Garnik Nanagoulian: Serving Armenia in the Diaspora

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By Aram Arkun
Mirror-Spectator Staff

NEW YORK — Garnik Nanagoulian is well known today among Armenians thanks to his position as the executive director of the Fund for Armenian Relief (FAR), which is a part of the Diocese of the Armenian Church of America.

A trim and active-looking man in his mid-50s, Nanagoulian has had an interesting career as a diplomat, serving consecutively the Soviet Union and the Republic of Armenia, before ending up as an American citizen, running one of the Armenian Diaspora’s prominent humanitarian organizations. In an interview in his Manhattan office, he reflected on the many twists his career
took before it led him to FAR.

Nanagoulian’s family background turned out to be a useful preparation for a diplomat, and in particular helpful for understanding and communicating with Armenians of different cultural backgrounds. His father emigrated from Karabagh, and his mother from Tbilisi, to Yerevan, where they studied at the university level and formed a family. Nanagoulian absorbed first-hand the proud and tough mountaineer heritage of the Karabagh Armenian, and the cosmopolitan and cultivated cultural heritage of the Tblisi Armenian. Later, he married a schoolmate of his who had emigrated from the third major Armenian center of the Caucasus — Baku.

In college, Nanagoulian studied physics, and after graduation in 1975 worked at a research and development institution for the defense industry. He also taught physics and mathematics at the high school level. At the same time, active in the political and
social life, he soon went to work for the central committee of the Komsomol (Communist Union of Youth) of Armenia in 1978. This proved to be a useful avenue for career advancement. He headed the department of youth in science.

His next step was to study in Moscow in the famous Soviet diplomatic academy. With a smile, Nanagoulian declared that as a child his dream was to either become a second Einstein or a diplomat; since the former was not possible, he chose the latter. He also felt that he would enjoy dealing with people and that becoming a diplomat would open many more doors than the academic world. Nanagoulian graduated in 1985 with honors and proceeded to work in Smolenka, the Soviet foreign ministry building in Moscow.

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Soviet Diplomat
In 1989, Nangoulian received his first major assignment, that of second secretary at the Soviet Embassy in Washington, DC. He came  with his family, including his 12-year-old daughter. These were fateful times for the Soviet Union and for Armenia. Nanagoulian’s job at first was to promote cultural and non-governmental relations between the US and the USSR. He also followed US policy  developments in Arab-Israeli relations. Immediately after the earthquake in Armenia in 1988, he was assigned to coordinate efforts for relief in the United States. Luckily, the Soviet ambassador’s wife was Armenian, and this facilitated his work. Nanagoulian came to know all segments of the Armenian-American community, as he frequently traveled throughout the country.

Nanagoulian was happy to see the reforms then-Premier Gorbachev was enacting in the Soviet Union. Out of necessity, he abided by Marxism-Leninism at that time, but he felt himself to be independent-minded, and at heart a liberal. He confesses that like most people, growing up he believed the Soviet Union to be invincible and there for the long run, despite its many problems: “Never in my wildest dreams could I imagine that there would be an independent Armenia.”

He had no contact with the Karabagh Committee and the opposition movements in Armenia.

Nanagoulian met Levon Ter-Petrosian for the first time late in 1990 when the latter was president of the Armenian Parliament and came to the US at theinvitation of the Armenian Assembly of America. The Soviet ambassador asked Nanagoulian to invite Ter-Petrosian to speak with the Soviet embassy staff. Ter-Petrosian spoke eloquently and forcefully, unexpectedly starting his speech by declaring that the Soviet Union was dead. When Nanagoulian escorted him along with the other hosts to the airport, Ter-Petrosian asked Nanagoulian whether he thought it went well. Nanagoulian wryly replied that it might have gone well for Ter-Petrosian, but perhaps not as well for Nanagoulian’s career.

During a second meeting in the US, Ter- Petrosian began speaking about arrangements for the post-Soviet period, including opening an Armenian embassy. When Nanagoulian went home to Armenia for the summer vacation in July and August 1991, the August coup attempt occurred in Moscow. Nanagoulian went to see Ter-Petrosian, who told him that Nangoulian should go back to the US, in order to help open an embassy there.

Armenian State Service
As soon as Nanagoulian returned to Washington, his formal accreditation was changed from the Soviet to the Armenian government.
He began work on opening an embassy, which was inaugurated in February 1992 in the offices of the Armenian Assembly. Alexander Arzumanian had been sent as ambassador both to the US and to the United Nations. When the former was working in New York,
Nanagoulian handled daily affairs until Ruben Shugarian arrived in February 1993 as the fulltime ambassador to the United States.

Nanagoulian remained in Washington until 1995, when he was promoted to the post of ambassador to Canada. He worked there for
two years, again setting up an office from scratch. Then suddenly early one morning in 1996, he received a call from his former schoolmate, Dr. Armen Sarkissian, who had become prime minister of Armenia. Nanagoulian had never formally joined the Armenian National Movement or any other political party in Armenia. However, he had kept in touch with Sarkissian when the latter was Armenia’s ambassador to Great Britain, and shared the same vision for Armenia. Sarkissian asked Nanagoulian to become the minister of trade and industry.When Nanagoulian protested that he was not trained in this field, Sarkissian retorted, “I was not trained for becoming prime minister either!”

Nanagoulian soon began his new post, and attempted structural economic reforms to move further towards a free-market economy. He worked to centralize the government’s decision-making power on economic issues. Sarkissian was not long in office, and was replaced by Robert Kocharian. Nanagoulian found him pragmatic and results-oriented. He supported Nanagoulian’s efforts, but as political conditions changed in Armenia, Nanagoulian decided it was time for him to reassess what he wanted to do with his life, and he left the cabinet.

Nanagoulian was accepted into a program from 1999 to 2002 at Harvard’s Weatherhead Center for International Affairs, which allowed high-ranking officials from all around the world an opportunity to both teach and learn at Harvard. Nanagoulian declared: “My time at Harvard broadened my vision of things. It was the most important period in my life. I communicated with people whose books I previously was happy merely to keep on my shelves. I looked back on events in Armenia and the Soviet Union, and  developed a much better understanding of what had happened.”

As Nanagoulian got involved in non- Armenian issues, he began to feel a “nostalgia” of sorts, and when he learned about the position
of FAR director opening up in 2004, he immediately realized “this is what I can do best, much better than any sort of governmental
work. This is where I belong.” Here he could combine his knowledge of Armenia and America with his administrative and diplomatic
skills. Furthermore, though Armenian-born and Soviet-trained, he felt his vision for Armenia was transformed by what he learned in the US: “I have traveled a lot, and have never seen a better place for a human being to live.”

FAR was founded immediately after the earthquake of 1988 and focused in its early period on emergency relief. However, as conditions in Armenia changed, FAR too changed direction. Nanagoulian and what he proudly proclaims to be an extremely talented and powerful board of directors today are shifting their focus more to empowering people in Armenia to pursue their own dreams within a free market environment.  Though FAR still provides critical relief aid, it is also working to educate and provide opportunities for intellectual development for a new generation of Armenians: “This self-actualization is so important to achieve our shared dream of a consensual, productive and humane society in Armenia.” Nanagoulian would like a “truly open, free and democratic society — a society that does not accept arbitrary governance, injustice, exclusiveness, monopolistic economy, or, for example, unfair elections.” He and the others at FAR understand such social change is something that will take a long time to fully achieve, so they look to the long term in their planning. FAR is also careful to stay out of politics in Armenia, and enjoys good relations with the Armenian government (as well as the American one).

FAR serves the Armenian Diaspora as well as Armenia, because it encourages the Armenian- American to turn Armenia from an abstraction to a meaningful reality in his life, and to participate proactively in life in the Republic of Armenia. FAR thus unites Armenians throughout the world — perhaps in a way thus repeating Nanagoulian’s own family history on a bigger scale.

For more information on FAR, visit farusa.org.

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