The dilemma of the Lebanese Armenians

Azad-Hye Special

Since the formation of modern Lebanon, the Armenians in Lebanon were
not part of any direct political alliance or coalition. For this
reason, they were frequently considered as neutral or without
political alignment. This has not always been as risk-free as it may
seem, especially during times of crisis (such as the Civil War), when
not having a backup support meant in reality to be targeted by two or
more adversaries at the same time.

The upcoming parliamentarian elections in Lebanon (07 June 2009) have
created an awkward situation, a kind of dilemma for the Lebanese
Armenians. The highly polarized and antagonistic political situation
in the country (between the March 8 and March 14 alliances) is
dragging also the Armenians into its web.

At the last legislative elections in May and June 2005, the March 14
alliance (Led by Saad Hariri, president of the Future Movement, Samir
Geagea president of the Lebanese Forces, Amine Jemayel, president of
the Lebanese Phalanges and Walid Jumblatt, leader of the Progressive
Socialist Party) turned to be the dominant group in the Parliament,
with 72 Members out of 128. Two MPs affiliated to the March 14
alliance belong to the Armenian Ramgavar and Hunchak parties, in
addition to 2 other "independent" Armenian MPs.

The opposing March 8 alliance is a coalition of various political
parties in Lebanon including Hezbollah, Amal Movement, Marada
Movement, Lebanese Communist Party and the Syrian Social Nationalist
Party. In 2006, the Free Patriotic Movement (Led by Michel Aoun)
joined this alliance after signing a Memorandum of Understanding with
Hezbollah. Two MPs in this alliance belong to the ARF
(Tashnagtsoutyoun) party. In March 2008 Michel Murr (who has always
been an ally to the Armenians) and his bloc quit the alliance, causing
some tension within the Armenian voting ranks. The ARF has now allied
itself with Hezbollah and the Free Patriotic Movement of General
Michel Aoun, at the same time maintaining links with Michel Murr (as a
person and not as bloc).

During the first week of April 2009, Hagop Pakradounian of the ARF
became 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.

The sharp divisions between the above-mentioned two alliances have
created a new reality for the Armenians and especially for the ARF,
who represents 70-75% of the community in Lebanon. It has forced them
out of their traditional neutrality.

The involvement has reached to the point that Lebanese Armenians in
Diaspora, from Kuwait to UAE, from Canada to France are called upon to
participate in the elections, with all the travel expenses from abroad
to Lebanon undertaken by the Armenian political parties, exactly in
the same way the Lebanese parties try to allure their supporters.

In the wake of the Lebanese elections, some politically motivated pens
are questioning the nature of the loyalty of the Lebanese Armenians
and the political motivations of the leading ARF party.

Hagop Pakradounian rejects any accusation of duality of allegiance
(Armenian versus Lebanese). In an interview with the Arabic daily
Asharq Alawsat (17 April 2009) he says: "We are one of the sects that
form the Lebanese pluralism. We are members of the Armenian Church, so
we are Lebanese Armenians. There is no contradiction in being Armenian
and Lebanese. We hold Lebanese citizenship and not Armenian. That is
the basic characteristic. We are all for abolishing political
sectarianism in Lebanon. We might then assume high-ranking positions."

Regarding the international affiliations of the party, ARF is clear
about it. The party is an international one headed by Hrant Markarian,
who holds Armenian citizenship, even though he was born in Iran. The
party has branches in many countries, while the central committee
(bureau) convenes in a general conference once every four years to
discuss common Armenian issues and not internal political issues
related to each branch. In conclusion, there is no intervention
whatsoever from the party's central committee in the internal affairs
of Lebanon or any other country.

ARF has its own internal challenges, such as the Free Lebanese
Armenian Movement, founded two years ago by several displeased ex-ARF
members, headed by General Nareg Aprahamian. The Movement is said to
be supported by the Future Movement (Saad Hariri), with the aim of
weakening the voting power of the ARF. In May 2008, the radio station
of the Movement (Radio Sevan) was burned during a Hezbollah raid on
Beirut suburbs (Hezbollah is perceived as an ally to ARF). In January
2009, one of the founding members of the Movement (Hrag Akian) was
heavily wounded and paralyzed by a shot fired by ARF supporter in
Bourdj Hammoud's Amanos neighborhood, during a heated encounter. On 06
April 2009 General Nareg Aprahamian announced his candidacy for the
Armenian seat in the city of Zahle, heralding a fierce confrontation
on that seat with ARF.

The situation inside the Ramgavar party is critical. A group of
members have formed a sort of inner opposition to the leader Hagop
Kassarjian and Avedis Dakessian, the deputy-chairman. Kassarjian, who
had managed to gain one of the Armenian seats in the 2000 and 2005
elections though his affiliation to the Future Movement (Hariri clan),
might eventually lose support for the same position. Ramgavar
opposition circles claim that Kassarjian and Dakessian have
orchestrated an illegal general meeting on 29 March 2009, with the
sole aim of consolidating their positions in the June elections.

Armenians have been always careful not to fall into alliances during
Lebanese crisis. They have always served as an element of balance and
stability. The community nowadays is witnessing political and cultural
diversity, manifested in the numerous parties and trends. This in a
way is bringing fresh air to the society. On the other hand, the
Armenian votes could easily be exploited, in a political culture, that
favors blind party comradeship and a traditionally introvert society
governed by semi-authoritarian normes.

It is obvious that, the political options of the Lebanese Armenian are
now divided between March 8 and 14 Alliances. Would they be able to
achieve a common "Armenian Bloc", despite their differences? Would
they succeed at least to enjoy a sort of harmony within the community
itself? Would they still be able (on pan-Lebanese level) to play a
certain balancing role? Or would they be strongly influenced by the
acute polarization in the Lebanese political scene?

Last year was the 50th anniversary of the inter-Armenian killings of
the 1958 in Beirut, when the political polarization in the Cold War
era Lebanon led to the death of at least a hundred Armenians in an
internal strife. The Lebanese Armenians preferred to keep the taboo
intact and did not even pray for the souls of those lost in tragic
circumstances. While it is highly unlikely that a physical lose could
inflict the Armenians in the same manner that happened in the past,
the prospect of being manipulated as proxies in hostile camps remains
real.

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