Diasporas and Contested Sovereignty: An Interview with Prof. Maria Koinova

Professor Maria Koinova is the Principal Investigator of the European Research Council (ERC) Starting Grant “Diasporas and Contested Sovereignty” (2012-2017) at Warwick University.  Maria Koinova has worked on topics related to diasporas, conflicts, post-conflict reconstruction and democratization, and has conducted multi-sited fieldwork among the Albanian, Armenian, Bosnian, Croatian, Lebanese, Palestinian, Serbian, and Ukrainian diasporas in the US and in Europe. Results were published in the European Journal of International Relations, Foreign Policy Analysis, Review of International Studies, Communist and Post-Communist Studies, and Ethnic and Racial Studies, among other academic outlets. Besides leading the ERC Project “Diasporas and Contested Sovereignty,” Maria Koinova has a research agenda seeking to explain patterns of diaspora mobilization in local, national and global contexts, and how emerging states – such as Kosovo, Palestine and Nagorno-Karabakh – seek to engage their diasporas abroad for state-building purposes. Recently, Professor Koinova presented her work at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs (NPSIA) and the Institute of European, Russian and Eurasian Studies (EURUS) at Carleton University.

iAffairs: Professor Koinova, tell us more about your research interests and the “Diasporas and Contested Sovereignty” project.

Maria Koinova: First of all, thank you very much for inviting me to participate in iAffairs. This is a really nice opportunity to present my work and the “Diasporas and Contested Sovereignty” (DcS) project I am currently leading.  I can dene my own research interests in terms of two agendas. The first, which was part of my dissertation research some time ago, culminated in a book titled Ethnonationalist Conflict in Postcommunist States, published with the University of Pennsylvania Press in 2013. It takes a historical institutionalist approach to the question, “Why do ethnic conflicts develop different levels of violence over time?” The book emphasizes the importance of critical junctures and how they dene minority-majority relations by engagement of domestic and international actors at particular points of time. Critical junctures are volatile periods when the agency of specific actors matters more than at other times. The book also demonstrates causal mechanisms by which relationships become informally institutionalized among minorities, majorities, and third actors over time. In Bulgaria, for instance, where ethnic conflict evolved in nonviolent ways after the end of the Cold War, the co-optation of the Turkish minority’s leadership by the Bulgarian elites was a very strong mechanism. In Macedonia, the conflict was sporadically violent and became repetitive as such over time. Co-optation of the Albanian minority and irregular coercion by the Macedonian elites were also present. In Kosovo, where the conflict became violent over time, coercion by the Serbian-dominated government was the dominant mechanism. Scholarship at the time was not circumspect about the role of diasporas as external actors in such conflicts, and how they could reshape conflict processes. But the empirics of my research have shown a different trend: the Albanian diaspora, related to the Kosovo conflict, was a major external actor, instrumental in radicalizing local political dynamics.

After this research was completed, I decided to focus on that under-researched aspect of conflict analysis, the role of diasporas in conflict and post-conflict processes. This eventually led to me to the ERC Starting Grant “Diasporas and Contested Sovereignty” in 2011, which I have been directing since then. This research project is comprehensive, as it studies the mobilization of the Albanian, Armenian, Bosnian, Iraqi, Kurdish, and Palestinian diasporas in ve countries in Europe – the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Germany, France, and Sweden. We are interested in diaspora mobilizations for original homelands that are experiencing different types of challenges to statehood. We seek to understand how diasporas that are settled in a particular part of the globe mobilize for events and processes that take place in others. Diasporas are reshaping international affairs by way of agency embedded in different contexts, and we need to better understand diaspora mobilizations beyond established analytical paradigms focused on nation-states.

What is puzzling about diaspora mobilization? It is puzzling that it happens so much beyond the radar screen. Also, diaspora activists are not mobilized primarily because they are paid by somebody. They may have some institutional interest or be part of institutional dynamics, but more often they believe in a particular cause, and organize themselves in their private time. They do so with a great deal of passion and desire to change the world for different reasons and in different ways, some more peaceful and constructive than others.

iAffairs: At Carleton University you presented your research on the Armenian diaspora, specifically. How did the Armenian diaspora work to support genocide recognition, and in which countries in particular?

Maria Koinova: The Armenian diaspora is estimated currently at more than 5 million people, compared to close to 3 million who live in Armenia proper. This relationship between the population in the host country and abroad has been rather skewed for some time: most countries of origin have more population than the diaspora. Thus, historically, the Armenian diaspora has been very mobilized and instrumental in political processes in Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh. It has been active in Canada and many other countries, particularly regarding the Armenian genocide recognition. The 1915 genocide was the defining moment of the Armenian diaspora experience, as it launched huge waves of refugees to different parts of the world. Initially genocide survivors fled to Lebanon, Iran, Syria, other countries in the Middle East, and some parts of Eastern Europe. From there, many of them or their descendants migrated to France, the United States, and third countries.

France became a transit destination from which many eventually migrated elsewhere. Many of the diaspora who live currently in Europe and the Middle East, and who have been the focus of my research, are descendants of those affected by genocide, and have kept this memory and actively mobilized for it over generations. The diaspora in Russia, by contrast, not formed by this defining traumatic experience, is much more business oriented and to a certain degree more assimilated and less interested in issues of genocide.

During my presentation, I showed how conflict and cooperation between three different parties within the Armenian diaspora have sustained the genocide recognition issue for over a century. Certain personal rivalries and misunderstandings existed among these parties, especially how to pursue Armenia’s independence. Some were more interested in revolutionary work; others were much more moderate. Yet for all of them the issue of genocide recognition was an underlying common goal that could not be surpassed.

It is also interesting to see how the Armenian diaspora has been reaching outside its community abroad to sustain the genocide recognition issue. Armenian diaspora activism has been interlocked with the countermobilizations of the Turkish diaspora in different countries, especially in Europe, including to a certain degree activism in the Azeri diaspora. There has also been cooperation with Christian populations – Pontic Greeks and Assyrians, for instance – who underwent similar human rights abuses in the collapsing Ottoman Empire, even if not to the same degree. Such coalitions were quite instrumental in genocide recognition in Sweden, for example. The Armenian diaspora has also made certain coalitions with the Kurdish diaspora. For example, Armenians and Kurds abroad connected on the issue of pressuring Turkey to acknowledge more human rights, because of its aspirations to become an EU member. Such coalitions take place abroad; they may mirror domestic dynamics, but not always or at any cost.

iAffairs: Speaking of different dynamics in different countries, would you describe the Armenian diaspora as diaspora or rather diasporas?

Maria Koinova: This is a big debate in the literature. Of course, Armenians are diasporas in the sense that they may have different forms of contextual embeddedness, they may have different histories because in some places people may have migrated at different times, and they may have different connectivity to different parts of the world. In the UK, for instance, there is a strong presence of Armenians from Iran, whereas the Armenians in Germany are much more connected to Turkey. These different dynamics dene diasporas, but nobody questions the issue of genocide recognition:  it is a common Armenian issue. There might also be divisions about who speaks Western Armenian or Eastern Armenian, but the political issue of genocide recognition is an underlying common cause for everyone.

iAffairs: In 2008, a Diaspora Ministry was created in Armenia. What is its role and how does it t within these dynamics? To what extent do Armenian leaders seem ready to engage diaspora communities in the political or civil life of Armenia?

Maria Koinova: The relationship between the Armenian diasporas and the Armenian state has been very interesting and quite discussed in the literature, including my own work. Initially it was quite conflictual, because the three diaspora parties I mentioned earlier were fearful that Russia would withdraw its support from Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh if they aspired to become independent from the Soviet Union. From the diaspora perspective, this would eventually give Azerbaijan or Turkey more room to intervene militarily and kill people as during the 1915 genocide. Yet, when the Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenian independence movements took place, the diaspora eventually accepted their independence. The conflict issue became genocide recognition: it was central to the diaspora, but not an important foreign policy priority for Armenia proper at that time. There was a huge clash between diaspora and state authorities in the 1990s that lasted for quite some time.

This clash showed how powerful the Armenian diaspora was, as it managed to induce Armenian genocide recognition to be integrated into the foreign policy of the Armenian state. It also helped with regard to other political developments in Armenia. In the 1990s, as there was a war in Nagorno-Karabakh from 1991 to 1994, the state managed to open the All-Armenian Fund, a large fund with branches in several countries. The fund has gathered numerous contributions from the Armenian diaspora to develop local infrastructure, especially to rebuild roads, schools, and hospitals after the war. Yet that fund was initially an entity on its own. A Diaspora Ministry was developed only in 2008.

Other research has also shown that developing diaspora ministries is a growing trend in international affairs. If a ministry is developed – and not simply diaspora activities subsumed under agencies or directorates of foreign ministries – the state is allotting importance to the diaspora. The Armenian diaspora ministry is primarily interested in a couple of specific issues. The first is to continue to attract investments and individual remittances. Remittances are a big part of the life of the Armenian state – more than 18 percent of the GDP per capita. Remittances sustain businesses and livelihoods. On the other hand, the role of the ministry is to reach out to the diaspora to maintain its identity and in certain circumstances even awaken it. The Armenian diaspora ministry is not only connected to Armenians abroad, but is also connected to Nagorno-Karabakh, as an integral part of the Armenian identity.

iAffairs: Do you observe similar dynamics in other countries?

Maria Koinova: In Kosovo, for instance, one can see a very similar dynamic. I did a lot of research on Kosovo as a de facto state that has been reaching out and engaging its diasporas for financial and organizational purposes. Initially, the mobilization for Kosovo was mostly for the secessionism movement in the 1990s. However, quite quickly after the 2008 independence proclamation, a diaspora ministry was created, in 2011. The Bosnian case is quite different. There is an office interested in diaspora affairs, but it is much weaker than in either of the two other countries, as co-authored work shows. We have to think comparatively about why these dynamics are so different. The de facto state of Kosovo puts a lot of effort into building a state and channels economic investments and diaspora capacities, while identity-based issues impede similar dynamics in Bosnia.

iAffairs: Tell us a little bit more about Kosovo. Eight years after its independence, how would you describe the situation there?

Maria Koinova: My point of view concerns primarily dynamics in the diaspora. In 2008, many Kosovars from abroad were excited to return home and many of them did. For decades they stayed connected through political networks acquired during the war, through organizing in nonviolent or other ways.  But there has been significant disenchantment with corruption and with moving further on the democratic, and especially the economic agenda. As a result, many young people – Kosovo has the youngest population in Europe – were disappointed and sought their way to other places. Over the past years, there has been a good deal of discussion about Kosovo refugees and whether they are really refugees or economic migrants. Many are young people seeking a livelihood in Europe, who see their lives stalled in Kosovo.

iAffairs: To go back to the DcS project, what are the biggest methodological challenges you are facing while doing your research?

Maria Koinova: Initially, we had to think about how to connect scattered cases from the literature, analyzed descriptively and in non-systematic ways. We had to connect in a meaningful way literatures from different fields – conflict analysis, foreign policy analysis, migration integration, and transnationalism, among others. Each had something to say about diaspora mobilization, but we needed to develop methodology through which to study systematically. We needed to connect the different analytical paths, and develop a model that is theoretically encompassing across different cases and can be useful for the conduct of cross-national surveys. We needed to clarify the conditions and mechanisms through which diasporas mobilize. For this reason, we developed two waves of inter-coder discussions, one based more on grounded theory coding, and one based on deductive coding. We developed a codebook that was implemented into a corpus of interviews, and analyzed so far through Multiple Correspondence Analysis, a quantitative method of the family of Principal Component Analysis, but focused on nominal variables. In that sense, we developed a blueprint for how to evolve a largescale migration project from grounded comparative research to quantitative analysis, in a systematic way.

Additionally, challenges existed because researchers all had their own sub-projects, which required different theoretical approaches and empirical immersion in different cases. I have been working on diaspora mobilization for de facto states, Palestine, Nagorno-Karabakh, and Kosovo. My Ph.D. student Dženeta Karabegović has been working on diasporas and transitional justice regarding Bosnia; another Ph.D. student, Oula Kadhum, has been working on diasporas and state-building regarding Iraq; and the post-doctoral researcher Bahar Baser, who came earlier in the project, worked on the stateless Kurdish diaspora. Everybody had a different story to tell. We needed to nd ways to analyze the separate stories together, and the inter-coder discussions eventually led us there. Ben Margulies, a post-doctoral researcher who joined the project last year, has been very helpful for the transition from qualitative research, and the preparation of the cross-national survey.

One of the biggest contributions of this project is exactly that it is theoretically driven but grounded in the experiences of diaspora activists, and comparing them across Europe. Unlike many datasets in conflict and post-conflict studies, which are built on secondary sources – newspapers, Internet publications, Twitter, or Facebook accounts – our findings are based on semi-structured interviews with actual diaspora activists. These can be members of specific migrant institutions or informal members like ethnic store or restaurant owners, who are mobilizers and who gather many people around political causes. We have also done a lot of work in different contexts, and it was challenging to deal with interviews conducted in so many different languages. We have had the privilege to have a very multi-lingual team on this project, which has conducted interviews in over 10 languages. Translating, transcribing, and putting all together has a lot of merit, which will present a more authentic bottom-up perspective of transnational diaspora activism.

Last but not least is the challenge how to deal with people who have been through political violence and trauma. Some of them or their parents have been survivors of genocide, concentration camps, and ethnic cleansing. Such research exchanges make one think more deeply about the human aspect of transnational diaspora politics, and how regular people – not elites or institutions – shape international affairs. Interested publics can learn more about our project by consulting our website www.diasporacontest.org. Thank you very much!

 

Image Courtesy of the Diaspora and Contested Sovereignty Project 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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