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Abstract

In 'terms of value, the range of donors, and the scale of the logistics' the Armenian earthquake that shook the earth on 7 December 1988 and took about 25,000 lives was considered by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies as 'one of the largest international relief operations ever staged'. The Soviet and international response to the earthquake opened a new era in the humanitarian age, in quasi-anticipation of the subsequent post-Cold War developments. In the medical literature the earthquake 'has become a code word for disaster only second to the attack on the World Trade Center'. Taking the assumed 'turning point' issue aside, this chapter questions how the Soviet state and international actors dealt with the novelty of openness and how they engaged with the newly found 'humanitarian space'. In the Armenian case this space served as a ground for the Soviet state to claim influence and international recognition and for the Armenian diaspora to reshape its ideas of the Armenian 'homeland'. This chapter will first explore why the Soviet government allowed Western humanitarian aid into the Soviet Union and how it was framed by domestic political communication. Following this, it will look into the motives of the West, in particular of the Armenian diaspora, for getting involved in humanitarian aid. Finally, the chapter explores how the Armenian diaspora shaped the path of Armenia's independence. Based on archival sources and interviews from Russia, Armenia and the United States, I argue that the disaster offered the diaspora the opportunity to regain agency and to break the re-enactment of victimhood. This empowerment resulted in a power transfer at local level through the involvement of the Armenian diaspora in local politics prior to the demise of the Soviet Union, which happened despite the fact that allowing Western aid was originally aimed at boosting the image of the Communist Party and at preventing the collapse of the Soviet empire.

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