“Towards the Homeland” 35 years on

Tebi Yergir/Towards the Homeland

By Khatchik DerGhougassian, Ph.D., translated to English from the Armenian original by Ara Nazarian, Ph.D.

“The Diaspora has in her Nietzsche’s superman, the super Armenian, that life-giving essence that must finally be revealed.” —Vehanoush Tekian

Thirty-five years ago, in February 1988, mass peaceful demonstrations in Stepanakert and Yerevan gave birth to the Karabakh Movement. Just a few months later, the 24th General Meeting of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF) would make the pivotal decision formulated with the slogan “Towards the Homeland” to return to the homeland and participate in the processes that determine the fate of the Armenian people. The ARF General Meeting of 1988 was the last in a series of General Meetings that marked various historical milestones of the party. Among such General Meetings were those held in 1892, 1907, 1919 and 1972, where “before and after” determinations were made. Some World Assemblies became a turning point for the ARF. The first one was in 1890, when the Federation of Armenian Revolutionaries, as literally what was in the mind of those who gave birth to the organization, became a political party with its program and organizational chart. The second critical World Assembly was that of 1907 when the party officially joined Socialist International and put forward the Caucasian Project (Govgasian Nakhakitz) to expand the political activity to Eastern Armenia and the Armenians in the Russian Tsarist Empire. The third turning point was the 1919 World Assembly in the independent Republic of Armenia, formulating the final aim of the party in terms of a free, independent and united Armenia. The next critical World Assembly was in 1972, when the party decided to return to its revolutionary roots and gave a new impetus to the global struggle for the Armenian Cause.

As one of the primary elements in the Armenian world, the historical development of the ARF also impacted the historical development of the Armenian people, whether the interpretation of that impact is positive or negative. Let us clarify that such an “impact” would not mean the possibility of being the absolute determinant of historical development. Simply, the ability to create positions or influence a given position will give any political organization its leadership position and the ability to mobilize forces with a sizable number of committed members or followers and supporters. In this sense, the ARF 20th (1972) and 24th (1988) World Assemblies are closely related to the Diaspora that was formed after the Genocide and the Sovietization of Armenia. The first was in the sense of politicization of the Diaspora, and the second was to direct the activities of the Diaspora, if not exclusively to the homeland, but at least in a centralized and organized way.

Thirty-five years ago, those who grew up in the Diaspora became politicized after the 50th anniversary of the Genocide. To those who witnessed the movement’s ability to commit itself to the struggle for Armenian nationality on a Diasporan scale and had confidence in its successes, “Towards the Homeland” did not seem like a strange slogan. The achievements of the Armenian National Committee refer to the first actual records of international recognition of the “forgotten” Genocide at the U.N., the European Parliament and the state representative levels of various countries. Marush Yeramian very vividly presents that politicized generation when she writes: “The images of pogroms and emigration pass before my eyes, then the orphans living in poverty with dignity, from whom the generations who came from them learned not only the delicate ways of dealing with foreigners, but they also learned to behave diplomatically with foreign states, to advance their own decisions in depth, with conviction and unbreakable will. They were able to defend their/our theses and make important decisions. All of these provided the Diaspora Armenian with great experience in foreign policy and dealing with foreign states; they were taught how to deal with so-called diplomacy, which is often a deception.” (“Lonely Stars,” Gandzasar, September 28, 2023). “Towards the Homeland” may have reminded some of that generation that during the struggling years of the Armenian Cause (Հայ Դատ/Hai Tahd), during the political debates, leaders and intellectuals of the day warned that this could not be an end in itself, that the national liberation struggle had to conquer its natural soil. These thoughts are related to reflecting on the mirror of developments in Artsakh…

It is impossible to diminish Artsakh’s deep influence on what is defined as Armenian nationalism in the sense of a collective approach. Argentinean Ricardo Torres, whose doctoral dissertation at the Department of International Relations of the National (State) University of Rosario is devoted to the Artsakh issue and its impact on Armenian nationalism, observes that Artsakh “gave a new meaning to Armenian identity” that “in the collective imagination of the Diaspora designated a next logical milestone for the recognition of the Genocide.” With that, and with the independence of Armenia, the homeland idealized in the Armenian Cause became a reality during the national liberation struggle that took place on Armenian land. 1988 Artsakh became a living epic with a great movement during the first war and the years following its victory.

At that time, Artsakh was the “fundamental event” of the process of Armenia’s independence and the starting point for the Diaspora with the vision of “Towards the Homeland.” It is true that this resolution was born at the General Meeting of the ARF and, as such, had its most direct and decisive influence on the planning and direction of the party’s activities and, to some extent, its ideological organizations for the next decades. Nevertheless, no political, cultural, public, philanthropic or even religious organization in the Diaspora can mobilize forces that did not have its version of “Towards the Homeland” in its activities. The Social Democratic Hunchakian Party, the Ramgavar Liberal Party, the Armenian General Benevolent Union…in a word, all the so-called “traditional” organizations of the Diaspora, each of them in their region and according to their capabilities, were endowed with a Diaspora-wide network and the ability to mobilize. Given that they operated mainly in the Diaspora and regardless of their ideological or practical ties with Soviet Armenia and already with the Diaspora Liaison Committee after the mid-1960s, each of these organizations created their organizational structure in Armenia based on their judgment. In this sense, “Towards the Homeland” was also a Diasporan movement in an ideological and practical sense.

Thirty-five years after the birth of the Artsakh movement, three years after the defeat in the 44-Day War, on September 19, 2023, President of the Republic of Artsakh Samvel Shahramanyan signed the document of the dissolution of the second Armenian state. In this way, the Armenian historical territory joined the 86,600 square kilometers of Azerbaijan. This was already accepted by Nikol Pashinyan, the Prime Minister of Armenia, in Prague almost a year before. Since that day, he did not miss an opportunity to confirm and reaffirm the attitude of the Armenian government, the very government that was sometimes the guarantor of Artsakh’s security. A few days before September 19, contrary to the presence of Russian peacekeepers and with the confidence given by the political decision of Moscow not to intervene and to remain as an observer, Azerbaijan, after holding Artsakh in complete blockade for nine months, embarked on an unprecedentedly brutal attack.

According to Shahramanyan’s later explanations in Yerevan, the document signing on the dissolution of Artsakh was for “saving the lives of the people of Artsakh.” In protest of the establishment of complete Azeri control over Artsakh, the entire population of Artsakh left its land and took refuge in Armenia. At the beginning of August, the first prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, Luis Moreno Ocampo, published a bulletin warning that the blockade of Artsakh had created conditions for genocide. After the 44-Day War, no initiative was able to bring the situation of Artsakh to the attention of the international public visibly or urgently. Contrary to the alarms and the absence of an international mechanism for the prevention of genocide, Artsakh was depopulated when the population seeking refuge against the threat of annihilation sought refuge in Armenia en masse. This, as many observers have assessed, is considered forced displacement, ethnic cleansing, and even genocide.

Nevertheless, it is not a coincidence that neither the political assessment and the initiatives it implies on the international stage nor the issue of the status of Artsakh and the forcibly displaced population of Artsakh, were on the agenda of the Armenian authorities. Immediately after the depopulation of Artsakh and the forcibly displaced Artsakh residents taking refuge in Armenia, the issue of their humanitarian assistance naturally became dominant, and perhaps the zeal to initiate their emigration. However, the organization of humanitarian assistance and the resettlement of the maximum number of forcibly displaced Artsakh citizens in Armenia can be considered as a solution to the disintegration and depopulation of Artsakh. Immediately after the disintegration and depopulation of Artsakh, the Pashinyan regime, which is determined to sign a peace agreement with Azerbaijan and is coming to the initiative of the “crossroads of peace,” the continuation of Artsakh state institutions in Armenia seems excluded because it could be a threat to national security, as stated by the special commissioner/deputy of the Prime Minister, Edmon Marukyan. More than a month after the disaster, the political leadership of Artsakh still had not decided on its next steps. A “government in exile” and the “right of return,” which were put into the public discourse, did not receive a response at the leadership level of Artsakh. More than a month after dissolution and depopulation, Artsakh seems to be among the “forgotten” countries. This is not dissimilar to the first decades following the Armenian Genocide in the Diaspora…

And this latest loss of land from the historical homeland of Armenia with the disintegration and depopulation of Artsakh, witnessed helplessly by all Armenians, was so shocking that its collective emotional pain was felt only after some time. In other words, Artsakh became the new Armenian Cause for the Diaspora, as depopulated Western Armenia once was…not its international recognition based on the right of self-determination, which was entrusted to the Armenian lobby in the Diaspora by the successive authorities of Armenia (those who assumed responsibility for the negotiation process after the resignation of Levon Ter-Petrosyan in February 1998). Until the next milestone of April 2018, before the 44-Day War, Pashinyan decided to start everything from scratch. He managed to lower the bar much lower than the zero point, thanks to his ability to never get bogged down by apparent contradictions, the most prominent of which is stating, “Artsakh is Armenia, and that is that” in Stepanakert in 2019 and three years later, in Prague, announcing Artsakh as part of the 86,600 square meters territory of Azerbaijan. 

Over the past 35 years, the struggle for international recognition of Artsakh’s independence has been facilitated by Diasporan “lobbyist” organizations from nation-states to lower-level governmental structures, such as city councils or provincial authorities – not at the level of countries, although some signs of success in at least one instance were observed without concrete success. However, what Diaspora organizations did not question in their political relations when approaching third parties with the offer of recognition of Artsakh’s independence was the contradiction that appeared when that third party naturally asked whether Armenia had recognized Artsakh’s independence, and the answer there was dictated by Yerevan: first, a third country must recognize and then Armenia, because the recognition of Artsakh’s independence by Armenia could put the negotiations at risk. The question of why a third country would unilaterally take the risk of recognizing the independence of Artsakh never received a convincing answer. But that did not prevent Diaspora organizations from working in that direction – even if sometimes they asked themselves: what did the entity they had sought to recognize the independence of Artsakh, and to whom they explained why the Armenian authorities had not taken that step, think of them…

Artsakh, as the newest chapter of the Armenian Cause, was on the agenda of the Diaspora’s political mobilization as naturally as all the investments made there without doubting that the historical progress recorded could not be reversed because independent Armenian statehood was its guarantor. The confidence of the Diaspora towards independent statehood was so certain, regardless of who or which political force was in power.

Thirty-five years after “Towards the Homeland,” against the rebuke to the temporary or longer-lasting historical retreat that occurred with the disintegration and depopulation of Artsakh, and especially after the 44-Day War, considering the inability of the political elite of independent Armenia, government or opposition to agree on a narrow consensus of national unity, it is time for the Diaspora to reflect on the completion of a milestone, and to rethink the determinants of its existence, its identity and the concept of its relationship with the motherland.

This process has already started. Analytical-critical approaches will not be lacking for those assumptions that seemed so powerful when the “Towards the Homeland” slogan was perceived in the Diaspora political thinking as a fate expected by many. Thirty-five years ago, it was perhaps very difficult, if not impossible, not to perceive the message of “Unification” communicated by mass signs in the streets of Stepanakert and Yerevan as a call for repatriation. However, it was also necessary to be sensitive to the dictates of the events following that primary enthusiasm, which reminded the Diaspora of the need to review the assumptions of its political thinking on different occasions. This refers to Ter-Petrosyan’s “orange eaters” derogatory speech as a first insult followed by many others, such as Diaspora Armenians denied entry to Armenia for political reasons and the discriminatory attitude primarily targeting the ARF and its affiliates. It is necessary to go beyond the singularity of the homeland-Diaspora dividing line and see the homeland-Diaspora distinction line, to eliminate the burden of denying the distinction and, on the contrary, reflect on how much it is necessary to be aware of that difference, in the linguistic, cultural, political and diplomatic spheres, even in manners and food.

Thirty-five years after “Unification,” “differentiation” is necessary to halt the crushing of the Diaspora’s soul and its potential, the dissolution of communities and the continuation of behavior that perceives Diaspora Armenians as a sum of individuals, if not just a sum…That disrespectful behavior can be shown by Ter-Petrosyan’s already-mentioned _expression_ or Alen Simonyan’s despicable act of spitting in the face of a repatriated Diaspora Armenian. However, these are not the real issues; for the political elite in Armenia, the Diaspora was never perceived as a partner. With different justifications or reasons, the Diaspora was encouraged by the concept of the right to participate in local political processes through community representation or a Diaspora-wide Armenian council. As Vehanoush Tekian rightly observes, “The Diasporan leadership blindly devoted themselves to the motherland, without demanding that they also contribute, that is, to be considered as a legitimate Armenian, not a milk cow.” (“Is the Diaspora important?” Asbarez, October 25, 2023). It is not political participation when the leaders of the Diaspora accept being followers and remain silent regarding the controversial decisions made in Armenia. It is not patriotism to organize a fundraiser for the motherland in the Diaspora but to accept the unconvincing accounting of the money sent, which is properly ordered by the relevant bodies. It is self-deception to look at the political affairs in the Diaspora in the mirror of the internal dynamics of Armenia…

It is not political participation when the leaders of the Diaspora accept being followers and remain silent regarding the controversial decisions made in Armenia. It is not patriotism to organize a fundraiser for the motherland in the Diaspora but to accept the unconvincing accounting of the money sent, which is properly ordered by the relevant bodies. It is self-deception to look at the political affairs in the Diaspora in the mirror of the internal dynamics of Armenia…

The greatest mistake of the Diasporan leadership in the past 35 years has been the inability to implement a Diaspora-style agenda. Before independence, there was a Diaspora where the communities communicated spiritually with each other thanks to the Diaspora-wide organizational network and structures capable of mobilization. There was a global Diaspora before any political, economic or socio-cultural theories of the globalization process; it was the birth of the instinct to survive and preserve the identity of a stateless community, which became politicized during the years of demands for the Armenian Cause. Statelessness was not an obstacle to the Diaspora-wide movement, which the day’s leadership proved in its ability. On the contrary, statelessness even caused the transformation of a global network free from the restrictions of inter-state relations into a politically autonomous factor endowed with flow and communication logic and network. The Diasporan political operator directly contributed to the rapid international recognition of a small state in a geopolitically unfavorable situation, starting with the diplomatic representations of Armenia opened with the direct investment of Diaspora Armenian communities and individual philanthropists to facilitate political relations.

Regardless of whether the statehood was more or less established, the leadership of the Diaspora willingly or unwittingly followed the decisions made in the homeland, regardless of whether it supported those in power or those in the opposition. It was carried away by the “strong state” and similar rhetoric without criticism or questioning the meaning and practicality of such efforts for the Diaspora. It defined the political work in the Diaspora by the fetishization of state politics. As a result, the Diaspora, appearing on the international stage as an independent political actor, remained in the spotlight of an independent state. The political thinking in the Diaspora, which was formed by the Armenian Cause movement, could not be transferred from the 20th century to the 21st century to re-establish and repair itself as its factor.

In the absence of favorable conditions for mass voluntary repatriation, the Diaspora communities continued their daily lives, but giving priority to relations with the homeland, they lost the once horizontal communication link and the consciousness of being a Diaspora. Diaspora understanding was translated into community-homeland relations. Perhaps the unforeseen consequence of the country was patriotism. As a result of the effort to think of the Diaspora as a whole and its birth, any Diaspora-wide practical plan was absent, especially in the field of political mobilization, which could not separate itself from the logic of state politics – an internal political process in opposition to the government and decisions made in foreign relations.

Here, we should clarify that when it was said that the political affairs in the Diaspora should not be viewed in the mirror of the state policy, it would not mean a break with the homeland. It would not mean that in the Diaspora, it was not possible to take a position on the issues of the internal political agenda of Armenia, not to take sides in favor of the government or the opposition, or not to become a participant in political-social mobilizations. It is important to realize that the debate and freedom of opinion in the Diaspora could, at best, have a very limited influence on the transitions of the internal Armenian sphere, as the experience of the past 35 years has shown. It means not to condition the freedom of opinion with the logic of government-opposition polarization, and sometimes even to have a third alternative proposal if the Diaspora factor is ever so influential that they can sometimes assume a positive role of “mediator” to the events in the homeland. It is important to have a Diasporan agenda and keep it away from internal Armenian logic, not to give in to issues vital for the Diaspora identity, such as Western Armenian and classical spelling. It means especially to have a Diaspora position on Armenian-wide issues, preferably in agreement with the state policy, but also independence, when necessary, with the agreement to disagree. One can already show that as a national community, we have given an important promise to the level of political development by getting out of the undergrowth we have been in since the defeat of the 44-Day War.

The Diaspora that existed in the collective imagination as a factor until 1988 has changed, as the successive newsletters of the Diaspora Survey (2019, 2021, 2022) show. The Diaspora as a whole, as a global civil society of ethnic identity, is facing the challenge of rethinking, reorganizing and reworking its responsibility. The debate regarding the Diaspora as a transnational collective in the 21st century, the alternatives for organizing the political movement with a non-state logic, the opportunities opened by the Internet and Artificial Intelligence for new flights of the collective imagination…all these and more already exist as a formative thinking, as a field of working experience, developed perhaps in the past 20 years. It is there that, in addition to the “Towards the Homeland” milestone, a new milestone of Diaspora commitment will be outlined, perhaps even to the point of mitigating the psychological pain of the crisis of disintegration and depopulation of Artsakh and creating an opportunity to look to the future. It is there that Vahe Oshagan’s message, “There is something to be a Diaspora Armenian,” is renewed. The organizational networks of the Diaspora structures can best facilitate the coordination and complementation of all these processes to reinterpret the Diaspora as a factor of the Armenian identity. In the past 35 years, the leadership of those structures failed to ensure the place and role of a legitimate Diaspora in the independent state system. It is time for them to turn their attention to the Diaspora, where there is a battle for the reunification of the Armenians.