Ukraine’s diaspora has a crucial role to play – now and in the future

As millions of refugees from war-torn Ukraine flow into the EU, the question of the Ukrainian diaspora – currently growing at record rates – has… Read More »

Ukraine’s diaspora has a crucial role to play – now and in the future

As millions of refugees from war-torn Ukraine flow into the EU, the question of the Ukrainian diaspora – currently growing at record rates – has seen an explosion in political relevance. Expatriates from around the world have shown their support for their compatriots and motherland in ways both strategic and humanitarian, but their input and assistance will also be vital in rebuilding the Ukraine of tomorrow.

The importance of a strong relationship between an active diaspora and their native country is well documented. A healthy exchange allows both parties to profit from expanded economic opportunities and advantages. Greece offers an archetypal example of how such a relationship can be successfully engineered – and Armenia for evidence of what can happen when it is neglected. For the Ukrainian people, there are several lessons to be gleaned from these experiences that will be crucial for the Ukrainian nation in the years to come.  

The diaspora as a national resource

The diaspora’s response to Russia’s brutal and unprovoked invasion has been swift and widespread. In Toronto, Canada’s largest city and home to over 100,000 Ukrainian-Canadians, has seen a plethora of community initiatives aimed at collecting donations and sending them to those in need. Ukrainian tech professionals in the US have worked to accelerate the delivery of medical supplies and to disable the Kremlin’s disinformation. In Europe, Ukrainians are fundamental in facilitating the escape of those fleeing the carnage.

While these efforts are most noticeable during times of conflict, a diaspora can boost its home country’s fortunes even in their absence at any juncture. Remittances are a big part of this, with some $440 billion sent home by migrants from the developing world in 2015. Remittances account for a whopping 37% of GDP in Tajikistan, while figures are similarly high in Nepal (30%), Haiti, Liberia and Tonga (all 25%). 

However, the benefits aren’t purely monetary. The United States’ sizeable Vietnamese population was instrumental in repairing relations and boosting trade in the 1990s, only one generation after the end of the decade-long war. Migrants can help to boost commercial opportunities in their homeland by enhancing the diffusion of knowledge across borders. This is observable in academic circles as well, where inventors and scientists will often reference their compatriots over other alternatives. 

Furthermore, countries beset by corruption, autocracy and inequality can uniquely benefit from the work that overseas diaspora activists do in raising awareness, pressurising international agencies and orchestrating resistance. All of those attributes could become extremely valuable in Ukraine’s imminent future.

Armenia: At odds with its own diaspora

These advantages will only be realized if there is active engagement from both sides. Unfortunately, some countries with a large overseas population have failed to leverage this potential, either by ploughing a different political furrow or by neglecting their expatriates altogether.

An illustrative case in this respect is Armenia. The country has a diaspora of up to 10 million people, compared to 3 million living in the homeland, meaning that nearly the same number of Armenians live in the US as in Armenia itself. However, the divide between the two communities has deepened in recent years. Endemic corruption and continued, deeply entrenched pro-Kremlin ties at the highest levels of government, has alienated those Armenians who live in liberal democratic Western countries. Furthermore, a basic lack of trust and an unfavorable business climate has attracted little in the way of diasporan investments into native assets.

The rift has only widened as Armenia’s current political and administrative elites look at the diaspora with some hostility given its unwillingness to subordinate themselves to the state’s narratives. On the other hand, the diaspora has recently become especially disappointed by Armenia’s post-Soviet style of ant-democratic governance. The consequence has been that the relationship between the homeland and the diaspora has become deeply fractured and characterized by mutual suspicion. 

It’s therefore not surprising that the opportunities for mutual cooperation have declined, leading to diminishing diaspora influence in Armenia and accusations that Armenians abroad are out of touch with contemporary issues – a dangerous development that risks the emergence of entrenched contrasting perspectives that could permanently split the ‘Armenian nation’.

A young member of the American-Armenian diaspora in Los Angeles takes part in a demonstration to commemorate the 1915 Armenian Genocide.

However, the danger of this inherently asymmetrical diaspora-Armenia relationship was recognized by former president Armen Sarkissian, who sought to dispense of some of the regulations that perpetuate the discrepancy between Armenians at home and abroad, such as the requirement of four years of uninterrupted residency in Armenia, and a ban on holding dual citizenship, for government service. According to Sarkissian, “outreach to draw talent to Armenia is in the end frustrated by ‘absurd and meaningless regulations’” such as those.

Greece: Diaspora to the rescue

Because Armenia’s restrictive constitution builds a “Berlin Wall between Armenia and the Diaspora” – preventing Yerevan from using its diaspora as “our main resource” – Sarkissian sought constitutional reform to allow Armenia to benefit from its successful diaspora but these efforts were undermined by internal resistance at the time. Still, Armenians should feel encouraged by Greece’s success in prioritizing the return of their brethren ever since the financial crisis jeopardized the country’s long-term stability.

Faced with an unprecedented emigration of young and educated Greeks during the 2008 crisis, Athens in 2019 sought to create “Knowledge and Partnership Bridges” to cultivate the scientific and economic links between the émigrés and the homeland. It also seeks to reach Greeks who have left the country generations ago, thereby enabling “the country’s scientific and highly educated professionals living abroad to have a direct, active role in transforming the Greek economy”, “transferring know-how”, and engaging in entrepreneurial activities. 

Other initiatives with excellent results include the introduction of an expatriation vote and the encouragement of keeping the Greek language alive through a free online learning tool used by 28,000 people in 118 countries. The combination of these engagement policies has enticed expatriates to return home, turning the dreaded “brain drain” into a “brain gain”. In that respect, Greece is following in the same footsteps as Ireland whose Diaspora Strategy 2020 recognises its diaspora as “one of Ireland’s greatest resources.”

Ukraine’s lessons for the future

The circumstances which prompted a mass exodus of some 500,000 Greeks are very different to those currently befalling Ukraine. Given that the creation of Armenia’s own top-heavy diaspora was instigated by the 1915 Genocide that was committed by the Turks, this could make it a more accurate case study for Ukrainians to observe going forwards, but the current state of diaspora relations in Armenia only serves to underline the importance of charting a different path.

The immediate positive response from the Ukrainian diaspora is an inspirational subplot in an otherwise tragic tale. Facing an existential threat, those holding onto power in Kyiv must ensure that this engagement isn’t lost. The differing experiences and subsequent lost or gained futures of Armenia and Greece should be an incentive for Ukrainians abroad to intensify their ties to their homeland, no matter how transformed it may be by the current warfare.

Doing so now will position them appropriately to exert a positive influence in the years ahead.