Tuesday, March 13, 2012

They're trying. So what?

The Armenian Ministry of Diaspora launched a new "online portal" on March 13. It's called "The Virtual Museum of Armenian Diaspora."

Unsuspecting onlookers can probably see this as yet another "noble" attempt by the Republic of Armenia [the Country] to connect with the Armenian communities around the world [the Diaspora]. After all, "diaspora diplomacy" is one of the strongest assets the Country has on the international arena.

The problem is, public diplomacy with the Diaspora is not working out all that well.

I do not know any of the background involved in this story. I don't know who came up with the idea, or when. How was it implemented? I'll just share some of my first impressions after briefly clicking through some of the links and pages.

Firstly, the site opens à la 90s: with a scary, over-edited pomegranate and horrible music (by the way, the track is called "The Song of the Armenian"). Then, color and the design... They are bad (anything brighter, without the grey background, please?). I like the idea of the changing pictures in the header. But, couldn't they just use better quality images? Those seem like they've been taken from a random Google Image search with no regard to the size. If this is such an important project - which it should be - why is it that difficult to invest some time (or money) in getting original, high-quality photographs? There are many great photographers around the country...!

But that's just the very first impression. Then, of course, you are taken to the Minister's "Greeting Speech". The Armenian version is fine (note: here I'm not yet referring to the content itself). But, what about Western Armenian? The Eastern Armenian used in the Country is not the language used by the majority in the Diaspora. Doesn't the Ministry of Diaspora know this? The Ministry recognizes (or accepts) only one Armenian language - theirs - implying to the majority of the Diasporans that the conversation, even if there is one, will take place on the terms dictated by the Country.

The Russian version of the greeting is OK, too. But then, there's the English translation... Not only does it sound horrible, it is also very bad - mostly verbatim and often wrong. My initial guess was that it was taken directly from Google Translate, but then, seems like someone did edit it. Yet, their command of English is very poor and makes it all sound pathetic.
"We shall do everything to make the web-site interesting and cognitive, to reflect the phenomenon of Armenian Diaspora with its rich palette and deep essence..."


Then, there's the content (we're still on the "greeting" part). Too much tautology and demagoguery, but that's Armenian official-speak. Beyond that, there is the last part that caught my attention: "With love and sincere expectations...". This is yet another translation-related error (since the Armenian version does not use anything close to "expectations"; I'd rather translate that as "greetings"); but to me, it's more of a Freudian slip. At least they are being honest about what they really want to come out of this project (i.e. one-way flow of resources [rather than mere information] into the Country).

I'll be brief on the rest of the website content (not that there is much, to begin with). The information gathered there is of poor quality. Good to have it all organized and centralized in such way; but again, this does not look like original content. The small info sections on communities are very brief, general, and poor. There are no links to any of the community websites or activities. Clearly, not much research has gone into it all.

Many of the pages aren't there, yet. They have the sections - the page is there - but with no content. The "Links" feature only official organizations, foundations, and ministries. Nothing related to specific communities in the Diaspora.

Again, I do understand the effort. It is an attempt to create a platform for communication between the Country and the Diaspora, as well as among various communities within the Diaspora itself. It is not meant to be a project through which the Country communicates to the Diaspora. They have a separate website for that (that's a whole different story). This intent is also clear form the "greeting speech", where the Minister puts so much emphasis on inviting participation and soliciting suggestions from the Diaspora.

Ms. Hakobyan can surely inspire trust and commitment. Image from PanARMENIAN.

Yet, it is still very official. One has to send in an official proposal to the Ministry's "Working Group", if they want to contribute. I won't even go into the complete absence of any social media. How is the Diasporan public supposed to participate in this "conversation"?

There has already been at least one prominent response from the Diaspora - from an editor of the US-based Asbarez newspaper. Of course, there is politics involved and some not-so-friendly historical background. He also seems to have been personally offended for not having been consulted about the project in advance.  Yet, he makes some very good points.

This blunt Diasporan nationalism is just another example of the rift between the Country and the Diaspora. It is an indication of the ignorance and apathy from both sides about the other, although both seem to be making the effort to say otherwise. The Country needs material (and political) support from abroad, while the Diaspora needs a collection of monuments they can visit in August, when they finally decide they have saved up enough to afford the trip.

They can't even agree on one language...!

They should recognize that the rift exists and work on actively bridging it. That requires true public diplomacy by both of the sides involved. But most of all, it requires humility and willingness or learn and understand: something that has clearly been missing thus far...


  1. Excellent post!
    The pathetic site is just archetypal of how bureaucracy (or should I say "red tape" in order not to confuse it with Weberian legal-rational bureaucracy?)operates in Armenia and of the mentality and practices of the ministries...
    Btw, do you know that Ms Hakobyan was for years a leader of Armenian Comsomol (Young Communist League)? She was holding the position of the First Secretary of the Comsomol of the Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic. With such credentials she can probably be expected to be able to get the Diasporan Armenians line up and carry out commands...

  2. Yelena -- Another very enlightening post about important issues not covered by the mainstream media. Thank you. John

  3. Thank you, John! :)

    Vlad, thanks for the info! I didn't know that, of course... but you are very right, such habits, expectations and attitudes -- culture, in short -- don't go away all that easily. They needed someone from the "new" (at least, newER) generation, who actually knows what and where the Diaspora is, and how to deal with it...

  4. Well I have my personal experience inter-acting with Ms. Hakobyan still as student... But it was in her promise yesterday that the next first thing would be having the Western Armenian version of everything there. Yes, a lot is being published by the Ministry now in Western Armenian, Constitution, legislation etc. etc. Wow, got the pomegranate at last... why don't they think that we might want to "skip" the veeery long song.
    Well in one word, the post is to the point!
    Did you hear the last words of the song? "տաս միլիոն հայ ենք մենք..." Սա վերջն էր.....

  5. There's a stinging critique in a paper called Hetq. http://hetq.am/eng/

  6. I didn't know there were different Armenian languages. East and West? can you please explain? Merci! :)

  7. Sure :) Sorry took me a while. So:

    - There is "Ancient Armenian" (grabar), the language still used in traditional liturgy, etc.

    - Western Armenian was based on the language of the intellectuals used in Istanbul during and after the "Armenian Enlightenment". It was heavily influenced by French and Turkish, and although it has mostly kept the spelling of what many would call "Classical Armenian", the sentence construction, conjugation of verbs, and especially pronunciation, are very different from "Eastern Armenian".

    - Eastern Armenian, on the other hand, was the language based on the dialect used in the Yerevan region, and thus strongly influenced by Farsi and Russian, in terms of vocabulary and grammar. It became the "official" language towards the mid-19th century, and especially after the First Republic.

    - Then, there is Iranian Armenian, which, for some reason, has kept the Classical/Western spelling, while uses the Eastern Armenian construction/pronunciation.

    So yeah, it's very confusing, and a real big and divisive issue within the "global" Armenian community. Although it is increasingly *less* so, it used to be that Diasporan Armenians and Armenians from the "homeland" would not understand each other, if they had no previous exposure to the other's language...

    Hope this helps! :)