, they have always been careful not to fall into
alliances that would stir up internal disputes. They have always
served as an element of balance and stability where Lebanese
invariables, the political system and legitimate institution support
are concerned.

While Ogaspian highlights the unity amongst the Armenians and
continuing efforts and struggle for the sake of the crucial Armenian
cause ` for Turkey and societies the world over to recognise the
Armenian genocide ` he points out that the Armenian community is now
witnessing political and cultural diversity manifested in the numerous
parties, trends and spectrums it incorporates. There is no monopoly or
exclusivity in Armenian decision making and its political plurality.

`There is no doubt that the majority of the Armenian community does
not want to set aside its members from the Lebanese political
decision-making process. They are rather keen, at these decisive
moments in the history of Lebanon, to have a strong and effective
presence in the domestic political field and to take part in key
political decisions,’ said Ogaspian.

It is no secret that the political options for the Armenian spectrums
and parties are now divided between March 14 Alliance and March 8
Alliance. This can be clearly seen in the election lists that were
drafted shortly before the long-awaited parliamentary elections, which
reflect the political presence and the multiplicity of Armenians that
cannot be confined to one group.’

Ogaspian adds, `I reflect a strong Armenian position that adheres to
the sovereignty of Lebanon and its independence. I reject the logic of
alliances that use our country as a battleground to serve the
interests of foreign powers. I strongly believe that it is the
responsibility of my Armenian community to remain an essential part of
the Lebanese structure with its diverse concepts. We do not remain
silent in the face of violations, and we do not attempt, in any way,
to distance ourselves from stating the truth.’

Hagop Pakradonian MP, who denies that the Tashnag Party, which
represents about 75 per cent of Lebanese Armenians, is aligned with
the March 8 Alliance and says nothing about violations, said: `The
current position of the party came as a response to the policy of
marginalizing Armenians and what they represent in terms of
moderation, balance and commitment to dialogue, just as the case was
with Fouad Saniora’s first cabinet. In light of the acute internal
rift, we were supposed to side with certain political parties, but we
allied with the free national current. This alliance however does not
negate our particularity and the independence of our decision.’

Hacop Hafkiyan says that he see no contradiction in his loyalty to his
Armenian culture and his Lebanese nationality. He is not afraid of
abolishing political sectarianism in Lebanon and believes that this
would involve all Lebanese sects. He notes that the merit of the
Tashnag Party lies in its rejection of political inheritance, and its
belief in partisan work.

The Armenian population share similar ideas to the Armenian figures in
power. Hacop Khatshikian, who is married to a Maronite, sees no harm
in allying with Michel Aoun: `Who is capable of protecting us from a
civil war against the Shia? People look out for their own interests,
and the alliance of the Tashnag Party, Hezbollah and Aoun secures
Armenian interests.’

Hacop is thinking about sending his son to a non-Armenian Lebanese
school so that he may integrate with a wider community. He is
primarily concerned with preserving his Armenian environment at home
by speaking the Armenian language and cooking Armenian food.

Hacop says that he visited Armenia and saw that the Armenians have
taken on European traditions. He prefers eastern familial traditions
and the conservative way of raising children. He knows his history
very well, yet he is Lebanese by identity. He said, `I have two
mindsets, the first is Armenian and the second is Lebanese.’

Hacop came from Iskenderun to Aleppo, and then to Lebanon. He stated
that he could not live in Syria, and prefers the freedom he enjoys in
Lebanon, where he can protest against anything Turkish. In Syria,
Armenians cannot do that. Khatsharian prefers humanitarian work in
society rather than partisan affiliation. He loves Michel Aoun and
Hassan Nasrallah, but that does not cancel his need for protection
from Hezbollah’s weapons if chaos breaks loose.

Leon seems to be an exception however; `My father came in 1917. I was
born in Lebanon; I am a Lebanese of Armenian origin. We support all
those who love Lebanon. In the elections, the decision [of who to vote
for] is mine alone and not that of the Tashnag Party. The party does
not impose its decision on anyone. Here in Lebanon we enjoy more
freedom than in Syria. My children and I speak Arabic. I learnt it at
school and I teach them it.’

Another sensitive issue is the acquisition of Lebanese nationality by
Armenians regardless of their date of arrival in Lebanon. The Tashnag
Party and the Armenians of the March 14 Alliance together state that
Armenians acquired the Lebanese nationality and became fully
recognized as Lebanese citizens when a population survey was conducted
in 1924. But what about those who moved to Lebanon in the late 1930s?
There is no answer but there are claims that the political authority
at the time, which was of Maronite Christian persuasion, did not
favour any decrease in the overall number of Christians compared to
that of Muslims. So it added the migrant Armenians to its lists so as
to increase its share of votes in the elections.

However, the considerations of the old days do not suit the new
framework of sects in Lebanon anymore. The results of the upcoming
parliamentary elections might change the equation, thanks to the
political participation of the Armenians following the example of
others after it was overwhelmed by the `madness’ of political
alignment in Lebanon. Through their long-sought independence and their
endeavour to maintain a neutral position between political rivals, it
is hoped that Lebanese Armenians will contribute to curing others of
such `madness.’