Report

The Diaspora May Be Armenia’s Biggest Asset in Nagorno-Karabakh

From online to the front lines, the 7 million-strong Armenian diaspora is rallying to the fight in Nagorno-Karabakh.

Lebanese of Armenian origin raise Armenian and Nagorno-Karabakh flags as they take part in a rally in Beirut's neighborhood of Bourj Hammoud on Oct. 9.
Lebanese of Armenian origin raise Armenian and Nagorno-Karabakh flags as they take part in a rally in Beirut's neighborhood of Bourj Hammoud on Oct. 9. Anwar Amro/AFP via Getty Images

BEIRUT—From Lebanon to Los Angeles, the ongoing conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh is galvanizing the Armenian diaspora and adding a new international element to the deadly conflict in a disputed enclave between Azerbaijan and Armenia.

As clashes between Azerbaijani and Armenian forces continued for the third week, young men rode through the streets of Beirut’s largely Armenian Bourj Hammoud neighborhood waving Armenian flags. More than 7,000 miles away, Armenian Americans blocked roads and highways in Los Angeles; organized shipments of money, medicine, and food; and demanded action from the U.S. government. For the estimated 7 million Armenians flung to far corners of the globe, the latest conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh is a nearly unprecedented impetus to mobilize and unify—with reports of young Armenians even going back to an ancestral homeland few have ever seen to do battle.

“Around the world, when there is war, people flee the country,” said Krikor Artenian, a Lebanese Armenian resident of Bourj Hammoud. “But not Armenians. Armenians from all around the world have flooded into Armenia and Artsakh,” he said, using the term that millions of Armenians employ for the enclave that is legally part of Azerbaijan but mostly inhabited by and governed by ethnic Armenians.

The conflict over the breakaway region has been simmering for years, with the last big outbreak of violence before the current fighting claiming some 30,000 lives in the early 1990s. Since hostilities erupted in late September, Armenia and Azerbaijan have ramped up military pressure on each other and blown up a tentative cease-fire. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo described it as a “powder keg of a situation.”“Around the world, when there is war, people flee the country. But not Armenians.”

For many Armenians living in Lebanon, the conflict hits close to home, even if Armenia proper never was theirs. Most Armenians in Lebanon are descendants of the up to 1.5 million ethnic Armenians inside the Ottoman Empire who were killed or forced to flee during World War I by Ottoman forces. Many fled into Syria’s eastern deserts or to Aleppo; others continued on to Lebanon, ending up in a refugee camp outside Beirut. A century later, that camp is now the densely populated, heavily Armenian neighborhood of Bourj Hammoud.

There, Armenian flags fly next to anti-Turkish graffiti; now, walls are spray-painted with “Azerbaijan is guilty” as the intensifying conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh occupies public attention. People, mostly chatting in Armenian with a bit of Arabic, gather to watch the latest news on the fighting on television; shopkeepers listen to patriotic Armenian songs. There are signs in Armenian, schools that teach in Armenian, and Armenian churches, too, and a deep collective memory of their historical trauma.

For all the differences among the Armenian diaspora—some are descendants of that first exodus, others from Soviet or even post-Soviet conflicts, each with different histories and relationships with modern-day Armenia—the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh is mobilizing and unifying them in unprecedented ways. Across Europe, ethnic Armenians have also blocked highways and protested in capitals, many demanding recognition of Nagorno-Karabakh as sovereign Artsakh. 

“These differences are very clear during peacetime,” said Armenak Tokmajyan, a nonresident scholar at the Carnegie Middle East Center. “Today, we don’t see these divisions. We see unity and mobilization.” Turkey’s role, as a major military backer of Azerbaijan, is reopening historical wounds, he said.

“It invokes certain memories, particularly for old-diaspora Armenians,” he said.

That sentiment is being translated into donations of money and aid—and plenty of talk, though less action, among young Armenians about going to fight for their country.

“Our people either give food, money, or their blood to the fight,” said Artenian, who is in his 60s and has never been to Armenia but says he’s willing to die for it.

One high-profile Armenian who’s willing to give money is Kim Kardashian West, who contributed $1 million. She’s not alone: the Hayastan All Armenian Fund, which offers the diaspora the chance to contribute in dollars, euros, rubles, or Armenian dram, has raised  $126 million raised so far.

For Armenian Americans, the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh is a key political issue just weeks ahead of this year’s presidential election.

“My thoughts and prayers are with the brave men, women, and children,” said Kardashian in a video message to her 190 million Instagram followers. “I want everyone to remember that despite the distance that separates us, we are not limited by borders. We are one global Armenian nation together.”

Like Kardashian West, other Armenians in Los Angeles are rallying to the cause. Armenian Americans in southern California have sent heavy-duty generators, food, medicine, and volunteers, including ethnic Armenian doctors and nurses who traveled to Nagorno-Karabakh, said Sevak Khatchadorian, the chairman of the Armenian Council of America. (Not all the shipments are apparently arriving: Armenia complained this week that Turkey blocked the flight of one shipment of aid from Los Angeles.)

For Armenian Americans like Khatchadorian, the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh is a key political issue just weeks ahead of this year’s presidential election. The mayor of Los Angeles this month issued a statement supporting Armenia in the fight—a strange foray for a municipal official. Meanwhile, the United States has increased over the past two years its security funding for Azerbaijan by $100 million.

“It’s definitely a voting issue for us,” Khatchadorian said. “The Azeri government might be using my U.S. tax dollars to attack Armenians.” He calls what he sees as the Trump administration’s support for Azerbaijan “unforgivable.” The U.S. House of Representatives and Senate both passed resolutions recognizing the Armenian genocide between 1915 and 1923—but President Donald Trump, fearing a backlash from Turkey, has refused to sign it.

This week, Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden weighed in as well, taking both countries and Turkey to task for their role in spreading the conflict. Khatchadorian says Biden’s position is better than Trump’s position but not enough.

But for all the boisterous talk and generous aid, one thing that few Armenians seem to be doing is going to the front lines to fight, unlike some of Turkey’s proxies. Some Lebanese say they have friends on the ground, but it’s hard to confirm. Artenian, sitting in a narrow alleyway of Bourj Hammoud, calls a friend he says is in the fighting. A photo of a man in fatigues pops up on the phone, but no one speaks on the other end. “They told him he’s not allowed,” Artenian said cryptically, putting away the phone.

In a war that hinges just as much on the battle of international image, Armenia’s diaspora seems to give it an edge. Unlike the conflict in the early 1990s, Armenia doesn’t need foreign volunteers this time, even if seemingly every young man in Bourj Hammoud says they want to join the fight. Thirty years ago, Armenia’s military was less professional, while Lebanon was coming off years of civil war. Today, the fight is a high-tech war with drones and advanced battle tanks, leaving little room for volunteers.

“Regardless of how much you love this land and how much trauma you have, you can’t operate this equipment,” said Tokmajyan, the Carnegie expert. 

But in a war that hinges just as much on the battle of international image, Armenia’s diaspora seems to give it an edge. Whether it’s Kardashian West and her fellow Armenian Americans in California or Lebanese Armenians lobbying their government and calling for cyberattacks on Azerbaijan, the usually well-off and well-educated diaspora is a strategic asset.

“This time, there is a feeling our main resource is not a country,” Tokmajyan said. “The main resource is the diaspora.”

Hassan Harfoush contributed reporting for this story.

Rebecca Collard is a broadcast journalist and writer covering the Middle East.

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