ZOiS Spotlight 16/2021

Patriotism in the Armenian Diaspora after the Nagorno-Karabakh War

by Tsypylma Darieva 28/04/2021
Memorial at the Armenian embassy in Glendale, California, for Armenians killed in the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war. IMAGO / ZUMA Press

The 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war had far-reaching regional and global consequences for Armenian and Azerbaijani societies. Amid the destruction on both sides, the emotional disappointment, deep political crisis, and division in Armenia contrasted with top-down authoritarian consolidation in Azerbaijan. Meanwhile, the mobilisation of Armenia’s global diaspora for civic, financial, and international support brought another dimension to the conflict by adding the potential for new challenges outside the nation-state.

The experience of loss that Armenian diasporic communities faced after the war may have long-term effects on Armenia and its relations with the diaspora. In well-organised communities in the US, Canada, and France, activists are appealing for more effective homeland engagement and cooperation, which, they argue, should go beyond ad hoc charity, tourism, and social media activism.

Relations between Armenia and its diaspora in the West are complex and not always harmonious. Over the last thirty years, both sides have had high expectations of better cooperation and the fulfilment of mutual goals. The post-Soviet years have revealed discrepancies between the imagined ancestral homeland of the diaspora and the reality of post-socialist Armenia.

Despite large donations and prominent supporters, the political and economic influence of the Armenia diaspora, whose members number around 7 million, has remained relatively low. This marginal influence on Armenia’s domestic political upheaval was evident during the country’s 2018 Velvet Revolution, in which it was the local population and local activists who forced Armenian president Serge Sargsyan to resign and ensured a change in political direction.

Emotional attachment but reserved engagement

Since 2017, the Armenian government has appealed to skilled Armenians living abroad to relocate to the homeland and help with the country’s reforms and economic development. However, a lack of trust towards pro-Russian Armenia, with its widespread corruption and unequal society, means that second and later generations of Armenians in the West prefer soft engagement and distanced support over repatriation.

Yet, despite internal differences within the Armenian diaspora, the intensity of these communities’ emotional bonds to their homeland cannot be ignored. The second Nagorno-Karabakh war in September–November 2020 mobilised diasporic Armenians to worldwide public protests. In California, a highway was closed because of demonstrators calling for more information about the war. Armenian Americans raised over $170 million for humanitarian and medical aid for the Nagorno-Karabakh region, and some even joined the Armenian army as volunteers.

After the war, deep disappointment led to controversial debates about what had gone wrong and what should happen next. According to Richard Giragosian of the Regional Studies Centre in Yerevan, the effect of the war may be to bring qualitative changes to relations between the nation-state and the diaspora. Specifically, a new agenda may emerge beyond what has so far been the central issue for the diaspora: international recognition of the 1915 Armenian Genocide.

Until recently, appeals to build on the nation-state’s unity have remained relatively weak. Rather, the diaspora perceives Armenia as an ambiguous and difficult place for effective, large-scale investment and long-term cooperation. Many diasporic Armenians feel that they are ethnic Armenians, but many feel no political connection to the physical territory of Armenia.

Growing volumes of travel, donations, and homeland-oriented development projects have opened up various new opportunities for the diaspora, but this growth has not yet led to an enhanced sense of unity between the diaspora and the Armenian government. One reason is that several Armenian grassroots activists in the diaspora have organised aid and connections independently of state initiatives. The diaspora’s activities are mostly individual, project based, and focused on targeted localities; in this sense, they are less strategic and more self-oriented than state projects and, in fact, entail a degree of ambivalence towards state involvement.

The aftermath of the war

The long-term effects of the war and the role of the Armenian diaspora in politics more widely are difficult to predict. Members of the diaspora may play a role in post-conflict reconstruction through funds and the transfer of ideas and values. In doing so, they may contribute to stabilising and strengthening civil society, thus supporting democratic developments in Armenia. However, despite a variety of transnational grassroots initiatives, leaders of the Armenian diaspora are too decentralised to exert widespread influence in the homeland.

Since the war, some activists and volunteers feel disempowered. Yet, the bitter experience of the conflict may stimulate youth in the diaspora to redefine their relationships with the homeland and develop more centralised and effective networks for a sustainable future beyond the traumatic memory of the past, online charity efforts, and tourism. There is a new rise in emotional patriotism that should serve the idea of a united Armenia. As one contributor to a US-based blog discussion optimistically summarised: ‘[We need] a government which reflects the opinion of all Armenians in the world, by encouraging everyone to take ownership of their identity and have [an] Armenian passport and have the voting right to elect from worldwide candidates.’

Such a call does not represent the opinions of all ethnic Armenians living abroad but reflects new feelings at a time of crisis. This view may contribute to the next step of the diaspora’s youth mobilisation. With strong lobbies in the US, Canada, and France, Armenian diasporic communities can bring powerful voices to the political foreground; in doing so, they can effectively protect their diasporic identity and even shape international relations, but cannot decisively resolve the outcome of the 2020 war. Armenia continues to count on moral and financial support from the diaspora, and many Armenians abroad will most likely demonstrate their solidarity through a long-distance relationship rather than links on the ground.

Tsypylma Darieva is a social anthropologist and senior researcher at ZOiS where she coordinates the research cluster ‘Migration and Diversity’.