Seasoned Diplomat Mnatsakanian Represents Armenia at UN



By Florence Avakian

Special to the Mirror-Spectator

NEW YORK — Armenia’s Ambassador to the United Nations Zohrab Mnatsakanian assumed his current position eight months ago, following several assignments in Armenia and Europe. On June 10, 2014, this seasoned diplomat presented his credentials to United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki Moon.

Before his current assignment, Mnatsakanian had a 23-year career in foreign affairs and diplomacy. His posts have included a three-year term as deputy minister of foreign affairs in Armenia, chief negotiator for the European Union-Armenia Association Agreement, another three year term as the ambassador to the Council of Europe in Strasbourg and before that as ambassador to Switzerland, and ambassador to the United Nations and other international organizations in Geneva.

Born in 1966, he is a graduate of the Department of International Economic Relations at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations, and has a master’s degree in Western European Politics from Victoria University of Manchester, in the United Kingdom. He is married with two sons, the elder of whom has completed his two-year military assignment in Armenia, and the younger who has just started his two-year stint. With obvious glee, he revealed that his family includes a 6-year-old dog named Archibald who is with his family in Yerevan.

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FLORENCE AVAKIAN: How is your work at the United Nations different from your other positions in Europe? And in your negotiations, does everything have to be approved by the Yerevan government, or can you independently state a position?

AMBASSADOR ZOHRAB MNATSAKANIAN: At the European Union, I mostly negotiated agreements between Armenian and the European Union. In multi-literalism you are negotiating with one party, however there are 28 member states behind that party. However at the UN you are one of 193, and you are working with all. And the same is with the Council of Europe where Armenia is one of 47. Negotiation is the bread and butter of our job, and there are two types. On general policy guidelines, I mostly know what is negotiable. On specific issues, we need to go and work out with our colleagues in Yerevan.

FA: Here at the UN, what is it that you would most like to achieve for Armenia?

AZM: Generally, we have very specific priorities for Armenia which concern the most important questions of security and development. There are also the issues of economic, social development, human rights. So far as security is concerned, as you know very well, the absolute priority is the peaceful resolution of the Nagorno-Karabagh conflict, the Turkey issue, all with sub-issues, and insuring the support of the international community to the negotiating process. We have all kinds of other issues which define our foreign policy whether it concerns our relations with our closest strategic partners, our relations with our immediate neighbors — Russia, Georgia, Iran, as well as with the European Union, the United States, NATO, etc. And with each set of countries, we have various strategic priorities.

FA: At the UN, Armenia is a small country. In your dealings with some of the more powerful countries, have you been made to feel that Armenia is just another minor entity, and that Armenia has to fight to assert itself? And does Armenia have plans to apply for membership in the Security Council?

AZM: I love this question, because I reflect on it all the time. I calculate how I will deliver on my nation’s interest. What can and cannot be done. And you reflect on the bigger picture. Who am I? How do small and big countries work. On the surface, we are one nation, one vote, all equal. And you reflect your interests in that one vote. On the other hand, we are realistic. Different countries have different capacities. You calculate how far you can go.

There is also a personal thing for reflection. Very often, it doesn’t matter how small you are. What matters is how engaged you are. If you have this perception that you are part of global policy making and that you may have ideas, approaches, solutions, you may be quick to propose a compromise which doesn’t even concern you directly, and can help others to find a solution. This is an engagement that brings you in the center. Every day I wake up and think how am I placing myself in the center. We are sub-delegated because we are not members of the Security Council, which deals with the hottest issues, but we will be applying one day for membership.

I was very privileged to be in Geneva, at the time Armenia was a member of the Human Rights Commission which subsequently transformed into the Human Rights Council. Because by being a member, you push yourself closer to the center and can be a more active participant.

FA: The United Nations in New York again this year did a whole day commemoration of the Holocaust. Do you have plans to request a special commemoration of the centennial of the Armenian Genocide?

AZM: Armenians are against all discrimination, racism, human rights violations. These are top issues for us. Our work in the international community and the United Nations on these subjects is well known. But as an Armenian, I have a feeling about sanctions and non-sanctioned grief. Let me explain. There was a Nurenberg Process, and the Holocaust derives from this process 70 years ago. And the grief and wounds of my people are not sanctioned enough and can be contested by one or more members of the United Nations who will not allow my nation to reflect on our grief in the way others do. That I find deeply unfair. And I have very strong feelings about it.

FA: What are the negatives and positives of your work?

AZM: I’m an optimistic person. I have my dignity and pride which are shaped in many ways — what country I’m from, what people I represent. Very often I’ve seen a sense of respect towards Armenia and its people. So you have situations where we haven’t been doing pretty well on specific issues — development, democracy. Armenia is a country despite its many problems we have to deal with, which has been on the right track over the past 23 years – democracy building, human rights, freedoms, step by step, brick by brick, building those institutions,

FA: But the worst thing happening in Armenia is the huge emigration, the loss of brain power, because of many factors, the worst of which are the economic problems.

AZM: That is a double-sword question. The economic problems are huge in Armenia. It has total blockade from East and West, and has no access to the sea. We have sustained economic growth to the extent that our GDP is comparable to countries that do not have these additional problems, like Georgia or Moldova.

FA: I know that one of your sons has been and the younger one is now serving in the military. Why did you not use your important position to exclude them from this service?

AZM: Our army has progressed with strictness and fairness. Many members of the government have sons in the military. (He did not disclose any names). I deeply believe in the rule of law, that the institutions are working fairly, and it would be double-speak if I was to trip on this when it came to personal issues.

FA: Do Armenian young men in the military also serve outside of Armenia?

AZM: That’s a very good question. That’s part of my job now. Armenia over the years has developed a significant experience in peacekeeping operations. We have a peacekeeping brigade. In 2004 we started with NATO-led peacekeeping operations in Kosovo, and subsequently with Iraq and also in Afghanistan. Relevant to me, for the first time, in 2014, we contributed 32 servicemen to a United Nations-led operation in UNIFIL in Lebanon. This latter makes us more engaged in peacekeeping, and as representatives at the UN, this makes us more engaged in the politics, mechanics, and the policy shaping of peacekeeping.

FA: Why did you choose to become a diplomat? Were you motivated by your parents? Were there childhood experiences which drew you to your career?

AZM: I’ve always had this strong inclination since childhood. My interest has always been how other countries lead, the way they organize their lives, the way the world is shaped, their cultures, and how they communicate with each other. I like working in multi-lateral diplomacy.

My parents have played a fundamental role by encouraging me. I come from a typical hardworking middle class family – my father born in Yerevan, was an engineer in software and a manager, and my mother was born in Tiflis and is a teacher. The most devastating time was the passing of my father two years ago. A big chunk of my life is not present with me – his spirit, presence, words, dignity, and most of all his sense of decency and integrity, everything that shaped my environment and world. Both my parents were devoted to the upbringing of the family.

FA: What are your feelings, and experiences of living in New York?

AZM: I have been here many times before, but it’s different when you live here. I have known New York as a place of thought, ideas and daring, so it hasn’t disappointed me. It’s very exciting. Whenever there is time available, I prefer to go to downtown Manhattan — the youth, spirit, art. People dare to think, act. The energy here is huge. My free time is spent in trying to understand how society works here through different news events, such as the police vs. Eric Garner case. I love reading The New Yorker, and I’m obsessed with radio. I’ve grown up with the BBC News Service. I love the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and MOMA, especially contemporary art and design, and when time permits, I exercise by swimming.

FA: What is the one lesson that life has taught you?

AZM: In my life I’ve learned one thing. Don’t try to chase fairness. The world unfortunately is unfair. Just do your job, and try to chase your interests.

I just want to add that I think we Armenians are a great people — the culture, the sense of time, history, of self, and of civilization.