Ambassador Varuzhan Nersesyan

Ambassador Nersesyan in Washington Continues Conducting Diplomacy Despite Coronavirus Constraints

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WASHINGTON – Armenia’s ambassador to the United States, Varuzhan Nersesyan, is an experienced diplomat with many years of service. He began serving as ambassador in January 2019. Now he is adding a resolute and calming voice to the coronavirus crisis as well as contributing to the furthering of Armenian-American relations.

Nersesyan said that the embassy in Washington D. C. continues its daily activity while observing the rules of quarantine and isolation regulated by the local authorities. He declared, “We as an embassy are able to conduct our activities both from the office and from our homes, so we are flexible. At this point we are able completely to maintain our functions and our regular activities.” The consular section only accepts people with emergency cases, while routine cases are done via mail or postponed in order to prevent the spread of the virus. The consular section responds rapidly to questions placed to its hotline (202-674-9348).

He continued, “Unfortunately, the coronavirus affects all aspects of our lives, including our diplomatic activity. We cannot have our regular meetings with our counterparts as was the case just a week ago, but nevertheless we remain in touch by phone, videoconference and email. We maintain our contacts and make sure that our embassy fulfills its mission irrespective of the crisis.” Postal communication with Armenia so far continues to operate uninterruptedly.

One of the aspects of international diplomacy that has been affected is the work of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Minsk Group, which works for a negotiated peaceful solution to the Karabakh issue. The spread of the coronavirus has led the Personal Representative of the OSCE Chairman-in-Office, Ambassador Andrzej Kasprzyk, to announce a temporary halt of monitoring at the line of contact and at the Armenian-Azerbaijan border. The OSCE Co-chairs also made a statement, noting that they “appeal to the sides to reaffirm their commitment to observe the ceasefire strictly and refrain from any provocative action that could further raise tensions during this period. Recognizing that the region’s medical resources should be dedicated exclusively to combating the spread of the virus and treating those affected, we urge the sides to exercise the greatest possible restraint to lessen the risk of escalation including by making maximum use of the existing direct communication links.”

As the United States is one of the co-chairs of the Minsk Group, Nersesyan maintains regular contact with the US co-chair, though embassies do not participate in the negotiating process. Nersesyan stated, “I hope that the opposite side [Azerbaijan] will not use this situation for provocation or escalation.”

On the other hand, Nersesyan said that the ceasefire has largely been self-monitored since 1994 and in the meanwhile, he was sure that the cochairs of the Minsk Group irrespective of travel difficulties continue their activities on a daily basis and are in touch with the parties to the conflict. Consequently, he said, “Any issues that will come up will be dealt with by the cochairs despite the temporary suspension of the monitoring.” He emphasized that this crisis was not only about Armenia, Artsakh and Azerbaijan but was a global one, and hoped that everybody understood and would act with restraint. In any case, he said, the Armenian and Karabakh armed forces remain on high alert and control the overall situation at the line of contact.

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Community Relations Concerning the Virus

The embassy, in addition to its role in governmental diplomacy, continues to maintain contact with the American-Armenian community. Nersesyan said that he held a conference call on March 19 with Bishop Daniel Findikyan and Archbishop Anoushavan Tanielian to understand what the situation was in the church parishes and communities on the East Coast. The ambassador regularly discusses with the consul general of Armenia in Los Angeles conditions in the community on the West Coast.

Nersesyan also participated on March 19 in a video conference with the Armenian American Health Professionals Organization (AAHPO) and several other Armenian associations to understand the efforts being made to help Armenia in the current situation and what can be done to coordinate these efforts. Contacts with the community and its leadership will be actively maintained, Nersesyan said. He added that the efforts of AAHPO and the Armenian-American community’s leaders served as a good example of cooperation with representatives of Armenia which help protect the health and safety of our communities in both the diaspora and Armenia.

Nersesyan urges Armenian citizens to register with the consular section of the embassy and the Armenian Ministry of Foreign Affairs so that they can help citizens in case of necessity. This is purely voluntary, he pointed out.

The website of the embassy as well as the consular service hotline provide information about how one can travel back and forth to Armenia under the present limitations on travel. The routes available are changing over time, so this information is continually updated. The embassy recently assisted a group of Armenian students at the Tufts Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, in Medford Mass., and another group from Luther College in Decorah, Iowa, to return from the United States to Armenia safely.

The website also provides useful information about US Citizenship and Immigration Services changes affecting Armenians, such as the possibility to apply for the extension of visas in the current crisis.

Coronavirus in Armenia

On March 23, there were 192 cases of confirmed coronavirus in Armenia, Nersesyan reported. So far, Nersesyan said that Armenia is in fairly normal shape, and authorities are providing all of the necessary supplies and services to its citizens. A one-month state of emergency was declared last week.

Nersesyan said, “In case we do have a deficit of certain supplies, we definitely will apply to our diaspora and the diasporan organizations. We appreciate that the US Armenian community has always stood by Armenia in all difficult situations. I am sure that this time as well the community is going to stand by Armenia if necessary.”

One area of the Armenian economy which may be impacted by the coronavirus is tourism, one of the biggest industries of the country which recently has been expanding. The recent opening of flights by budget airlines was an indicator of this. Nersesyan declared, “One thing is clear: the government of Armenia is taking very serious measures to support our businesses, including the hotel and restaurant industries. The government has already allocated a 300 million US dollar support package for Armenian businesses.” He said that the Armenian government is trying to adapt itself to the situation but it is premature to conjecture about the way it will evolve by the summer.

Cultural Diplomacy

To commemorate the centennial of US-Armenia diplomatic relations, the embassy organized a series of cultural events over a period of about two weeks (from February 29 to March 14) called Armenian Odyssey: The Color of Pomegranates. Nersesyan remarked, “We were lucky that most of this took place before the outbreak of the coronavirus crisis. Only the closing event dedicated to Rouben Mamoulian [at the National Gallery] was postponed. The rest was a set of events here in Washington, DC, celebrating diplomatic relations through culture.”

There were film and concert events at the Freer Gallery and the Bible Museum of the United States, but the central event was a concert at the Washington National Cathedral on March 4 that was sold out. It featured noted Armenian musicians Narek Hakhnazaryan and Jivan Gasparyan together with the Post Classical Ensemble of the Cathedral performing music by composer Vache Sharafyan, commissioned exclusively for this event, with the participation of conductor Angel Gil-Ordonez and artist Kevork Murad. The festival was underwritten by the Anna and Hrair Hovnanian Foundation, with Aso Tavitian and Noubar Afeyan serving as festival co-chairs and Ameriabank as the corporate sponsor.

Around 800 people attended the concert, with high level guests from various branches of the American government, including US Assistant Secretary of State for Educational and Cultural Affairs Marie Royce, the Washington diplomatic corps and the Armenian-American community. The Armenian prime minister’s wife Anna Hakobyan came to Washington to be the guest of honor.

The ambassador assessed this event, and the festival as a whole, as successful, with positive notices in the media helping place Armenia and its culture back in the spotlight. He said, “Our aim is always to demonstrate our cultural heritage and continue to promote the Armenian nation and Armenian people through culture as part of our regular diplomatic activities. This is one of our priorities.”

The next big event the embassy will help support is an exhibit at the Museum of the Bible in Washington next year to be called the “Breath of God” (the literal translation of the name of the Bible in Armenian). Nersesyan said, “We are planning to organize a big exhibition of the Armenian Christian heritage and Armenian Bibles at the Bible Museum. It symbolizes values that both we the Armenian people and the American people maintain together. We will work together hopefully once this crisis is gone and life returns to normal to continue to organize this next big cultural event here in Washington.” Two khachkars have already been donated to this museum, one from the people of Armenia and a second from the IDeA Foundation.

US-Armenia Relations and US Aid after the Velvet Revolution

Armenia’s foreign policy has not changed drastically after the Velvet Revolution. Nersesyan said, “Our basic premises of foreign policy have remained in place because nothing in our geopolitics have changed. Of course, there are adjustments. There are new approaches.” The movement for democracy in Armenia, Nersesyan said, “has created new opportunities for our diplomacy worldwide, especially with the Western world, with the United States, the European Union and with Western institutions in general. Armenian democracy is being appreciated and recognized and this is what creates a better opportunity for Armenia in the modern world to deepen our relations and to create more opportunities for our country.”

Ambassador of Armenia to the United States Varuzhan Nersesyan, left, with Co-Chair of the Congressional Caucus on Armenian Issues Congressman Frank Pallone Jr. (D-NJ)

When it comes to the United States, Nersesyan said, “Of course we attach great importance to US-Armenian relations since the US has been one of the greatest supporters of Armenia since our independence and US assistance has been directed to so many areas for development in Armenia and we highly appreciate this.”

Nonetheless, after the revolution, he said Armenia hoped for an increase of assistance at this important junction in its history because of its progress in fighting corruption and developing democracy. One of the priority areas of the embassy’s work, he elaborated, has been continued US humanitarian assistance to Artsakh. The humanitarian mine clearance project that has been implemented for almost 20 years has saved many lives and significantly contributed to stability. Therefore, the embassy together with Armenian-American organizations and the Republic of Nagorno Karabakh’s office in the United States, he said, is consistently working with relevant American institutions for continued US involvement in humanitarian projects in Artsakh.

Discussions on aid for the following fiscal year for Armenia have begun in the US Congress but again, due to the coronavirus, it is not clear how long this will take.

The improvement in the Armenian economy as assessed by the World Bank has led to Armenia no longer being eligible for the US Millennium Challenge Corporation’s aid grants. Nersesyan said, “In general terms, we are also looking to switch in the medium to long run toward the idea of ‘from aid to trade,’ because we understand that aid cannot last forever. We are a country that has big ambitions for development. We are seeking to incrementally switch from aid to trade, for mutually beneficial trade and economic relations between the United States and Armenia, and we are developing institutional foundations for this. It is a part of our priorities in the US to try to raise attention toward Armenia to attract investments, and I am sure that we are going to have success in this in the future.”

Last year, Nersesyan said, marked a positive course for US-Armenia relations, with meetings taking place at high levels. First, a US-Armenia Strategic Dialogue was instituted, and the first meeting was held in Yerevan on May 7. Five deputy assistant secretaries of the United States traveled to Armenia for this purpose. New programs of assistance and cooperation were agreed upon. Nersesyan participated in this dialogue. He said that when the coronavirus situation permits, there will be a second meeting this year in Washington to which Armenia looks forward.

Ambassador Varuzhan Nersesyan, at left, with Speaker of the National Assembly of Armenia Ararat Mirzoyan and Deputy Prime Minister Tigran Avinyan at far right at a Boston area Armenian community event in July 2019 (photo Aram Arkun)

In addition to this, last year two US Congressional delegations traveled to Yerevan. Armenia became a part of the House Democracy Partnership, which is a very important form of collaboration between the legislatures of countries. Several delegations traveled from Armenia to Washington, including that of the president of the National Assembly of Armenia, Ararat Mirzoyan, in July. Furthermore, Deputy Prime Minister Tigran Avinyan traveled to New York and Boston to meet with the leadership of the Armenian community, while Majority Leader of Parliament Lilit Makunts headed a delegation of the National Assembly’s Armenia-US Friendship Group to Washington to meet with Congressional members and American-Armenian organizations. The signing of a memorandum of understanding with the US Congress as a result is being discussed by the leadership of the Armenian Caucus as well as working towards new legislative initiatives to support Armenia.

Foreign Minister of Armenia Zohrab Mnatsakanyan traveled twice to Washington in 2019, and during the course of his visit for discussions on Nagorno Karabakh met with US National Security Advisor John Bolton to discuss this and broader issues of US-Armenian relations.

While Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan traveled to the US in September 2019 in the framework of the United Nations General Assembly, he also met Governor of the State of California Gavin Newsom in New York with whom he signed a framework agreement between the Republic of Armenia and the state of California to promote trade and investment.

Nersesyan said that as soon as the virus situation gets back to normal, Armenia looks forward to the continuation of high-level contacts this year because these represent substantial discussions of a significant agenda.

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