Middle-east Arab News Opinion | Asharq Al-awsat

Lebanese Armenians and the ‘Madness’ of Political Alignment | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Beirut, Asharq Al-Awsat – MP Hagop Pakradounian of the Lebanese Armenian Tashnag Party [Armenian Revolutionary Federation] was the first Lebanese MP to win a parliamentary seat in 2009, after winning the Matn district seat uncontested following the withdrawal of rival candidate Nazaret Sabounjian [prior to the Lebanese elections]. Pakradounian was quick to emphasize that his victory will not affect Armenian participation in these elections with regards to voting for the Free Patriotic Movement [FPM], and for MP Michel Mur.

This assertion does not negate the ‘madness’ of political alignment as seen in Lebanese politics, which has [recently] affected the Lebanese Armenian community. On the eve of the Lebanese elections, they have become involved in the political conflict [by allying with Hezbollah and the FPM, in addition to maintaining their previous alliance with MP Michel Mur] whereas historically they were only assigned a proportion of power. The reason behind the madness of such political affiliation is due to the rapid changes that occurred, which turned the scene in Lebanon on its head following the sharp divisions between the March 8 Alliance and March 14 Alliance in 2000. This [new] reality forced the Armenian politicians away from their [historic] neutrality and moderation [in Lebanese politics], and resulted in the Tashnag Party – which represents the majority of Armenians in Lebanon – entering the fray, something they had long tried to avoid. Indeed this occurred to the extent that some were talking about an intensive campaign to recall members of the [Lebanese] Armenian Diaspora to return to [Lebanon] and participate in the elections to ensure that the Armenians did not lose their parliamentary seats to Muslim candidates.

Such open radical talk began to disturb officials in the Armenian leadership, especially since they are known for controlling their parliamentary bloc, with a wave of legitimate options that enable the Armenians to have their voices heard in support of Armenian interests amongst the myriad communities in Lebanon. This is why remarks have intensified recently with regards to rejecting the nature of the Armenian community’s political alliances, which is something that the Armenian community has not done before, and which Lebanon is not used to. This work is to achieve an immediate return to normality after the elections, regardless of the current political alliances. There is also an increased expectation in the prospect of the return of sectarian politics [i.e. voting along sectarian lines].

In this context, MP Pakradounian said, “Our concern is to restore Lebanon to civilized [political] discourse away from internal conflict and [military] mobilization. As for the [political] formula that we discovered, it suits us. Armenian MPs will choose a [parliamentary] bloc by deciding themselves so that Armenian decisions are independent and neutral, and not with one party against another.”

Before dwelling on the Armenian viewpoint with regards to electoral alliances, we must take a closer look at the Lebanese Armenian community, which represents the smallest ethnic minority in Lebanon. The Armenians have been a distinct community since they adopted Lebanon as their home after being subjected to massacre at the hands of the Turks during the early years of the twentieth century. They were able to preserve their Armenian national and cultural affiliations and their traditions [in Lebanon]. They were also able to maintain their cohesion and unity [in Lebanon], and it is as if they were not forced to flee to the historic land of Armenia. It is also worth noting that the majority of Lebanese Armenians can trace their origins to the city of Cilicia, which now exists within Turkish borders. Therefore, the Lebanese Armenian community cannot even trace its origins to the modern state of Armenia, which only a few of their children have visited or returned to. As for the Lebanese areas that the Armenian refugees settled in, they are the suburb of Bourj Hammoud in Eastern Beirut, and the village of Anjer in the Beqaa Valley, not to mention a number of other suburbs in Eastern Beirut such as Antilyas and Jel El Dib.

Bourj Hammoud is the best place to get a clear picture of the Lebanese Armenian community, and the extent of its development over successive generations in Lebanon. When visiting this Armenian district in the 1970s, it was apparent that many roads and locations had Armenian names, and were written in the Armenian language. These include Arax Road [named after an Armenian river] and Aragats Road [named after a mountain in Armenia], as well as Camp Marash [named after an Armenian city] and Camp Sis [names after an Armenian town]. Today this district has changed and opened up to Arabs and foreigners, and the Armenian character of the area is no longer so prevalent. Restaurants selling traditional Armenian cuisine now serve Halal food. This development was a result of economic necessity that did not affect the elder population of Lebanese Armenians, some of whom still cannot speak Arabic fluently.

Asharq Al-Awsat spoke to Gregor, an Armenian Lebanese resident of Bourj Hammoud. “I came to Lebanon with my mother in 1939. We fled here after the massacres that wiped out the rest of our family in Armenia. I was about seven years old. We came by ship to Latakia [in Syria], and from there we travelled to Camp Sanjak in Bourj Hammoud. They gave us strips of cloth that were like sieves [permeable to water] to make tents with and we slept on the ground to avoid the rain. We lived in these tents for seven months. After that they gave us reeds that we cut to make huts and beds. We bloodied our hands by doing this. They also gave us kerosene lamps and barrels of water. We began to cultivate the land around us, and sold onions and parsley. We slept in the midst of mosquitoes and malaria. Whenever a storm would come, rain would pour down and floor our huts. I remember hearing the sound of women warning each other to watch out for the children so that they would not be swept away by the floodwater. The next day we would inspect and see what the flood had carried away.”

Gregor could not hold back his tears as he spoke about this suffering. He continued and told Asharq Al-Awsat, “When I was fifteen, I decided to start work in order to help my mother who knitted bags. I left school, despite her objection, and began work at a silver factory for which I received two Lebanese pounds a week.”

Gregor told Asharq Al-Awsat that he does not want to forget his origins saying, “Our blood is Armenian. But we are Lebanese Armenian. We do not want to live in Armenia – as some people say we do – we only want to live in Lebanon.” Gregor justifies the Tashnag alliance with Hezbollah and Michel Aoun’s Change and Reform parliamentary bloc by saying that “[This is] because the big fish eats the small fish. I support the alliance of the Tashnag party with Hezbollah and General Michel Aoun. We want to remain a big fish in Lebanon. We do not want to become a target for the other [Lebanese political] powers. If it were not for this alliance we would have been open to attack such as that which took place against us on 7 May 2008.”

Just like Gregor, the majority of other Lebanese Armenians that Asharq Al-Awsat spoke to declared their support for the Tashnag party. The Tashnag party was founded in 1890 in Tbilisi [modern-day capital of Georgia] to liberate the Armenian people from Ottoman rule. The party is a source of pride to Lebanese Armenians, which is evident in the statement of one man who told Asharq Al-Awsat, “Those affiliated to Tashnag know what steps it should take. The student in school is confident who he should follow, those that do not lie or betray, those that protect their friends, family and country. The Tashnag are revolutionaries. As for the Ramgavar party [Armenian Democratic Liberal party] they are bourgeois and the Hunchag party [Social Democratic Hunchakian party] has chosen communism and it is finished.”

The Tashnag, Ramgavar, and Hunchag parties are the three Armenian parties in Lebanon, and the Lebanese Armenian community rely upon them politically and socially. However, Tashnag has become an institution in itself, and includes amongst its members a number of important political figures who helped the revival and unity of the Lebanese Armenian community. Tashnag is socialist in its political orientation, and is a member of the Socialist International, after having entered Lebanese politics in 1904 when one of the party’s original founders, Simon Zavarian, set up a party branch in Lebanon. Tashnag was originally a student movement comprised of Armenian students from US and Jesuit universities [that wanted to liberate the Armenian people from Ottoman rule].

Hagop Havkayan, a public relations official in the Tashnag Party, said, “The Armenians have six MPs in Lebanon. The overall Armenian population is around 160,000. Those who have a prominent role in the Armenian community get nominated. Therefore, Armenians vote for candidates who have been agreed upon by the Armenians led by the Tashnag Party. Those looking in from the outside would not understand this simple fact and would be amazed at this unified bloc. These people do not understand the popularity of the Tashnag Party and its historical role and struggle for the sake of Armenians.”

In spite of their ideological and political differences, Armenians give the same answer when asked about the duality of their inherited nationalism and their Lebanese identity. They would stress that they endeavoured to form an identity blending their Armenian origins with their Lebanese nationality in a natural and harmonious way.

A young Armenian man explained: “Armenia is the mother and Lebanon is the father.” He rejects the idea that being an “Armenian” deprives him of his privileges as a “Lebanese” in Lebanon. Armenians are “Christian Armenians” and not “Christians of Armenian origin”. This must be understood.

Hagop Pakradounian MP rejects any accusation of duality of allegiance in the case of the Armenians. “It is not true that we are part of some kind of nationalism and not one of the sects that form Lebanese pluralism. We are members of the Armenian Church, so we are Lebanese Armenians. There is no contradiction in that or in us being Armenian and Lebanese. We are Lebanese citizens, not Armenian citizens. That is the main privilege. We are all for abolishing political sectarianism in Lebanon. We might then assume high-ranking positions.”

But the Tashnag Party is an international party, and over the recent period, it was reported that the international leader of the party, Hrant Markarian, who is an Iranian Armenian, rejects the idea of Lebanese alliances. The PR official Hagop Havkayan responded to this saying, “Indeed we are an international party, the leader of the party is an Armenian holding Armenian nationality even though he was born in Iran. We have committees in every country in which we are represented. We are represented in over 50 countries as a party and in accordance with the regulations of the party the central committee convenes in a general conference once every four years to discuss common Armenian issues and not internal political issues related to the committees.

There is no intervention whatsoever from the party’s central committee during the conference in the internal affairs of Lebanon or any other country. We do not discuss Lebanese internal issues outside of Lebanon. Our rivals search for justifications to break our alliances.”

As for Minister of State MP Jean Ogasapian, who is affiliated to the Future Movement in Lebanon, before anything else, he states his origin. “I am an Armenian Lebanese. I adhere to my Armenian heritage, my Armenian Church, my language, my culture and my customs and traditions, just as much as I adhere to my Lebanese identity and citizenship.” He adds, “Armenians are distinguished by their nationalism on the one hand and their integration in Lebanese society on the other. They have clung to their religion, their rites and their culture which they inherited from their forefathers. And this has not prevented them from pledging their allegiance to the land that embraced them and opening up to the people who welcomed them. So they interacted with their surroundings and their Lebanese environment. They even played a role in building the Lebanese state.”

During severe crises, they have always been careful not to fall into alliances that would stir up internal disputes. They have always served as an element of balance and stability where Lebanese invariables, the political system and legitimate institution support are concerned.

While Ogaspian highlights the unity amongst the Armenians and continuing efforts and struggle for the sake of the crucial Armenian cause – for Turkey and societies the world over to recognise the Armenian genocide – he points out that the Armenian community is now witnessing political and cultural diversity manifested in the numerous parties, trends and spectrums it incorporates. There is no monopoly or exclusivity in Armenian decision making and its political plurality.

“There is no doubt that the majority of the Armenian community does not want to set aside its members from the Lebanese political decision-making process. They are rather keen, at these decisive moments in the history of Lebanon, to have a strong and effective presence in the domestic political field and to take part in key political decisions,” said Ogaspian.

It is no secret that the political options for the Armenian spectrums and parties are now divided between March 14 Alliance and March 8 Alliance. This can be clearly seen in the election lists that were drafted shortly before the long-awaited parliamentary elections, which reflect the political presence and the multiplicity of Armenians that cannot be confined to one group.”

Ogaspian adds, “I reflect a strong Armenian position that adheres to the sovereignty of Lebanon and its independence. I reject the logic of alliances that use our country as a battleground to serve the interests of foreign powers. I strongly believe that it is the responsibility of my Armenian community to remain an essential part of the Lebanese structure with its diverse concepts. We do not remain silent in the face of violations, and we do not attempt, in any way, to distance ourselves from stating the truth.”

Hagop Pakradonian MP, who denies that the Tashnag Party, which represents about 75 per cent of Lebanese Armenians, is aligned with the March 8 Alliance and says nothing about violations, said: “The current position of the party came as a response to the policy of marginalizing Armenians and what they represent in terms of moderation, balance and commitment to dialogue, just as the case was with Fouad Saniora’s first cabinet. In light of the acute internal rift, we were supposed to side with certain political parties, but we allied with the free national current. This alliance however does not negate our particularity and the independence of our decision.”

Hacop Hafkiyan says that he see no contradiction in his loyalty to his Armenian culture and his Lebanese nationality. He is not afraid of abolishing political sectarianism in Lebanon and believes that this would involve all Lebanese sects. He notes that the merit of the Tashnag Party lies in its rejection of political inheritance, and its belief in partisan work.

The Armenian population share similar ideas to the Armenian figures in power. Hacop Khatshikian, who is married to a Maronite, sees no harm in allying with Michel Aoun: “Who is capable of protecting us from a civil war against the Shia? People look out for their own interests, and the alliance of the Tashnag Party, Hezbollah and Aoun secures Armenian interests.”

Hacop is thinking about sending his son to a non-Armenian Lebanese school so that he may integrate with a wider community. He is primarily concerned with preserving his Armenian environment at home by speaking the Armenian language and cooking Armenian food.

Hacop says that he visited Armenia and saw that the Armenians have taken on European traditions. He prefers eastern familial traditions and the conservative way of raising children. He knows his history very well, yet he is Lebanese by identity. He said, “I have two mindsets, the first is Armenian and the second is Lebanese.”

Hacop came from Iskenderun to Aleppo, and then to Lebanon. He stated that he could not live in Syria, and prefers the freedom he enjoys in Lebanon, where he can protest against anything Turkish. In Syria, Armenians cannot do that. Khatsharian prefers humanitarian work in society rather than partisan affiliation. He loves Michel Aoun and Hassan Nasrallah, but that does not cancel his need for protection from Hezbollah’s weapons if chaos breaks loose.

Leon seems to be an exception however; “My father came in 1917. I was born in Lebanon; I am a Lebanese of Armenian origin. We support all those who love Lebanon. In the elections, the decision [of who to vote for] is mine alone and not that of the Tashnag Party. The party does not impose its decision on anyone. Here in Lebanon we enjoy more freedom than in Syria. My children and I speak Arabic. I learnt it at school and I teach them it.”

Another sensitive issue is the acquisition of Lebanese nationality by Armenians regardless of their date of arrival in Lebanon. The Tashnag Party and the Armenians of the March 14 Alliance together state that Armenians acquired the Lebanese nationality and became fully recognized as Lebanese citizens when a population survey was conducted in 1924. But what about those who moved to Lebanon in the late 1930s? There is no answer but there are claims that the political authority at the time, which was of Maronite Christian persuasion, did not favour any decrease in the overall number of Christians compared to that of Muslims. So it added the migrant Armenians to its lists so as to increase its share of votes in the elections.

However, the considerations of the old days do not suit the new framework of sects in Lebanon anymore. The results of the upcoming parliamentary elections might change the equation, thanks to the political participation of the Armenians following the example of others after it was overwhelmed by the ‘madness’ of political alignment in Lebanon. Through their long-sought independence and their endeavour to maintain a neutral position between political rivals, it is hoped that Lebanese Armenians will contribute to curing others of such ‘madness.’