WATERTOWN — The Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF) is one of the three main political parties in the Armenian diaspora and is also active in the Republic of Armenia. The Armenian Mirror-Spectator is an organ of the Armenian Democratic Liberal Party, similarly active in the Armenian world, and as such it can be understood that the approaches and ideas of these two parties may differ. The Mirror-Spectator strives to present a wide spectrum of views and so despite such differences, it is happy to have the opportunity to interview Hagop Der Khachadourian, chairman of the ARF Bureau since 2019 and president of the ARF-affiliated Armenian National Committee (ANC) International. Based in Montreal, Der Khachadourian had come to Boston to participate in a celebration of the 105th anniversary of the founding of the first Republic of Armenia.
The Bureau, elected by the ARF World Congress once every four years, is the supreme executive body of the ARF, which is active in 33 regions of the world (regions may represent sections of countries, entire countries, or grouping of more than one country). Der Khachadourian rose to this leadership position as a result of decades of involvement in the party and Armenian affairs. Born in Aleppo, he received his education in Armenian schools in Lebanon until the age of 17, when he moved to Canada. A graduate of Montreal’s Concordia and McGill Universities, he earned an MBA in New York and currently is CEO of Alcero, a Montreal-area company providing IT consulting, document management, and creation and maintenance of business software applications.
“I was very much involved in all kinds of Hai Tad [Armenian Cause] activities from day one,” he emphasized, working his way up from the ANC of Canada to become the chairman of the ANC International in the 1990s.
In 2004, when Der Khachadourian was first elected to membership in the Bureau, he was responsible for coordinating the Western chapters of the political party as well as its Hai Tad activities. “The Bureau,” he said, “is responsible for ideological direction and overall policies.”
Ideology and Agendas
Der Khachadourian said that as members of the Socialist International and the PS (party of European socialists), “we do consider ourselves as center left. Our ideology is based on human rights, the rights of the working people, and also on justice and fairness.” This economic outlook is one of the four pillars of the ARF Program, which also include democracy, a revolutionary nature, and national ideology.
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When asked how the ARF deals with the dominant capitalist ideology in the West that appears to have even led to some party members in the US being conservative Republicans, Der Khachadourian explained that the socialism espoused is for the homeland. However, he said that ARF party members “live in such different countries that just being strongly insistent on one of the four pillars might bring disadvantages to the various communities there. Therefore, there is a certain flexibility in that regard.”
What is different for the ARF in Armenia today compared to most other parts of the world, he said, is “in the diaspora we have the luxury of concentrating only on national issues.” He defined that as working to preserve Armenian identity, running schools, Armenian Cause activities, and participating somewhat in political life through the political parties of each country. However, he said, “In Armenia, you have to manage the day-to-day affairs of the country, not just the nation as a concept.” In other words, it is “managing the social sphere, the economic sphere, the security issues of Armenia.”
This leads to different agendas and approaches, to a degree. He concluded, “Of course we can be more pure in a conceptual fashion in the diaspora because we are dealing with issues where we think we have the monopoly of wisdom on 100 percent of the issues; whereas in Armenia, it becomes a day-to-day struggle in order to adapt to the changing requirements that the population is demanding of us. As such, it is also managing a country vs. managing a community, and these are two different things.”
International Armenian Cause Politics
The independence of Armenia by the early 1990s had a major effect also on the ARF’s Armenian Cause activities throughout the world. In essence, Der Khachadourian said, “we had to change our outlook. We had to change our assumption of responsibility. Now Armenia became the responsibility of the Armenian nation. We couldn’t just say that it is being dictated by Moscow.” Hai Tad was defined by the issues connected with the Armenian Genocide in the 1950s through 1980s, both recognition and reparations, but now there was the need to support the Republic of Armenia and the struggle to get recognition for Artsakh’s right to self-determination and, whenever possible, independence.
In the last 20-25 years, there were some major achievements concerning international recognition of the Armenian Genocide. Der Khachadourian said, “Now, we are looking into the legal aspects of reparations, of the issue of the homeland, and that is why we have established the Armenian Legal Center for Justice and Human Rights, based in Washington but with a board composed of international scholars and experts. That is what I would define as being the second major point of Hai Tad.”
“The third objective,” he said, “is a more refined determination and defense of Armenian minority rights. What I mean by that is that in different areas of the world, depending on [the circumstances in] different countries, we have to defend what is ours.” In some countries where the Armenian community has constitutional rights, as in Lebanon, these rights must be constantly protected so they will not be lost. In Turkey, an international treaty, the Treaty of Lausanne, bestows upon Armenian certain rights. In Georgia, the rights of Armenians to their culture and identity in Javakh have to be supported. Der Khachadourian gave many more examples throughout the world of ongoing struggles in this vein.
“The fourth” aspect of the current approach, he said, “which we have put more emphasis on, is the politicalization of people in general, but especially the youth, so that we encourage them and create special programs in order to be able to get them involved in the political and major economic arenas of the countries in which they live.”
Armenia and Artsakh
After Armenian independence and the end of the first Karabakh war, Armenians considered themselves a victorious nation. Der Khachadourian said, “One of the major advantages we had since 1994 was that we had a certain feeling of invulnerability.” But then came the 2020 war: “That’s when some of those dreams were shattered,” he exclaimed.
He blamed the government of Nikol Pashinyan for not being able to avoid this war: “First of all, knowing the situation of the Armenian army, and also the situation of our enemy, everything should have been done to avoid that war, and that is something about which we had even talked to the Armenian authorities before.”
Der Khachadourian said, “In this period of our history it is essential for the Armenians to have unity because we have so many enemies outside. We have to concentrate on the major threats to Armenia and try to minimize as much as possible the internal divisions.” However, he said, “unfortunately for that, the Armenian authorities also have to accept that direction, which is not the case today.”
Der Khachadourian declared, “At this stage, the priority is for Artsakh, for its right to self-determination. Unfortunately, the Armenian government has abandoned the pursuit of that right because of the defeat in the war and because of some verbal commitments it has made to Azerbaijan. That is sad, but nevertheless it is something that we want to reverse. In the meantime, we will continue our activities worldwide to make sure that Artsakh is not alone, Artsakh is not abandoned, and Artsakh will be able to stand on its feet again, prosper, and then eventually join Armenia.”
In particular, Der Khachadourian said, “One of the important things is that though it [the war] was a disaster and the November 10 agreement is not pro-Armenia at all, nevertheless it has enough articles and vagueness in it for us to be able to navigate and maximize the advantages for Artsakh. This government is not doing it.”
Der Khachadourian said that the November 10 agreement does not forbid Armenia to push on the question of the status of Nagorno Karabakh, as it merely postpones the issue but does not bury it. However, the Armenian government insisted on the recognition of Armenia’s territory as encompassing 29,800 sq.km. which allowed Azerbaijan in turn to give its figure of 86,600 square kilometers, which includes Karabakh. “That was a serious strategic error,” he said, “which Armenia should not have done.”
Armenia could have stressed that there was a specific mention of Karabakh in the Alma Ata Agreement of 1991, that Karabakh declared independence from the Soviet Union at roughly the same time as Azerbaijan, and that the first Republic of Azerbaijan after World War I, to which today’s Azerbaijan is a successor state, did not include Karabakh, Der Khachadourian said.
When asked whether this was under duress, or in other words why he thought the Armenian government was acting this way, he replied, “I think that there is a certain agreement, which is not public yet, that has been made between the two powers, where Armenia is falsely assuming it will enhance its security guarantees by giving up even more. That is a dangerous precedent that it is setting. You cannot appease an enemy in such a way. The more concessions you make, the more they will ask for.”
Another error Der Khachadourian said is the opening up of negotiations with Turkey in parallel with those with Azerbaijan. He said, “That would add a further complication, in order to pursue a fictitious and false hope of an all-inclusive complete peace in the region. I have never seen in world history that peace is granted out of the magnanimity of your enemies.”
Compounding this error, Der Khachadourian said, is assigning Turkish-Armenian dialogue to a young Armenian Turkologist who is facing experienced diplomats and ambassadors with a long history of negating the genocide and defending human rights.
Der Khachadourian suggested that the ARF could have been of help to Armenia in this situation: “There are many countries in the world where we have been active, and that could have been help….We have been able to work extensively here in the United States, in Canada and in Russia to make sure that the question of Artsakh is not forgotten and the principle of self-determination is emphasized – it is not just about territorial integrity.”
Der Khachadourian is critical of the Pashinyan regime’s domestic politics and connects it with the West, meaning the US and Western Europe. He said, “It is true that the West was definitely behind the so-called Velvet Revolution that happened in Armenia. … NGOs were extremely active during the revolution, most of them financed by Western sources.” While Armenians share most of the Western values espoused by these NGOs, he said “there are some extreme manifestations of those values which are not necessarily appropriate for Armenia, so you cannot simply copy them and instill them in Armenia.”
While the West is putting pressure on Armenia, he said the East was also doing this. “The most intelligent approach would have been that yes, we would like to maintain friendly relations with the West, but this does not mean that you have to give in to every request that is coming from the West.”
In this situation, he said, the main objective of the West is Russia and Iran, not Armenia, “but we should not become the tragic pawn in this game. We should maximize our advantages. This is the major problem that we have with these [current Armenian] authorities, that they are not maximizing our own energies, because regardless of what external powers do for you, you have to rely on your own forces. Others will not fight your own battles.”
The ARF in Armenia currently is a member of the opposition camp in the Hayastan bloc, led by former President Robert Kocharyan. Der Khachadourian said that immediately after the November 2020 agreement it coordinated a movement under the leadership of Vazgen Manukyan, first prime minister of Armenia, which was to include every major opposition group, but he said, “unfortunately during the election that unity of purpose did not continue. I would say because of the two [former] presidents not being able to be brought together in an electoral coalition, this created those two blocks of opposition.”
Their objectives are similar but tactics and outlook different, he said, so “the path forward lies in creating – and again, we are going to attempt to do that – a unity among all of what we classify as healthy national political forces, by national meaning people who have a national outlook, who have not abandoned Artsakh, who believe in the issue of unity of the Armenian people, who do not want to fight others’ wars unnecessarily, and who on the contrary concentrate on our internal unity.”
In this coalition, he said, “we would like to be a catalyst of, if you wish, bringing them all together, because we are able to talk to all of them and make sure that everybody understands that we must reestablish our traditional Armenia-Artsakh-diaspora unity.” For this purpose, the ARF will organize a conference in October or November of this year, he said.
Furthermore, he said they need to “create an alternative so that it becomes visible to the Armenian people in Armenia, new faces and leadership that people can identify with as a replacement for Nikol [Pashinyan].” Der Khachadourian admitted that “there is a mood in Armenia that the return of the ‘nakhgins’ [people associated with the former Armenian regimes] is not welcome by, I would say, even the majority of the population. By nakhgins they usually look at [Robert Kocharyan] and [Serzh] Sargsyan as symbols. I think this is why those chapters [of history] have to be closed and we have to look forward.”
Der Khachadourian is more optimistic than he used to be about the perpetuation of Armenian identity in the diaspora. He said, “Definitely, the more we get away from that magical date of 1915, the more weakened some Armenians feel their links with their identity and roots. But we are also seeing the reverse happening.”
When Der Khachadourian came to the West in the 1970s, he said, “At that time, it was all in black. I saw everything more pessimistically…My first stop was New York, then Boston, and then I went to Montreal. During that trajectory, all I could see was vanishing language and dwindling numbers. I can say that is not necessarily the case now.”
Though a lot of conscious effort is necessary for Armenians to survive as such in the West, he said there is “a return to Armenianness, which we even see in the United States.” He gave examples of friends whose parents had completely assimilated while their children returned to their Armenian heritage with a vengeance.
While language is more difficult to preserve, in certain countries like France, new Armenian schools have been popping up in recent years, reversing the trend of closings, and in Canada, in Montreal and Toronto they are flourishing, Der Khachadourian said. These schools are not just places to learn language and history but also means to imbibe Armenian values and pride, and establish life-long friendships.
When asked about the involvement of the most recent waves of Armenian emigrants from the Republic of Armenia in diasporan community life, Der Khachadourian said, “It is a tragedy for us that so many Armenians are leaving Armenia, but we cannot just abandon them. Therefore, there was a strong directive sent by the [ARF] Bureau to all regions stating that we should start dialogue with them. We should start to integrate them within our structures.” He said that initially these immigrants don’t generally participate in Armenian life but would like to use Armenian services. Instead, volunteerism needs to be encouraged since this is the basis for the survival of diasporan Armenian communities.
He said, “We are trying to do outreach. We are trying to convince them why this is important. We are also concentrating on their young ones, because if they are attending Armenian schools, they are at least trying to get the diaspora way of thinking.”
In Europe, in countries like Poland and Romania, he said that there was some success in getting Armenian intellectuals originally from Armenia active in the ANC organizations there. Nevertheless, overall, he said, “we have to do better in our outreach.”
Der Khachadourian sees two models for cooperation of Armenian organizations in the diaspora. One is a permanent council with representatives of various political, cultural, sports and other organizations. He gave the example of the Coordinating Council of Armenian Organizations of France (CCAF), “which brought tens of organizations together in order to create one voice vis-à-vis the French government in order to maintain the relationship between Armenia and France, so that no party would monopolize it or try to act independently. That has been a successful model.”
Another approach is for pan-Armenian councils working for specific goals or events, and sometimes on a local level. He said in Canada they have been successful in commemorating certain historic dates like April 24, May 28 or September 21 or doing certain specific lobbying work with the government.
He said, “These models work, more or less. It is not necessarily whether it is a good model or a bad model, because it has to be appropriate to the context of the given community, but it is the intention of the members which is very important. If they are truly representative of the organizations and associations they claim to represent, it can definitely have value. If it becomes a forum of personal ambitions, then it will definitely not work.”
Apart from these types of unifying bodies, Der Khachadourian said, “We believe that the ARF can play the role of a bridge between Armenia and the diaspora. We have excellent relations with the Armenian Church – with both Catholicoses – and we have very good relations with the Armenian General Benevolent Union as well, because we try to consult those associations that are active in pan-Armenian affairs, and of course the other political parties, the azkayin gusagtsutiunner as we call them – the Ramgavars [Armenian Democratic Liberal Party] and the Hunchagians [Social Democrat Hunchakian Party]. Despite some differences in outlook and opinions regarding the current authorities in Armenia there are many areas of common interest which we can pursue together.”
The Armenian Church has its own issues about unity, with a divided administrative situation in various parts of the world, like North America. Der Khachadourian said, “It is definitely the case that this situation cannot be considered normal in the long term.” Without going into details, he said, “These are very complicated questions. What I say is that one day we should seriously sit down with the two catholicoses and the major pan-Armenian organizations and decide that this issue has to be addressed, and it has to be addressed by reorganizing the whole issue of the diaspora.”
He finds the Pashinyan government has not been able to take advantage of the full potential of the Armenian diaspora or help in unifying the latter. “We had called upon the Armenian government to concentrate on what we called a national agenda and establish certain red lines that everybody accepts. For example, start from what we had already achieved in the centennial of 2015, and build upon it and create a strong consensus of Armenians worldwide and make that a weapon that Armenia can use in its negotiations. They haven’t done that,” he said. On the contrary, he said that he felt that the government has had a divisive effect, working with only certain elements abroad.
The ARF has had its own internal issues concerning unity in Los Angeles, where there is a split between two different groups. Der Khachadourian said, “the issue arose when there were certain deviations from the ARF bylaws which the Bureau tried to correct, but certain people rebelled against it by trying to keep their power. And then, through their pronouncements and through some of the meetings that they have had, they started arguing also about differences in approach regarding the Armenian authorities, or our Armenia policy, or the ARF overall Armenia policy. So yes, there seems to be some differences in outlook, which is unacceptable in a political party like the ARF.”
He pointed out that “There are efforts trying to solve the issue. We hope that people will realize that this is going nowhere, that this is an untenable situation and that we would like to reestablish unity as soon as possible.
by Aram Arkun