The Armenian Research Center and Armenian-Diaspora Relations

by Mitch Kehetian


DEARBORN, Mich.

Should Diaspora Armenians have a vested interest in Armenia's future--and a voice in the country's political decision-making?

As examples, the recent flap over whether Armenia should engage in protocol talks with Turkey on open borders, to the issue of reconciliation drew heated debates among Armenians in the Diaspora - and splinter movements within the landlocked Armenian Republic. Some Armenian Americans even gave support to a proposal that Diasporan Armenians should have a representative voice in the Armenian government.

For Professor Ara Sanjian, director of the Armenian Research Center at the University of Michigan-Dearborn, the role of Armenia-Diaspora relations is a critical issue that needs to be evaluated in more depth as a bridge to future scholarly studies. That's why a two-day conference in October heralding the 25th anniversary founding of the Research Center will be themed "Armenia and its Diaspora Institutional Linkages and Cross-Border Movements."

Development of the Center was spearheaded by Professor Dennis Papazian, now retired and living in New Jersey. The Research Center was founded with the financial support of the international Knights of Vartan movement and with the full academic support of the prestigious UM-Dearborn.

In outlining the theme of the public sessions , Sanjian emphasizes that the goal of the scholarly conference is to foster an agenda "to serve as a model for future gatherings on micro-histories within the domain of the Armenia-Diaspora relations--dating since 1918 to the present-time." The Beirut-born Armenian scholar stresses that Diasporan means not only Armenians living outside the former USSR, but also Armenians living in other republics of the former Soviet Union

Before coming to UM-Dearborn in 2006, Sanjian was a professor of Armenian history at the Haigazian University in Lebanon, earned his master's degree in Armenian history at Yerevan State University and his doctorate honors in modern Middle East history at the University of London.

Sanjian said the nine internationally-recognized scholars participating in the conference will seek to take "our existing knowledge of Armenia-Diaspora relations one step deeper by focusing on case studies--both individuals and organizations." Two of the visiting scholars will be from Armenia.

Sanjian also emphasizes that most studies have focused on depicting the "general characteristics of successive epochs in Diaspora relations and not much further." When pressed on what the public can learn at the open conference being held on U-M's Dearborn campus, Sanjian said "from the viewpoint of the homeland we will be discussing a case study on how repatriates who migrated to Soviet Armenia became Communist leaders in the republic."

The Oct. 15-16 conference will also focus on a case study that deals with the 1988 earthquake that struck Armenia, and how the Council of Ministers handled the relief aid sent from the Armenian Diaspora--and a study on Armenia's post Soviet period and the role of the Union of Armenians of Russia.

Of public interest to conference participants will be how the visiting scholars will focus their academic approach to "the intellectuals who migrated to Soviet Armenia in the 1920s and 1930s and what they encountered. Some were killed during Stalin's purges, while others survived," Sanjian added.

The conference will also probe into the role of pro-Soviet Armenian authors from the Diaspora who had been invited to Armenia, triggering contrasting reactions among Armenians in the Diaspora.

On the question of improving relations with Diaspora Armenians, and to bring to a close the disastrous 1946-48 repatriation drive, the Yerevan government in 2008 held its first-ever international conference on the ill-fated movement. At that conference Diaspora Minister Hranush Hakobyan publicly apologized to the surviving repatriates for having been forced to endure horrific living condition. More than 90,000 Diaspora Armenians returned to then Soviet Armenia, with a large contingent from the United States.

As proof that the Yerevan government recognizes the powerful role Diaspora Armenians possess in the United States, Sanjian reminds us of Serzh Sargysyan's tour of the Diaspora after the initialing of the protocols in 2009.

Observers of the Research Center's decision to focus on key facts relating to Diaspora Armenians are praising the Center's scholarly approach at refining the broad generalizations that exist now. And how the conference can serve as a visionary model for the future and do it with more depth.

In urging community participation at the two-day conference and its banquet, Ani Kasparian, chairperson of the anniversary committee, reiterates why "people from all walks of Armenian life should attend the conference. "As Diaspora Armenians we have a critical role at helping our ancestral homeland survive. We also believe this scholarly conference will take us one step ahead to explore all the complexities that burden the Diaspora Armenian."

Just in the United States, the Armenian population is estimated at well over one million with special interest lobby groups in Washington to champion Armenia's cause, politically and economically.

As Kasparian stresses we are all Diaspora Armenians. Hopefully, she adds, the theme of the Research Center's anniversary founding will answer some pressing questions and look beyond "as Diaspora Armenians seek out their role in protecting the homeland of their ancestors."

Further information is available on the Research Center's website at http://www.umd.umich.edu/dept/armenian/.

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