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Gevorg Melik-Gharagyozyan, Minister of Education in 1919 from the Armenian People’s Party (sitting behind the table in his cabinet). Photo courtesy: Mikhail Vermishev, grandson of Melik-Gharagyozyan.


Professor Ara Sanjian, Associate Professor of History and the Director of the Armenian Research Center at the University of Michigan-Dearborn speaks to EVN Report’s Roubina Margossian about the importance and significance of the First Armenian Republic (1918-1920). 


հայաստանի առաջին հանրապետության կառավարության շենքը երևանումgovernment house of republic of armenia 1918 1920
The government building of the 1918-1920 Armenian Republic.

In exactly one year from now many Armenians across the globe will celebrate the 100th anniversary of the proclamation of an independent republic in Armenia during the final months of the First World War. Depending on when they locate the ultimate collapse of the last Armenian medieval kingdom, most Armenians will tell you that this proclamation on May 28, 1918 marked the return of an independent Armenian entity to the world political map after a hiatus of nearly six to nine centuries. They will also add that this proclamation was the most unfailing sign of the rebirth of the Armenian people, only three years after the genocide it had suffered in the Ottoman Empire.

In 2015, the government of Armenia succeeded in bringing together almost all influential organizations in the far-flung Armenian Diaspora to impressively mark and on a worldwide scale the centennial of the darkest page in modern Armenian history. Preparations for the genocide centennial had begun in earnest four years earlier – with the Armenian president establishing on April 23, 2011 a state commission to coordinate the events dedicated to the 100th commemoration of the Armenian Genocide.

In contrast, the same president formed a commission for the upcoming 100th anniversary of the proclamation of national independence only last month, on April 21, 2017 – just over a year before the anticipated celebrations in late May 2018. The state commission to organize events dedicated to the 100th anniversary of the Republic of Armenia and the battles of May 1918 is presided over by Armenia’s Prime Minister and does not, at present, include delegates from the Diaspora – except the Armenia representative of the Armenian General Benevolent Union (AGBU). The Diasporan structures of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutiun) will also be indirectly involved, since the party’s Armenia branch is represented in the country’s legislature and as such will have a member serving on the commission. The presidential decree foresees, however, the possibility of extending additional invitations to new members – including those from the Diaspora. Pan-Armenian bodies like the Armenia Fund and the forthcoming sixth Armenia-Diaspora Forum will also be asked to get involved. Finally, the Ministry of the Diaspora is tasked with coordinating and assisting the holding of similar celebrations among Armenian communities outside the homeland.[1]

It has not been disclosed whether behind-the-scenes discussions were held by the Armenian government with various groupings in the Diaspora prior to the release of this decree. It will also be interesting to discover what the eventual reactions of these factions will be, from now and until May 2018, for, although there is by now an established consensus in the Diaspora that the three battles of Sardarabad, Bash-Aparan and Karakilise were pivotal in saving the Eastern Armenians in the former Russian Empire from extinction similar to the genocide that had earlier struck the Western/Ottoman Armenians, the emphasis laid on the symbolism of the proclamation of independence a few days later, on May 28, 1918, continues to keep the Diaspora divided, as we shall see below.

Armenian independent statehood was proclaimed at the end of May 1918 in the most unpropitious circumstances. In early 1918, Transcaucasia (now more often called the South Caucasus), then still formally part of Russia, had come under Ottoman attack. A short-lived experiment to have an independent federal Transcaucasian republic encompassing Armenians, Azerbaijanis and Georgians had collapsed, and Georgia and Azerbaijan had just declared their independence on May 26 and 28, respectively. It was only on May 30 that the Armenian leadership in Transcaucasia issued a statement resembling an Armenian declaration of independence. For many decades, Armenians had struggled primarily for improved conditions, self-rule and at times for ultimate secession from the Ottoman Empire. There was quasi-universal agreement that conditions for Armenians in Russian Transcaucasia were much better than under the Ottomans. It was, therefore, ironic that by May 1918 most Armenians had either been killed or expelled from their ancestral lands in the Ottoman Empire, while a small Armenian state would now emerge on formerly Russian-controlled territory. It was also perplexing that the Ottoman Empire would be the first foreign country to sign an international treaty with the new Armenian state. 

Cut off from the Allies of the Great War – Russia, Britain and France – on whom they had pinned their hopes, Armenian leaders initially tried to do their best under the watchful eye of the Ottomans and their German and Austro-Hungarian allies. A tricolor flag – horizontal red, blue and orange stripes – was designed in July as one of the early symbols of the new state,[2] and it was flown on August 1, 1918, at the opening of the country’s hastily assembled legislature in Yerevan.[3]

The young state’s prospects changed dramatically in October 1918, when the Ottomans accepted defeat in the Great War and withdrew their forces back to the pre-war international border. This gave the Armenian republic an opportunity to expand eastward and soon there emerged widespread optimism among all Armenians that a large independent Armenian state – encompassing Armenian-inhabited territories in the former Russian and Ottoman empires – would be endorsed by the forthcoming international peace conference. The nascent political entity now came to be seen as just a stepping stone toward a much larger and independent nation-state, which many Armenians had long dreamt of.

transcaucasia delegation in batumi
Transcaucasia delegation in Batumi.
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Armenian delegation to Constantinople, 1918.

It is very curious, therefore, that even under these seemingly favorable conditions, the republic’s official holiday list which its legislature approved on January 17, 1919 did not include Armenia’s Independence Day. The only secular holidays on the voted list were the Anniversary of the February Revolution of 1917 in the former Russian Empire (February 27 old style, corresponding to March 12 according to the Gregorian calendar) and the International Workers’ Day (May 1).[4] Nevertheless, four months later, in the run up to the first anniversary of the declaration of independence,  May 28, 1919 was instituted as a holiday by special decree. The government thus chose as the republic’s Independence Day the decision by the Armenian National Council a year earlier to dispatch a delegation to Batumi with unlimited powers to conclude peace with the Ottomans on behalf of the Armenian people or in the name of independent Armenia.[5] The government also used the same anniversary to proclaim the Act of United Armenia.[6] May 28 was marked majestically again in 1920,[7] and it is very likely that this anniversary would have become an annual public holiday had Armenia’s parliament gotten the opportunity to revise the republic’s holiday list.

Among the young state’s other symbols, the patriotic song, Mer Hayrenik (Our Fatherland), was formalized as the national anthem in 1919. It had long been chanted as a marching song by various Armenian political factions fighting oppression in the Ottoman Empire. Finally, in July 1920, the Armenian government also approved a new coat of arms for the republic.[8]

These new symbols, especially the tricolor flag and the coat of arms, were deemed provisional until the expected merger of the former Ottoman and Russian Armenias and the convening of a Constituent Assembly to draft the fundamental law of the unified state.[9] Indeed, a number of suggestions appeared in the Armenian press worldwide about the design of the future flag of united Armenia.[10] Nevertheless, even during the relatively short lifespan of the independent republic, the latter’s newly adopted and supposedly provisional symbols – and the tricolor flag in particular – quickly spread to the various Diasporan communities.[11]

The status of these symbols quickly underwent a drastic change, however, after the defeat of the Republic of Armenia against the invading Turkish Nationalists, the collapse of the dream of soon having a united Armenia, and the republic’s sovietization, all in quick succession in late 1920.

The Dashnaktsutiun, also referred to as the Dashnak party, which had been the dominant political force in the Republic of Armenia in 1918-1920, was forced into exile. It would thereafter remain at loggerheads with the Communists, who replaced it in Yerevan, for the next seven decades. This persistent antagonism would have serious impact on how the symbols of the 1918-1920 republic were perceived throughout those 70 years. 

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The Armenian Coat of Arms. The eagle and lion are ancient Armenian symbols dating from the first Armenian kingdoms.

The Communists, both in Moscow and Yerevan, consistently identified the Dashnaktsutiun as their major political and ideological opponent in Armenian life. Consequently, they went all-out against any attempt by others to present the Dashnak record in modern Armenian history in positive light. This anti-Dashnak campaign by Communists also included a determined effort to avoid the usage of terms like “independence” or “republic” when referring to the 1918-1920 period. Soviet historians wrote that those 30 months were simply an era of Dashnak domination when this political party, defending the interests of the reactionary Armenian bourgeoisie, allegedly oppressed Armenian workers and peasants who were longing for the establishment of Soviet rule in their country. And since, according to this Soviet interpretation, Armenia of 1918-1920 was not a proper republic, no mention could be made of its symbols, nor could May 28 be associated with independence.

The Dashnaktsutiun, in turn, continuously questioned the legitimacy of Soviet rule in Eastern Armenia and remained committed to the political objective of “Free, Independent and United Armenia,” which it had first formulated in 1919. This goal made the Dashnaks enemies of both Republican Turkey and the Soviet Union. Prior to the Great War, Dashnaks had been active among both Western and Eastern Armenians. Many of the party’s Western Armenian leaders had fallen victim during the genocide. In the meantime, most of the party’s Eastern Armenian leaders, who had filled commanding positions during the short-lived independent republic, had now found refuge abroad, after Armenia’s Sovietization. They immediately filled this leadership void in the Dashnak-controlled circles of the emergent Diaspora, which consisted mostly of Western Armenian genocide survivors. Constructing a somewhat idealized history of the 30 months of independence became one of the basic tools of these Eastern Armenian leaders to wage ideological warfare against Communism from exile and maintain the support of the Western Armenian masses in this struggle. A master narrative glorifying the short-lived independence period soon emerged, based on the published memoirs of former Prime Ministers Aleksandr Khatisian and Simon Vratsian, former Defense Minister Ruben Ter-Minasian and others. For those who accepted or were later raised under the influence of this master narrative, the symbols of the 1918-20 republic became, first, reminders of a very promising past, which the Communists had brutally snatched away and replaced with an defective present, but also a clarion call for continuous, multifaceted struggle against the Communist system in Yerevan in order to bring that promising, but treacherously stolen past back to life.

However, not all circles in the post-genocide Diaspora appropriated the Dashnaks’ political agenda and, consequently, their master narrative about the 1918-1920 period. The Dashnaks were opposed in the Diaspora by a loose, but broad “coalition” which brought together members of other pan-Diasporic structures like the Hunchakian and Ramkavar parties, outright Communists, the ostensibly non-political AGBU, as well as members of various social classes and smaller organizations of usually local significance. All these factions and individuals made peace with the new Soviet reality in Eastern Armenia. While their particular attitudes toward the ideology and ultimate goals of Communism varied sharply, none of them challenged the regime’s legitimacy and all were ready to work with the new Soviet leadership toward the betterment of life in Eastern Armenia, as much as such efforts were permitted at different times by successive leaders in the Kremlin. This Diasporan “coalition” looked at Soviet Armenia through rosy glasses and was eager to celebrate its social and cultural successes publicized by the Communists in Yerevan. Consequently, its counter narrative downplayed the achievements of the 1918-1920 republic as propagated by the Dashnaktsutiun. It also questioned the political symbolism, which the Dashnak ideologues accorded to the 1918-1920 republic. This “coalition” had no reason to reject the new symbols of Soviet Armenia even when it was usually cautious in displaying them in public, out of fear of getting accused as Communist sympathizers. Accordingly, it looked at the symbols of the 1918-1920 republic at most as prized historical relics, but more often it disliked their public usage by Dashnaks because as, one convinced member of this “coalition” told me privately during my teenage years in the 1980s, it had come to see them as “symbols which reject Armenia’s present-day reality.” There was no room for these symbols in public activities organized by various organizations within this “coalition” and no annual celebration of May 28 as a great historical landmark.

As a result, the annual celebration of May 28 in the Diaspora became the preserve of Dashnak circles in various communities, while attempts to display the symbols of the 1918-1920 republic in public spaces shared by the two rival Armenian camps often led to controversy, arguments and even fistfights. In one extreme case, the decision by Archbishop Leon Tourian (Ghewond Durian) to ask for the removal of the tricolor flag from the stage before his delivering an invocation during the celebration of Armenian Day at the Century of Progress Exposition in Chicago on July 1, 1933 hastened the eventual schism between pro-Dashnaks and their rivals within the Diocese of the Armenian Church in the United States on September 1, and may even have been a cause behind the archbishop’s assassination on December 24, all in 1933. Sharply antagonistic attitudes as regards the legitimacy of Soviet rule in Armenia continued to draw the main line of political division in the Diaspora until the early 1960s.

Thereafter, as the fiftieth anniversary of the genocide in 1965 approached, the global Cold War was slowly moving toward détente, not long after and perhaps because of the perilous climax of previous escalation during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962.

armenian army 1918
Military parade in Echmiadzin, 1918.
paris peace conference delegation 1919 avetis aharonyan
Armenia's Peace Conference delegation to Paris, 1919.
The Red Army enters Yerevan.

The antagonistic Cold War ideologies of socialism and Americanization had also both begun meeting new forms of identitarianist resistance worldwide, based on ethnicity and religion.[12] Under these circumstances, the Armenian Diaspora witnessed a kind of “elite settlement” among the three political parties – Dashnaks, Hunchakians and Ramkavars.[13] Within a relatively short period of time, these parties decided to cut down their decades-old intense antagonism and direct their energies instead primarily toward Turkey, by demanding recognition and restitution for the genocide of World War I. It is assumed that the passing, through old age, of the generation of Eastern Armenian Dashnak leaders from the period of the 1918-1920 republic and their replacement in party leadership positions by a new cohort of Western Armenian activists raised mostly in the post-genocide survivor communities in the Middle East also contributed to this shift in Dashnak priorities. The joint commemoration of the fiftieth anniversary of the Armenian Genocide in Beirut in 1965 was the clearest indication of this monumental change in Diasporan politics. In order to secure full Hunchakian and Ramkavar participation in joint events such as the fiftieth anniversary commemoration just mentioned, the Dashnaks even agreed on this and future occasions to the condition of their new partners not to raise the tricolor flag of the 1918-1920 republic during joint events. A few years ago a veteran leader of the Dashnak party remembered, during a private conversation we were having, an ironic incident when a lifelong devotee of the Dashnak party had gotten upset at this concession made by his party leaders and had defiantly carried his own tricolor flag to a joint genocide commemoration event. The Dashnak party leadership had then expelled him for disobeying instructions. “It was the most bizarre decision we had to make,” concluded my interlocutor, “but party discipline has to be respected!”

Nevertheless, disagreements on how to deal with the Soviet regime persisted among the established political factions in the Diaspora even after this “elite settlement,” albeit with noticeably less acrimony. During the same period, the official Soviet rhetoric toward the Dashnaks was also toned down, but not altered, and this modification also encouraged the emergence of a relatively more tranquil milieu in the Diaspora. Nevertheless, the legitimacy of the Soviet regime in Eastern Armenia remained the major obstacle for the three Diaspora-based parties to forge a common position on what the international legal status of Western Armenia should be, if it were liberated from Turkey. Accordingly, public intellectuals from the rival camps persisted with the “other war,” that on the historiography of the 1918-1920 republic, even in the new era of Armenian détente, though, in this case, too, more infrequently and with much less bitterness.

The “elite settlement” of the 1960s decisively condemned the political violence that had beset the Diaspora in the recent past. It also reaffirmed time and again that national unity among the existing political factions was the ideal. Nevertheless, it failed to develop a common historical reading of the recent Armenian past. To avoid further controversy when the “elite settlement” was still fresh and somewhat insecure, the parties involved simply made any public discussion of past intra-party political rivalries a taboo, warning their followers that such debates could reopen old wounds by reminding present-day Armenians of a bygone era of intra-Armenian tensions and rivalries.

Richard G. Hovannisian, then a young graduate student, embarked upon his monumental five-volume study of the period 1917-1920 in the 1960s, at a time when this “elite settlement” was taking shape across the Diaspora. The fifth volume of what will evidently remain as his magnum opus came out over three decades later, in 1996. Yet, at a public lecture in Belmont, MA on December 3, 2015, Hovannisian admitted that during his long career he had been invited to lecture about the 1918-1920 republic in public only on a handful of occasions, compared to the hundreds of public lectures he has been asked to give during the same time period on various facets of the Armenian Genocide. Explaining this discrepancy is easy through the paradigm suggested in this article: in the era following the “elite settlement” of the 1960s, the Armenian Genocide is seen as a topic which unites all Armenians across the Diaspora. It must be encouraged to further deepen this desirable unity. There is still no consensus, however, in the same Diaspora, about how the 1918-1920 republic should be viewed and assessed. Therefore, it is better to avoid any public discussion of this and similar controversial topics in order to avoid any possible can of worms.

50th 2
Armenian Genocide 50th anniversary commemoration, Yerevan, 1965.
april 24 1965 la
Armenian Genocide 50th anniversary commemoration, Los Angeles, 1965.

Another, parallel fallout of the “elite settlement” for Diasporan historiography was the “privatization” of the discussion of individual heroes and stellar moments within the received histories of each political (and religious) faction. For example, Kristapor Mikayelian, the takeover of the Ottoman Bank, the Khanasor Raid and Nikol Aghbalian are now discussed in public and celebrated only by Dashnaks; Avetis Nazarbek, Paramaz, the Kum kapu and Bab-i Ali demonstrations, by Hunchakians; Cardinal Agagianian, by Armenian Catholics, and so on. As a byproduct of this “elite settlement,” rival Diasporan factions stopped openly challenging the interpretations of “the other side” regarding the latter’s individual heroes and glorious historical episodes, even when they privately remained skeptical regarding what “the other side” was saying or writing in public. The historical analysis, celebration and symbolism of May 28 became one such “privatized” topic – in this case, within the pro-Dashnak circles of the Diaspora. Like other topics in this category, May 28 became a de facto “forbidden area” for all except its “owner,” the Dashnak party and its sympathizers.

Despite efforts by all parties to downplay in the public sphere issues over which there was still no consensus and avoid their discussion in shared spaces, the simple reality of the persistence of contrasting analyses and evaluations in the private sphere made it inevitable that conflicts related to these “unresolved” issues will arise from time to time, although in most cases the immediate reaction by all parties would be to contain rather than try to solve these problems. Armenian organizations and institutions outside the immediate control of one of the three parties, i.e. those which tried hard to maintain some sort of political neutrality, constantly had to walk on a tightrope in order not to antagonize any of the rival factions. Haigazian College (since 1996, University) in Beirut, an institution where I worked from 1995 to 2005, was one such location. From the mid-1970s on, it came up with a creative solution to the contested issue whether May 28 should be commemorated as a public holiday within Diasporan circles – a Dashnak demand, opposed vehemently by their Hunchakian and Ramkavar rivals. Successive catalogs of the college, starting in the mid-1970s, underlined that there would be no classes at Haigazian on May 28 because it was the institution’s “Field Trip Day (Armenian Independence Day)”; political overtones were avoided by turning the day into a leisure activity rather than a political celebration. Nevertheless, even after this ingenious compromise, problems did arise on the college campus during certain anniversaries. Jirayr Beugekian, then a Dashnak student at Haigazian College, has described two such incidents he and other Dashnak students were involved in with fellow Hunchakian students during the academic year 1980-1981. First, the Dashnak students opposed a Hunchakian initiative to suspend classes on the anniversary of the sovietization of Armenia (29 November) and, a few months later, the Hunchakians challenged the right of Dashnak students to hoist tricolor flags on rooftops on May 28 and have a lunchtime extracurricular activity to mark the anniversary.[14]

The massive demonstrations that took place in Soviet Armenia in February 1988 did not initially threaten the established Diasporan “elite settlement.” By then, the Dashnaks were not as keen as before on pushing for Eastern Armenia’s immediate secession from the Soviet Union, and it was, therefore, not against the spirit of the “elite settlement” to submit a joint demand for the unification of Mountainous Karabakh with Soviet Armenia and to forcefully condemn the massacre of Armenians by Azerbaijanis in Sumgait.

Faced with the Kremlin’s intransigence, however, the Karabakh movement in Yerevan gradually became more independentist, and this gradual shift generated a deep interest among the politically mobilized public in Armenia about the history of the 1918-1920 republic and its symbols. This curiosity regarding the 1918-1920 period was also initially in line with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s calls to study the blank pages of history – topics, which Soviet historians had previously been ordered to avoid.

The anniversary of May 28 was first marked in Yerevan in 1988, alongside the rallies demanding the annexation of Mountainous Karabakh. Movses Gorgisian is now credited for being the first to raise the tricolor flag of 1918-1920 that day in Theater (now, Liberty) Square in downtown Yerevan. Gorgisian, however, was a member of the relatively small independentist wing of the Karabakh Movement, and the Karabakh Committee, which then led the movement’s mainstream, stayed away from this particular celebration.

However, as it became clear to the masses that the Kremlin leadership was adamantly opposed to making internal border changes within the Soviet Union, calls for Armenia’s independence and the raising of the tricolor flag became more and more common during rallies held in the summer and fall of 1988.

Thereafter, the Communist Party’s Central Committee in Yerevan had a change of heart, sometime around mid-May 1989, and asked its Institute of Party History/Armenian branch of the Institute of Marxism-Leninism, the Soviet Armenian Academy of Sciences, and Yerevan State University to co-organize a conference on the First Republic of Armenia in 1918-1920 on May 26, 1989. This hastily convened gathering formally recommended to the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of Soviet Armenia to declare May 28 as the Day of the Re-Establishment of Armenian Statehood (Haykakan petakanutyan verakangnman or) and designate the tricolor flag as an Armenian national symbol. These recommendations were implemented immediately,[15] and Communist Party newspapers – Khorhrdayin Hayastan, Erekoyan Erevan, Avangard and others – carried a number of lengthy articles about the history of the 1918-1920 republic in their issues published between May 26 and 28, 1989. Even the newspaper Pravda in Moscow printed a short report on May 29 about the popular festivities that had taken place in Yerevan the previous day.

Thus, for over a year, Soviet Armenia would have both an official state flag and the tricolor flag as a separate national symbol. A year later, this duality was brought to an end, however, when the Communists ended up as the minority in Soviet Armenia’s legislature in August 1990. The new, reformist majority in the Supreme Soviet scrapped the Soviet-era flag and reinstated the tricolor as Armenia’s state flag on August 24, 1990 – after a gap of almost seven decades.

The re-adoption of the other symbols of the 1918-1920 republic continued in the next couple of years as Armenia’s pursuit of sovereignty and political independence deepened and ultimately acquired international recognition. Mer Hayrenik was reinstated as the national anthem on July 1,1991, while the old coat of arms was revived soon after the independence referendum of  September 21, 1991.

Today, Armenia’s official holiday list includes both May 28 (to mark independence in 1918) and September 21 (to celebrate the referendum for independence in 1991). The tricolor flag, Mer Hayrenik and the reinstated coat of arms are wholeheartedly accepted by the overwhelming majority, not to say all, of the country’s population. Few people, mostly members of the dwindling and ageing Communist Party, do continue to hoist in public any of the symbols of Soviet Armenia.

The situation in the Diaspora remains slightly different, and that’s why the question posed at the beginning of this article – about what response the presidential decree to mark the centennial of May 28 next year will get outside Armenia – remains fascinating. For Dashnaks in the Diaspora, the about face by the outgoing Soviet Armenian regime in 1989 regarding the anniversary of May 28 and the symbols of the 1918-1920 republic was a vindication of what their party had struggled for throughout 70 years. It was proof that they had been right all along. Today, they are proud that post-Soviet, independent Armenia continues to honor the proclamation of independence on May 28, 1918 and has this particular flag, this particular national anthem, and this particular coat of arms, all symbols which the Dashnak party had preserved and held high for seven decades, ignoring all kinds of criticism from other Armenian circles in the Diaspora. They cannot imagine an independent Armenia close to their heart not having this particular flag, this particular national anthem, and this particular coat of arms.

For the anti-Dashnak “coalition,” however, the same about face in Yerevan was initially a bitter pill to swallow. It took some months for its leaders to get accustomed to the new reality and then explain to their followers that this sudden interest in Soviet Armenia toward the symbols of the 1918-1920 republic was not a defeat of their 70 year-long ideological struggle, that Armenia was not going to be taken over fully by their Dashnak rivals, and that they would still be welcome there under the revived state symbols of 1918-1920.

1988 demonstration in Yerevan, near the Opera house, currently known as Liberty Square.
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Movses Gosgisian during a rally in Yerevan, 1988.
Invitation to May 26, 1989 conference.
Invitation to May 26, 1989 conference.
Invitation to May 26, 1989 conference.
Invitation to May 26, 1989 conference.

Today, in the metro Detroit area where I have lived since 2006, the Armenian tricolor flies high, alongside the national flag of the United States, in front of the AGBU Alex and Marie Manoogian School. The same is true for the headquarters of MASCO, the very successful company of the late, former AGBU president Alex Manoogian, now run by his son, Richard. This would have been unthinkable before 1989. All across the Diaspora, members of organizations which were once part of the anti-Dashnak “coalition” in the Soviet era now stand proudly when Mer Hayrenik is played as Armenia’s national anthem during events they organize. It’s rarer, but not unusual to see the coat of arms of the Republic of Armenia hanging on the walls of some of their premises. Members of this former “coalition” now justify their acceptance of the symbols they once shunned by maintaining that their love of the fatherland is not conditioned by particular symbols. They will love and support the Armenian state whatever its flag, anthem and coat of arms are. Unlike the Dashnaks, we should expect little or no resistance from this group of Armenians during a hypothetical situation in future when constitutional mechanisms are launched to change one or more of the republic’s current, i.e. the 1918-1920, symbols.

Whatever the justifications provided by members of the two previously antagonistic factions in the Soviet-era Diaspora, the situation has come full circle at the moment, as far as the tricolor flag, Mer Hayrenik and the 1918-1920 coat of arms are concerned. They are now all respected as symbols which unify rather than divide the Diaspora, and there is an abundance of tricolor flags wherever Armenians of various political persuasions march together on April 24 every year.

Unfortunately, the annual celebration of May 28 has remained the odd symbol out of the current consensus. The catalog of Haigazian University reinserted the description “Founding of the Republic of Armenia” in its 2007-2009 version and the designation of May 28 also as “Field Trip Day” was eventually dropped in the 2012-2014 catalog. We can assume that the top administration of the university made these changes confident that it will no longer be charged with bias by anti-Dashnak factions in the Armenian community in Lebanon for having acted the way it did. It will be difficult for members of the former anti-Dashnak “coalition” to demand the scrapping of May 28 as Armenian Independence Day from the university’s academic calendar or from any other list now that it is an official holiday in Armenia itself and can no longer be interpreted as “a symbol which rejects Armenia’s present-day reality.”

But why do members of this “coalition” fail to follow the current government in Armenia and join in the annual celebrations of May 28 – either by organizing events of their own or by participating in events which Dashnaks have traditionally held for decades in the various Diasporan communities? As I write these lines in Beirut and with the next May 28 only a few hours away, the Dashnak news outlets are reporting that this year too, the Dashnak-affiliated sports association, Homenetmen, will hold its traditional annual march and festivities in Lebanon on May 28, while the party will also have its separate celebration, probably combining one or two political speeches with songs and music. The newspapers of the Hunchakian and Ramkavar parties are as usual silent regarding this forthcoming anniversary and will probably ignore it this year too. On the other hand, one may also ask why does the Dashnak party hesitate to take the initiative itself and invite the other parties to co-organize a joint event – like those they already do for decades every April 24?

may 28 1919 celebration yerevan
May 28, 1919 celebration in Yerevan.
armenian revolutionary federation dashnaktsutyun memorial ruble 1990
Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutyun) Memorial Ruble, 1990.

I will not extend this already lengthy article further by providing some personal thoughts about why the differing approaches toward May 28 in the present-day Diaspora (described in this article) have become calcified the way they have been for many decades by now. I prefer to see what reactions the latest initiative by the government in Armenia will receive in the coming months and perhaps I’ll then return to this topic. 

Last year the Dashnak party in Lebanon commemorated what it described as the builders of Armenia’s independence with a memorial service held at the Armenian national cemetery in Bourj Hammoud on May 29. The list of the political figures commemorated was entirely Dashnak. It excluded Armenians of other political persuasions who had also been active in Eastern Armenia or abroad during the 1918-1920 period, and later died and are buried in Lebanon. I think this could have been a very good occasion for the Dashnak organizers to push the anniversary of May 28 out of its “privatized” nature described in this article. If this is their objective, alas, the opportunity was missed!

Will the current Armenian government, whose legitimacy is challenged by many people inside the country, but which enjoys acceptance by most of the traditional Diasporan organizations, be able to go one better and break the ice described in this article? It will be hard and it certainly needs a lot of imaginative effort to succeed. But, if it does, it will be a remarkable achievement – irrespective of what people think about other aspects of the current government’s political and socio-economic record.

[1] For the full text of the presidential decree, see http://www.irtek.am/views/act.aspx?aid=89467 (last accessed: 27 May 2017).
[2] Simon Vratsian, Hayastani Hanrapetutiwn (Paris, 1928), pp. 160-161.
[3] Richard G. Hovannisian, The Republic of Armenia, Volume I: The First Year, 1918-1919 (Berkeley, Los Angeles and London: University of California Press, 1971), p. 43.
[4] A. Virabyan, Hayastani hanrapetutyan parlamenti nisteri ardzanagrutyunnere 1918-1920tt. (Yerevan: National Archives of Armenia, 2010), pp. 160-161.
[5] Hovannisian, Republic, I, p. 33.
[6] Ibid., pp. 459-461.
[7] Ibid., III (1996), pp. 255-258.
[8] Vratsian, Hayastani, p. 393.
[9] Ibid., pp. 160-161 and 393.
[10] For an overview, see the three-part study by A[rtashes] Ter-Khachaturian, ‘Hay droshi arajarkner (1918-1919 tuakannerun)’, Azdak, 30 June-2 July 1992.
[11] For examples of the use of the tricolor flag among Armenians in Constantinople in 1919 and 1921, see Lerna Ekmekçioğlu, Recovering Armenia: The Limits of Belonging to Post-Genocide Turkey (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 2016), pp. 20-21 and 45-46.
[12] Odd Arne Westad, The Global Cold War: Third World Interventions and the Making of Our Times (Cambridge University Press, 2005), p. 400.
[13] For the concept of “elite settlement,” see Michael G. Burton and John Higley, “Elite Settlements,” American Sociological Review, Vol. 52, No. 3 (Jun., 1987), pp. 295-307; Michael Burton, Richard Gunther, and John Higley, “Introduction: Elite Transformations and Democratic Regimes”, in John Higley and Richard Gunther (eds.), Elites and Democratic Consolidation in Latin America and Southern Europe (Cambridge, New York and Melbourne: Cambridge University Press, 1991), pp. 1-37..
[14] Jirayr Beugekian, ‘Noyember 29en Mayis 28’, in H.H.D. Zawarian Usanoghakan Miutiwn, Mek Dar` Bruntskov Pahanjatirutiwn... (2004), pp. 116-118.
[15] Lendrush Khurshudyan, ‘1918 tvakani mayisi 28-e` haykakan petakanutyan verakangnman or’ & Armenpress, ‘Gitakan nstashrjan Erevanum’, Khorhrdayin Hayastan, 28 May 1989.


Professor Ara Sanjian, Associate Professor of History and the Director of the Armenian Research Center at the University of Michigan-Dearborn speaks to EVN Report’s Roubina Margossian about the importance and significance of the First Armenian Republic (1918-1920).  

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