19 March 2011

3237) “The ARF At 120: A Critical Appreciation” Forum Proceedings NY Hilton Nov. 21, 2010

“The ARF at 120: A Critical Appreciation” at the New York Hilton Hotel. Featuring historians, economists, political scientists, and activists, this unprecedented panel discussion critically reviewed the ARF’s history and current politics, providing recommendations for the road ahead.

The panel featured David Grigorian (Senior Fellow, Policy Forum Armenia), Dennis Papazian (Professor Emeritus of History, University of Michigan-Dearborn), Ara Sanjian (Professor of History, University of Michigan-Dearborn), and K.M. Kourken Sarkissian (President, Zoryan Institute), with Dr. Hratch Zadoian (Professor of Political Science, Queens College) serving as moderator. Antranig Kasbarian (chair, ARF Central Committee, Eastern U.S.) served as discussant.

  • The ARF’s First 120 Years: A Historian’s Perspective By Ara Sanjian
  • ARF: Reflections and refractions: 1988-2010 By Kourken Sarkissian
  • Comments by Prof. Dennis Papazian
  • ARF and Armenia: How to Withstand the Challenges of the Future? By David Grigorian
  • ARF Chair Antranig Kasbarian’s Response to the Papers By Antranig Kasbarian



The ARF’s First 120 Years

A Historian’s Perspective 1

Below are the comments delivered by Ara Sanjian (Professor of History, University of Michigan-Dearborn) at the public forum titled “The ARF at 120: A Critical Appreciation,” held at the New York Hilton Hotel on Nov. 21, 2010.

One constant feature defining the first 120 years of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF) has been its incessant activity within the realm of Armenian politics and often in other related domains as well, beyond politics narrowly defined. Historians of almost any post-1890 episode concerning the Armenians inevitably also deal with the ARF, usually directly, or, at the very least, indirectly.

Over these years, the ARF has established a stable following, especially in the post-Genocide Armenian Diaspora. For decades, its influence as a single faction across this—what we may describe as the traditional—Diaspora has far outweighed those of its two, traditional rivals, the Hunchakians and Ramkavars. Moreover, after 1920, the ARF never got reconciled with the narrow Diasporan straightjacket that was imposed upon it by the exigencies of international politics. It tried tirelessly to re-establish its transnational character at every opportunity. Finally, in 1990, it formally returned to the Armenian nation-state, and, since then, it has been trying to re-establish viable roots not only in the Republic of Armenia, but also in the Republic of Mountainous Karabagh (Artsakh), Javakhk, and among Armenians in Russia. It has done so with varying levels of success, although the overall level of its achievements in this regard has arguably been more modest than what the party anticipated some twenty years ago.

In parallel with this decades-long active history, the ARF also became the foremost publisher in Armenian life of various genres of political literature—theory-related, policy-outline, propaganda, and history. The existing literature by and on the ARF far exceeds that related to the Hunchakians and Ramkavars. (Because of the very different circumstances in which it was published, literature by and on the Communist Party in Armenia is not included in this comparison.) Therefore, there is more accumulated positive historical knowledge on the ARF both at the scholarly and popular levels than about its traditional Diasporan rivals.

Most of the published primary and secondary historical literature on the ARF is in Armenian. Very little of what has been published in other languages (English included) has made original contributions to our academic understanding of the party’s history. Houri Berberian’s Armenians and the Iranian Constitutional Revolution of 1905-1911 (2001) and Dikran M. Kaligian’s Armenian Organization and Ideology under Ottoman Rule, 1908-1914 (2009) are rare, but welcome exception to this pattern, and I wish to see their contents become available to Armenian-reading audiences in some form in the near future.

* * *

However, this relatively vast historical literature on the ARF is extremely imbalanced as regards the different epochs of the party’s history which it covers. The overwhelming majority of collections of documents and secondary literature published by the party, its leaders and intellectuals—what we will call the “authorized” corpus of ARF literature—deals with the first 35 years of its history: from its founding in 1890 to the convening of the party’s 10th General Meeting in 1924-25, the first after the collapse of the ARF-led independent Republic of Armenia (1918-1920).

This was indeed an eventful period in modern Armenian history, and many professional or self-styled historians outside the ARF’s immediate circle of influence have also written extensively on the party’s involvement in these events.

Compared with the post-1924 period, which I will discuss next, today we have what I will describe as a satisfactory level of knowledge about what happened during this era and how the ARF both reacted to and partly shaped its important events. Polemics persist and sometimes they still get sharp, but these are more common among publicists and laypeople, who like to resort to selective historical facts or interpretations to make a point or to show their pre-existing sympathies for or against the ARF. There is, on the other hand, converging consensus among most professional historians when presenting conclusions on the most pivotal events of this period and the ARF’s involvement in the latter.

The increasing freedom enjoyed by historians in Armenia since the collapse of the Soviet system and the wider access which they now have to archival materials housed in various institutions in Yerevan have helped us find out more about certain aspects of the Armenian national-liberation struggle in the Ottoman Empire and even more about the period of Armenian independence (1918-1920). There have been few radical departures, however, from established interpretations, and many of the past arguments and counter-arguments within this context are being mostly reiterated, simply re-enforced through the use of some previously untapped primary sources.

The eventual unfettered opening of the ARF’s Central Archives, now housed in Watertown, Mass., may shed additional light on this period. However, it is highly unlikely that access to these papers, at present closed to most historians, will radically alter the way we now look back on this period.

* * *

This situation changes radically when we move to the post-1924 period of the history of the ARF, i.e. the party’s last 85 years.

For this period, not only do historians not have access to the party’s own archives (this is already an obstacle to those who are studying the ARF’s first 35 years), but, in this case, they are also told that the archives for this particular era are not only out of bounds because of an administrative decision, but that they are still poorly organized, if at all.

Moreover, unlike the previous period, the party itself has not undertaken any real effort to publish collections of primary documents pertaining to developments after 1924.

I find more curious the fact that ARF leaders have themselves been reluctant to pen their memoirs of this period. Famous ARF figures, who were active both before and long after 1924, rarely touched on post-1924 developments in their voluminous writings of autobiographical nature. Ruben Ter Minasian, Simon Vratzian, Vahan Papazian and Garo Sasuni are prominent examples of this group. Among members of roughly the same generation, it seems that Vahan Navasardian, Dro, Kapriel Lazian and Gabriel Lazian never wrote memoirs. The next two generations of ARF leaders, Gobernig Tandurdjian Adour Kabakian, Papken Papazian, and Hratch Dasnabedian, also have no published autobiographies. The only member of the ARF Bureau in the post-1924 period, who, to my knowledge, has published his memoirs, is Antranig Ourfalian. One may also add publications by A. Amurian, Misak Torlakian, S. Saruni, Armen Sevan (Hovhannes Devedjian), Baghdik Minasian, Melkon Eblighatian, and Suren Antoyan, but this is, I think, as far as one can go.

Some information on inner dealings within the ARF during this period can be gleaned from the autobiographical insights in the mostly polemical works penned by ARF figures, who left the party or were expelled at various times and under different circumstances. Within this group, we can mention Shahan Natalie, Krikor Merdjanoff, Khosrov Tutundjian, and Antranig Dzarougian.

Under these circumstances, the ARF press remains the major source to write about certain aspects of the party’s post-1924 history, especially the evolution of its ideology, priorities, and tactics.

However, the very limited access to archival sources and the dearth of published autobiographies are probably not the only reasons which have hindered conducting in-depth studies in the post-1924 history of the ARF. It also appears that there has also never been a sustained interest among the party’s leaders to sponsor such studies, as well as related public debates and discussions. The prevailing cautious attitude among contemporary Armenian Diasporan elites of all political persuasions toward openly tackling the nation’s recent history has also not helped.

It is very difficult to mention any published, high-quality, professional study which deals with any aspect of the party’s history in the post-1924 period. The book version of Gaïdz Minassian’s Guerres et terrorisme arméniens 1972-1998 (2002) unfortunately lacked the necessary scholarly citations so as to impose a public discussion among scholars at least around the various interesting issues that it raised. There have been very few PhD dissertations – e.g. those by Ara Caprielian (1975), Hratch Bedoyan (1978), and Nikola B. Schahgaldian (1979) – but they remain for the most part unpublished and are now probably also to some extent dated. Indeed, Schahgaldian and Bedoyan have been among the lucky few who have had the opportunity to consult archival material in the party’s possession. Shogher (Shoghik) Ashekian has also enjoyed that rare privilege when conducting research for her dissertation at Yerevan State University on the ARF and activities related to what is now widely described as the Armenian Cause in Lebanon in the 1960s and 1970s. However, recent biographers of famous ARF figures like Dro, Garo Sasuni, Avetik Sahakian and Ruben Ter Minasian continue to concentrate for the most part on their pre-1924 activities. They only devote a few pages to their activities in the ensuing decades. Indeed, Sasuni’s biographer, who did not have access to archival material in the party’s possession, openly admits that he could not find out the exact date when Sasuni re-joined the ARF Bureau!

This lack of adequate interest in post-1924 developments is probably behind another feature – the fact that Soviet Armenian and foreign (i.e. US, British, French, and other) archives, which can provide some glimpses on the post-1924 history of the ARF, also remain largely untapped by historians.

Historians in post-Soviet Armenia have also shown no particular interest in the post-1924 history of the ARF, which mostly occurred, after all, in the Diaspora. A collection of documents compiled by Vladimir Ghazakhetsyan, H.H. Dashnaktsutyune ev khorhrdayin ishkhanutyune, published by the ARF Bureau in Yerevan in 1999, covers mostly the 1920s period and only to some extent the 1930s; it is certainly a commendable exception. Eduard Abrahamyan, a young scholar, has recently written about ARF groups which clandestinely breached the Soviet border in the 1920s and 1930s. Nevertheless, it is obvious that, in both cases, the purely Diasporan component of the ARF’s post-1924 history is largely missing.

The absence of high-quality secondary literature makes it very difficult to provide informed opinion on many important issues which remain indispensible to evaluate the ARF’s post-1924 history as a whole: the party’s role in community-building in the post-Genocide Diasporan communities; its individual or group responsibility for the persistence of intra-party rivalries in the Armenian Diaspora; the related issue of the ARF’s involvement in Armenian Church politics; the ARF’s relations with Georgian and Azerbaijani exiles in the inter-war period; the participation of the ARF in electoral politics primarily in Lebanon, but also in Iran, Cyprus, and Syria; the gradual détente between the ARF and the Communist authorities in Soviet Armenia from the 1960s onward; and the party’s clandestine attempts to disseminate nationalist literature among intellectuals and the youth in Soviet Armenia, particularly from the 1970s. I will end this partial list of examples with a topic, which has intrigued me in the past few years: the gradual evolution from the 1960s of the ARF’s ideology from that of a “Cold Warrior” party, allied to right-wingers, to something more akin to a Third Worldist party at present, as well as the various manifestations of this gradual, but steady shift in the various host-countries where Diasporan Armenians live in significant numbers.

In the absence of good scholarship, polemics among those who hold pro- or anti-ARF views remain more acute when we encounter particular, usually violent, episodes of which the ARF was or is believed to be part. Examples include the assassination of Archbishop Ghevond (Leon) Tourian in New York in 1933; the cooperation of some prominent ARF figures with the Nazis during the Second World War; Dro’s post-World War II political and quasi-military activism in the Arab world; the discovery of armed caches and the subsequent arrest and trial of many ARF members in Syria in 1961-1962; and, finally, the occasionally bloody encounters between the ARF and the Armenian Secret Army for the Liberation of Armenia (ASALA) in Lebanon in the early 1980s. While each of these episodes can be treated as a thriller in its own right, a more in-depth and dispassionate study for each of them is necessary not only to cool down passions inherited from those who were participants in or contemporaries to these events but also as a means to better understand the party’s political and ideological evolution in the Diaspora, in parallel with the broader issues listed above.

The ARF’s involvement in political events leading to and since the outbreak of the Karabagh Movement in Armenia in February 1988 are perhaps too fresh to be analyzed in depth by professional historians today, but will undoubtedly concern them in the future. However, just as the current generation of historians complains about the above-listed and other difficulties when tackling the ARF’s post-1924 history, later generations of historians will probably also complain in similar vein about lack of encouragement to discuss and inaccessibility of primary sources pertaining to the post-1988 era, unless there is a radical change among the Armenian elites’ readiness to face contemporary history head on and an attendant change within the ARF ranks toward providing access to its archival material for professional historians without distinction of nationality or political convictions.

On the occasion of the 120th anniversary, I thank the ARF Central Committee of the Eastern United States for providing me with this opportunity to share my concerns during this public forum. I express the wish that the ARF leadership go back to its coffers, look for, and release unpublished memoirs that touch upon the party’s post-1924 history; make its archives accessible to professional historians as quickly and as widely as possible; take a parallel initiative and publish significant of the more interesting and important documents in its possession; initiate an oral history project targeting party veterans with acknowledged intellectual depth; and, finally, encourage public debate on post-Genocide Diasporan and recent ARF history.

I believe that such endeavors will contribute to having an educated Armenian public which can make informed decisions on important matters in an elegant climate. Honestly, while I won’t rush to bet that such changes will occur in the foreseeable future, I promise to be among the first to cheer loud and clear whenever I see some progress in the direction that I have suggested today.

[1] This article is a slightly amended version of my paper presented at “The ARF at 120: A Critical Appreciation” Public Forum held in New York on Sunday, November 21, 2010. The author thanks the following colleagues for their comments on an earlier draft of this presentation: Aram Arkun, Bedross Der Matossian, Marc Mamigonian, Garabet K. Moumdjian, Garo Ohannessian, Razmik Panossian, and Khachig Tölölyan


ARF: Reflections and Refractions (1988-2010)

Below are the comments delivered by K.M. Kourken Sarkissian (President, Zoryan Institute) at the public forum titled “The ARF at 120: A Critical Appreciation,” held at the New York Hilton Hotel on Nov. 21, 2010.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Since I have been invited here as president of the Zoryan Institute, allow me to start with a brief word about the institute. It was founded by a small group of Armenians in 1982, absorbed with questions about their history, identity, and future as a nation. They concluded that there was a crucial need for a place to think critically about the Armenian reality. Intellectuals, scholars, and the community at large would raise substantial questions about contemporary Armenian history and identity, and help develop new perspectives on vital issues, both current and future. Its primary goals would be for the Armenian people to express their history in their own voice; to understand the forces and factors that shape the Armenian reality today; and in doing so, to engage the community in a higher level of discourse, but without claiming that it had all the answers.

It is from this perspective that I will attempt to reflect on the ARF’s role in the diaspora and Armenia for the past 22 years, since the beginning of the Karabagh movement. Because of time constraints, I will present an abbreviated analysis using only selected examples. Hopefully, we can get into more detail during the Question & Answer session.

To start with, I will give a little background on my experiences with the ARF. I attended ARF schools, where we learned not only about Armenian history and geography, math, and science, but also read Roubeni Housher, Zartonk, and about the lives of Christapor, Simon Zavarian, Stepan Zoryan, and what their work meant for the nation.

As part of our education, we learned from the voluminous Hayastani Hanrabedoutiun by Simon Vratzian, the last prime minister of the Armenian Republic, how the first republic was established, the spirit in which the constitution was developed, the challenges that the young country faced, the importance of democracy, and the participation of other political parties, women, and minorities in the Armenian Parliament. Running throughout our education was the genocide and the demand for its affirmation and justice. A free, independent, and united Armenia was equally emphasized. The ARF was successful in indoctrinating the youth with the importance of civic engagement and inspiring them with the literature to which I just referred.

In the diaspora, the ARF was visible in all aspects of Armenian society, in the social, political, economic, religious, cultural, and educational spheres and, last but not least, in sports. They created a sense of community through their centers, provided a place for everyone, from youth to the elderly, and promoted Armenian history and identity.

When I came to the U.S. for my university education, I lived in California, where I worked as a volunteer translator for the Asbarez newspaper. As a university student living in the U.S. in the 1970’s, I was inescapably confronted by the discord over the war in Vietnam. We learned about how the government was misrepresenting to the people what was happening in the war. The youth began questioning authority and the legitimacy of the government and its agencies. A true social revolution was taking place. Naturally, Armenian youth also began to question the authority of their own leaders, whether of the church or the political parties. Unfortunately, it soon became clear that these traditional institutions were dedicated to keeping the status quo. While I had grown up with the ideals and principles of an organization that was to be decentralized and governed from the bottom up, I eventually realized that the ARF had actually become highly centralized and was run from the top down. Furthermore, it had developed an institutional attitude towards individuals and other organizations that could be summed up as “if you are not with me, you are against me.” The fact that the ARF had drifted from its original principles led to great disappointment and disillusionment, not only for me, but also others.

With this background, let me now turn to events that took everyone by surprise and resulted in important opportunities missed by the ARF and almost all Armenian Diaspora organizations. In the mid-1980’s, Mikhail Gorbachev announced new policies of perestroika, meaning restructuring, and glasnost, meaning openness. The relaxation of censorship and attempts to create more political openness had the unintended effect of re-awakening suppressed nationalist feelings throughout the Soviet republics. The Karabagh movement was one of the first efforts by a Soviet people to test these new policies.

On Feb. 20, 1988, Nagorno-Karabagh, conscious of the complete depopulation of Armenians from Nakhichevan and the trend towards the same in Karabagh due to the policies of the rulers of Azerbaijan, passed a resolution calling for unification with the Armenian SSR. Protests quickly developed into a hugely popular mass movement, with an estimated 1 million people filling the streets of Yerevan during the last week of February, listening to speeches and shouting “Gha-ra-bagh! Gha-ra-bagh!” Peaceful protests in Yerevan supporting the Karabagh Armenians were met with anti-Armenian pogroms in the Azerbaijani city of Sumgait.

Gorbachev’s inability to solve the Armenians’ problems created dissatisfaction and only fed a growing hunger for independence among the Armenians. Clashes soon broke out between Soviet Internal Security Forces (the MVD) based in Yerevan and Armenians who decided to commemorate the establishment of the 1918 Republic of Armenia. The violence resulted in the deaths of five Armenians. Witnesses claimed that the MVD had used excessive force and that they had instigated the fighting. Further firefights between Armenians and Soviet troops occurred in Sovetashen, near the capital, and resulted in the deaths of some 26 people, mostly Armenians. The actions of these people responding to glasnost emanated in practice from a right asserted from below, a philosophy that the ARF had taught in its institutions.

It was surprising, therefore, that the response of the ARF to this movement was to issue a joint statement with the Hnchak and Ramgavar Parties which, while pledging their support for bringing Karabagh within Soviet Armenia, concluded as follows:

“We […] call upon our valiant brethren in Armenia and Karabagh to forgo such extreme acts as work stoppages, student strikes, and some radical calls and expressions that unsettle law and order in public life in the homeland that subject economic, productive, educational, and cultural life to heavy losses; that [harm seriously] the good standing of our nation in its relations with the higher Soviet bodies and other Soviet republics.”

Naturally, coming especially from the ARF, which embodied the national liberation movement, this was not well received by the people in Armenia and Karabagh, nor the leaders of the Karabagh movement. This was especially true after the pogroms against Armenians in Sumgait, Kirovabad, and Baku. Some within the ARF felt this appeal to not upset the status quo was a betrayal of the revolutionary ideals of the party and its principle of struggling for freedom and independence. Others went as far as accusing the ARF of not wanting the success of a movement over which the party itself did not have control.

People started to question the role that diasporan political parties could assume in an independent Armenia. What should be the role of a party based outside of Armenia? Could a diasporan political party act against the interests of the government of the homeland without also acting inadvertently against the interests of its people? While the ARF had filled its supporters with a spirit of engagement and activism, it shook their faith by demonstrating its aversion to change and supporting the status quo.

Just around this time, we, too, at the Zoryan Institute had a relevant experience with the ARF. Some of the founders and early volunteers of the institute had, like me, grown up within party institutions, but had made a conscious decision to establish Zoryan as an institute completely independent of any of the traditional community organizations. In March 1988, the party’s top leadership in Athens demanded to have its representatives form the majority on the institute’s Board of Directors. Naturally, this was not acceptable to our Board, which was made up of scholars, including non-Armenians. The party then issued an order to all of its members on April 1, 1988, to withhold support from the Zoryan Institute, with the threat of disciplinary action, including dismissal from the party. Fortunately, with credit to the new leadership of the ARF, this decision was reversed some 18 years later, and we now enjoy cordial cooperation with the ARF, as with all organizations.

Going back to the Karabagh movement and Armenia’s independence, the ARF, being severed from Armenia, did not play an active role and was in essence an outside observer of the events, as were most of the diasporan organizations. Nevertheless, it disapproved of almost everything done by the Armenian leadership and the Hayots Hamazgain Sharzhum (HHSh). The ARF stayed away from the celebrations held in the Armenian Parliament when the referendum to break away from the Soviet Union passed with an overwhelming Yes vote. The ARF felt that it had the legacy, the political experience, and the right to govern. During the presidential elections, it anticipated that, based on its historical record, the people of Armenia would welcome the party with open arms and sweep it into power. Instead, Levon Ter-Petrosian won the election with 83 percent of the vote. This was only to be expected. The Karabagh movement was innate in Armenia, understood the people, the power bases, and the local social and political dynamics.

From the outset, the ARF leadership did not hesitate to reprimand and rebuke the Armenian government for its actions. In an interview, the chairman of the ARF described the rulers of Armenia as just adolescent children in international politics, pointing to the ARF’s 100 years of political experience. Even before Armenia declared its independence in September 1991, and Levon Ter-Petrosian was elected president in October, the Dashnak Party’s official organs, such as “Troshag,” were vilifying him with the worst sarcasm and innuendo in their pages.

Actually, when the ARF registered as a political party in Armenia, it did not allow itself the time to earn the confidence of the people. Time was needed to integrate with the power centers of the country, such as the army, the rapidly emerging private sector, cultural institutions, and the church before running a candidate for the presidency. Instead, the ARF simply relied, once again, on its historical legacy, and used its leverage from the diaspora, in terms of financial and human resources. To offset the ARF’s leverage, the Ter-Petrosian government, as governments will always do, used other diasporan organizations, such as the AGBU, other traditional political parties, and particularly the Armenian Assembly, as their liaison with the diaspora and a counter-balance to the ARF’s influence in the U.S., where the ARF was best organized. Levon Ter-Petrosian even appointed a protégé of the Armenian Assembly, Raffi Hovannisian, as his very first foreign minister for several reasons, one of which was to help reduce the influence of the ARF in Armenia and the diaspora.

President Ter-Petrosian was so bitter towards the ARF that in a famous television speech on Dec. 28, 1994, unfairly banned the party, claiming evidence of a plot hatched by the ARF to engage in terrorism against his administration, endanger Armenia’s national security, and overthrow the government. He not only shut the party down in Armenia, jailing a number of its members, but also had the ARF declared as a terrorist group in other countries, affecting the freedom of movement of the ARF’s leading members.

One wonders how things might have turned out had the ARF and the HHSh taken the opportunity to reevaluate the historical moment and their roles at this critical juncture, and see if they could have worked together, rather than attack each other.

During the 1996 presidential election, the ARF protested loudly the government’s violence against the opposition, the beating of opposition parliamentary deputies, the shutting down of opposition party headquarters, and the sending of tanks and troops into the capital. Within days of Robert Kocharian becoming president in 1998, however, the ARF was rehabilitated.

The Oct. 27, 1999 assassinations in parliament caused a major crisis in the country. The Republican Party and the Yergrabah movement, led by Vazken Sarkisyan, who was now assassinated, engaged in self-destructive political infighting. The People’s Party (Demirchyan’s party) split into two. The political situation was in turmoil. Prime Minister Antranig Markaryan stepped forward to put the interests of the country ahead of his party and put together a coalition, as Kocharian himself did not belong to a political party. In this chaotic scenario, the ARF, as a newcomer, became a viable alternative, as it filled an ideological void within the political spectrum and slowly gained momentum. The party claimed it was in the coalition to change the system from within, and people believed it. The ARF had some initial successes. It established its infrastructure as a political party, with offices, administrative and political staff, media outlets, and Hai Tahd activities, and it also began the process of moving its Bureau headquarters to Armenia.

The ARF entered parliament in 1999 and joined the ruling coalition in 2003. In 2007 again, its members assumed ministries, including Agriculture, Education and Science, Labor and Social Affairs, and Healthcare. These were critical areas that could have used some of the leverage that the ARF has in the diaspora to benefit Armenia, but in the long term, resulted in a lost opportunity.

In 2008, the ARF joined a coalition with the Serge Sarkisian government, despite the March 1, 2008 presidential election fiasco, when there were voting irregularities, beatings, arrests, a 20-day state of emergency leaving some 10 people dead and hundreds wounded, and a crackdown on civil and political rights throughout the year, whereby freedom of assembly and expression were heavily restricted, and with opposition and human rights activists imprisoned, where many still remain today. In spite of all this, the ARF remained a silent bystander, if not a participant, by association.

There was certainly a lot to protest under both the Kocharian and Sarkisian administrations, as reported by such reputable organizations as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, and the World Economic Forum, to name only a few.

These are just some of the serious threats and challenges to the country, as well as to any Armenian political party hoping to serve the country: Arbitrary use of the rule of law, or lack thereof, and selective protection of private property. Concentration of wealth in the hands of a few. Oligarchs controlling imports and key sectors of the economy for their personal benefit, creating a huge gap between them and the majority of the people, who live below the poverty line. Unemployment and reliance on external resources. Rampant government corruption. Use of government for partisan purposes. Government control over electoral process, minimizing the role of the electorate and perpetuating an elitist, non-responsive party system. Concentration of political power in the hands of a few. Political prisoners, intimidation, beatings, killings. Political censorship of media. Demographic decline. People, especially the youth and those with saleable skills, leaving the country in droves. Lack of youth inhibits conscription for Armed Services.

The ARF has certainly demonstrated its ability to successfully mobilize the masses to protest forcefully in communities around the world, when the need is there. Unfortunately, the ARF’s criticism of the Kocharian and Sarkisian government regarding the failures and/or threats listed above was only minimal at best, in stark contrast with their strong criticism of the Ter-Petrosian Administration, which was also corrupt, as well as of the Sarkisian government during the protocols. This raises serious questions. Was its silence in the face of all these threats and injustices the price that the ARF was willing to pay just for being part of the government? Was being in government more important than being true to the ARF’s core principles? What material benefits did the ARF achieve for the people of Armenia as part of the coalition for 10 years, when the situation in Armenia, as described above, is now worse than ever?

Finally, in April 2009, the ARF left the coalition, due to its opposition to the Turkish-Armenian protocols. However, this occurred only after April 24, the 95th anniversary commemoration of the genocide, by which time President Obama had made his declaration that he would not interfere with a genocide resolution, as the parties were negotiating.

Undoubtedly, the ARF is searching for its place and role, now that it’s out of the government. Unfortunately, the ARF’s participation in the coalition still taints its moral authority, for the time being. However, being out of the coalition liberates the party and gives it the opportunity to change its modus operandi, refracting completely in a new direction. The ARF should now come up with a clear vision for the future of Armenia, or be part of a group that does, and promote that vision through its well-organized structures in the diaspora and Armenia. In doing so, the party may even provide constructive criticism of government policy, should the latter fail to realize that vision.

History has shown that the ARF works best when it follows its grassroots, bottom up, decentralized principles. What does that mean today? If the ARF is to be truly a decentralized party, then it should serve its local constituency and be accountable only to them, as no country should tolerate any political party that draws its ideology and resources from abroad.

There must be two distinct organizations, linked only by ideology: one dealing with Armenia-centered issues, elected by its members in Armenia, and accountable to the people there, the other focused on diaspora-centered issues, elected by its members in the diaspora and accountable to them. This does not mean the diaspora-based ARF should not work for the betterment of Armenia. The ARF in the diaspora could work more closely with other diaspora-based organizations to bring real reform and change in Armenia. To start with, all political parties in Armenia should be able to compete on a level playing field. They should all have the same opportunities of funding, freedom of expression, and media coverage. This would lead to better governance, and therefore rule of law. The diaspora, collectively, must hold the government accountable, with specific conditions and standards, for its ongoing support. This would promote democracy, so much needed in Armenia, and through such cooperation, help create sustainable economic development in Armenia.

This cooperation would involve consultation, brainstorming with experts, and openness to divergent opinions. It would last beyond the review being conducted during this 120th anniversary, and be an ongoing effort. By promoting such cooperation and raising awareness of it among the people, the party could demonstrate its leadership and enhance its legitimacy.

In conclusion, the ARF has to consider a refraction in its direction. This means that preserving the traditional culture and calling for genocide recognition, which it has done so successfully, is no longer enough. Experience teaches that those who stick with the status quo in this ever-changing world eventually become irrelevant. Thus, if the ARF is truly to become an agent of change, it should adopt a new agenda that touches the people of Armenia on all levels. That project should become a national agenda, a project I call the “Armenia Project.”

One nation, one culture, and one people starts right here in the diaspora.

Comments by Prof. Dennis Papazian

Below are the comments delivered by Dennis Papazian (Professor Emeritus of History, University of Michigan-Dearborn) at the public forum titled “The ARF at 120: A Critical Appreciation,” held at the New York Hilton Hotel on Nov. 21, 2010.

First, I would like to thank the organizers for inviting me to speak. This is an important occasion, commemorating the 120th anniversary of one of the most significant institutions in modern Armenian history. The title of the panel is appropriate: “A Critical Appreciation.” No individual, no society, no country, and no institution is perfect. To think otherwise is naive in the extreme. Therefore we are here today to express appreciation and, hopefully, to offer some constructive criticism. Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately in some cases, each speaker is granted only 20 minutes. So unless we narrow our topic to a particular issue, which I think inappropriate for an occasion of this type, we are forced to leave out nuances and details—hopefully not out of ignorance, but because of a lack of time. I would be glad to discuss the details with anyone who is interested.

The ARF is an alive and vibrant institution throughout the Armenian world, with a multitude of adherents and supporters existing in many societies, among many cultures, and in various countries with differing political structures, all of which are constantly changing—a great challenge for any organization. Even its competitors and critics must admit that it has been one of the most important mainstays of continued Armenian viability in the world, particularly after the Armenian Genocide. To say so is not to diminish other organizations that have also made their distinct contributions.

My own mentor, Alex Manoogian, who left the party at an early age, would often tell me while quietly discussing policy, “They do good work.” And even more often he would say, “They know how to raise patriotic Armenian youth. We must appreciate that.” As I look around me today, I see that most of the Armenian activists in America, inside and outside of the ARF community, have had their origins, one way or another, within the ARF community. That speaks for itself. Many have left the organization, others have left the ARF community, some have become its worst critics, but most have carried their patriotism with them. Without the ARF, many other Armenian organizations and institutions would not exist today.

That is not to imply that the ARF is perfect. No human institution is perfect, particularly a widespread organization with a revolutionary origin. But as realists and objective observers, we must grant it its due. Moreover, the ARF, and the community it leads, have changed with the times to meet the challenges of a constantly changing world. Of course, there is always a social lag, and some of us may think that the ARF in the past has not always been as progressive or constructive as it should have been, but history itself judges institutions. The fact the ARF has survived for 120 years indicates it knows how to grow and change to meet objective circumstances, even if it slips up here and there.

If we are to be critical, I believe many of the faults of the ARF are the faults of the Armenian community itself or the external environment in which it exists. The environment often encourages bad habits and counterproductive policies such as during the Cold War. Here in America, an open and multicultural society, a democratic institution can live and prosper. Back in the old Ottoman Empire, only a secret, well-disciplined organization could survive. Adaptation to the environment is necessary for life, and I believe the ARF community is slowly adapting as it confronts today’s reality. I believe its participation in a coalition government in Armenia has been a vital learning experience, and I sense it is more willing today than ever before to work constructively with other organizations.

What are some of these faults of the Armenian community? Most of them are faults of society at large. Most people are more self-interested than they are interested in their causes, if they even bother to have a cause. That is why real leaders are rare, people who are willing to subsume their own personal wellbeing to their cause. A second major fault, of course, is personal politics, people who place their own wellbeing within the organization above the wellbeing of the organization itself. Furthermore, there is a lack of visionaries, people who can see the future and introduce appropriate mechanisms for dealing with it

Narrow-mindedness and egocentrism are a cancer within. We see it all around us, and we see how it is debilitating and perhaps destroying venerable Armenian organizations as we speak. Farce unchecked becomes tragedy. Unfortunately, this is not an entirely new or exclusive phenomenon.

And finally, one of our major faults is a tendency among Armenians to ignore the real enemy and fight amongst ourselves. In the 1950’s, 60s, and 70s, I would repeat over and over again to anyone who would listen, “Why do we continue to fight against each other in the most vicious ways? Why are we hurting and undermining each other? Why are we wasting our energies and destroying ourselves in the process? Turkish leaders must be laughing as they watch our vicious internecine infighting. We are our own worst enemies.” Fortunately, this phase is passing and we are learning to cooperate to reach our common goals.

Our enemy is not each other, though we may differ in attitudes and policies. Our enemy is the government and successor state that perpetrated a genocide—the Medz Yeghern—against our people. That is why I have always stood for cooperation and unity of action, when appropriate, among the Armenian people, our organizations, and institutions. That is why I do not consider myself a partisan even though I have my personal preferences and predilections. That is why I have always agreed to work for good causes with anyone of good will. Some people may think I am naive, that I should be totally dedicated to only one organization or institution. I think I am the ultimate realist. The cause is above politics, which should only be a means to an end, not the end itself. What profit is there if Armenia fails and an individual party continues to exist?

We need only to look around us to see the faults in society at large. The Armenians are no exception to human reality. In the final analysis, we are a real people and not merely the figments of the imagination, just as Armenia is a real country and not a dreamland.

Some of the ARF’s faults are due to the larger intellectual society in which it was formed. For example, it originated at a time and in an environment that was not only anti-clerical but also materialistic. It was an environment of Marxism, secular socialism, the worship of science, and a rejection of spiritual values. That was unfortunate, and we see some of this pernicious influence even today. With a rejection of religion came the worship of the nation, the language, and even the alphabet, all clearly false gods. The alphabet, although unique and beautiful, is only an instrument for preserving thought. Thought is more important than the alphabet. The language, also, is unique and beautiful, and worth preserving, but not at any price.

It is interesting to note that the ancient Jews spoke Hebrew, moved on to Aramaic, then to various predominant languages such as Greek and, in Eastern Europe, to Yiddish. The change in language did not diminish the allegiance of the people to their ethnos, their ask. At an opportune time, they have reestablished Hebrew as their national language, but the use of other languages did not diminish their zeal for unity or a place of their own.

The worship of the nation was a 19th-century intellectual phenomenon. In my opinion, one does not have to worship the nation in order to be a nationalist. Nationalism is the realization that it is beneficial, to put it simply, for people to stick together. It is a natural and universal phenomenon for individuals to find comfort and security in their immediate family, their extended family, their tribe, their community, and finally their ethnos, their nation. A nation can exist within a nation-state such as England, France, or Germany, or it can exist in a multi-national state, a state such as the United States or one of the old multinational empires. Time and circumstance determine where the nation is forced to exist; it is not always a free choice. A people need not have a physical territory to have a nation, particularly in today’s world. The Jews survived for 2,000 years without a territory, and the Armenians for 500 years. Other people tell us who we are, whether we like it or not. Think about it. Talaat Pasha did not ask people if they were Armenian; he identified and eradicated those he defined to be Armenians.

Identification by others happens every day within society, in schools, colleges, churches, businesses, and government. Just about everywhere, there is discrimination to one degree or another. People generally help their own. That is why ethnic politics is so strong in America. This situation accounts for the success of the Tea Party movement, the revolt of the poor whites.

If others tell us who we are, who are we to reject our own identity? We should wear it proudly and work with one another in our common interests. If our youth see it is in their common interest to stay together, they will stay together.

Religion has been used historically to unite a people. The rulers in ancient Mesopotamia had their own individual gods. The Romans insisted on the deification of the emperor. Justinian, the emperor of Byzantium, demanded Christian Orthodoxy, just as the rulers of Russia imposed Russian Orthodoxy and the Bolsheviks sought to impose communism as a secular religion. In the West, it was the Roman Catholic Church that established social and political unity. In the Arab world it was Islam. People who forget the unifying power of religion do it at their own peril. Notice how Europe is disintegrating in the face of the challenge from Islam since the Europeans have become so secular and even anti-religion. Secularism among the Armenians is a danger, a danger that has been realized by the leaders in Armenia. Notice how the leaders in Armenia have tried to reestablish the Armenian Church as a national church, even against the demands of international elites who demand total freedom of religion. The ARF should become more sensitive to the power of religion as the defining and unifying force of a people.

The ARF has had a mixed experience in Armenia through no fault of its own since there are no precedents of real parliamentary democracy in Armenia. The instincts of the ruling elites of Armenia are not democratic, and they do not practice democracy. They exhibit autocratic characteristics that they inherited from a totalitarian state, and are slow to change. Culture is a very powerful force, and traditionally it takes three generations for society to change substantially. This is extremely unfortunate for the Armenian people, since democracy would unleash powerful creative forces in Armenia to make it competitive in an increasingly competitive world. So would the rule of law, the sanctity of property, and social mobility. In a truly democratic society, parties would have actual programs, and there would be open competition in elections. Armenia, with its small size and intelligent population, would be an ideal place to practice open democracy, an open society, and free enterprise.

Finally, I would like to point out that the world has grown flat, that electronics and technology are producing an international virtual community, and under the right leadership the Armenians may become the first virtual nationality in the world, not tied together by physical space but by the ether, by the World Wide Web, and, to use a modern expression, would exist in the clouds. Hopefully, the ARF could take a leading role in developing the international Armenian community as a virtual community, empowering those outside of Armenia to actually participate in determining its destiny. Armenia, with its 2.5-3.5 million people, no longer really represents the Armenian nation. There are more self-conscious Armenians, definable Armenians, outside of Armenia than inside. Those by the accident of birth who live on only a part of the traditional Armenian soil have no right to exclude others from determining our national destiny. Lex solis is an old fashion idea; society is international. Lex sanguine, applied in a modern fashion, can unite Armenians wherever they might be.

Business has become international, English has become international, Armenians have usually been international. Armenians can adapt readily to this international world to make themselves the first virtual nation, physically scattered but united electronically.

I have several other themes that I would like to discuss, but time limitations prevent that. I hope I will have an opportunity in the future to share more of my thoughts in the hope of stimulating new thinking to address old problems.

Thank you very much.

ARF and Armenia: How to Withstand the Challenges of the Future?

Below are the comments delivered by David Grigorian (Senior Fellow, Policy Forum Armenia) at the public forum titled “The ARF at 120: A Critical Appreciation,” held at the New York Hilton Hotel on Nov. 21, 2010.

Recent past: A snapshot

On behalf of my colleagues at Policy Forum Armenia (PFA)—a virtual think-tank uniting over 60 Armenian professionals from around the world—I thank the organizers, particularly, Dr. Antranig Kasbarian, for an opportunity to address this anniversary gathering.

The fact that a developmental economist, like me—who by the nature of his profession focuses more on the future than on the past—is invited to speak here, is a welcome development and says a lot about where the ARF’s thinking is aimed at.

Before I begin, however, I am required to make a disclaimer. The views expressed here are my own and should not be attributed to the institutions I am affiliated with.

I should mention that neither my English nor my presentation is as polished as those of my fellow panelists, who spoke here before me, for which I apologize. So please bear with me. I am also perhaps the most impatient one among the panelists in my desire to see change take place, and for that I do not apologize!

There is something I would like to say from the onset, something that has to do with why I am here today. And that thing is the understanding that the ARF is the most active and well-organized element of the Armenian Diaspora. It is second to none in terms of the patriotic upbringing of youth and the role it played in the Artsakh War.

Much of what I am going to say today is on the record already, as part of PFA’s report on Armenia-Diaspora relations of the past 20 years. There we argue for a more active diaspora involvement in Armenia’s affairs, and so the rest of my presentation will essentially be based on that premise.

First, I would like to review some facts of the ARF’s involvement in Armenia in recent years—election results since 2007—and offer some reasons for the worse-than-expected outcomes.

Second, I would like to share with you my take on Armenia’s developmental challenges and, time permitting, put that in the perspective of both our own resources as well as the trends taking place in the rest of the world.

Finally, I would like to offer some recommendations on what the ARF can do to better meet the challenges before itself and the Armenian nation as a whole.

I wanted to start off with a brief trip to a not-so-distant past and ask you to visualize a bar chart that has the following percentages of votes received by the ARF in the 2007 parliamentary elections, the 2008 presidential elections, and the 2009 Yerevan municipality elections.

While PFA’s research shows evidence of fraud and irregularities against certain political parties and candidates, we conclude—at least in the cases of 2008 and 2009—that there was little, if any, systemic fraud conducted against ARF (or its candidates) in these elections. So these numbers are really the fraud-free popularity ratings of the ARF in Armenia.

Now, I am sure many of you have wondered about these outcomes. After all, if anything we know about elections and what drives them is correct, the ARF should have been receiving much higher and perhaps even increasing levels of support.

Blunders of the past

I do not want to dwell on these numbers (see table) too much—after all, they are in the past and not much can be changed there. What I do want to do, however, is offer some potential reasons behind these performances and generally the ARF’s low popularity ratings in Armenia. I call these reasons “Six Blunders of the Past.”


ARF's performance in Armenia's elections (2007-2009).
Blunder #1: Handling of freedom fighter Pavel Manukyan’s case in June 2005, who was severely beaten by Seyran Ohanyan (and a number of others) in his office. The case was pushed under the carpet without receiving much by way of legal due process. Since then, Ohanyan moved to become the defense minister of Armenia, while others who participated in the beating were promoted (including to the rank of general). This was seen by many as an unwillingness of the ARF leadership to rock the boat, in an attempt not to risk the cozy relationship with then-President Robert Kocharyan, and may have contributed to the current scandalous environment in the Armenian Army.

Blunder #2: Supporting a legislative amendment introduced by the Kocharian Administration in February 2007 to ban absentee voting. As part of a legislative initiative to introduce dual citizenship, which the ARF was the main force behind, casting votes by Armenian citizens residing abroad—previously allowed at Armenia’s embassies worldwide—has been banned.

Blunder #3: The signing of the infamous March 18, 2008 statement by five diasporan organizations (ANCA as one of the signatories) and the signing of the Coalition Agreement with the Republican Party and others on March 22, 2008. This is even more surprising if viewed together with the fact that Vahan Hovhanissian, the ARF’s candidate, resigned from his position of vice speaker of the parliament citing gross violations during the February elections. These two steps basically gave Robert Kocharian and Serge Sarkisian a free hand to “handle” the opposition and throw several dozen of them in jail, effectively closing the window for any meaningful political reform in Armenia. Fundamental developmental changes promised by Serge Sarkisian and signed up to by the coalition members, including the ARF, are yet to materialize.

Blunder #4: Unwillingness to cooperate with the Ter Petrossian-led opposition. The whole rhetoric that Levon Ter-Petrossian is one of the founding fathers of the crooked system we have now—while true—is reminiscent of holding grudges, which is not only difficult for the people of Armenia to comprehend—given the country’s state of affairs—but also difficult to reconcile with Kocharian’s own record of anti-ARF activities in Artsakh during the war, which did not prevent the ARF from becoming his power base for a decade.

Blunder #5: The ARF’s membership in the coalition governments. During the past 12 years, the party was in control of critical areas of education, social security, and agriculture, having to report little, if any, positive change in these areas. In fact, the ARF’s leadership in these areas witnessed Armenia entering the lowest quintiles of world countries in terms of budgetary spending on education and health.

Blunder #6: Handling of Armenia-Turkey protocols. While the end result—the ARF leaving the coalition—was as expected, many observers felt it was too little too late. It is difficult to imagine that as a coalition member the ARF was not in the loop with the preparations underway and could not have blown the whistle earlier on this biggest of all “Russian roulettes” played in Armenia’s recent history.

But let me not single out the ARF here and give you a snapshot of our assessment of the overall diaspora performance in recent years; here I cite the conclusions of the PFA’s Diaspora Report:

—Diaspora missed an opportunity to line up its vision, values, and aspirations with those of the people of Armenia. Diaspora economic assistance lost its scale/scope, and may have reduced incentives of those in power in Yerevan to undertake meaningful reform;

—Diaspora failed to produce a credible warning to the government of Armenia as to the limits of what can and cannot be tolerated in terms of human rights abuses and economic mismanagement;

—By being complacent and minding its own business, Diaspora effectively encouraged the abuses that have undermined the prospects for development and are effectively tearing the socio-political fabric of the Armenian society.

The good news is that the diaspora—and that includes its most active element, the ARF—is still the best source for change that we have, by the virtue of the fact that it is free from Yerevan’s censorship and has the intellectual and financial resources to do much better.

Current challenges

Going forward, I will list the challenges faced by Armenia today as I see them. Among these, nothing has such a profound implication for the conditions the country is in now (and as a matter of fact, for the remainder of the items of the list) as the first item below, the state capture:

—State capture (defined as control of economy and economic decision-making by a narrow interest group or individuals) has reached enormous and unprecedented proportions in Armenia;

—Demographic disaster: According to several observers, such as Stephan Astourian and Ara Papian, given the outflow of population, Armenia may soon reach a point of no return from in terms of both economic and geopolitical viability;

—Brain drain has accelerated since the events of 2008 with little, if any, hope of slowing down;

—Damage to the social fabric and values: The economic model of recent years has (on the microeconomic level) encouraged over-dependence on remittances and transfers and discouraged investment in education and business activities;

—Economic stagnation, growing public debt: Crisis management over the past two years has turned into a disaster, with sovereign debt about to cross a dangerous threshold of 50 percent of GDP by the end of 2010, tripling in two years! The current economic model holds no promise of any drastic improvements. The most recent quarterly GDP numbers show that the economy might be headed for an L-shaped recovery, with serious implications for unemployment and poverty;

—Environmental desecration: The recent surge of problems on this front is a direct outcome of the economic model where (low value added) mining is the main driver of the economy at the expense of the environment and safety;

—Geopolitical challenges and threats remain very serious.

The Armenia we currently have is not what its citizens wish it was, or what they deserve. It is also fair to say that the Armenia of today is not the Armenia of your dreams. Let me push this further: I will stand corrected if any one of you tells me today that Armenia’s political leaders are the kinds of leaders you envisioned in your dreams 25 years ago.

Despite these challenges, Armenia can be as prosperous and strong as we want it to be. The current state of affairs is a direct outcome of the country’s corrupt and incompetent leadership of the past and present, and the limits imposed by Armenia’s “international partners,” who have the country’s rulers on the hook.

Going forward: What can the ARF do?

Where do we go from here? In sum, the main directions of effort should be aimed at:

—De-criminalizing politics;

—De-politicizing economic decision-making; and

—Building (development-intensive) policy capacity.

The diaspora’s role in each of these dimensions is critical. The actions and steps the ARF can take to better prepare itself for achieving these broadly defined goals could be as follows:

—Revise its operational model: The ARF remains very centralized. This may not be conducive to change that is needed to address the internal challenges and to stay alive and relevant. While in recent years a disproportionate amount of power has been concentrated in the hands of Armenia-based leaders of the party, this should not prevent the grassroots from making their leaders accountable for the mistakes of the past and from changing course. A change of leadership over time in any institution is essential and term limits should be introduced;

—Embrace forward-looking thinking: While genocide recognition efforts have provided the ARF with a strong follower base and kept the issue alive, more needs to be done in terms of channelling the energy and potential of the party’s strong grassroots membership toward the challenges of today and tomorrow. The realization and message that if Armenia were a stronger and more democratic state our efforts toward addressing historical wrongs may have been more efficient should be stressed;

—Secure consistency of message: The view that the Armenia-based leadership is very close to the ruling regime is strong among people in Armenia, and stronger and more credible efforts should be made to change this perception. A message that is consistent: (1) across time, (2) with party’s own objectives, and (3) what works and what doesn’t in the world is long overdue.

Having said this, once again, you are the most active and well-organized community in the whole of the diaspora. Dust the “revolutionary” of the ARF and put it to use. The nation’s future pretty much depends on you—don’t squander it!

Thank you.


ARF Chair Antranig Kasbarian’s Comments on the Presented Papers

Below is Antranig Kasbarian(chair, ARF Central Committee, Eastern U.S.) to the papers presented at the public forum titled “The ARF at 120: A Critical Appreciation,” held at the New York Hilton Hotel on Nov. 21, 2010.

First of all, let me thank all of the panelists for their candor, their sincerity, and their insightfulness in their critiques. At the same time, I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out areas where we may debate or disagree. Let me try to capture several salient points raised in the respective presentations, which offer fruitful lines to pursue further.

Dennis, thank you for your comments, which I found broadly insightful and critical in ways that are helpful. One idea which, I think, deserves further discussion and clarification is this notion of nationalism on the one hand, and ‘nation-worship’ on the other. There are some important distinctions between the two, and I’m glad you’ve flagged this here for our attention. I think there may have been times in the ARF’s history when its nationalism may have moved toward reverence or “worship,” as you call it. But I think it’s not enough to flag it, but to look at it critically and understand why that may have been the case. For example, in the early post-Genocide era, I think it was entirely natural for folks to look at their culture, their nationhood, with reverence. This was a people in exile that had just been subjected to genocide; in way, all they had left was their dreams and aspirations. So especially in the Cold War years, when we were a generation or less removed from the Genocide, it’s entirely understandable that “holding the fort,” in preserving national identity was first and foremost on our agenda.

Dr. Sanjian, thank you as well. I do appreciate and understand the need for greater openness, so we can speak in a more knowledgeable way about what the ARF has and hasn’t done throughout its long history. I think that, yes, the ARF has been cautious—maybe overly cautious at times—about revealing “meaty information”—in the form of memoirs as well as other sources that may yield insight into the party, its thinking, and its activities. Yes, there was a time, particularly before independence, where with the ARF you were either in or you were out, and if you were in you were privy to significant knowledge, and if you were out, well, read the papers. I do think now those inside-outside distinctions are fading, and it is our hope and intention to increase that fade in a responsible manner over time, so we can have more discussions like this one, in fact.

One other thing that came to mind during your presentation, Dr. Sanjian, was the matter of party orientation. The ARF has meant many things to many people over time, and in different places. In some situations it has been a truly revolutionary party; at other times, a party of state; at times, it has acted as a social movement; for many years in diaspora, it was known as a community-builder, more recently, it has been known for its lobbying activity. Sometimes when you’re trying to juggle all of these different roles, orientation can become a tricky thing. One phase of ARF activity which has been particularly fascinating for me, especially pertaining to this community, has been the 1970s, when the party witnessed a rapid shift in orientation, accompanied by a rapid transition in the life of our communities. For those who can remember, we experienced massive immigration primarily from the Middle East, which changed the demographics of our communities, while the ARF’s own practicing ideology swung dramatically from the right toward the left—going from a pro-American, anti-Soviet stance to a more independent posture inflected in the ideology of national liberation movements across the globe. Within that context, the party’s rhetoric became much steeped in language of demands against Turkey –the modern-day ‘Hai Tahd’ movement –and challenged the status quo of international politics, often displaying sympathy toward the underdogs who engaged in acts of armed struggle. Such developments are not simply interesting, they offer vital insights into the party’s own reflexes and its continuities and changes over time. While it may be too soon to delve into the archives of this period, certainly the party should be open to a critical examination of periods such as this, as a means toward greater (self)-awareness.

Greg Sarkissian’s presentation, I would say, is probably the most provocative—offering trenchant critiques that sometimes hit the mark, other times miss, and in some cases cross the line from criticism to antagonism. Space doesn’t permit me to respond comprehensively, so allow me to choose several points of particular importance:

With regard to Armenia’s independence and the Karabagh movement, I think it’s quite necessary to evaluate the ARF’s role in the process. No doubt, the ARF made some startling misjudgments as it sought to become a factor in Armenia’s political life. Its bid for the Presidency against Levon Ter-Petrosyan in 1991, in retrospect, must be viewed as premature at the least, folly at worst, as the party assumed that the historic, even mythic place it held in the hearts and minds of Armenians could be translated into results at the polling stations. This clearly was not the case—people voted based on numerous considerations, most of them tied to their daily lives, of which the ARF was not yet a part. And even if, as many claim, the elections were not entirely free or fair, here again the ARF was in no position to contest election rigging, because it was not a factor in the corridors of power where such decisions were being made. Clearly, the party had sought to jump-start its activity in Armenia, only later realizing that it hadn’t gone through the needed preparatory steps—building solid cadres, conducting propaganda work among the people, and much more—to become relevant in a day-to-day sense.

Having said as much, I think Greg has left out some of the ARF’s real accomplishments during this phase –most prominently with respect to Karabagh. Having been there during the war years, I can say with confidence that here the ARF did mesh with local activists, often winning over the best and brightest cadres—the Artur Mkrtchyans, Emil Abrahamyans, Georgi Petrosyans and others—who went on to lead a movement and eventually assumed the reins of power in the fledgling NKR. Proof of the ARF’s influence may be found not only on the battlefield, where the party gave nearly 30 commanders to the war effort, but in the prolonged and at times violent effort of Ter-Petrosyan to unseat it from power, using Robert Kocharian and Serge Sarkisian as his tools.

I also question the comments concerning Armenia’s independence, and the ARF’s stance regarding it. Yes, the ARF had long been the champion of an independent Armenia, and thus should have been mindful of the signals it was sending when it signed the 1988 joint communiqué. But it is wrong to characterize this move as heresy, or as completely incomprehensible. On the contrary, the move was quite comprehensible, when viewed within the political choices available at the time. Specifically, the ARF was following the orientation laid out by Igor Muradyan—early leader of the Karabagh Committee before being ousted by Ter-Petrosyan and Vazgen Manukyan—who warned that in the larger scheme of things, independence would come sooner or later, whereas the Karabagh struggle would prove to be the most intractable of all problems, and the one requiring greatest focus and sacrifice. In the view of Muradyan, the ARF, and quite a few others, Armenia’s political maneuvers had to prioritize Karabagh above all else, meaning that a confrontational posture with Moscow—which still held the strings to Karabagh’s resolution—should be avoided, if at all possible. In this light, the downplaying of Armenia’s cause-as-independence struggle made good sense. In retrospect, of course, it appears that Moscow really had no intention of solving our problem in the manner we had hoped; but at the time, the option sought by the ARF certainly was plausible, if not persuasive, to many.

Finally, with regard to the Zoryan Institute, I’m not sure how much to say, other than that Greg’s opinions differ fundamentally from ours. Suffice it to say that the ARF’s “boycott,” such as it was, was grounded in objections that were real and based on our working experience. Specifically, there were many of us during the late ‘80s/early ‘90s who felt that the Institute had strayed from its mission of academic research and documentation, and instead became a vehicle for the political aspirations of its Director, Jirair Libaridian, a high-ranking party member who resigned from the ARF, then left the Institute to become a policy advisor to Ter-Petrosyan. I can say that eventually, after the Institute and Libaridian parted company, there has been a gradual rapprochement leading to normalization of our relationship with the Institute.

I also wish to thank David Grigoryan for a rugged, unflinching assessment that places genuine challenges before the ARF moving forward. Many of his critiques are true enough; for example, the view that remaining in a coalition with the Kocharian and Sarkisian regimes caused its reputation to suffer among the people. This, I believe, was recognized by the party’s own leadership as we sought, and eventually found, cause to leave the coalition. To be sure, the ARF’s departure was mainly over the Protocols issue, but I can say with some certainty that the party leadership had become increasingly frustrated over our inability to effect real change of the political system from the inside.

One area I would dispute, however, is David’s assessment of the ARF’s role in the Armeno-Turkish Protocols. I do not agree that the ARF’s reaction was “too little, too late”; on the contrary, the party’s strident opposition, especially in diaspora, made an imprint on Armenia’s policymakers, and may have prevented further damage than what was actually done. Moreover, I must say from the inside that the ARF was, in fact, not in the loop on some crucial developments (a fact that also led to our departure from the ruling coalition in Armenia). One example concerns the fateful “roadmap” jointly announced by Armenia and Turkey on April 22, 2009, which offered cover for U.S. President Obama to avoid using the term ‘Genocide’ in his annual April 24 statement. In all frankness, the ARF was blindsided by this announcement—all the more after having received repeated assurances from President Sarkisian that no compromises would be entertained, if at all, until after April 24, in order to allow Obama to meet his campaign promise.

Above all, I’d like to commend David for his call to arms, as he exhorts the ARF to “dust off the revolutionary” and put it to use. Fair enough. But a word of caution is in order here: In Armenia today, those who contest power through confrontation are usually dealt with in kind; in fact, if you really want to change things fundamentally, you’d better be prepared to have your teeth kicked in. That is just the way it is in Armenia and throughout much of the CIS. So I would hope that those who prod the ARF toward such action will, in fact, be there for us during the moment of truth, standing side by side with us, and not behind us, as it were. The party has gone through this phase once before—during the fateful mid-‘90s when it underwent banning, imprisonment, and worse under Ter-Petrosyan, so we know what we are talking about here. In any event, I commend David once again, for having the courage to speak out so boldly, so fundamentally, on our ills and the possible cures for them.

I look forward to many more such exchanges.
Armenian Weekly
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