The Fundamentals of Armenian Identity or Who is An Armenian?

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Wed Jan 30 14:58:40 UTC 2008

The Fundamentals of Armenian Identity or Who is An Armenian?
[January 28, 2008]

In the current most complex period of development of Armenia and the
Armenians, the problem of the Armenian identity represents not only an
academic interest but has a serious practical significance.A strong
national identity is a strategic asset in the process of building and
strengthening a nation-state, while the dilution of national identity
by no means facilitates but, moreover, hinders the consolidation of
the individual and society around national goals and objectives. After
all, who can be considered Armenian today? As sensitive as this
question is, since it touches the feelings of millions of people
(especially our compatriots abroad), answering it is imperative. For
an adequate illustration of the topic let us first present the state
of affairs which the Armenian nation finds itself in today.

There are some irrefutable realities which we must see and accept
exactly as they stand, rather than turn a blind eye to them, as do a
significant section of the Armenians, including its "elite".


Fact 1: The Armenian ethnicity is under the threat of extinction on
the territory of its own homeland - in the Republic of Armenia,
Artsakh and Javakhk. This threat springs simultaneously from a number
of interrelated sources:

a) the possibility of military aggression by Azerbaijan;

b) a critical demographic crisis (the exhodus of over a million
Armenian citizens and the ongoing emigration negatively impact the
viability of all spheres of life in the country);

c) the stalling of Armenian nation/state building process as well as
the solidification of its political institutions;

d) uncultivated state of Armenia's National Security doctrine ("The
Armenian National Security Strategy" adopted in February 2007 is a
declarative document, which, according to official announcements, has
been written with the "methodology" and "editorship" of Moscow,
Washington and Brussels experts). Consequently, there is a conspicuous
absence of a clear Foreign Policy Direction based on national

e) Armenia's heavy dependence on foreign powers;

f) social tension, including the class and regional aspects (inter
alia, the artificially created but effectively maintained dangerous
antagonism between "hayastantsi" and "gharabaghtsi", the total
mistrust towards politicians and political institutions, the
alianation of the people from the decision-making process);

g) the complete absence of any struggle against corruption which
pervades all spheres of public life in the republic;

h) the lack of a consistent language policy in Armenia, resulting in a
defenseless and vulnerable state of the Armenian language;
i) The Georgian state policy of forcing out Armenians from Javakhk
using administrative, economic, cultural, religious, linguistic and
demographic pressures, and now even through open show and use of

Yet, the foremost threat is characterized by the highly probable
Azerbaijani aggression, which is being methodically planned and
scrupulously prepared, with Turkey's direct and indirect
participation. If it were to succeed ending in the occupation of
Artsakh and the liberated territory around it, the disappearance of
the Republic of Armenia from the world map would be inevitable because
the next, if not simultaneous, attack will be directed against Syunik
- the last dividing bastion between these two Turkic allies. The
existence of Syunik, without the shielding "barrier" of Artsakh, would
become untenable. The weak communication links with central regions of
Armenia, the absence of any defensive depth putting all of Syunik
within range of Azerbaijan's modern artillery systems, as well as the
psychological trauma from the fall of Artsakh would reduce the
defensibility of this strategically vital region to nearly zero. The
resulting encirclement of the remainder of Armenia in a
Turkish-Azerbaijani ring, will transform it into a ghetto - a kind of
Transcaucasian Swaziland. Subsequently, the obliteration of Armenia by
Azerbaijan and Turkey, if not through military action, then through
economic, political and psychological pressures, will simply be a
matter of time. Thus being deprived of any prospects for sustainable
development and losing its role as a potential safe haven for the
millions of Armenians scattered throughout the world, the resulting
geometrically progressed mass emigration would weaken Armenia to the
degree of being divided by and absorbed into Turkey, Azerbaijan and
Georgia. Although the Armenian nation succeeded in eliminating this
very scenario in the 1990s, the Turco-Azeri alliance, far from
forsaking it, will attempt to implement it if Armenians prove unable
to mount an effective resistance.

Fact 2: Armenians can survive only if Armenia survives - as an
Armenian state and the Armenian nation living within it.

Fact 3: Without Armenia, the Armenian Spyurk (Diaspora) cannot
represent a nation, i.e., a viable entity ensuring national
preservation and reproduction of Armenian race (let alone the
preservation and development of the Armenian language and culture).

Fact 4: During the last decades the inevitable acculturation and
assimilation processes in Spyurk have sharply accelerated to an
unprecedented level. In particular, as a result of emigration, every
year the ranks of the Armenian communities are thinning out in the
Middle East, where until recently the percentage of mixed marriages
were extremely low, and the Armenian schools and other community
structures functioned effectively. In 20-30 years from now there will
remain at best tiny islands of the once flourishing communities of
Lebanon, Iran and Syria, similar to what has already happened to the
Armenians of Iraq. As for the Armenians living in Russia and the
developed West, they are subject to even faster acculturation and

Fact 5: There is no Armenian culture without the Armenian language.
Along with the statehood and the territory under its control, the
language is the foundation and paramount means of preserving the
Armenian ethnicity. The fact that many of our compatriots, especially
in Spyurk, can feel and consider themselves Armenian without knowing
the Armenian language, is possible only thanks to the people of
Armenia who still speak, write and create in Armenian. Let us picture
a hypothetical situation where Armenians in Armenia have forgotten
their mother tongue and communicate with one another, are educated,
write and create in a foreign language, no matter which - Russian,
English or Chinese. This would signify nothing less than the end of
the Armenian civilization, the end of the Armenian culture and the end
of the Armenian ethnos!
Yet, today Armenia itself faces the full weight of the challenge of
preserving and developing the Armenian language (i.e. culture). As was
mentioned eaerlier, this is due to the decrease in the number of users
of the Armenian language (including the potential users - children who
received and receive non-Armenian educution abroad) attributable to
the emigration of our compatriots and the absence of appropriate
protection of the Armenian language by the State. After 16 years of
independence, it is high time that we duely acknowledge the
fundamental role and place that language has in the life of a nation -
something that the Armenian political elite and a significant portion
of the intelligentsia fail to do. On the contrary, in the language
policy, just like in certain other fundamental areas, attempts are
still being made to regress the Armenian political thinking.


Conclusion 1: The Armenian nation is in the active phase of the
struggle for survival on a fraction of its own homeland, preserved at
the cost of unimaginable sacrifices. In other words, the Armenian
nation is a struggling organism whose main, vitally important function
is the struggle for survival.

Conclusion 2: The frontlines of this struggle for survival stretch out
not only along Armenia's borders with Azerbaijan and Turkey, but
evidently also throughout the country itself, embracing the spheres of
demography, economy, social life, science and education. Emigration,
regardless of its reasons, removes Armenians, partially or fully, from
the central battlefield for survival, that is - Armenia. Repatriation,
on the other hand, results in the replenishment of a vitally necessary
reserve for the country.

Based on the above-mentioned strategic considerations I will attempt
to answer the question: "who is an Armenian?" and in what way is s/he
differentiated from an Armenian by birth.

One is an Armenian if s/he:

1) considers Armenia his/her only homeland within two dimensions of
time and territory - in her historic and present boundaries;

2) has strong psychological attachments to his homeland - its
territory, people, language and culture;

3) feels personal responsibility for Armenia's fate and assumes
political obligations towards it;

4) if living abroad, seriously contemplates avenues for his and his
family's repatriation;

5) either is or tries to become the bearer of the Armenian language and culture;

6) strives to maintain his offsprings Armenian, including by means of
passing on to them the knowledge of the Armenian language and by
bringing them into the realm of the national culture.

Those of our compatriots who consider the country of their birth or
citizenship and not Armenia as their homeland, who do not feel
psychological attachments and political responsibility towards
Armenia, who do not wish to think about living in the Homeland, who do
not seek to be the bearers of the Armenian language, who consciously
or unconsciously have reconciled with and are not concerned about the
inevitable assimilation of their offsprings, can be considered
Armenians by origin only, because, in reality, they are already either
cosmopolitans or representatives of another nationality. Indeed, it
does not matter at all if they shout from the rooftops that they are
the most real and authentic Armenians (a genuine self-deception!). The
fact is that these individuals, regardless of the reasons, are beyond
the nation's life-process and do not partake in its subsistence even
at its most fateful moment.

It should also be emphasized that genetics are of a secondary
importance in determining of an Armenian or any other national
identity. The real identity of an individual is defined by his
personal involvement in and contribution to the life processes of the
relevant nation.

Thus, we should differentiate between an Armenian on the one hand, and
a person of Armenian origin on the other. This does not mean at all
that the former is good and the latter is bad. Simply, the latter no
longer can or wants to sacrifice anything for the sake of Armenia and
already has a fundamentally different national self-consciousness.

For Armenians by origin it would be useful perhaps to look at
themselves honestly and without self-deception and hypocracy: They
have actually left the field of the nation's life activities.
Nevertheless, the road is still open for them both ways - total and
irreversible assimilation or the return to national roots, the
rediscovery of the Armenian language and culture and participation in
the nation's life. In this sense, a large segment of Spyurk are
potential Armenians. Unfortunately, such alianated potential Armenians
are not rare in Armenia itself, who are fully or partially cut off
from the Armenian language, culture and politics and who fail to
perceive the common threat of extinction facing all Armenians.

I would like to repeat what I have written about many times before.
Preserving Armenianness abroad, "hayapahpanum", cannot be an end in/of
itself. The true goal for the preservation of Diasporan Armenians is
their reunion with their motherland under the auspieces of an
independent state, as of now on the territory under the control of
Armenian armed forces. Considering the preservation of Armenianness an
end goal (as a considerable part of the Armenians abroad does)
severely weakens the most important elements of the same

The struggle for physical survival is unfortunately the core function
of life of the Armenian nation. It is this very function that
determines and necessitates the fundamental pillar of the Armenian
identity - direct and personal engagement in this struggle for the
realisation of the national objectives, which presently are:

- the preservation at all cost of that territory, essential for
security, on which Armenia (RA and NKR together with the liberated
territory around it) has existed for the whole period of its latest
- the increasing of the number of the Armenian population in the Homeland;
- the preservation of the Armenians of Javakhk on their lands;
- the building of a nation-state based on the principles of rule of
law, social justice, democracy and protection of national interests
and values, including the development of the Armenian language and

There are tremendous practical, ideological and psychological
obstacles and ossified stereotypes that must be overcome throughout
this struggle. They emanate essentially from non-Armenian sources but
are often coming in to the scene through those Armenian political
structures which long ago or recently have fallen under the slavish
dependence of foreign powers. The engagement in the struggle for the
achievement of the above-mentioned objectives will underpin an
Armenian's ethnic resistability with such a breath of emotions,
feelings and knolewdge that he/she will indeed have the drive and the
need to acquire and become the bearer of the basic elements of the
national self-consciousness - the language, culture, customs and

To sum up, we can conclude that as long as Armenia as a nation and
state is drawn into a long-term struggle for survival against powers
superior in terms of numbers, resources and territory (Turkey and
Azerbaijan), the most natural and functionally strongest ethnically
differentiating characteristic feature of an Armenian is the
acknowledgment and assumption of personal responsibility -
proportionate to his/her strengths and capabilities - for destiny of
the homeland.

By Armen Ayvazian, Ph.D. in Political Science, Director of the
"Ararat" Center for Strategic Research

P. S. At the end I invite you to read an English translation of an
excerpt from a poem by Raphael Patkanyan entitled "The Armenian and
Armenianness" written back in 1855, and a quote from Garegin Nzhdeh.
Both are most relevant to this discourse.

Who is an Armenian? Is he the one who speaks in Armenian?
Or whose name ends with the suffix yan?
The one who always eats tolma, pilav for lunch
Or proudly always wears Armenian attire and hat?
Who is an Armenian, is he the one who attends an Armenian Church
And goes to confession at least four times a year?
That has never ignored the lent and also fasts during that
And when he yawns he crosses his open mouth?
No, my dear, nationhood is not an external act
Not even your Armenian birth will give you that right...
If you are an Armenian, you must respect the Armenians for sure,
Armenia for you must be the star of hope...
Love your nation not by words but as you love yourself,
For her sake if necessary, sacrifice all your self,
Don't even save your life, give your blood to her
Not with the hope that your nation instatntly will appreciate you.

(Translated from Armenian by Hratch V. Vartanian, M.D.)

Later, in mid-20th century the same concept is highlighted by Garegin
Nzhdeh: "Armenia! He who did not know how to die for you in your hour
of need and who will not want to die for you tomorrow - is not your
son, is not an Armenian!"

This coincidence could testify only to the following: the struggle for
survival of the Armenian nation has now been going on for over one and
a half century.

Armen Ayvazyan

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