By Artur Terian in Moscow
Presidents Vladimir Putin and Robert Kocharian opened in Moscow on Monday the founding congress of a Kremlin-backed international organization that hopes to unite ethnic Armenians around the world.
The success of the endeavor was openly questioned by Kocharian who stressed that only the Armenian state should have such a mission.
The group called the World Armenian Organization (WAO) is led by Ara Abrahamian, an Armenian-born millionaire businessman who heads Russia’s largest Armenian organization. Abrahamian, who reportedly enjoys close ties with the Putin administration, has toured major Armenian communities in the Middle East, Europe and the Americas over the last two years to drum up Diaspora support for his ambitious plan.
More than 300 delegates from 52 countries converged on the Russian capital to attend the gathering held in one of the city’s most famous conference halls. Putin’s presence underscored Moscow’s support for the WAO.
The organization’s stated goals, outlined by Abrahamian during a visit to Yerevan late last month, are not only Armenian-related and include things like a fight against “international terrorism” and global poverty.
In his speech, Putin paid tribute to Armenians’ role in Russia’s political and economic life and reaffirmed his country’s commitment to “strategic partnership” with Armenia. "Our fathers and grandfathers had fought in different wars for the sake of our common victories, including the bloodiest of them: the Great Patriotic War,” he said, referring to Soviet victory in the Word War II.
“New serious changes have taken place recently in the strategic partnership between Russia and Armenia,” he added.
Kocharian, meanwhile, was rather restrained in his assessment of the event. While welcoming the creation of the WAO, he voiced misgivings about its ability of unite all major Diaspora communities in a single structure.
“It is hardly possible to rally the Diaspora under the banner of a single organization,” he said. “The idea is tempting but controversial. Only the flag of the Republic of Armenia can serve as such a banner. It is therefore important to find a more reasonable formula for Diaspora cooperation.”
Abrahamian’s plans were ridiculed last month by a Yerevan-based daily supporting Kocharian, in a further sign of an estrangement between the two men. Observers attribute it to last May’s parliamentary elections in Armenia in which a small party sponsored Abrahamian failed to win any legislative seats. The Russian-Armenian tycoon implicitly blamed its poor showing on vote manipulation by the authorities.
Also sounding cool towards Abrahamian’s project is the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutyun), a member of Armenia’s ruling coalition and the most influential political group in the worldwide Diaspora. One of its Yerevan-based senior members, Vostanik Marukhian, addressed the WAO congress. He said that Dashnaktsutyun is ready to cooperate with the WAO, but will not become a part of it. In separate comments to RFE/RL, Marukhian noted that some points in the WAO charter “need clarification.”
The congress was also characterized by the conspicuous absence of any representatives from the Armenian Assembly of America, an influential Washington-based lobbying group. Reasons for that were not immediately clear. The Assembly and Dashnaktsutyun’s American lobbying arm have been instrumental in the passage of pro-Armenian legislation by the U.S. Congress.
The U.S. has the second largest Diaspora community in the world after Russia where an estimated 2 million Armenians are believed to reside. Many of them are citizens of Armenia who left their impoverished country after the Soviet collapse in search of work.
“There are more Armenians outside Armenia than inside it,” Kocharian said. “The Diaspora has accumulated a huge potential, and that potential can and must work for the strengthening of Armenian statehood. I often repeat the formula that Armenia with its Diaspora and without it are two different weight categories.”