ADL’s Vartivarian Interviews Premier Tigran Sargisian


YEREVAN — The ADL’s Hagop Vartivarian, during a recent visit to Armenia, interviewed Prime Minister Tigran Sargisian. During the interview, Sargisian showed his objective and perspicacious assessments of the issues facing Armenia and the diaspora. His answers and analyses reveal the command of the subjects he tackles so articulately. The interview appears below.

Hagop Vartivarian: The masses of diasporan Armenians were generally familiar with your name in connection with the financial-economic spheres. Presently, though, you’ve taken up the very important and responsible post of prime minister. Can you tell us how you entered the national-political field?

Tigran Sargisian: Generally speaking, it is difficult to answer where our roots come from. The place where my roots come from, particularly my family environment, has given me valuable traditions in the national/political sense. Of course, I grasped all that more keenly during the seven years that I was studying in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg). First, being away from home, I had the chance to look at it from a distance. I missed my homeland and my family but then I delved deep into the thought of what we represent as a nation and how others see us. Many circumstances during the seven years I spent in Leningrad forced me to pay due attention to our national issues. I can say without hesitation that I began to take a more conscious approach to the fundamental and practical issues facing the homeland. As of 1987, when I returned home from Leningrad, I got involved in the [Karabagh] Movement and gained my life experience.

From Finance to Politics
HV: The world of finance had never been rocked as hard as it has during the past 50 years. Of course, this current crisis, which is international and universal, has had its effect [on Armenia]. In a way, our country is fortunate to have an economist at the head of its chamber of deputies. How can you create a balance with this internal political environment, in the course of searching for ways to solve this economic crisis?

TS: You know, I began to engage in active political activity per se in Armenia, starting in 1987; therefore, I literally know all the politicians active in that arena. And, in that sense, since I personally know the political levers and political movements, coupled with the fact that the political parties have been formed in our time, that basically makes it easier to understand the motivation of those political parties, their motives, their ideology and aspirations. That knowledge also makes it possible to engage in dialogue with them.

On the other hand, of course I was more occupied with economic issues during the past 10 years, being the president of the Central Bank. That also afforded the opportunity to remain free from political demagogues and concentrate on, study the financial and economic situation. Trying to be on such levels is very time consuming.

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HV: Mr. Prime Minister, there is the impression abroad, which, although we can’t totally share it, goes like this: the capital and important institutions in this country enjoy the patronage of a few families and/or a few companies, and thus they prevent foreigners from making investments. What answer can you give to those who think like that; business people who would like to participate by making investments in this country?

TS: You know, in the first place, we must accept the fact that there are many problems in Armenia and, if we wish to ensure investments, we ourselves are obliged to discuss those problems openly. If we ourselves don’t expose them, they will never get solved. This is also the principled approach of the republic’s president. Its utmost practical manifestation is exposing all negative phenomena and problems. Moreover, those problems are many, starting with corruption and ending with bribery. In order to be objective, it must be noted that these ills are characteristic of not only our country but also many developing and transitional ones. Many countries are suffering from these ills, and those ills are objective, because we are attempting to go from the Soviet system to a free-market system, and that transition is not all that easy because, in the Soviet Union, we didn’t have people with modern experience working according to the rules of market economy. We had private capital accumulated in homes; we had trained chinovniks [officials], bureaucrats, who didn’t work in democratic institutes; in the Soviet Union. We received the Soviet apparatus, education and knowledge with totalitarian foundations, and of course we weren’t ready for such a drastic change. That rigid administrative management system all of a sudden collapsed, and we had to make a choice — shall we proceed along this path? At that time, the model we chose was the liberal economic model, which supposed free elections, conversion to a free-market economy, development of organized free-market economy, the creation of corresponding political infrastructures.

However, very soon it became apparent that the necessary knowledge, experience and substructures had not been stored up in the Soviet socialist system. Besides that, there were war, blockade and economic collapse; as a result of these events, tens of thousands of talented people abandoned the homeland. In the first place, those who had intellectual power and skills, were the ones who left, because they were able to find work in the United States, Europe and Russia and, they were miraculously able to ensure the use of their services. As a result, qualified persons left Armenia; the dynamism of our capabilities was damaged, particularly in the Armenian economic sphere. Fortunately we have a strong State today, and we can formulate and solve these problems.
‘We Weathered the World Economic Crisis’

HV: What particular success has your administration achieved in the economic realm? To what degree have we been able to record success, in banking, real estate or other fields?

TS: When we wish to see success recorded, first let’s ask what the criterion of success is. Because the standards of evaluation are very high. When we compare with the standards of the United States or Europe, we notice that we are very far from the goals we set for ourselves and, of course, we’re dissatisfied. But, if our evaluation takes into consideration the fields in which progressive steps have been taken, we will realize that great progress has been achieved in the banking sector. The world crisis demonstrated that we were totally prepared in our banking sector, in contrast to countries much more advanced than us; our state hasn’t spent a mite because we were quite stable in our banking system and we had a high enough standard to withstand the world crisis. This was a life experience and, at the same time, proof of our resilience.

The second realm, about which we can make an evaluation, is the field of energy. Our citizens are fully aware of how, when our energy field had weakened, we were able to secure fuel and we created a stable system of delivery through imports from nearby contiguous countries and abroad.

The successes achieved in the diplomatic field are embodied in the fundamental principles of our foreign policy; moreover, we have been clear and sincere in our thoughts of how that should be for both Armenia and the Diaspora. These issues have not been subjected to change in principle. During Serge Sargsian’s presidency, our political principles took on a serious and bold nature, and we were able essentially to impose our position, particularly in the realm of Armenian issues.

HV: What about in the military and self-defense sphere?

TS: The military sphere is such that in the past 20 years we were able to defend the region even with fedayee strategy. Here we have such state structures that inspire the greatest confidence.
‘Our Foreign Policy Is balanced’

HV: How were you able to strike a balance diplomatically between Russia and the United States?

TS: In contrast to the global participants in the political world, we don’t propagate diplomacy. We have adopted a very distinct foreign policy; we are open to the politics of Russia and international politics alike. And this openness ensures solidarity, so that “intrigues” and dangerous suspicions don’t arise there. We are saying the same thing to all, and experience shows that this is the most correct way for this small country of ours. Our military relationship, whether with Russia, the United States or the European Union, is very special, one of good neighborliness and partnership. For me, it is extremely important that they comprehend positively the stance adopted by us. Complementarism has been the hallmark of our foreign policy.
HV: We have learned that you, as an ordinary citizen, have a deep appreciation of our traditional values, and place utmost value on spiritual values, Christianity, and Holy Echmiadzin, in particular. What can you say about this?

TS: When I was reading the New Testament for the first time, I felt that I was familiar with the wisdom contained in there. Subsequently it turned out that my grandmother constantly conveyed her admonitions based on those sources and thus, over the years, they have instinctively taken root in our souls; now they greatly assist in and affect the style of our world perception and are becoming an indivisible particle of our spiritual world. That was an indivisible part of our world outlook because our family lived with all that; the customs, the traditions are being kept rather strictly. My grandmother looked after me; gradually added to that is the fact that this is an indivisible part and the essence of our national ideology. And no matter how much you wish to find answers to certain questions, you see that always when you break out of the value system, the standards, by which you must guide yourself in life, turn out to be wrong. No matter how you turn all the remaining standards, all of them are present, especially for our nation, for which this is a struggle for both the pivotal and personal existence of its history; it’s a type of struggle that appears to be going on still; it’s our mission. It is not accidental that they struck the church, because our church is a gathering force. Furthermore, the most important responsibility of the Armenian Apostolic Church, as distinct from other churches, lies in the fact that it never deviated from its fundamental Orthodox tenets throughout its 1,700-year history. In his well-known book on the Armenian Church, [Archbishop Maghakia] Ormanian has given the best formulation of that, when he attempts to summarize his conclusion and gives a very interesting formula. That is the peculiarity of our church, and Ormanian gives numerous examples; i.e. very often, our church’s liberalism is criticized, it permitted human freedom to those saints to come into the Armenian environment and give their faith, etc., instill and dictate other knowledge, including sectarianism. However, history proved that this liberalism was anchored right in our church, that the most important thing was that it expressed the fact that we didn’t deviate from the truth path and God protected our church and faith. That was a very great success: we can pass it on as a legacy to our children.

HV: You speak about moral values. Teaching is also a moral value. I have written an article about what we lost with the collapse of the Soviet Union, but don’t yet have the courage to publish it. However, when I have spoken with our respectable intelligentsia and political figures in the homeland, their main concern too is that education has been our greatest omission. Now that you are prime minister and are giving so much importance to education, do you think that it will be possible in the near future to raise the educational level of this country to reach the level of the old days?

TS: If we are not able to improve the educational system, we won’t have a future as a nation. That is necessary and is defined more precisely by our intellectual desire for the future, so that we may be able to ensure our intellectual activity as state and nation. The contemporary world is a world of competition; therefore, state-of-the-art knowledge and culture are essential for successful participation in that competition. That is the number-one reality. That is a matter of becoming well-informed, of ministering all the forces of the nation; that is a matter of struggling to keep pace with 21st-century advancement; that is a matter of improving the educational system. Moreover, this issue applies not only to Armenia but the rest of the world too.
‘Diaspora Is a Dimension of Our Patrimony’

HV: The Armenian Diaspora represents another moral value; that is to say, it’s a large source of capital, and any leader holding a position of political power knows the importance of the diaspora, the possibilities it possesses. Language and orthography are the means of connecting with the homeland, so that we may be able to read and understand the literature, newspapers, etc. of the homeland. I wonder, will a portion of your time and energy be allocated to this issue as well, so that the Armenian Diaspora may feel closer to the literature, and the creative output of the homeland?

TS: The fact that our government considers this an important issue has been proved by the creation of a new ministry, the Diaspora Ministry, through the initiative of the president of the republic. Its goal is to strengthen ties between the diaspora and the homeland. Rather interesting programs have been carried out by the ministry; in particular, all schools abroad have been furnished with textbooks. Second, in Armenia there is the program of retraining teachers of Armenian in the Diaspora Armenian schools. The realization of the “Tebi Doon” (“Toward Home”) program makes it possible for Diasporan-Armenian youths to come to Armenia, associate with their peers, live with Armenian families and become familiar with the homeland. There are numerous other similar programs, which naturally serve to increase the closeness of ties between the Armenian Diaspora and the homeland. That is a great contribution to the solution of the problem of how to bring the Armenian people together. The Armenian Apostolic Church should assist in order to fulfill its mission. To assist in the task of maintaining the Armenian identity in the diaspora, it is necessary to accomplish such programs of state relations aimed at slowing down the pace of assimilation, increasing the consciousness of Armenian youths, transforming their capital into practical measures for our nation’s benefit, through effective programs respecting moral norms. All ministries and the state, as a whole, should support such efforts.

HV: The final question in connection with these moral issues. No matter how free the mass information is, in this case television, I must follow both the American and the Armenian television channels; I see that immoral scenes are shown much more freely, scenes which interfere with our spiritual way of life, our national values. Despite the fact that America is a free country too and has taught freedom to the world, we don’t have that freedom there. State control must be created in another way. How are you going to put a halt to that?

TS: First, I must note that this issue truly exists. Since we had a very romantic concept of democratic countries, and it seemed to us that the matter of freedom was absolute, as a young state we went from a totalitarian system to the other extreme, and the answer to freedom became all-permissive — everything can be shown, everything is possible. Therefore, we have ended up in that very extreme and, naturally, that debate is going on with the participation of the Public Council, as to what standards must be embraced, deviation from which is considered a violation of definite norms of civilization with regard to the public, in terms of what can be shown or not shown. And this issue is evaluated by the public according to moral norms. I must point out gladly that our society has matured, because its judgment is quite mature and state interference has emerged in order to resolve everything, so that, on the one hand, we stay within certain contemporary regulatory norms and, on the other hand, we don’t permit vulgar, scandalous, outrageous content on television and in the press. I am convinced that this healthy debate will end with a solution representing a consensus, and our regulatory bodies will make correct decisions acceptable to all.

Family Uprooted from Erzerum

HV: Now a few personal questions. Is your family originally from Erzerum?

TS: We consider ourselves natives of Erzerum, because everybody on both my mother’s and father’s sides is from Erzerum. They immigrated to Armenia, and my parents met each other, thanks to their grandfathers, who accidentally met in Yerevan after the migration. Those on my father’s side reached Armenia via Russia, after being deported, enduring great difficulties and having many bitter experiences. Those on my mother’s side also had a rough time, like all the families that witnessed the Genocide; they lived through those cruel days but were saved by the will of God and ended up in Armenia; they met one another, our family was established and we were always told that we were natives of Erzerum, our land is Erzerum, a dreamlike land. This is what my grandfather and grandmother always talked about in our family.

HV: The immediate family, wife and children of a political figure also have special significance for Americans. Can you give us some information in this regard?

TS: I have a wonderful wife named Gohar; she’s the daughter of Poghos Mirzoyian. We got married 25 years ago; we celebrated our 25th wedding anniversary in February of this year. Gohar has given me three children — one daughter and two sons. My daughter is 25 years old, married and the mother of a child. One of my sons is named Abgar; the other, Markos.

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