Overcoming the Armenian diaspora’s irredentist legacy

Image credits: Armenians are demonstrating in Boston (2020) against Turkey and Azerbaijan. Picture courtesy of Pat Greenhouse (Boston Globe).

Armenian nationalism, deeply influenced by the Armenian diaspora during the Cold War, has shaped the domestic politics and geopolitical vision of present-day Armenia. The Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF, Dashnaktsutyn, ‘Dashnaks’) has perpetuated a vision of ‘Greater Armenia,’ a concept that includes claims on territories of all of Armenia’s neighbouring states: Azerbaijan, Georgia, Iran, and Turkey, and has far-going geopolitical consequences.

By Robert M. Cutler
The influential Armenian National Committee of America (ANCA) was established in 1918 as the American Committee for the Independence of Armenia, a lobby group of the ARF, which ANCA claims as a parent organisation. Their extensive influence in Washington has had detrimental effects on Armenia’s policies and foreign relations over the years. It has militated against Azerbaijan, against an equitable settlement of the Karabakh question in conformance with international law, and the creation of a comprehensive South Caucasus mutual-security system.

This harmful influence continues to the present day. It also militates against U.S. national security interests by supporting Russian influence in the South Caucasus.

In 2021, for example, ANCA endorsed the candidacy of pro-Kremlin Robert Kocharyan (president of Armenia from 1998 to 2008) in the June 2021 parliamentary elections in Armenia as part of an ARF-led political alliance. Dissecting this legacy requires examining the origins, influences and consequences of the irredentist nationalism and ethnic hatred on which it is based.

Historical context and external influences
The global dynamics of the Cold War profoundly influenced the Armenian nationalist movement in the diaspora. Radicals there aligned themselves with diverse groups ranging from Western leftists to Middle Eastern terrorists. These alliances were due less to any shared vision for the future than to immediate tactical needs against perceived common adversaries.

They provided the Armenian cause with international visibility and sympathy, but they gravely damaged Armenian nationalism’s credentials. Notably, groups such as the Armenian Secret Army for the Liberation of Armenia (ASALA) pursued violent tactics, including assassinations, aligning with leftist ideologies to draw attention to its cause. As the Cold War waned, the legacies of these alignments outside Soviet Armenia started to influence the evolution of Armenia's domestic and foreign policies.

Over the twentieth century, this diaspora propagated narratives of victimhood. These narratives not only became central to ethnic identity but also were used to justify these irredentist territorial ambitions that led to ethnic cleansing. They romanticised the nationalist cause, ultimately justifying the seizure of others’ territories by force and their ethnic cleansing from them.

They directly animated the policies of ASALA, the ARF and the most influential diaspora organisations in France and the United States. As the USSR began to disintegrate and its borders became more permeable, this diaspora exported the antagonisms and hatred that it had preserved for decades into Soviet Armenia. Even before the USSR collapsed, the drive towards realising ‘Greater Armenia’ led to the expulsion of nearly 200,000 ethnic Azerbaijanis from Armenia proper in the late 1980s.

Consequences and current implications
The dream of ‘Greater Armenia’ has had tragic consequences, both morally and politically, for Armenians as well as for others. Opportunist politicians from the ‘Karabakh clan’—who later seized control of the Armenian state apparatus for two decades—played upon ethnic hatred, disguised as nationalist fervour, to justify their aggressive and militarist policies against their Azerbaijani neighbours inside Azerbaijan. The imprint of the Karabakh clan still complicates Armenia’s relationships with its neighbours and the international community.

The ethnic cleansing of 700,000 Azerbaijanis from Karabakh and adjacent districts within Azerbaijan, following the Armenian army's occupation of Azerbaijani territory, was abetted if not driven by ethnic Armenians from Karabakh itself. This dynamic set the political table in Yerevan, especially after the slow-motion coup d’état by terrorists-turned-politicians from Karabakh in the mid/late 1990s. Territorial ambitions were prioritised over economic or political pragmatism, while the new Armenian elite from Karabakh massively enriched itself.

Armenia’s ability effectively to address internal challenges and external pressures was vitiated until it was finally ousted by force from Azerbaijani territory in two stages, first in 2020 and finally in 2023. Prolonged irredentist militarised ethnonationalism has isolated Armenia from potential regional partnerships and development opportunities, notably Turkey’s offer for broad regional economic cooperation in the late 2000s. This isolation is most starkly visible in its still-closed borders and strained diplomatic relations, particularly with Azerbaijan and Turkey.

The efforts of ANCA in Washington and its Paris-based sister organisation, Committee for the Defence of the Armenian Cause (also closely linked to ARF), strongly influence English—and French-language media coverage of the South Caucasus and the foreign policies of the U.S. and France.

The most infamous example is Section 907 of the Freedom Support Act, a 1992 U.S. law banning direct American aid to the Azerbaijani government without a presidential waiver. Because of this, humanitarian assistance delivered by Washington to Baku following the ethnic cleansing of Azerbaijanis by Armenian military forces could not be distributed to refugees and internally displaced persons throughout the country. That is because the only trucks available, in the chaotic immediate post-Soviet conditions, were owned by the government in Baku.

The European and American information media continue to systematically fail to inform their readers about the facts about the conflict. This is not trivial since today’s policy-makers and advisors form their opinions partly based on press coverage. As demonstrated elsewhere, how facile and false ethno-religious generalisations masqueraded as “analysis” and how the Western press failed to explain the significance of Armenia’s—and the diaspora’s—continual rejection of the Madrid Principles of the now-dead Minsk Group.

French President Emmanuel Macron’s declaration, characteristic of these delusions, was made in September 2020. At the same time, the Second Karabakh War was still ongoing, and Macron said that “France will play its role” in preventing “a reconquest of Upper Karabakh.”

Armenian irredentist and mono-ethnic nationalism, fuelled by the diaspora and ideologically crystallised over decades, still impede Armenia’s potential for prosperity and regional cooperation. Its ambitious pursuit of territorial claims, underscored by Cold War–era alignments and by a xenophobia that the diaspora continues to exacerbate, has isolated the country from its neighbours and hindered its development.

It is no accident that the diaspora, whose prestige and funding depend on eternalising the military conflict between Yerevan and Baku, consistently opposes Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan’s moves for peace. Mainly because the Armenian diaspora, living comfortably overseas, has never had to suffer the poverty and hardships that their advocated policies have for decades imposed on Armenians living in Armenia.

The country stands at a crossroads as Pashinyan’s government re-evaluates the nationalist agenda inherited from the Karabakh clan. This government seeks to improve political stability, foster economic growth and establish a more harmonious and secure South Caucasus with its neighbours. The success of this re-assessment is crucial for breaking the cycles of conflict and opening pathways to a more integrated and prosperous future.

Dr. Robert M. Cutler has written about security and cooperation in Europe and Eurasia for over 30 years. He was a senior researcher at Carleton University’s Institute for European, Russian and Eurasia Studies and a past fellow of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute.


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