Why the Armenian diaspora is rallying as war rages in Nagorno-Karabakh

A long history of genocide and pogroms informs the response to the conflict with Azerbaijan. 

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The Armenian writer Silva Kaputikyan wrote of her nation as a walnut tree: "sprawling over the small corner of land”, spilling its fruit “to nourish foreign soils”.

Over the past ten days, a sense of threat to that small corner of land has triggered an outpouring of solidarity among diaspora Armenians as far afield as Syria and Los Angeles. Fighting between Armenian and Azerbaijani forces in the ethnic Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh has escalated into the worst conflict in the region since the 1990s. Although under international law the territory is sovereign Azerbaijani territory, most Armenians argue that Nagorno-Karabakh has the right to self-determine separately from Azerbaijan.

There is no single Armenian diaspora, points out Armenak Tokmajyan, a scholar at the Carnegie Middle East Centre in Beirut, himself an Armenian who grew up in Syria. And in normal times, diaspora communities are usually divided over the politics of Armenia itself, or simply not overly concerned with day-to-day issues in a tiny country thousands of miles away. Yet at times of existential crisis, he says, Armenians rally together in a show of unity for their spiritual homeland. Marginal differences are instantly forgotten as intergenerational trauma and the fear of losing their national state reasserts itself.

The modern state of Armenia is a tiny fraction of the size of the lands historically inhabited by Armenians, many of whom lived for centuries in what is now eastern Turkey. After the genocide carried out against them by the Ottoman Empire in 1915, hundreds of thousands were then scattered around the world. Around a million also live in Russia, a legacy of the communist period when Armenians migrated from their own Soviet republic to more prosperous areas of the union. The diaspora is estimated to comprise at least eight million people, more than twice the number living in the country itself.

Most diaspora Armenians perceive their place outside historic Armenia to be a direct result of displacement during the genocide, leading to a heightened awareness of threats, says Alex Galitsky, the communications director at the Armenian National Committee of America Western Region, an advocacy group representing the largest community of Armenians outside the country. “So when we see these attacks on Armenia from Azerbaijan and Turkey, we see the representatives of the same ideology of pan-Turkism which led to the 1915 genocide.” He adds that Armenians worldwide are estimated to have raised some $70m in donations for the Armenian cause since fighting broke out less than two weeks ago.

[See also: Crisis in the Caucasus]

“We have a responsibility towards Armenia. Many of us feel survivors’ guilt,” says Misak Ohanian, the founder of the Centre for Armenian Information and Advice in west London. He was born to a family of genocide survivors in Cyprus and moved to the UK after the partition of the island in the 1970s. “Armenia depends on us speaking up and offering political support,” he adds in a clipped Cypriot-Londoner accent.

Prominent diaspora Armenians, such as Cher and Kim Kardashian, have rallied support for Armenian forces via their social media platforms, a not-insignificant driver of popular opinion given their cultural clout and the relative unfamiliarity of the conflict in the Caucasus abroad. 

Several US members of Congress, some representing heavily Armenian areas in the US such as Los Angeles, home to the largest Armenian population outside the Caucasus, have offered rhetorical support for the Republic of Artsakh. Galitsky says the Armenian cause attracts bipartisan support for different reasons. “Republicans support Armenia as a bastion of Christianity in a largely Muslim region full of threats to US national security interests, while Democrats offer support for the self-determination and independence of all peoples,” he says.

For the time being, the military situation does not appear overly preoccupying for Armenia, despite the strident utterances of Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, who has warned of a second genocide if Azerbaijan were to gain the upper hand. But if it were to seem that Nagorno-Karabakh could be overrun, Galitsky says, the Armenian community would mobilise in a way it hasn’t since the war of the 1990s. “At least anecdotally, I have heard of Armenians from the US and Europe who have travelled to Armenia with the specific intent of volunteering for the armed forces. If the facts on the ground were to change significantly, I would expect to see our community come together to do what is necessary.”

Shushan Davtyan, who was born in Russia and now lives in Denmark, says trauma passed down through generations defines the collective consciousness of the Armenian diaspora. “We have suffered innumerable hardships. But we persevere no matter what.”

Ido Vock is international correspondent at the New Statesman.

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