Armenia-Diaspora Conference: A Global Family Reunion

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Armenia-Diaspora Conference: A Global Family Reunion

September30, 1999

By Harut Sassounian

California Courier Publisher

The much-anticipated Diaspora-Armenia Conference, held in Yerevan on September 22-23, laid a successful foundation for a yet to be defined structure which will help coordinate, if not unite, the disparate elements of a nation scattered throughout the world.

One indication that the conference was generating tremendous enthusiasm was the last minute arrival, unannounced and without hotel reservations, of a couple of hundred delegates above and beyond those who were expected, raising the total from the diaspora to over one thousand. These late arrivals further complicated the already difficult task of the Foreign Ministry employees who were up several nights to make all necessary arrangements. Needless to say, all flights to Armenia were booked up and all hotel rooms in Yerevan were reserved. However, I had no difficulty getting to Armenia as I was probably the only delegate to arrive by cargo plane, accompanying the United Armenian Fund's 106th humanitarian airlift.

The enthusiasm of the delegates reached its peak when, a day before the conference, on the 8th anniversary of Armenia's independence, the new republic displayed its impressive military manpower and hardware with various units of armed forces marching in goose-step and the latest tanks and missiles rolling down the main street with helicopters and jets flying overhead in formation. Viewing from an honor stand was the entire leadership of Armenia and Karabagh. Many of the guests watched the parade with great pride and teary eyes from the windows of their Armenia Hotel rooms overlooking the parade grounds on Republic Square (formerly Lenin Square).

Shortly after the parade, the delegates from the U.S. were brought back to reality when they were summoned to a meeting with Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian. Mr. Oskanian, accompanied by Armenia's Ambassador to the United Nations, Mr. Movses Abelian, had to intervene personally to help both the West Coast and East Coast delegates to select their respective spokesmen and to have them prepare a report to be presented to the conference. Attempts to have these arrangements made before the delegates' arrival in Armenia had failed miserably. Months ago, some of us had foreseen these difficulties, but our early warnings had fallen on deaf ears. With the polite and yet firm guiding hand of Armenia's top diplomat, the disagreements were grudgingly papered over to the relief of even those who were not satisfied with the outcome. Armenia's Ambassador to the UN acknowledged publicly that dealing with Armenia's adversaries at the UN was much easier than dealing with Armenian community leaders.

With this last hurdle overcome, the conference finally opened the next morning. The spokesman for each country sat around a multi-sided giant table along with the lay and church leaders of Armenia, Karabagh and the diaspora. After lengthy remarks by these leaders, delegates from 50 countries spoke around 5 minutes each (Armenian time), interspersed with speeches by representatives of Armenian political parties. Six reports were presented on lobbying, diaspora institutions, cultural and social issues, humanitarian aid, information and communication, and economic development.

At noon, the entire leadership and all of the delegates from around the world marched in a solemn procession to the Armenian Genocide Memorial where prayers were offered to the souls of the martyrs and flowers were placed around the eternal flame. It was a very emotional moment, probably the highlight of the trip to Armenia.

At the end of the second day, the conference came to a close with the adoption of a "Statement of Principles" and a "Statement on Karabagh." Committees will be formed on various topics in the next few months to plan the next steps of this historic pan-Armenian conference.

Now that the hardest part - getting started - is accomplished, I'm confident that in due time, we will resolve all outstanding issues and create a mechanism to coordinate our widely-scattered resources.

On Friday, Sept. 24, there was a conference for Armenian journalists as well as a businessmen's forum. At night, at the invitation of Prime Minister Vasgen Sarkisian, 2,000 guests (all the delegates and various officials from Armenia and Karabagh) were treated to an unforgettable dinner party under the stars in the fields of the famous battle of Sardarabad, across from Mt. Ararat. It was an informal night of merry-making which lasted late into the night with non-stop musical entertainment, sumptuous dinner and fireworks, not to mention the non-stop flowing wine, vodka and cognac. At the end of the night, Prime Minister Sarkisian, Locum Tenens Archbishop Bozabalian of Etchmiadzin and Catholicos Aram I sang together for the first and possibly the last time, after which the Prime Minister tried to sing solo.

Later that night, I overheard an European diplomat describe the party to a colleague as "una fiesta fabulosa." I couldn't agree more!