Redistribution of Groong articles, such as this one, to any other
media, including but not limited to other mailing lists and Usenet
bulletin boards, is strictly prohibited without prior written
consent from Groong's Administrator.
© Copyright 2002 Armenian News Network/Groong. All Rights Reserved.
The Second Armenia-Diaspora Conference (May 27-28, 2002) Armenian News Network / Groong June 7, 2002 By Groong Research & Analysis Group "Hayasdane polor hayeri hayrenike e" - Armenia is the fatherland of all Armenians. This was the motto of the second Armenia-Diaspora pan-national conference [khohrtazhoghov]. Organized by the Armenian Foreign Ministry, the goal of the conference was to link up diasporan Armenians with Armenia, with the explicit aim of generating investment and economic assistance. The message, "invest in Armenia," or "assist Armenia" was the main point of the conference, and the "subtext" of all the events. If the first Armenia-Diaspora conference (September 1999) was largely in the realm of symbolic unity and reconciliation, the second was meant to be more operative, discussing concrete projects and mechanisms of co-operation. Sadly, however, this could not succeed due to the size of the event. More than 3000 people attended the conference. Probably over half of the attendees were from Armenia. It seemed that in order to thwart the criticism of the first conference - that it was not inclusive enough - the Foreign Ministry went to the other extreme and opened the conference to whomever wished to attend. Consequently, panels which were meant to be forums for focused discussions regarding specific projects or ideas, became packed hothouses where people brought their axes to grind, platforms for airing opinions on subjects close to their heart but far removed from Armenia's needs. Most of these discussions were monopolized by Armenians from Armenia. This is not to say that some good ideas did not emerge. For example, Marilou Papazian's focused presentation in the first "Education, Culture, Science" panel on concrete IT mechanisms through which schools in Armenia can be linked with Armenian schools in the diaspora was drowned out by shouting matches between various intellectuals on what seemed to be to many people the trifling topic of classical vs. Soviet Armenian spelling... The conference began and ended with plenary sessions in the Karen Demirchian Sports Complex (Hamalir). The first was Monday morning, the second Tuesday afternoon (May 28). These sessions, chaired by Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian, gave an opportunity for various officials to present their views: From President Robert Kocharian's keynote speech, to the speeches of the two Catholicoi, representatives of the Armenian political parties and major organisations, etc. Eighteen people were scheduled to speak in the opening plenary. Kocharian set the tone by outlining some of his ideas and projects: the establishment of a pan-Armenian media outlet (an "Armenian CNN" as he called it); pan-Armenian sports tournaments, a youth centre, teacher training, and the establishment of a development council with diasporan businessmen's participation. He emphasized the importance of investment in Armenia, and ended his speech by highlighting the security issue of Artsakh, and international recognition of the Genocide. Catholicos Karekin II followed him, insisting on the "unity of the nation and the Armenian Church" and challenging Armenians to "compete only in their patriotism." Aram I, Catholicos of the Great House of Cilicia, in a speech which had little to do with religion, implored diasporans to fully understand Armenia, and vice versa. He also urged the participants to develop a "clear national-political approach." Arkady Ghukasian emphasized both the need for Artsakh's security and the need to invest in Gharabagh. Among the other speakers, Nerses-Petros XIX, the Armenian Catholic Patriarch, called for a repatriation drive similar to 1946-1948. Rev. Vahan Tootikian wished Armenians would return to classical orthography (spelling). The Hnchak leader, Tiran Aginian, ranted against the present unipolar world and the ravages of capitalism. The Dashnak representative, Hrant Margarian, wished to see a more virtuous work ethic. Hagop Kassarjian, the Ramkavar leader, expressed his dislike of the Armenian national anthem which he wanted changed.... At this point, many began to leave the Hamalir to enjoy the fine weather in Yerevan. Yet, there was more to come. The AGBU, the ARS, the Assembly, and so forth, all had to have their say. Some wanted dual citizenship, others revisited the issue of classical spelling, and one, Toros Sagherian (of the Forum of Armenian Associations of Europe) wished to see a security tax imposed on the diaspora to boost Armenia's army... One interesting innovation at the plenary sessions was the screening of short films. The themes differed, but basically emphasized the need to build Armenia together. The images included collages which linked the late 19th century fedayee movement with the Gharabagh war, past leaders with present ones, symbols of unity and industriousness, and, of course, images of Mt. Ararat. The films ended with the logo of the Armenia-diaspora conference: a large tree with the text "Armenia-Diaspora" written below it. The closing plenary session was not as long. Kocharian spoke, each of the committee leaders summed up the discussions, and a declaration was adopted. In addition to the usual references to Artsakh, the Genocide, the need for economic development and national unity, the declaration promised that the authorities in Armenia will try to overcome the constitutional hurdle that prevents the granting of dual citizenship. The substantive part of the conference was to be sandwiched between these two opening and closing plenary sessions. The intention of the organizers was that the bulk of the work of the conference would be done in four thematic sessions, held at the Government Reception House, Monday afternoon and Tuesday morning. The sessions were: - Political Relations: Armenia-Diaspora Organizational and Structural Issues; - Information and Media; - Economic and Social Development; - Education, Culture, Science. Each of these sessions met four times. Almost all were moderated by Yerevan officials. Each had 5-6 panelists, from Armenia and the diaspora, speaking 7 or so minutes. After the presentation, there was supposed to be general discussion regarding specific ideas or projects. Each of the sessions were two hours long. Attendance varied from 150 to 250 people per session, with many others watching the proceedings on tv screens in the corridors. Whereas the Information and Media, and Economic and Social Development sessions went reasonably well, Political Relations and Education sessions were generally useless shouting matches. The prepared presentations raised some good points, as well as some cliché phrases or ideas - for example the need to extend military conscription to diaspora Armenian youth! On the whole, the mood and the discussion of the "political" and "education" sessions were generally confrontational, and the audience-led general discussion rather meaningless (to put it mildly)... In the Education sessions the spelling issue reared its head to torpedo more important and substantive discussions. In the Political Relations session the forceful chairing tactics of the moderator, Jivan Tabibian, merited more comment than the substance of the presentations. In the latter, one important theme that did emerge was the need to have some sort of co-ordinating mechanism that would link, institutionally, Armenia and the diaspora. Some argued for a state-based body, others believed that a civil society-based set up would be more effective. But instead of discussing the details of such proposals, people brought up issues such as the Treaty of Sevres, land claims on Nakhichevan and Javakhk, insisting that such issues of "national importance" be put on the agenda of the next Armenia-Diaspora conference. As people spoke, a few presented their ideas and proposals to the chairs of the sessions in writing so that the Foreign Ministry would consider their suggestions. In addition to the formal conference programme, there were a number of related events either organized by, or co-ordinated by, the Foreign Ministry. These optional events included: - A Business Trip aimed at familiarizing diasporans with business conditions in Armenia; - An NGO Trip which introduced participants to the NGO sector in Armenia. - A "Diaspora meets Diaspora" reception, hosted by diasporans now living in Armenia; - A Chambers of Commerce Meeting (by invitation only); - A "Made in Armenia" Expo which displayed goods produced in Armenia to the Conference participants, with the hope of attracting investment and establishing partnerships. These "auxiliary" events were not fully integrated in the Conference programme, but it was clear that they constituted an important part of what the gathering was about. The Conference came to an official end with a cocktail-style reception and an outdoor concert at Sardarabad on May 28th. Thousands of delegates were bussed to Saradarabad to hear Ara Kevorkian's concert in the shadow of Mt. Ararat. The highlight of the evening was a "stunt" act - four parachutists jumping out of a helicopter with a huge tricolor flag. The concert itself infused traditional Armenian folk songs and dances with new age music. The second Armenia-Diaspora Conference succeeded in bringing people together. If this was the sole aim of the government, the Conference was then a success. It might have even encouraged a few diasporan businessmen to increase their investment in Armenia. However, if the intent of the Conference was to lay the foundations of a lasting and institutionalized framework for co-operation, it failed. The Conference was too big, too unmanageable and too unfocussed to be of any practical use in terms of in-depth discussions and concrete outcomes. An energetic team of organizers and volunteers held it together, but just barely. The "organized chaos" had its charm, but it was not inductive for serious work. If the Foreign Ministry of Armenia is to host other such conferences in the future, then it should concentrate on organizing small working events, centred around specific themes or topics, with specialized working groups. Armenia-diaspora relations are too important to become football matches between frustrated intellectuals, and too complex to be hijacked by passionate individuals, no matter how well-meaning. While this conference was too inclusive and therefore nearly unmanageable, the previous one was criticized for being too exclusive and therefore unrepresentative of the Armenian "silent majority." The problem of representation will always dog any organizer of such a conference: who represents the diaspora and the Armenian nation as a whole. This issue can be debated forever, but it cannot be resolved. It is time to set aside such considerations - even if it will lead to criticisms - and concentrate fully on the question of "What is to be done?" The Armenian government needs expert advice and specific proposals in all the spheres that this conference was suppose to address: political relations, education, economy, information and media. Government policy should be informed by the work of experts (and in the West, it always is) who work in small and professional groups. Why should in the Armenian case the weight of history, of "dinosaur" organisations that must always be "represented" and have their say, prevent the government from doing the same. There is a time for show, and a time for quiet and consistent action. After two excellent "feel good" shows bringing Armenia and the diaspora together, it is time to settle in and start working.