In October 2017, the Armenian minister of diaspora, Hranush Akopyan, announced that 2018 had been designated the year of repatriation for the Republic of Armenia and appealed to ethnic Armenians living abroad to return to their ancestral homeland. At the same time, the president of Armenia, Serzh Sargsyan, predicted that Armenia’s population would reach 4 million by 2040, not through increased birth rates and life expectancy, but via the return of diasporic Armenians.
Since 1991, Armenia has faced a high rate of emigration, mostly in the form of labour migration. Scholars warn that if current trends continue, the depopulation of Armenia may reach 1.5 million by 2050. (Poghosyan et al 2017). The repatriation law announced in October 2017 has not yet been adopted and is designed to be in force for five years only. What is significant about this performative call of the homeland is that it is not straightforward to engage a powerful and heterogeneous diaspora.
There are an estimated 8 million ethnic Armenians around the world. Only up to 3 million of them live in Armenia, an impoverished postconflict state in the South Caucasus with limited resources. Most of the Armenian diaspora is scattered across Russia, the United States, Canada, Europe, and the Middle East, and the relationships between the global Armenian diaspora and the Armenian homeland remain weak and ambivalent. While only some ethnic Armenians view the Republic of Armenia as their real homeland territory, the Armenian state seems to deploy a systematic top-down diaspora policy that includes the following three extraterritorial groups.
In the first category are members of the older Armenian diaspora called spyurk—American, Canadian, or French citizens who define themselves as descendants of survivors of the Armenian Genocide who were expelled from the territory of the former Ottoman Empire during World War I. Numerically this is the largest Armenian diasporic group, and it is culturally assimilated and well established in Western societies.
The second and main group of potential returnees consists of Russian speakers of Armenian descent who left post-Soviet Armenia as labour migrants over the last twenty-five years. An estimated 1 million Armenians live in the Russian Federation and other post-Soviet republics.
The third group is made up of ethnic Armenians residing in the Middle East, such as members of Christian minorities in Syria, Lebanon, Iran, or Iraq, who have never lived in Armenia or possessed Armenian citizenship. Since 2014, Armenia has received approximately 20,000 ethnic Armenians from Syria.
Mobilizing emotional ties to the homeland
Since rejecting a measure that would have allowed dual citizenship in 1998, the Armenian government has over the last decade fundamentally changed its attitude towards diaspora and emigrants. The government organised pan-Armenian conferences in Yerevan, introduced a dual citizenship law in 2006, and formed a new governmental body in 2008, the Ministry of Diaspora. The tasks of this ministry are to develop formal relationships between Armenia and the diaspora, to promote Armenian culture abroad, and to implement a deeper, spiritual connection with Armenia.
For this purpose, the ministry created the concept of Hayadardzutyun (“back to the Armenian roots”) refers to a spiritual repatriation. The interesting point about this notion is that it is conceptualised as an alternative to physical repatriation. Return does not presuppose full political citizenship but a more symbolic and mobile way of engaging with the homeland, expressed through cultural slogans such as ‘Return your talents and skills to your homeland!’, ‘Draw your family tree!’, and ‘Spend your vacations in the homeland once every three years!’. Local scholars view a circular model of migration as the future pathway of development: living in Armenia and working abroad, living in the diaspora and working in Armenia’ (Poghosyan et al 2017).
The diasporic population as a valuable resource
These trends are neither surprising nor unique to Armenia. More and more countries focus their policies on tapping resources from external actors such as emigrants and members of diasporic ethnic communities. In post-Communist Eastern Europe, diasporic populations are increasingly recognised as a valuable resource and a state category that transgresses the Soviet-era hostility towards exiles. To name some examples, in the 1990s Croatia set a trend by extending the ethnonational self through a policy of post-territorial citizenship policy (Délano and Gamlen 2014). Meanwhile, post-Soviet Kazakhstan encouraged the in-migration of ethnic Kazakhs from surrounding regions to increase the titular nationality’s proportion of the population. Ukraine, Azerbaijan and Georgia turned their interest towards migrants living abroad. For instance, the President of Azerbaijan proclaimed 31 December to be the Day of Solidarity for Azeris across the world. Azerbaijan and Georgia set up their own ministries of diaspora, attempting to impose a better control over migrants and remittances.
So it is not surprising that proclaiming return and a post-territorial patriotism has a predominantly performative character. The re-assessment of Armenian patriotism may play an important role in Armenia’s political discourse in the run-up to the centenary of the First Armenian Republic (1918–1920) and the country’s presidential election in April 2018.
Délano A. and A, Gamlen (2014) Comparing and theorizing state-diaspora relations, in: Political Geography, 41, 43-53
Poghosyan H. et al (2017) Миграция и депопуляция в Армении. Ереван, 2017
Tsypylma Darieva is a senior researcher at ZOiS. She co-develops the research area 'Migration and Tansnationalism' and studies the transformation of urban spaces and religious pluralisation in Eurasian cities.