Who's in Charge Here

By Shahin, Miriam | The Middle East, July 1992 | Go to article overview
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Who's in Charge Here

Shahin, Miriam, The Middle East

Right now, Arafat. But his critics in the PLO think that after two recent scrapes with death it is high time he indulged in a little delegation of power. With no clear line of succession and the outcome of peace negotiations as hazy as ever, the PLO's collective mind has been wonderfully focussed on how to keep its own house in order and how to respond to the challenge from the rising leaders and the Islamic dissidents in the Occupied Territories. Miriam Shahin sorts out the turmoil.

"Arafat? He's travelling leaders about how democratic govenment works. He needs their advice." Double-edged jokes among Palestinians about veteran PLO leader, 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 3.5 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 survivor's 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.

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