By Harut Sassounian,
On the top of all the other disputes among Armenians, a new controversy was added last week by Zareh Sinanyan, the Armenian Republic’s High Commissioner for Diaspora Affairs.
A few days before Sinanyan’s visit to Lebanon over the weekend, accompanying a plane-load of humanitarian aid from Armenia, he spoke on a teleconference with a group of Armenian officials and others and made some unexpected statements. Here are excerpts from Sinanyan’s statement:
“…We should create such a reality in Armenia that not in the distant future we can think about not only the repatriation of Armenians, but also making Armenia the homeland of, how do I say this, for nationalities like us. I am talking about Christian Arabs, Assyrians, those nationalities that do not represent a national security danger to Armenia and can be easily integrated in Armenia. Because in such an intelligent, thoughtful and civilized manner, we can change the demographic situation in Armenia. We should not be embarrassed by that. That is a correct step. That will be a success. Imagine that we can make Armenia a country that is attractive also to non-Armenians….”
Sinanyan’s above statement created a major controversy in Armenian circles worldwide. The vast majority of Armenian comments on Facebook pages were highly critical, turning this issue, like many others, into a partisan political dispute.
I also watched another one of Sinanyan’s interviews with the Civilnet website prior to his visit to Lebanon. In that interview, Sinanyan again spoke about Christian Arabs, Assyrians and other nationalities immigrating to Armenia. However, this time, Sinanyan stated that the idea came from Shahan Kandaharian, the edtor of Aztag newspaper in Lebanon, the official organ of the local Armenian Revolutionary Party (ARF). Sinanyan implied that the ARF supported this idea, repeating twice that Kandaharian is an ARF member. In fact, the ARF leaders have publicly announced that they prefer Lebanese Armenians not abandon the well-established community of that country. Naturally, no one can constrain any Lebanese Armenian from immigrating to Armenia, which is much more preferable than immigrating to other foreign lands. Kandaharian’s words were somewhat misconstrued by Sinanyan. In the video, Kandaharian was speaking about the immigration to Armenia of Lebanese who had Armenian roots, not Christian Arabs nor Assyrians. Sinanyan also alleged that those who criticized him on Facebook are ARF members and an “army of fakes.” While there may be a few fakes, but it is clear that the overwhelming majority of the critics are Armenians who do not wish non-Armenians to immigrate to Armenia.
Nevertheless, there are several important issues that need to be raised:
First of all, the immigration of non-Armenians to Armenia is a very sensitive issue for most Armenians with serious national consequences which go far beyond Sinanyan’s authority and responsibilities. The genocide of 1915 which decimated 1.5 million Armenians makes all Armenians extra protective of the remnants of their people and the diminished homeland.
Furthermore, while Sinanyan is responsible for implementing the Armenian government’s policy of repatriating Diaspora Armenians, the immigration of non-Armenians to Armenia has nothing to do with the office of the High Commissioner of Diaspora Affairs.
The immigration of non-Armenians is a matter of governmental policy. Since independence, there has been a small number of non-Armenians who have settled in Armenia as businessmen or family members of Armenian citizens. There have been also some refugees who have asked for asylum in Armenia. Anyway, it is doubtful that a large number of non-Armenians would be interested in moving permanently to Armenia in the near future.
To be clear, we are not talking about the various minority nationalities that live in Armenia, such as Yezidis, Assyrians, Greeks and Russians. These minorities have been residing in Armenia for centuries. There is no question about their continued residence in Armenia.
In terms of changing the demographics of Armenia and increasing its population, the first thing the Armenian government has to do is to establish policies that would discourage the native population of Armenia from leaving the homeland. This would mean creating jobs and providing housing. After that, the Armenian government should try to attract Diaspora Armenians, particularly those in the near abroad, such as the recent emigrants to Russia, to return to Armenia. To do that, Armenia needs to facilitate their move to Armenia by having a simple procedure for their resettlement, and providing them housing and employment. Otherwise, the Russian Armenians either will not return to Armenia or will turn around and go back after a short stay. This is exactly what happened to Syrian-Armenians who moved to Armenia, fleeing from the civil war in Syria. Many of them left for Western Europe, Canada or the United States due to lack of jobs and housing in Armenia.
The priority right now for Sinanyan’s office is to attract Armenians from the Diaspora to move to Armenia. If by a miracle, a large number of Diaspora Armenians resettle in Armenia, only then the Armenian government can raise the issue of allowing a large number of other nationalities to immigrate to Armenia. There needs to be a major national consensus for allowing a large number of non-Armenians moving to Armenia. This is not a one man’s or one group’s decision.