In late 2008, the Armenian Government created a Diaspora Ministry to maintain and strengthen ties with the Armenian Diaspora.
Interview with new Diaspora Minister
Hranush Hakobyan: “The Diaspora Ministry is the home of every Armenian”
An interview with the new minister
Published: Friday November 21, 2008
Yerevan - When I made my first trip to Armenia 16 years ago, I stayed at the Erebuni Hotel off Republic Square for three weeks. It was a well-worn facility, and at the time it accommodated guests on the fourth and fifth floors only. The other floors were occupied by refugees from Azerbaijan.
On October 21, accompanied by my colleague Maria Titizian, I returned to the hotel, now all fresh and shiny after a major renovation job, right back to the fifth floor. We had an appointment with Hranush Hakobyan, the head of the newly formed Diaspora Ministry of Armenia. Her large office was filled with floral arrangements - tokens of affection from her friends on the occasion of her appointment.
As we sat there, sipping bitter Armenian coffee, I thought about the refugees who had lived in that building. Some of them had become integrated into the local society. Many of them had moved abroad. Even as Maria and I had, each of us, moved to Armenia with our families, hundreds of thousands of Armenians had moved away from Armenia. Not only had Armenia changed over the last two decades; so too had the diaspora, much expanded by this huge influx. Or perhaps there were multiple Armenian diasporas, and Armenian emigrants from Armenia and Azerbaijan were the newest diaspora.
Was the Diaspora Ministry an effort to reach out to that new, not-yet-organized diaspora?
"For our ministry, there is no old diaspora, new diaspora, small diaspora, or big diaspora," Ms. Hakobyan answered our first question. "For us the guiding principle is the Armenian person living outside of his or her homeland - by homeland I mean either Armenia or Nagorno-Karabakh. We are ready to work with, discuss, cooperate with, and make decisions with every single Armenian living outside of the homeland, whether they are individuals or organizations. After making decisions, we must work together to realize them. This is my greatest desire."
Ms. Hakobyan acknowledged that President Serge Sargsian had intended to send a powerful message with the creation of the Diaspora Ministry. "He understood that he had to deal with issues and make decisions that impact Armenians all over the world. And that was the reason that in his plans there were three important principles:
"(1) Preservation of Armenian identity (hayabahbanum) in all its forms. By preservation of Armenian identity we mean the Armenian family, Armenian culture, faith, and our mother tongue. If these four great pillars remain steadfast and strong, then we will be able to resolve the many issues of our preservation.
"(2) Discovering and tapping into the potential of the diaspora to help empower the homeland and bring about progress. This means that in different countries throughout the world where we have powerful, resourceful, established specialists, scientists, businesspeople, and cultural figures, all their energy and focus must be directed to the empowerment of the homeland.
"(3) Repatriation. By repatriation we don't only mean physical return. We mean the return of the mind and heart, which will then bring the physical return with it. In repatriation (hayrenatardzutiun) we must see a return to Armenianness (hayatardzutiun). The more people there are who want to return to their roots, the more it will help to strengthen the homeland." Where the ministry fits in
In the absence of a dedicated ministry over the past 17 years, much has been done to draw diaspora Armenians to Armenia and to enhance and coordinate their contributions to Armenia's development. At the very start of Armenia's independence, President Levon Ter-Petrossian set up the Armenia Fund, which coordinates charitable work. President Robert Kocharian initiated the Armenia-Diaspora conferences, of which there have been three so far, the Pan-Armenian Games, a set of Pan-Armenian cultural festivals under the rubric, "One Nation, One Culture," and other Armenia-diaspora initiatives.
There is no shortage of information from Armenia. Armenians around the world have access to Armenia's public television and Armenia TV; there's the Armenian Reporter out of New Jersey, Yerevan, Los Angeles, and Washington; there's Yerevan magazine out of Moscow and Yerevan; there are news agencies, websites, and blogs. And there's a constant stream of visitors in and out of Armenia.
Even philanthropic work has become more sophisticated, with initiatives like the Children of Armenia Fund - and the Armenian-American Wellness Center, a project led jointly by Rita Balian in Virginia and Ms. Hakobyan in Yerevan.
Where does the Diaspora Ministry fit into this complex of existing structures?
"After 17 years of independence, ties and partnerships have been formed, yes. The traditional parties returned to the homeland. Many organizations set up affiliates. Governing bodies within ministries have established ties with diaspora communities. I think that the creation of this ministry has been 17 years late in coming," Ms. Hakobyan said.
Although the ministry was officially launched on October 1, Ms. Hakobyan had been assembling her team and setting up for some months earlier. "After only several months of working," she said, "we have found that there is the need for coordination. Everything that has been done, has been done haphazardly, has been done independent of each other, without coordination or direction. The greatest mission of this ministry is the coordination all state governing bodies in their cooperation with diaspora structures and to cooperate with all private and nongovernmental organizations that work with the diaspora."
Even though the ministry will take the lead role in the Armenian government's relations with the diaspora, it is "not prepared to become the ‘government' of the diaspora," Ms. Hakobyan was at pains to emphasize.
The ministry and the Armenia Fund
Ms. Hakobyan was preparing to meet with the governors of Armenia's regions to ask them what they want from the diaspora in the way of aid and investments. "At the end of the day I will have on my table 50-100 proposals from their particular regions for any diaspora organization or individual that would like to participate. These proposals will then have priority."
We wondered: Isn't this what the Armenia Fund does? To set priorities for charitable funding, it has a board of trustees, which is headed by the president of Armenia and includes the president of Karabakh, the prime ministers and other ministers of the two Armenian republics, the catholicoi, and prominent figures from the diaspora.
Ms. Hakobyan replied, "But let us not forget that for the last 15 years, the Armenia Fund's main emphasis or area of work has been on the revitalization of Karabakh's infrastructure: road work, water pipes, building schools. But what are the real needs of Armenia? I don't think the Armenia Fund has worked in this area."
What about the Rural Development Program? This is a program to provide for the comprehensive development of border villages in Armenia and Karabakh.
"During the last Armenia-Diaspora Conference, this program was adopted, yes, and it was specifically for border towns - and that is only one portion of the problem," Ms. Hakobyan responded.
Isn't the role of the Armenia Fund to look at the whole range of challenges and to select the ones that are most important? If the focus for many years was on Karabakh's infrastructure, was that not because the trustees determined that programs like the Goris-Lachin-Stepanakert Highway were the most important program in terms of Armenia's security, defense, and development? Now the most important priority, according to the trustees, is the revitalization of border villages. Beyond that first priority, the fund has additional high-priority programs. So isn't the Diaspora Ministry repeating something that already exists?
"When we say that there is a strategic importance to revitalizing border towns, then yes, let's do it," Ms. Hakobyan responded. "When we say we want to present programs on a regional level, that means we have a more scientific, economic, organized way of presenting proposals. That doesn't have to oppose the work of the Armenia Fund. We are not implementing someone's emotional request, but a concrete issue will be resolved."
She added that the border villages targeted by the Armenia Fund are each in a particular region. "Sitting in Yerevan, I shouldn't decide which village is a priority," she said. "I need to depend on the reports I get from the governors. This doesn't contradict the work of the Armenia Fund. The programs of the Armenia Fund are approved by the board. What I'm saying is that outside of the activities of the Armenia Fund, if there is an Armenian organization, individual, a non-Armenian who wants to carry out projects in Armenia that are not on the agenda of the Armenia Fund, then we have to assist them." Repatriation and Iraqi Armenians
Does the ministry plan to implement an organized repatriation effort?
Ms. Hakobyan said Armenia must learn lessons from its past experience with repatriation. "I would never want repatriation to be like the repatriation of the 1940s, when people came with hopes and dreams and ended up starving. That is why our ministry is initiating a conference on the lessons of the 1946-48 repatriation in December."
For Armenians to want to come to Armenia and stay in Armenia, the country needs to be able to "boast a true democracy, protect human rights, and protect freedoms in general," the minister said. It also needs to continue its rapid economic development.
Any program, she said, would have to guarantee basic living conditions for Armenians who chose to resettle in Armenia and help them overcome obstacles of language and integration into society.
"We have two levels of repatriation issues," Ms. Hakobyan said. The first level is helping Armenians living in Iraq and other zones of adversity. Armenia must "provide proper shelter to those Armenians who need it, assist them to come to Armenia, but not to stay here for a few months and then leave for another country; rather, to create conditions where they would want to stay here."
The second level is to draw Armenians who live in "well-developed countries, who are used to all the conveniences of the places where they live, have a higher education, and good jobs. We have to be able to give them even better conditions here in Armenia for them to move here," she said. The troubleshooter role
Part of Ms. Hakobyan's role is that of ombudsperson. As one of a handful of ministers appointed directly by the president, she has every expectation that government officials on all levels will be very responsive to her prodding. As her constituents - Armenians who live outside Armenia or are from outside Armenia - draw her attention to problems, she is empowered to take action.
Ms. Hakobyan is among the best-known people in Armenia. A dynamic speaker and administrator, she had a high profile among youth in the last years of the Soviet era. She served as a nonpartisan member of parliament for many years, until her appointment as minister. She has traveled widely and been involved in many projects. And she has not slowed down.
Her no-nonsense, no-procrastination attitude was on display during our interview. When we were speaking of repatriation, she learned that Maria has researched and written a historical novel on the repatriation drive of the late 1940s. Next thing we knew, the head of the relevant department had been summoned to the minister's office and had been instructed to invite Maria to speak at the December conference on the lessons of that repatriation drive. We mentioned that our reporting showed that officials at the passport and visa office were routinely rude to Armenians applying for Armenian citizenship. The minister had her assistant schedule a meeting with the head of the passport and visa office, and his boss, the chief of police.
A constant complaint of Armenians who receive residency permits in Armenia is the rendering of their names in Armenian. "I have written to the prime minister about how Armenian names are being distorted due to mechanical transliteration from English or other languages," she said. "I understand that for the bureaucrats, they have to base their transliterations on the original identification papers, but morally and psychologically it is unacceptable to render someone's Armenian name in Armenian incorrectly. Now a person's name will appear in the Armenian as the person writes it."
We prepared to take our leave.
"I want to say three things for your readers to know," Ms. Hakobyan said. "The Diaspora Ministry is the home of every Armenian. They can come here and they can be assured to receive any assistance that they might need.
"Secondly, I want them to know and understand that the ministry does not govern; it cooperates with them, consults with all the structures and organizations in the diaspora, and adopts decisions which are acceptable to the diaspora.
"Thirdly, we have to have staff at the ministry who are diaspora Armenian. Therefore we are waiting for the best specialists from the diaspora to come and work with us. There is a UN program - I have signed an agreement with the UN office, for them to finance those diaspora Armenians who wish to come at work at the ministry for up to six months. [See http://www.undp.am/?page=Jobs for details.]
"I want to stress for all of us Armenians, our mind, conscience, soul, work, potential, financial resources, professional power must be directed toward the empowerment of the homeland. When Armenia is strong, then every Armenian man and woman decides to remain Armenian. People politely listen to those who weep and cry, and then they walk away. They sit down and talk to the strong. I want all of us to remember that we are no longer the Armenians of the 20th century, beaten, starving, weak. We are the Armenians of the 21st century, strong, energetic, with a view to the future."