Nationalist Vision Draws Diaspora
In this Soviet republic, a new noncommunist government is committed to reviving the idea of an Armenian nation. A common sense of history and of tradition in the Armenian Apostolic Church links the diaspora to its homeland. ARMENIA
| YEREVAN, USSR
WHEN Raffi Hovannisian walks into the halls of the Armenian government, he is greeted with knowing nods from the guards and open doors into the offices of Cabinet ministers. At the parliament, President Levon Ter-Petrosyan, pulls him over for a quiet consultation. Yet Mr. Hovannisian has no official position. He is not even a citizen. When a devastating earthquake struck in December 1988, Hovannisian was one of many Armenian-Americans who rushed to aid their ancestral homeland. Unlike many others, he stayed on, managing the long-term relief work of the Armenian Assembly of America from a cramped office in downtown Yerevan.
The burly but soft-spoken Hovannisian is part of the Armenian diaspora, about 2 million Armenians spread across the globe but linked by a strong sense of peoplehood and history to the approximately 3.8 million Armenians living on their ancestral lands within the Soviet Union. Since ancient times, Armenians, renowned as merchants, traveled to the corners of the globe. But the greatest part of the diaspora are the refugees from harsh treatment by the Turks in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and th e
When the nationalist movement took power in Armenia last summer, ousting the Communists, Hovannisian, a lawyer, was already close to its leaders. He has become a sought-after adviser, and has even been offered positions in the administration.
"I came to fulfill the American dream of freedom and democracy," Hovannisian says. "Growing up as an Armenian-American, we were all taught that when Armenia was free, we would have a role there."
In the diaspora, Armenians have been bound by the Armenian Apostolic Church, one of the world's oldest, and by a common history of oppression and dispersion. But like the Jews to whom Armenians often compare themselves, they have struggled to maintain an ancient identity.
"Ninety percent of my generation are completely assimilated without any sort of identity," Hovannisian readily admits. He owes his own consciousness to his father, Richard Hovannisian.
Richard Hovannisian is a professor of Armenian and Near Eastern History at the University of California at Los Angeles. His two-volume history of the short-lived Armenian Republic of 1918-20 - a third, final volume is in preparation - was an underground classic in Soviet Armenia. Last year he became the first foreigner elected to the Armenian Academy of Sciences.
"My son is a new Armenian, equally at home in cosmopolitan as well as ethnic surroundings," Professor Hovannisian says, speaking in his Yerevan hotel room. "Frequently in the diaspora it is one or the other - at home in an English-speaking environment or in an Armenian-speaking one. The new breed has to be bicultural."
"I was concerned that he was coming," the scholar says, recalling his son's decision to come to work in Armenia. "He left a very lucrative law practice, a wife, and small children. On the other hand, I am enormously proud. He came at a critical time."
The 1988 earthquake brought about a reawakening of national consciousness for many Armenians in the diaspora. They led the relief effort in Europe and North America, raising millions of dollars, giving directly and lobbying their governments for aid.
But the political changes in the last two years have added another dimension to the relationship between Armenians abroad and their homeland. For many Armenians in the diaspora, the existence of the Soviet republic of Armenia posed a dilemma.
"We didn't like the Soviet system, but we were grateful there was an Armenian Soviet Republic," says Professor Hovannisian. "There was always a sense of solace that there was this little piece of land where Armenian life continues and the only piece of Armenian land where Armenian history continues uninterrupted."
When the new Armenian government came to power, it finally gave Armenians a government of their own to work with. And for the nationalist government, the diaspora is a source of help to overcome their geographic disadvantage. Armenians feel surrounded by historic enemies, such as Turkey and Azerbaijan, while challenging the Communist government in Moscow in their drive for independence. The government is looking to Armenian businessmen abroad to provide investment and trade links.
Still, the reactions of the diaspora are far from simple.
"Collectively, the Armenian community is apprehensive," says Professor Hovannisian. "They are enthusiastic about the changes, but worried about the implications of the increased isolation of Armenia."
The new government sees evidence of this in the cautious reaction of the Armenian business community. "We don't have security, stability, and although the situation is getting better, people [foreign investors] still don't have confidence," says Deputy Premier Hrant Bagradian.
Raffi Hovannisian plans to go home this summer to rejoin his family, though perhaps not his old career. "Armenia was my liberation and at the same time, it's made me unemployable," he says with a smile. "I can't imagine myself going back to interrogatives and depositions."
His father is not convinced. "I suspect he will be back."