By Harry Tamrazian and Armen Zakarian
Almost 3,000 delegates, including 1,500 Armenian delegates from 45 countries around the world, presented their suggestions and ideas on how to contribute to the fledgling economy and well-being of their newly independent motherland at the second Armenia-Diaspora forum, which opened today in Yerevan. The Armenia-Diaspora Forum, which was founded in 1999, has set itself the ambitious goal of transforming into a World Forum of Armenians similar to the World Jewish Congress.
According to various unofficial estimates, more than 6 million Armenians living outside Armenia, including 1 million in the United States and 2 million in Russia. According to official government statistics, Diaspora Armenians send over $200 million each year to their relatives in Armenia. The Pan-Armenian Fund, which was founded in 1992, has contributed over $75 million to various projects in Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh. Armenian-American billionaire Kirk Kirkoryan has set up his own project worth $200 million with the aim of facilitating small and medium size businesses in Armenia and of rebuilding the country's infrastructure.
The Armenian government hopes that high profile Armenia-Diaspora conferences will help to generate more interest among Armenian businessmen in Diaspora and encourage them to increase their involvement in rebuilding the country's economy. "We have started a process that has a start but not an end," said Armenian President Robert Kocharian in his opening remarks. According to Armenian Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian, who was one of the advocates of creating a World Forum for all Armenians, the second Pan-Armenian conference will discuss the formation of a single information space, the Diaspora's participation in socio-economic development of the republic, preserving national identity and culture, teaching the Armenian language and history in the Diaspora, and supporting and promoting national science and culture in Armenia and abroad.
In a contrast to the upbeat remarks from government officials, some Diaspora Armenians expressed serious criticism and questioned the sincerity of Armenia's efforts to create a favorable climate for investments. The corrupt bureaucratic system and clannish economy was a major talking point for some prominent participants. "If the Armenian government wants to turn its economy around with the help of investments from Diaspora or foreign businesses, then it must to root out the clannish system of economy, which is an evil for any country," the head of the Union of Russian-Armenians, Ara Abramian said. The wealthy Russian-Armenian businessman, who has close ties with the Kremlin, invested over $1 million dollar in Armenia last year.
The "Dashnak" party, which supports President Kocharian, also criticized the Armenian government. The party's leader Hrant Margarian singled out corruption and the emigration of hundreds of thousands of Armenians from Armenia as major problems for the country. Other critics from the Diaspora argued that the Diaspora-Armenia engagement must be a two way street, and Armenians who have contributed millions of dollars should have a say in Armenian affairs. But the Armenian president made clear in his speech to the forum that neither side should try to control the other. "The Diaspora should not try to control Armenia, and Armenia should not try to control Diaspora," the president said.
The Armenian president tried to please Diaspora Armenians, promising last week that he will put to a referendum a constitutional amendment eliminating the provision which forbids a dual citizenship for the Armenian citizens. "It was wrong to forbid the right to dual citizenship. A nation which has a huge Diaspora had no right to do that," Kocharian said in the first ever televised bridge between Armenia and the Diaspora. He promised to introduce an amendment eliminating restrictions on dual citizenship during next year's referendum on constitutional amendments.