Armenia: Private Project Plays Up Repatriation

by Liana Aghajanian, NY
Nov 2 2011

Armenia is known for having a high emigration rate, caused mainly by
labor migrants heading to Russia and elsewhere in the former Soviet
Union in search of work. Now, a private initiative is striving
to mitigate the effects of the steady outflow of human capital by
enticing ethnic Armenians living abroad, particularly those living
settled lives in the West, to resettle in the “homeland.”

The project, largely an online media campaign started by those who
have already made the move, is being framed in Peace Corps-like
terms and aims to appeal to idealistic impulses in the diaspora. Its
leading advocates — drawing on a deeply held Diaspora concept
that Armenia’s survival depends on a strong defensive capability —
exhibit a missionary zeal when discussing the allure of repatriation.

“I really believe that this land has some kind of magnetic pull,”
commented Los Angeles native Madlene Minassian, who decided with
her family to settle in Armenia about a decade ago. “A lot of people
are happy to live in a certain place, but I can say that I’m happy
and proud to be here, and I think that’s such a different kind of

The Armenia 3500 Project strives to convince 3,500 ethnic
Armenians from the West to move to either Armenia proper, or the
majority-ethnic-Armenian, disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh,
within the next three years. Those who opt for Karabakh would be
eligible for a free house as an additional incentive. The program is
relying on a group of 30-somethings who have already repatriated to
generate enthusiasm abroad.

These evangelists maintain that Armenia 3500 participants can become
difference-makers, hopefully creating jobs with their investments,
and pressing for better governance. “They bring language skills and
introduce new ideas, as well as new expectations, from business and
government,” a project representative, who declined to be named,
said of the repatriates. “This all helps to stimulate investment,
jobs and reforms.”

Proponents are tight-lipped about how the project is going. Only a
few months old, it has signed up an unspecified number of diaspora
Armenians in the United States, United Kingdom and Germany to make
the move.

Meeting the target quota of repatriates will not be easy, some
experts assert. One skeptic is history professor Stephan Astourian,
executive director of the Armenian Studies program at the University of
California, Berkeley. He noted that repatriation since Armenia gained
independence from the Soviet Union in 1991 has been minimal at best.

“The fact of the matter is that a miniscule amount of Armenians have
repatriated, with the exception of one country — Iran,” Astourian
said. He estimates the number of Armenian repatriates since 1991 at
5,000 to 10,000. Official data was not immediately available.

By contrast, the United Nations Development Programme estimates that
as many as 1.3 million Armenians have left Armenia since 1991.

Astourian claims that the reasons for low diaspora interest in
returning to Armenia to live are the same that have prompted Armenians
to leave – a lack of rule of law, and economic difficulties; plus,
rampant corruption.

“I think repatriation would be highly desirable if there was a
state based on the rule of law, with the control of the police,
real parliamentary life and judiciary,” Astourian commented.

Armenia ranked 123rd out of 178 countries in a 2010 Transparency
International report measuring corruption; slightly better than
neighboring Azerbaijan, which was ranked 134th, but far worse than
next-door Georgia, in 68th place.

Armen Rakedjian has firsthand experience of the red tape and corruption
plaguing the region’s Armenian communities. After relocating from Paris
to the Nagorno-Karabakh town of Shushi in 2004, Rakedjian got caught
up in a dispute over improperly registered property that ultimately
cost him his entire $50,000 investment. He blames his loss on the
alleged need to pay bribes and “high salaries” to correct the problem.

Nonetheless, Rakedjian decided to stay in Shushi, where he runs a
B&B with his wife, Cristina. In Karabakh, he says, he can preserve
his cultural identity. In France, “I don’t have any insurance that my
daughter will stay Armenian, or the children of my daughter,” Rakedjian
said. “I have to live here. I have to endure all the difficulties,
to have the possibility to remain Armenian.”

The extent to which either the de facto government of Karabakh or
Armenia’s Ministry of Diaspora lends a hand to repatriates making
this transition is unclear. Armenia currently has no state-funded
program covering repatriation. Representatives from the Ministry of
Diaspora, which is a frequent target of criticism for doing little
to support repatriates in Armenia, were not available for comment in
time for publication.

State-sponsored support could have helped Natasha Hillis and her
husband, Victor Sargissian, a dentist, with their move to Yerevan from
Ventura, California. Financial problems forced the couple and their
two young sons to move back to the United States this past summer.

Although Sargissian found work at a dentist’s office, he complains
that business was slow, with most locals unable to afford regular
dental care. “Making a living to support the standard of living
that we’re accustomed to here in the US was basically impossible,”
recounted Hillis, who taught English part-time. “I was making $4 an
hour, and my cab to and from the center cost me $3.”

Many repatriates acknowledge that their expectations of life in Armenia
were unrealistic. To counter that, one Wynnewood, Pennsylvania-based
non-profit group, Birthright Armenia, offers travel fellowships to
diaspora members to work as short-term volunteers in Armenia without
committing to a permanent move. Twenty-five of the 550 participants
in the program since its 2003 launch still live in Armenia, according
to the organization’s executive director, Sevan Kabakian.

Two of those participants — Canadian freelance writer Nyree Abrahamian
and her American husband, Areg Maghakian, deputy director of operations
at the Armenia Tree Project — have now been living in Armenia for
close to five years. Though they haven’t ruled out the possibility
of returning to North America, the couple says they have put down
roots in Armenia.

Despite the lack of ready, well-paid employment, the attraction of
working in a developing country where they could have a greater impact
ultimately persuaded the pair to stay. “It’s moving and changing
and twisting,” Abrahamian said of Armenia’s development. “Not only
do you get to see that, but you get to be a part of it and actually
affect it.”

Diaspora groups hope that, eventually, more ethnic Armenians will
say the same.

Editor’s note: Liana Aghajanian is a freelance writer based in Los

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