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Coming back from the diaspora.

WHEN ARMENIA became a member of the United Nations in March, the delegation entering the General Assembly for the first time was headed by the foreign minister, Raffi Hovannissian. Members heard his opening words in Armenian but just as translators had caught up with him, Hovannissian continued his address in perfect English with a California accent. The foreign minister of Armenia is indeed a US citizen. To the outside world this appointment may seem strange, but to Armenians it is perfectly natural because the links between Armenia and the diaspora have always been strong.

The population of Armenia is around 3.5m of whom 95% are Armenians and the remainder Russians, Kurds, and Yezdis. As many Armenians again live outside the country.

"Armenians are nationalist," President Brezhnev once said, "but they are also internationalist." Every diaspora Armenian speaks several languages and many have lived in several countries. Migration and counter-migration have been the pattern for Armenians since massacres by the Turks culminated in 1915 in over two and a half million dead and as many uprooted. Of the survivors' descendants, almost half a million live in France, three-quarters of a million in the United States, with sizeable communities in Russia, Georgia, South America and the Middle East. Belonging to the oldest Christian nation in the world, Armenians also have traditionally lived harmoniously in Arab countries.

Even after Stalin's purges of the leading intellectuals in 1937 in an effort to stamp out "nationalism", Soviet Armenians managed to protect their language and culture with a passion for literature, poetry and theatre. Diaspora Armenians were both a source of strength and regret. First-generation Armenians soon rose in professional classes and in commerce to form prosperous communities abroad. But "the White Massacre" is how Armenians saw emigration, almost as threatening as the real massacres perpetrated by the Turks, because they feared the seeping away of their culture.

"We cannot let another 170,000 Armenians be deported from their ancestral lands - another genocide, another deportation. The survival of Artzakh (the old Armenian name for Nagorno Karabakh) is the most important question and it dominates diaspora thinking. Armenia is not at war with Azerbaijan," explains the historian Gerald Libaridian, born in Beirut, educated in the United States and now an aide to the President Levon Ter-Petrossian on foreign affairs.

By a Stalinist whim of 1921 a strip of land, in places only 5km wide, had been granted to Azerbaijan separating Nagorno-Karabakh from the rest of Armenia. In 1988 the Karabakh National Committee, a new caucus of democratic thinkers, brought the fate of the victims of Azerbaijani killings in Sumgait and Baku and "terrorism" in the villages of Nagorno-Karabakh to international attention. One of the last to join this committee was Syrian-born Levon Ter-Petrossian.

Since coming to power by an overwhelming popular vote, President Ter-Petrossian has made many appointments from the diaspora. The minister of energy, Sebouh Tashjian, is a Californian, born in Jerusalem. He summarised the horrors of last winter. "There was no heating, no cooking gas, no electricity, for days on end. We had no running water. Schools were closed, all industrial production shut down during January and February.

"Armenia cannot provide sufficent energy for domestic, industrial or infrastructural needs. Gas and oil, 60% of its energy requirements, must be imported. Since Azerbaijan's blockade only half has arrived sporadically."

With food and other supplies cut off by Azerbaijan's blockade it is vital for Armenia to find access through alternative routes. Already the natural gas pipeline from northern Ossetia through Georgia has been cut off because of conflicts which have nothing to do with Armenia. An agreement has recently been signed with Iran for laying 150km of pipeline from Tabriz over the short common frontier. Applications for funds from the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development and from the European Community are under way.

"This is not a territorial struggle with Azerbaijan," says a foreign official in a strong French accent. "First it's a struggle for the human rights of the people of Artzakh but the Azeris have turned it into an economic war by refusing to separate the issue of the blockade from the politics. By cutting off all supplies and energy they actually violate the social-economic rights of the population of Armenia as well. We are a nation with no internal divisions. Azerbaijan is virtually in a state of civil war, as are many of our neighbours."

Since the opening of a corridor between Karabakh and Armenia, hospitals in the capital Yerevan are overflowing with the sick and wounded of Karabakh who could not get proper medical attention during the four years of the Azeri seige. The government of Karabakh has offered. to hand over the maintenance of the corridor to international peacekeeping forces, claiming that it does not represent a territorial gain but a humanitarian measure.

Armenia sees itself as the victim of Azerbaijani hostility and has every reason to be wary of Turkish ambitions, especially those espoused by the more aggressive nationalists. Surrounded by turmoil, it needs to attract productive involment from overseas. The legal system inherited from the Soviet Union and the absence of a banking and commercial infrastructure still make it almost impossible to established joint ventures. Re-emergent Armenia counts desperately on the talents and experience of its diaspora to create a viable independent state.
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan
Author:Matossian, Novritza
Publication:The Middle East
Article Type:Cover Story
Date:Jul 1, 1992
Previous Article:Azerbaijan looks to Ankara.
Next Article:Who's in charge here.

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