SEVERAL SKETCHES FROM THE LIFE OF ARMENIANS IN SWITZERLAND
by David Petrosian
December 6, 2010
A short 4-day trip to attend a seminar of experts in Geneva
provided an opportunity for me to familiarize myself with the life and
organization of the Armenian community in Switzerland, in particular,
of its French-speaking part.
The first references to Switzerland in Armenian sources date
back to the second half of the 15th century. The matter concerns
Bishop Martiros Yerznkatsi’s work about his journey to the country of
Franks. In 17th and 18th centuries the first Armenian merchants from
neighboring Germany and France as well as Constantinople appeared in
Switzerland. From the second half of the 19th century Armenian
students started to arrive in Switzerland to study at universities of
Basel, Lausanne, Geneva, Zurich and Fribourg. Let us remind that
Armenian writers and poets such as Ruben Sevak, Avetik Isahakian, and
Derenik Demirchian, the publicist Grigor Artsruni, and the future
Catholicos and Supreme Patriarch of All Armenians Khoren Muradbekian
pursued their studies here.
The first Armenian community in Switzerland was created in 1907
by students in Lausanne.
The oldest Armenian political party – the Social Democrat
Hunchak (Bell) Party was founded in 1887 at the Landolt Café by
Armenian students of the University of Geneva (by Avetis Nazarbekian,
Maro Vardanian, Kristafor Ohanian, Ruben Khanazatian, Gabriel Kafian
and others). In Geneva, Armenian social democrats published their
official newspaper, Hunchak until 1891. From 1891 to 1914 the European
Bureau of another traditional Armenian party – Armenian Revolutionary
Federation – Dashnaktsutyun (ARFD) was based in Geneva, releasing its
official newspaper Droshak. The presence of a well-organized community
and offices of Armenian political parties was conducive to the fact
that in March 1897 the Swiss government officially condemned the
Armenian massacres committed in the Ottoman Empire in 1894-1896.
The Swiss Office of the Armenian General Benevolent Union (AGBU)
presently headed by Talin Avagian has operated since 1910. The Swiss
Diocese of the Armenian Apostolic Church was established in 1969, with
its center in St. Hakob Church.
The form of the organization of Switzerland’s Armenian
communities scattered over various cities and cantons has partly been
determined by the confederative political structure of that country.
However, more than half of the Armenian community in Switzerland (some
5 thousand people) lives in Geneva, Lausanne (about 3 thousand
Armenians live in these two cities), Bern, and Zurich. In the
mentioned cities the Armenian communities are organized in the best
way, with their schools, periodicals, Internet sites, cultural groups,
including dance groups and choirs, for example, Ani and Arax. There
are various youth, sports and women’s unions, organizations uniting
Armenians of the same profession, first of all doctors, businessmen,
and engineers, also organizations engaged in political activity. Small
Armenian groups live in Locarno, Basel, Lugano, Baden, Aarau, Rheineck,
Ticino, Kreuzlingen and other cities. Interestingly, the
Oberentfelden-based small Armenian community has managed to create the
Masis-Aarau football club which is one of the daughter teams of the FC
In addition to the above mentioned, we should also point out the
following organizational structures of the Armenian community: the
Union of Armenians in Switzerland founded in 1947, the Switzerland-
Armenia Association and the Forum of Armenians in Switzerland founded
in 1997, and the newspaper and Internet site Ardzagank.
On 16 December 2003 the Swiss parliament recognized the Armenian
Genocide committed in the Ottoman Turkey during World War I. Not only
does this legal act reflect the corresponding moods in the political
establishment of Switzerland, but it is also the result of efficient
activities of all Switzerland-based Armenian organizations without
exception. It is known that as a result of the Genocide’s recognition,
relevant amendments were made to the Swiss legislation, and there have
already been court rulings on cases of persons of Turkish descent who
denied the fact of the Armenian Genocide during World War I.
At the same time Switzerland, a country to have recognized the
Genocide, is a consistent supporter of and mediator in the
normalization process of Armenian-Turkish relations.
In order to understand `the technology of the life’ of the
Armenian community, let us examine the activities of a small Armenian
organization – the Association of Armenian Women of Geneva. The
Association’s committee is composed of 8 persons representing several
generations. Every second month the Association publishes a small
bulletin in French and Armenian to provide information about work of
the organization. Besides, the bulletin contains a lot of information
about the life of the Armenian community: from advertisements of
companies owned by Armenians to the political analysis of the
Armenian-Turkish Protocols, from announcements of concerts, weddings
and festivities to a detailed schedule of the meetings between the
congregation and the priest of the Armenian Apostolic Church in
German-speaking cantons of Zurich and Neuchatel from November 14 to
January 23, and even information on where lavash for 8 francs a kilo
can be bought ().
We gave such a thorough description of the bulletin’s contents
in order to show how links within the community are formed and how
they function – hence the cohesion and orderliness of the community.
In addition, this once again confirms the axiom that the efficiency of
a community’s political lobbying largely depends on its cohesion,
orderliness and purposefulness, and to a lesser degree – on the number
of community members.
Naturally, when speaking about the Armenian community of
Switzerland, one cannot but mention those persons who are integral
part of the community. At first I was going to tell about some
well-off people who have succeeded in business or about those who have
won recognition in the spheres of art, medicine, science and
technology. Yet I decided to tell you about my colleague, who is
probably one of the most talented journalists in the Armenian Diaspora
– about Vicken Cheterian.
V. Cheterian was born 43 years ago in Beirut where he finished a
gymnasium, then graduated from the American University earning a
bachelor’s degree in English language and literature. Since 1989 he
has worked in journalism, although he began his career as a translator
from Arabic into English. In the 1990s he conducted interviews and
wrote a series of reports and analytical materials on conflicts in the
North and South Caucasus, which appeared in leading publications of
Europe, including: Switzerland (Neue Zeurcher Zeitung, WochnZeitung,
and Die Weltwoche), France (Le Mond Diplomatique), Denmark
(Information), and Great Britain (Al Hayat). Cheterian visited Nagorno
Karabakh and Abkhazia several times during the wars in the 1990s, and
he was in Chechnya before the first war. In the 1990s he wrote a
number of reports from the Balkans, particularly from Serbia. Then, in
the mid 1900s, the range of his professional interests widened and he
would often travel to Central Asia, especially to Uzbekistan,
Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan.
Cheterian is fluent in four languages: Armenian, Arabic, English
and French. He also knows German, Russian (a bit), and, in his words,
he can keep up a simple conversation in Turkish for 10-15 minutes.
Vicken has authored several books, including a Russian-language
book `Small Wars and Big Games’ that came out in Yerevan in 2003. His
latest book `War and Peace in the Caucasus: Russia’s Troubled
Frontier’ was published last year by prestigious publishing houses of
London and New York. The journalist is currently gathering material
for his new book, this time about the Middle East. It is quite
possible that the main object of his study will be Abu Musab
al-Zarqawi, an international terrorist who was killed in 2006 in Iraq
where he, most probably, headed Al-Qaeda’s local cell. This Jordanian
is believed to have masterminded all major terrorist attacks in
Iraq. The biography of al-Zarqawi is a little-studied spot in the
world’s social and political journalism. Apparently, Vicken wants to
eliminate this `blank’ spot.
A few years ago V. Cheterian defended his doctoral thesis at the
Geneva Institute of International Affairs. He is one of the founders
and instructors of the Caucasus Media Institute (currently the
Caucasus Institute). He, together with his wife Karen and children,
lived in the capital city of Armenia for a few years.
His wife Karen is a Swiss citizen of French descent, a graduate
of the University of Zurich. She currently holds a responsible post at
the Geneva Municipality and is a prominent functionary of the Green
Party of the city. The Greens want her to become the city mayor or an
MP. However, Karen has not yet agreed to these initiatives as the
children are still young. The couple has three boys: Varuzhan born in
1996, Jivan (1999) and Noe/Noah (2006). The boys and their mother
speak fluent Armenian.
A skilled journalist, a good narrator and an excellent analyst,
Vicken is fully aware of how this or that event in our region is
perceived in the West and the East. He is one of those intellectuals
who form public and expert opinions worldwide about the situation in
our region. The intellectuals, patriots and workaholics like Vicken
Cheterian make up the `golden fund’ of not only the Armenian Diaspora,
but also the new generation.
“The Noyan Tapan Highlights”, N45 December, 2010
David Petrosyan is a political analyst in Yerevan, Armenia, and
writes a regular weekly column in Noyan Tapan. He also provides
weekly analyses to the Armenian service of SBS Radio in Australia,
and written for a variety of Russian language political newspapers.
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