Asia Times correspondent Kourosh Ziabari recently conducted an exclusive interview with Armenian President Armen Sarkissian in the capital Yerevan. This is Part 2 of the interview. Read Part 1 here.
Armenia has suffered the wounds of abiding traumas over its history that still haunt the average citizen, ranging from the 1915 genocide in which nearly 1.5 million people were exterminated to the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh War where the small state lost large swaths of territory to Azerbaijan.
Yet Armenian President Armen Sarkissian is upbeat about the country’s future, saying he believes a new generation of Armenians pushing for change can transform Armenia into a truly “global nation.”
Sarkissian, a former ambassador to the United Kingdom, Belgium and the Netherlands, and who served a brief stint as prime minister between 1996-97, is also looking to the Armenian diaspora of some 7-10 million people scattered in nearly 100 countries to boost the economy and pave the nation’s path to reconstruction.
In the second part of a wide-ranging interview with Asia Times, Sarkissian spoke to why the Armenian people are still disillusioned after the September 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, whether or not there are religious drivers to his country’s strife with Azerbaijan and prospects for his country’s economy and foreign relations. Excerpts have been edited for clarity.
Ziabari: And back to Armenia-Azerbaijan tensions – do you agree with the interpretation that there is a religious element to the conflict going on between Armenia and Azerbaijan? The same way Armenia has deplored Azerbaijan’s desecration of churches in the Republic of Artsakh, the President of Azerbaijan has also complained that Armenia has destroyed at least “70 mosques” in the disputed territories.
In describing what’s going on in Syria and Afghanistan, or broaching the idea that Turkey has imported mercenaries from Syria to fight for Azerbaijan, you’ve on several occasions used the term “Islamic terrorism.” Are you not concerned that these measures and rhetoric may widen the rifts between Armenia and the Muslim world and alienate Armenia’s small Muslim community?
Sarkissian: I think first of all, using the term “Islamist terrorist” by Armenian officials is in many cases just reflecting the reality. Terrorists are terrorists, be that from this or that religion; but these ones come from the Syrian war, and Turkey brought them from Syria. And this is more about their motivation rather than Armenia’s approach. These are guys motivated by religion or they are in a religious war, because they are paid, because they are mercenaries.
I don’t agree at all that this war or conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh had ever a religious aspect. First of all, there are only a few mosques there; there are a lot of Armenian churches. But then, I personally had encouraged the complete renovation of a mosque in Shushi, which was finalized by two Armenians and one Muslim guy.
It was fully renovated. I visited there; they had specialists, architects and religious people advising what to do. It’s a beautiful mosque. And if the Azeris recover even one church, please send me the photo.
This is not a religious war. Seventy mosques were destroyed? I don’t know – I hear from you about it. You should be very specific there. In the case of Armenian churches, they are very specific; they are where they are; they are where they have been for hundreds or thousands of years.
And we know exactly which one is destroyed. Unfortunately, we have become professional in registering the destruction of Armenian churches, heritage and culture, first of all, in the Ottoman Empire, in Turkey. There are hundreds of old churches that were converted into mosques, and there’s a lot of historic evidence.
And if you want to compare the attitudes, is there any chance that the Armenians can say or complain that there are Armenian churches destroyed on the territory of Iran? Have you heard about that? No, I haven’t heard it, either. And in fact, during history, regimes changed in Iran, but with all regimes, Armenian communities in Iran were basically flourishing, and in fact, the Islamic Republic of Iran has spent money on the renovation of Armenian churches.
And I have examples of that. Well, I’ve been in Tehran a couple of times before becoming president.
In the center of Tehran, there’s a huge territory called Ararat club. When you go there, it’s like you’re in Armenia. Everything: the basketball pitch, the football, the Armenian girls and boys together. There is a huge tolerance by the leadership of the Islamic Republic towards the Armenian culture. There are a lot of Armenian churches in Iran everywhere. I’m not speaking only about Isfahan and Rasht.
Why don’t we complain about Iran destroying the Armenian culture? Because it doesn’t. In fact, it’s supporting, being an Islamic Republic while Turkey is not an Islamic republic, even Azerbaijan has not declared that they are an Islamic republic.
But the Islamic Republic of Iran is tolerant towards our culture, our religion, our beliefs. If anyone speaks about destruction, they should look at the example of Iran. This war was not religious and it could not be religious. Armenia has fantastic relations with a lot of countries that are Islamic states or where the majority of the population are Muslims.
Ziabari: I just want to jump quickly with a follow-up. You said that the crisis in Syria and the terrorism that thrived and flourished from there was driven by religion. Can it be similarly said that, for example, we have Jewish terrorism embodied by what the Israeli state unleashes on the Palestinians? Can we ever use the term Christian terrorism to refer to the Ku Klux Klan? We have never used such denominations.
Sarkissian: Well, I think you really jumped. I have a term saying that this world has become quantum; so, you can jump from one place to another and you don’t go logically with the trace. But you had a complete quantum question and a question that probably will need a couple of hours to answer. Let me not answer that question.
What I said in the case of Syria – even Iran has recognized that there are a lot of groups in Syria which, not me, but others were calling Islamic terrorists. What Turkey has done, is to bring mercenaries. People who are killing for money, can be Christians, Muslims or Buddhists, or any other religion.
That doesn’t matter, because whatever they are doing is wrong. Killing people because they are different, killing people for money, is not acceptable neither by Christianity nor by Islam.
I have read the Quran several times and I haven’t found anything saying that you should kill for money those who are different. I haven’t seen such a thing. Maybe you have seen; you can show it to me if you know.
Ziabari: That’s right.
Sarkissian: So, respecting other people’s religion and culture is very important for me.
Ziabari: And again on foreign policy; I understand that you’ve known President Joe Biden of the United States for quite a while and that the US President, in April this year, recognized the 1915 Armenian Genocide in a departure from the stance of many former US presidents who tip-toed on this recognition.
Do you expect bilateral relations with Washington to transition to a new level? Are there new developments in Yerevan-Washington ties to look out for?
Sarkissian: I think the recognition of the Armenian Genocide is very important for my nation and the international community. I don’t need to explain why. It is important for them to recognize that something wrong happened – that something wrong has happened even to grandfathers and grandmothers of those people who are now citizens of France, Russia, the United States of America, Argentina, Lebanon, etc.
If you don’t recognize a genocide, genocides will continue. How can one say that there was no genocide in Rwanda? You say that there was a genocide and then after that you’ll say how you can just live with that or change the consequences of that.
I am very happy to hear that Rwanda is a very active and a very successful state now. They are modern, they have invested in IT, and that’s fantastic because they have gone through the hell, as well. The same has happened to Armenians.
A big number of countries have recognized the Armenian Genocide. The United States and the president of the United States recognizing the genocide are taking an important step, but is that historic justice?
I think the main topic of our discussion today is about historic justice; it’s emotional. It’s important for Armenians in America, for Armenians worldwide, but I think it’s also important for Americans as well. They are recognizing something that was wrong. By recognizing something that’s wrong, you are at least trying to prevent the next wrong thing from happening.
As to US-Armenia relations, be it diplomatic, political and others, you should look not only on the historic aspect – but in the sort of modern pragmatic aspect of realpolitik. And in the realpolitik, there’s the process of redesigning the Caucasus, and maybe there’ll be a process of redesigning Central Asia.
This Caspian region is not the same as it was 30 years ago or 25 years ago. For Armenia, there was a chance then to be a part of redesigning the Caucasus in a different way.
Now, we have a situation when Azerbaijan is victorious. Will they be smart enough to convert their victory into a stable peace? When you are the victorious side, you have the advantage, and you can also do compromises because you have the victory. But then you have to be wise enough to understand that by doing compromises, when you are victorious, you can create relations that will last much longer.
We are living, as I said, in a quantum world and things change very fast in a way that one could not expect. We have neighbors like Turkey and it is difficult to predict what their next move will be.
Ziabari: Let’s also touch upon the state of Iran-Armenia relations. You have certainly heard about the recent border tensions between Iran and Azerbaijan. The government in Baku has been charging Iranian trucks and fuel trailers entering Armenia through the Goris-Kapan road substantial fees, effectively cutting Iran off from Armenia.
First, do you believe trade relations with Iran will be affected negatively as a result of Azerbaijan’s new plans? And what’s your assessment of the direction of Iran-Armenia relations, in political, economic, financial, scientific and cultural terms?
Sarkissian: Well, I don’t have to prove that relations between Armenia and Iran have a vital value and interest for Armenia. Iran has been our trusted neighbor for many years. Even a lot of our friends in the west always accept that they can have their differences and tensions with Iran, but Iran-Armenia relations are developed from a different dimension.
It is very important that our relations are deep, effective, be that trade or economic relations or indeed political and cultural relations. History shows that we can trust Iran and we can have long-lasting relations, both as a state and a nation.
I have already touched upon my visit to Tehran. What I saw there is a country with young and vibrant youth and students, very much interested in what’s happening in the world. After being in Isfahan and seeing the Armenian church, the library and how much the Iranian government has supported maintaining and keeping that heritage, I think that helps us to build the relations between Iran and Armenia on a positive note.
We have differences; Iran’s relations with other states are as complex as our relations with other states. But on the bilateral level, I think Iran needs a strong, stable Armenia and Armenia needs its good relations with Iran.
Ziabari: And do you have any comments on the recent border skirmishes between Iran and Azerbaijan and its possible spillover effects for Iran-Armenia trade?
Sarkissian: Well, I cannot judge how deep that is and how negative it could be in the future, but the reality is that the Azeri side, even before the process of demarcation, has been using their military strength or the position of a victory to impose and play that game.
As you know, we have our soldiers that are still kept hostage in Azerbaijan and haven’t returned back. But all the humanitarian values basically open the doors of exchange of prisoners of war, which in fact happened in 1994 when Armenia returned all the Azeri prisoners.
There are still a lot of names whose fate is unknown – a lot of families don’t know if their children, their sons, are alive or dead. There are issues with the borders, as well; there are issues with the Iranian trade.
Ziabari: I also would like you to address the Covid-19 pandemic and its repercussions for Armenia. In 2020, Armenia’s GDP contracted by 7.6%, while a year earlier, it had grown by 7.6% after trending up by 5.2% in 2018.
Do you expect the Economic Response Program approved by the government in February, together with foreign assistance including the European Union’s €92 million response package, can contribute to a reliable and speedy recovery? In particular, what’s your vision for the tourism industry which was one of the worst-hit sectors?
Sarkissian: Another three-hour question. To be short here, I think we’re still suffering from the consequences of the war and Covid-19. Well, we appreciate the support of all of our friends. The European Union has also announced €2.6 billion of support to Armenia in the upcoming years.
Ziabari: Is this a new development?
Sarkissian: No. The President of the European Council Charles Michel was here [recently]. It is big support. The question is how effectively we can use that money together with our European partners for the development of the country. We have a lot of friends in many places.
I was on a state visit to Italy, and the Italian government has pledged to support Armenia with huge number of vaccines as well. This is also the answer to your previous question about vaccination and Covid-19. Russia, as a special partner and friend, does a lot for Armenia.
We are small but we have an advantage. We are a small state but a big global nation. There are as many Armenians probably living in Russia as in Armenia; as many Armenians living in America.
When you have a small state, if you run it effectively, you can be successful. In many ways, small can be effective and beautiful. It is not a huge empire that is difficult to run. It is all about how smart we are and how prepared we are to be disciplined.
At least the question is how effectively we are using our strength. Azerbaijan used their strength, their oil quite effectively during the last 26 years by cashing it in. Our strength is also in our diaspora. But how effectively are we using it?
Honesty, I would say that we are not doing so yet. We still have to learn how to bring those top guys, experience, knowledge and Armenian money from abroad to Armenia. The moment we learn that, then I think we will be really successful.
Ziabari: My final question is exactly on the same theme you just mentioned. I want to bring up the partnership between Armenia and the Armenian diaspora, totaling some 7-10 million people scattered in nearly 100 countries.
How does Armenia benefit from the contributions and enterprise of the dynamic Armenian diaspora? Are they helping give a boost to the national economy?
Sarkissian: They are helping Armenia – that help is emotional. The expertise that is there has very high quality. They are everywhere and the diaspora can do much better in helping Armenia, but for that, we have to make some changes – again changing the constitution.
Do you know that an Armenian from the diaspora cannot be an Armenian minister in the constitution? I mean that’s a big, big wrong, wrong thing.
For example, a great Armenian scientist or a technology guy that has made billions [of dollars] cannot become minister of science in Armenia. He has to return his American passport, carry only an Armenian passport for 40 years and live only in Armenia for four years to be able to have the dream or the chance of becoming a minister.
In four years, people build empires in the 21st century. If you are outside of Silicon Valley for four years, you are gone. Your value is gone. We need a law where we can pick up someone today and make him a minister tomorrow.
You see, those know how to run. In America, there are two vaccines, Pfizer and Moderna. Do you know who has made one of them? Noubar Afeyan, who’s created the venture – Flagship Pioneering is the venture fund that has created Moderna.
But that guy, professor of MIT, cannot be the minister of education and science [in Armenia]. In order to do that, he had to live in Armenia for the last four years. Then who was going to develop Moderna?
In reality, there’s many more than 10 million Armenians living abroad. The numbers you are saying are the Armenians who are organized in the Armenian communities. There are so many Armenians that are unorganized.
I have a big list of these people and we are not using one of those talents. In this building, we had a conference devoted to the 100th birthday anniversary of a man whose name is Kemurdzhian. Do you know who the guy is?
Ziabari: Well, no.
Sarkissian: Of course, you don’t. There are a lot of Armenians, 90% of Armenians, don’t know about. Do you remember the moon rover? The rover that went into the moon first by the Soviet Union and then by the United States?
Ziabari: Yeah, sure.
Sarkissian: Actually, you remember the American astronauts of the moon, moon-walkers are using the same thing bigger as their car. Then the Soviet Union sent the Mars rover and then Americans. This Mr Kemurdzhian is the guy who built them – the first moon rover by the Soviet Union and Mars rover was built by Kemurdzhian after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
NASA asked him to help them because they couldn’t do that. He’s one of the greatest engineers in robotics in history. And he was Armenian. There’s a huge institute in Saint Petersburg now named after him.
And they are everywhere, but we’re not using them. So, I would say we are like any Gulf state that has decided not to use its oil. What do you get as a result? A desert.
Armenians have yet to learn how to use the power of their diaspora. And I’m working hard for that, because that’s one of the ways. People really don’t understand the power of the diaspora, how big it is, because it has never been used. We have to do a lot of things and one of these things is to change the constitution.