Strong Armenia-Strong Diaspora
30 December 2019
Over the past six months, 100 people have reached out to the Office of the High Commissioner for Diaspora Affairs to aid in repatriation. A further 400 have communicated with the office for support regarding legal, customs, educational and housing needs. Most of the repatriates are from Lebanon, Russia, the US, and European countries. These figures and more are discussed in the following Armenpress interview with the High Commissioner for Diaspora Affairs, Zareh Sinanyan.
Mr. Sinanyan, 2019 is coming to an end. What was the year like for the Office of the High Commissioner?
As you know, the office has been established and functioning for about 7 months. Having a wide range of functions and major issues facing the institution, we have first identified the directions and priorities for working with the Diaspora, which are also reflected in the 2020 budget. This year was a start for us, in that sense there were projects that we maintained and implemented successfully, started dialogue and mutual recognition with different Diaspora communities, highlighted existing issues on which we have now developed new plans, and outlined plans for next year. We laid the groundwork for the study of the Diaspora, and it was not by chance that my first visit was to the Russian Federation, which is truly the largest, most diverse and complex Diaspora community. I have had one more visit to Russia, but these two visits are, of course, not enough to get to know the huge community and get to know all the issues. I have had effective visits to the Armenian communities of Cyprus, the United States and Ukraine. The latter is the 4th largest Diaspora community with a huge, untapped potential that has been out of the care and attention of the home state for many years. During these visits, we also indirectly outlined the activities of mapping the Diaspora.
We have implemented the "Step Home" program, with 357 youth from 28 countries participating this year. The program is important from the point of view of psychological repatriation, and next year we will maintain it with some format changes. The Young Leaders Training Program was held, with 24 young community workers from 6 countries participating. The program is effective in promoting community leadership, community organization and cohesion. Just 10 days ago, we culminated the "Neruzh" Diaspora Technology Startup Program, which was implemented this year in collaboration with the Ministry of High Technology Industry. 80 representatives of 47 tech startups from 17 countries came to UWC Dilijan to develop their startups, listen to the best mentors and coaches in the field, create networking relationships and compete for state grants. An important achievement in the promotion of repatriation was the launch of the National Assembly's Standing Committee on Science, Education, Diaspora, Sport and Youth, with the active participation of our office, well-known NGOs, foundations, and individuals. Legislative gaps that hinder the process of repatriation are becoming more and more apparent, and we are working to reform them. Last year we also had two meetings: a business forum attended by 197 participants from 27 countries; and a Euro-Caucasian Conference of Cardiology, attended by 380 cardiologists from Armenia and the Diaspora.
As you mentioned, one of the most important programs - "Neruzh" - has just wrapped up. Tell me, what do we expect from this program in general, what outcomes can we anticipate in the near future?
On December 20th at UWC Dilijan, we summed up the results of this year's "Neruzh.” This year we implemented the project in collaboration with the Ministry of High Technology Industry. 80 representatives of 47 tech startups from 17 countries arrived in the homeland. The four-day bootcamp was quite effective, and is a particularly significant program with its two components: promoting Armenia's economy and repatriation. Six startups received $ 15,000 - $ 30,000 worth of government grants. Many of the startups presented electronic platforms for the development and improvement of agriculture, garbage removal, sports, services. Funds will be invested to further startup incubation, acceleration and entry into global markets. The latter will be available to both startups who are awarded grants and those who, regardless of the fact of not being awarded a prize, wish to realize their ideas in the homeland. In addition to the awards, the four-day program allowed startups to get to know and interact with the Armenian startup ecosystem, receive hands-on training and guidance from Armenian and international experts, present their startups to a jury of international and local investors and experts.
Neruzh has already succeeded, and this is demonstrated by the success of last year's winners. They have established their startups in Armenia, repatriated, created jobs, and this year's winners will surely be able to achieve the same.
You have traveled many times during your tenure to Armenian communities of different countries. What questions and issues have you raised? Have you outlined what issues Armenia may be able to support in the near future?
As I mentioned in the answer to the previous question, I have visited four Diaspora communities, which are significantly different from each other, and naturally the issues raised are also different. Very often in the communities there is simply a lack of understanding by the home state, which has been the basis for many years of formality, meaningless dialogue, and lack of sincerity in the Armenia-Diaspora relations. A number of problems stem from this very reason.
It is no secret that the Diaspora today faces the challenges of assimilation and loss of identity more than ever. The coming years for both Armenia and the Diaspora will require a concerted effort to slow down and halt the process of assimilation. In this context, once again the importance of the "Strong Armenia-Strong Diaspora" formula is highlighted, where a strong, developed, and advanced Armenia is the key to having a strong Diaspora. Every Armenian should want to be inspired to connect his identity with the homeland and the Armeniancy. Today the problem in the Diaspora is the preservation of Western Armenian, the loss of language in general, the increase in the competitiveness of Armenian schools, and the lack of adapted, accessible and up-to-date educational literature.
There are a number of issues: legislative gaps in the process of repatriation, expanding Diaspora involvement in Armenian life, doing charitable work, and communicating with a number of Armenian government circles in the Diaspora. In this regard, the Diaspora really looks forward to our assistance in legislative reform, simplification of procedures, development of specific integration and support programs. We are working towards these. As for the preservation of the Armenian identity, the state-centered approach is essential here, the establishment of trustworthy physical and psychological links between the Diaspora and Armenia, ensuring the full involvement of the Diaspora in Armenian life, and the creation of an atmosphere of mutual trust. I was recently in the United States on a business trip, and one of my meetings was entirely dedicated to the preservation of Western Armenian and to having a Western Armenian center in Armenia.
There has been talk for a long time about increasing Diaspora involvement in Armenian life. What are the plans outlined in this regard?
Yes, I have already partially addressed this question. First of all, there is a need to reform legislation that limits or simply makes it impossible for Diaspora Armenians to be involved in the Armenian state system and political life. In one of my recent interviews, I mentioned that it is nationalist thinking that Diaspora Armenians have no right to interfere in Armenia's domestic life. And we must work hard in this direction. Already in next year's programs, there are some components that will help us to integrate the best potential of the Diaspora into the public system. The mapping of the Diaspora will also contribute significantly to this, which will help us understand exactly what potential exists in that part of the world, and what are the possible options to link this potential to Armenia and bring it to Armenia.
During his visits to different countries, the Prime Minister of Armenia noted that there is no single Diaspora structure, so we cannot have a unified opinion on collective issues. What do you think there is to do in this regard?
One of our three conferences next year will be the Pan-Armenian Forum, which in its content and format will be substantially different from similar conferences held in the past. One of the key issues to be raised at the conference will be the discussion of the idea of the Pan-Armenian Council and the opportunities for its creation. Hopefully, in any format, be it consultative or otherwise, we will be able to achieve the formation of such a body that will substantially promote Armenia-Diaspora relations.
Let's look at one of the major initiatives of the Armenian government to promote repatriation. What are the plans for this endeavor, and what will be the main task of the High Commissioner for Diaspora Affairs?
Adoption of the relevant law is necessary for the regulation and activation of the referendum process. I have already mentioned that the NA Standing Committee on Science, Education, Diaspora, Sport and Youth, headed by Chairman Mkhitar Hayrapetyan, has begun work on the Law on Repatriation with our office and other related fields. At the same time, repatriation is still taking place today. Over the course of six months, 100 repatriates have visited the office, more than 400 have reached out for help with legal, customs, educational, housing issues. Most of the repatriates are from Lebanon, Russia, the US, and European countries.
Almost all of our next year's repatriation programs also have a component of repatriation, where we have focused, in particular, on psychological repatriation.
What will be the key projects of the Office of the Diaspora High Commissioner in 2020?
In 2020, we have divided the implementation of projects into two main areas - the realization of the Armenia-Diaspora partnership and the involvement of the Diaspora in the development processes of the Republic of Armenia, which will require a total of AMD 775 million. We will continue the "Step Home" program. Next year we plan to host up to 800 people aged 13-22 from the Diaspora. This year the participants will have the opportunity to visit Artsakh. Up to 40 young people will participate in the Young Leadership Training Program. We have launched a brand new project that will organize the internship of young Diaspora Armenian graduates from top universities in the public sector in Armenia. It is aimed at bringing Diaspora Armenian specialists with higher education, high professional qualifications to Armenia. We will implement an awareness program on Armenia-Diaspora partnership, in the framework of which a large number of media outlets on mutual recognition will be prepared. I will be in many Diaspora communities and get acquainted with local problems, and hear their suggestions directly.
Another large-scale program is aimed at conducting studies and revealing the potential of Diaspora communities. This implies data collection, processing, and compilation by all possible and up-to-date means. Here, first and foremost, we are dealing with the mapping of the potential of the Diaspora, which must be carried out at the highest level and constantly updated. The data acquired during the mapping work will be virtualized, an overall innovative, protected platform will be created, and updates will be introduced.
Next year we plan to organize three conferences. Up to 1,500 participants from nearly all Diaspora communities are expected at the Armenia-Diaspora Pan-Armenian Forum. The conference is planned to be held in Yerevan for three days. A forum of Diaspora Armenian politicians and public officials is planned to be held in Yerevan to discuss issues of pan-Armenian significance, to find common solutions and to present them correctly to the world. Armenian state officials, political scientists, international experts, etc. will be invited. Up to 100 people from the Diaspora are expected to attend. The goal of the Diaspora Investment and Charity Forum will be to introduce Diaspora businessmen and investors to public investment policy in the Republic of Armenia, to establish cooperation between Armenian and Diaspora businessmen, as well as to design and implement joint investment programs, identify and discuss systemic issues, and learn from past experiences. The purpose of the conference is also to study the various charitable programs implemented by the Diaspora over the years, their results, to combine charitable programs, establish mutual cooperation between charities, and develop mechanisms for overseeing the programs implemented by the Diaspora. It is planned to invite up to 300 Diaspora Armenian businessmen, investors, economists, benefactors to Armenia.