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Repatriation Project Aims to Get 3,500 Diasporan Armenians to Move to ‘Homeland’

Armenia is known for having a high emigration rate, caused mainly by labor migrants heading to Russia and elsewhere in the former Soviet Union in search of work. Now, a private initiative is striving to mitigate the effects of the steady outflow of human capital by enticing ethnic Armenians living abroad, particularly those living settled lives in the West, to resettle in the “homeland.”

The project, largely an online media campaign started by those who have already made the move, is being framed in Peace Corps-like terms and aims to appeal to idealistic impulses in the diaspora. Its leading advocates — drawing on a deeply held Diaspora concept that Armenia’s survival depends on a strong defensive capability — exhibit a missionary zeal when discussing the allure of repatriation.

“I really believe that this land has some kind of magnetic pull,” commented Los Angeles native Madlene Minassian, who decided with her family to settle in Armenia about a decade ago. “A lot of people are happy to live in a certain place, but I can say that I’m happy and proud to be here, and I think that’s such a different kind of existence.”

The Armenia 3500 Project strives to convince 3,500 ethnic Armenians from the West to move to either Armenia, or the majority-ethnic-Armenian, disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, within the next three years. Those who opt for Karabakh would be eligible for a free house as an additional incentive. The program is run by a group of 30-somethings who have already repatriated.

These evangelists maintain that Armenia 3500 participants can become difference-makers, hopefully creating jobs with their investments, and pressing for better governance. “They bring language skills and introduce new ideas, as well as new expectations, from business and government,” a project representative, who declined to be named, said of the repatriates. “This all helps to stimulate investment, jobs and reforms.”

Only a few months old, the project has signed up 12 Diaspora Armenians in the United States, United Kingdom and Germany to make the move.

Meeting the target quota of repatriates will not be easy, some experts assert. One skeptic is history professor Stephan Astourian, executive director of the Armenian Studies program at the University of California, Berkeley. He noted that repatriation since Armenia gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991 has been minimal at best. “The fact of the matter is that a miniscule amount of Armenians have repatriated, with the exception of one country — Iran,” Astourian said. He estimates the number of Armenian repatriates since 1991 at 5,000 to 10,000. Official data was not immediately available.

By contrast, the United Nations Development Programme estimates that as many as 1.3 million Armenians have left Armenia since 1991.

Astourian claims that the reasons for low diaspora interest in returning to Armenia to live are the same that have prompted Armenians to leave – a lack of rule of law, and economic difficulties; plus, rampant corruption.

“I think repatriation would be highly desirable if there was a state based on the rule of law, with the control of the police, real parliamentary life and judiciary,” Astourian commented.

Armenia ranked 123rd out of 178 countries in a 2010 Transparency International report measuring corruption; slightly better than neighboring Azerbaijan, which was ranked 134th, but far worse than next-door Georgia, in 68th place.

Armen Rakedjian has firsthand experience of the red tape and corruption plaguing the region’s Armenian communities. After relocating from Paris to the Nagorno-Karabakh town of Shushi in 2004, Rakedjian got caught up in a dispute over improperly registered property that ultimately cost him his entire $50,000 investment. He blames his loss on the alleged need to pay bribes and “high salaries” to correct the problem.

Nonetheless, Rakedjian decided to stay in Shushi, where he runs a B&B with his wife, Cristina. In Karabakh, he says, he can preserve his cultural identity. In France, “I don’t have any insurance that my daughter will stay Armenian, or the children of my daughter,” Rakedjian said. “I have to live here. I have to endure all the difficulties, to have the possibility to remain Armenian.”

The extent to which either the de facto government of Karabakh or Armenia’s Ministry of Diaspora lends a hand to repatriates making this transition is unclear. Armenia currently has no state-funded program covering repatriation. Representatives from the Ministry of Diaspora, which is a frequent target of criticism for doing little to support repatriates in Armenia, were not available for comment in time for publication.

State-sponsored support could have helped Natasha Hillis and her husband, Victor Sargissian, a dentist, with their move to Yerevan from Ventura, California. Financial problems forced the couple and their two young sons to move back to the United States this past summer. Although Sargissian found work at a dentist’s office, he complains that business was slow, with most locals unable to afford regular dental care. “Making a living to support the standard of living that we’re accustomed to here in the US was basically impossible,” recounted Hillis, who taught English part-time. “I was making $4 an hour, and my cab to and from the center cost me $3.”

Many repatriates acknowledge that their expectations of life in Armenia were unrealistic. To counter that, one Wynnewood, Pennsylvania-based non-profit group, Birthright Armenia, offers travel fellowships to diaspora members to work as short-term volunteers in Armenia without committing to a permanent move. Twenty-five of the 550 participants in the program since its 2003 launch still live in Armenia, according to the organization’s executive director, Sevan Kabakian.

Two of those participants — Canadian freelance writer Nyree Abrahamian and her American husband, Areg Maghakian, deputy director of operations at the Armenia Tree Project — have now been living in Armenia for close to five years. Though they haven’t ruled out the possibility of returning to North America, the couple says they have put down roots in Armenia.

Despite the lack of ready, well-paid employment, the attraction of working in a developing country where they could have a greater impact ultimately persuaded the pair to stay. “It’s moving and changing and twisting,” Abrahamian said of Armenia’s development. “Not only do you get to see that, but you get to be a part of it and actually affect it.”

Diaspora groups hope that, eventually, more ethnic Armenians will say the same.

Article by Liana Aghajanian originally published by EurasiaNet.org.

Image cropped and retrieved from the Project’s Facebook page.