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Avetik Chalabyan: “It is important to reassess the national trajectory”

Avetik Chalabyan
Avetik Chalabyan

On the threshold of the Armenian Genocide Centennial, Mediamax continues a series of interviews with the intellectuals of Armenia and the Diaspora. It is an attempt to collect opinions as to whether the Armenian Genocide Centennial will serve a certain “New Beginning” for Armenians or not.

Our today’s interlocutor is the Co-Founder of Repat Armenia Foundation Avetik Chalabyan.

-  What is the meaning of the Armenian Genocide Centennial for you?

- We shouldn’t focus too much on the Centennial. It’s only a milestone in the 3000-year-old history. Though, given the historical and geopolitical context of the Centennial, it’s probably a good occasion to look back on our path over the past 100 as well as 25 years, and try to reassess our national trajectory.

- Should we strive to have a single trajectory for the Diaspora and Armenia, or can they be different with some common focal points?

- First of all, it’s important to clarify the definition of “the national” as we often confuse national with the ethnic. The national is a common living area, common historical destiny, common future, goals and aspirations, a common political, economic and cultural system, common society. The national consists of all these common elements, although for us, Armenians, it’s not confined to a single country, Armenia.

Not all ethnic Armenians, living in the world now, make part of the national system, and even have such a desire. A considerable part of ethnic Armenians left the system; they are trying not to be associated with the national system and are in a process of gradual assimilation. It’s hard to say what will happen to them in 100 years - a large part of them will be totally assimilated, while some others will move from mere ethnic identity to the national one. Our goal should be increasing the number of the second group at the expense of the first one.

The national system hinges on Armenia, Artsakh and all the overseas Armenian institutions (I don’t use the word “Diaspora” on purpose) which associate them with that system. For instance, the Armenian General Benevolent Union (AGBU) which is created, funded and managed by the Armenians of the Western world, has recently come to realize that their activities should be based on the national system - national educational and governmental institutions, army and everything that keeps the nation together.

Similarly, Repat Armenia Foundation, where I have been one of the founders, is a purely national institution. Some of the founders are from Russia, some from Western countries, and the others come from Armenia. But we all are united with a single vision of developing the national system. In particular, we are convinced that repatriation should make a pivotal element of national development, and it should be clearly managed to make it more attractive for each repatriating family. Repatriating individuals and their families shouldn’t suffer from repatriation, vice versa, they should benefit personally - only in this case they will consciously become a part of the national system.

- What can be done to considerably improve Armenia-Diaspora cooperation?

- I think that the claims that cooperation between Armenia and Diaspora institutions is not successful are not necessarily true. There are many successful projects and initiatives in Armenia now which resulted from cooperation between Armenian and Diaspora institutions and individuals. Cafesjian Museum, Zvartnots Airport, TUMO Center, Ayb School, UWC Dilijan and others are vivid examples.

As we are engaged in repatriation program, we also deal with the real numbers and see that every year around 2 000 Armenian families move to Armenia, without taking into account the additional inflows, caused by the war in Syria. In that sense, Armenia-Diaspora interaction is already quite dynamic. Of course, we all would like to have it on a larger scale and see more  sizable results, but  what we have now is already giving some promise.

- Why is Armenia not attractive for the Diaspora now?

- Currently, Armenia is not a “promised land” for the Diaspora Armenians, as it’s in a tough geopolitical and economic situation - which by the way is a direct outcome of the Genocide.

The Genocide was aimed at depriving the Armenians of the platform for their national development – first and foremost, a self-sufficient territory and sizable material resources. Modern Republics of Armenian and Artsakh make only 15% of our historic homeland. We lost the remaining 85% before the Genocide and as a result of it.

Consequently, we now have a country with rather small, landlocked territory and limited resources, which doesn’t seem to be attractive and capable of ensuring prosperous and secure life for all Armenians. But there is an interesting peculiarity we have observed recently. When the war started in Syria, the majority of Syrian Armenians first would not even want to hear about moving to Armenia. But afterwards, when more than a half of the Syrian Armenian community left the county, over 1/3 of them actually moved to Armenia. That means that under certain historic conditions, the previously unattractive may became relatively appealing. We should still make plenty of efforts to see this repatriation experience becoming successful, unlike the Soviet-era inflows when the majority of the repatriates didn’t adjust to the new life conditions – however, the first precedent is set now, and it is an important one.

Of course, you can ask why American Armenians don’t return to Armenia en masse. Indeed, we should be realistic and understand that in case of coming back to Armenia they will immediately loose at least 80% of their well-being. Thus, it is unlikely that hundreds of thousands of American Armenians will suddenly return to Armenia. Despite it, there is a constant inflow, especially among young people, from the U.S. and Canada. Before repatriation, they make serious efforts to build sound starting platform in Armenia, and this is not easy. Yet the flow exists - several hundred individuals each year, and it gives hope that we can expect more in case conditions on the ground improve.

-  What should be the role of Genocide in our lives after the Centennial?

- We have a bit mystified notion of the Genocide. We generally narrate our history from a very Armenian-centric viewpoint, which is also an issue on its own. For instance, when we claim that we gained a “moral victory” at Avarayr battle, we rarely ask ourselves - what did it mean to Persia and how the process of proselytism went on afterwards in the empire? We are simply not interested in exploring it.

As for the Genocide, we are only concerned with our huge losses and pain. Why and in what historic context did it happen?  We often dodge this question, yet here where we should also look for the answers.

The Genocide was our failure to shake off the colonial rule, and our massive geopolitical defeat. The Ottoman Empire’s decline had dated back to the early 19th century whereupon various former parts such as Egypt and the Balkan states, gradually disintegrated from it. Besides the central Turkish ethnos inhabiting mostly in Anatolia, only Armenians, Greeks, Kurds, Assyrians and Arabs remained in the Empire prior to the World War I, and they all were aspiring for independence. Yet the War resulted in eviction or extermination of the whole Greek ethnos living in Anatolia, and the majority of Assyrian ethnos was also massacred during the eviction. The Armenian ethnos of the Empire was similarly massacred and evicted, and only the Arabic ethnos managed to gain independence, while the Kurds collaborated with the Ottoman Empire and benefited hugely, receiving the areas cleansed of Assyrians and Armenians.

The reasons for our failure are a separate issue. We suffered grave losses and every Armenian family felt that immense pain- with human losses, deprivation of property, and alienation from the homeland. They found themselves in alien countries in miserable conditions, having to restore their personal, family and community lives from a scratch. But we should consider the tragedy in the context of the collapse of the Empire, where we didn’t manage to take our share from it. Vice versa, in its last convulsions, the Empire seized several extra pieces from us, such as Mount Ararat, Kars - not even the territories of Ottoman but the Russian Empire prior to war. As a result, not only we suffered huge human losses, but we failed to shrug off the colonial rule, and emerge as an independent national entity from the ashes of the Empire. 

From this standpoint, we should properly formulate the key objective of our national agenda. It is not about demanding justice for the past, or, conversely, finding reconciliation with the Turks – it is about creating sufficient conditions for our national development.  We should view the future from a standpoint of national sustainability – and to this end, it becomes critical to what model of the world we tend to believe.

According to a first model, the world is moving towards universal peace, democratic values and liberal economy. Civil society is developing in Turkey, which exerts pressure on the nationalistic government and ruling elites, and forces them to seek real peace with the neighbors, as well as unconditionally acknowledge the Armenian Genocide. In this logic, we can find forms of peaceful coexistence with the neighbors, become involved in regional economic projects, trade and mutual investments. This logic no longer focuses on any territorial claims as the issue of development is not addressed through territories – eventually, up to 10mln people can reside in this area of Armenia and Artsakh. Besides, those who are willing, can also return and settle in our historical areas in the modern Turkey, getting closely connected to Armenia and forming a common economic and cultural space with it. Potentially, we should only propose Turkey to return Mount Ararat, and it’s even possible that it will make this symbolic gesture for the sake of reconciliation and regional peace.   In the end, this is not entirely impossible, as the European countries took exactly this path after the World War II, but in our case, the probability is quite low.

By a diametrically opposite model, the world is moving toward complete chaos. A real collision among several major centers of power - Islamic, Western, Slavonic and Chinese - is brewing up. The centers of power fiercely fight against each other. The borders in that world are conventional, defined by the physical location of your soldier. The status-quo set after the World War II is disappearing. It’s partially happening now in our region, where the degree of flux is the highest. In this logic, one has to adopt an entirely different strategy. It mostly focuses on geopolitics rather than economy, and rests on much tougher political instruments. In these conditions, we are not pursuing past justice,  but moving  forward in an expectation that Turkey may weaken as a result of its inner tensions, and we should be ready to return some part of our historic territory  through our proactive  moves, and then consistently integrate  them into Armenian world, using the restoration of justice as a justification for our moves, as well as defensively against potential Turkish aggression.

These are totally different models. The challenge is that we should have these both models in mind as it’s really not obvious which way the world would evolve. The reality on the ground will more likely evolve between these two extremes, resulting in lack of any conclusive resolution in a foreseeable future. 

- But this long-term modeling requires respective far-ranging programs and approaches, while our elite seem to be concerned only with short-term issues.

 - The quality of our elite is the most pivotal question of any. We should look at the Centennial through this lens in the first place. Can we form self-sufficient national elite? The national life and any upward development trajectory imply that there is a nucleus of the national elite which can formulate an agenda and take respective steps to accomplish it. To this end, it should have a considerable potential of inner sovereignty. Yet, our current elite possess a very low level of sovereignty. It’s partially conditioned by the fact that the overwhelming majority of our elite are the descendants of former Soviet system. They can even speak of Nzhdeh but they largely bear the legacy of the old system.

The former system is now being consolidated as a new trans-national construct, led by Russia. This makes the formation of independent national elite a formidable challenge, and we may very well fail it. If we look back at our recent history, we would see that we failed to build sustainable national elite in 1914-1920. In 1991, we became independent from the former USSR due to its rapid disintegration, but now the next reincarnation of the Soviet Union is shaping up now, and there is not guarantee that we won’t become part of it again. Hence, this is the most important question - can we really become an independent nation or not in these conditions, as only in this case we will be preserve a chance to overcome the dire consequences of the Genocide in our lives.

Ara Tadevosyan talked to Avetik Chalabyan

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