President Armen Sarkissian

President Sarkissian Hopes to Bridge Armenia and Diaspora, Advance Post-COVID Armenia

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Special to the Mirror-Spectator, Baikar and Azg

YEREVAN – President Armen Sarkissian of Armenia gave a wide-ranging Armenian-language interview jointly to the Armenian Mirror-Spectator, Baikar and Azg newspapers on June 17, which here is presented in edited translation.

Sarkissian expressed his deep concern about the spread of COVID-19 and the loss of lives in Armenia, pointing out that even a slight decrease in restrictions leads people to think that the pandemic is not all that dangerous. Instead, he said, “I tell everyone to be extremely prudent. The coronavirus will continue to be with us.” As to why there were so many cases in Armenia compared to its neighbors, he merely responded that each country uses different methods of combatting the virus and so the results are different. He said that it is possible that there will be new and different pandemics in the future so that Armenia must be prepared.

Meanwhile, Armenia must deal with the potential negative economic consequences of COVID-19 on tourism, international trade and the economy. Last year, Sarkissian requested that the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) prepare an “Investment Policy Review” on Armenia, which was published in November 2019 (https://unctad.org/en/PublicationsLibrary/diaepcb2019d3_en.pdf). The study identified several export and efficiency-seeking industries which could obtain billions of dollars of investments in the next 10-20 years and presented ways to remove the fundamental obstacles to these investments. The staff of the president’s office and UNCTAD, based on this report, Sarkissian said, have made proposals utilizing investment tools which can help neutralize certain threats posed by the COVID-19 crisis to Armenia, assuaging its effect on the flow of investments into Armenia and on its economy.

For this purpose, he said, they suggested the creation of a body provisionally called the Investor Quick Response Working Group (QIRT), which would complement the actions of the government to assist business. It would protect investments, assist in reinvestments and the reorientation of existing investments, and aim at the strategic targeting of investors and strategic partnership with the latter. This body would also help make Armenia better known throughout the world.

Sarkissian said that in general he saw that the majority of issues facing Armenia are complex and require non-standard thinking. The advance of technology will have a huge influence on everything, including basic social behavior, values and human behavior. Everything from tourism, agriculture, and banking to contemporary technology must advance in Armenia, he said, through a clear vision which must be consonant with the world’s progress.

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For example, he said, after the end of the coronavirus crisis, it was necessary to work industriously in the spheres of electronic government (eGovernment), electronic health (eH) and electronic education (EdTech), because those countries which successfully use these tools are much more powerful and resilient.

Furthermore, after the coronavirus crisis ends, the president said that he intended to return to his ATOM (Advanced Tomorrow) presidential initiative on technology and science development in Armenia, which has the goal of bringing international organizations to Armenia and establishing laboratories for the development of artificial intelligence. The latter will be a fundamental tool, he said, for agriculture and the production of food, international relations, the struggle against coronavirus, and the development of biological technologies.

He added that the world is moving towards a new electronic banking system and electronic service, so that numerous tools will be necessary to make such systems productive.

Sarkissian said that the world has changed since Soviet times, when only a privileged group of intellectuals, part of the nomenklatura, had their voice heard. Today there is freedom to speak for all on everything, and, he emphasized, “the world is governed by thought and speech.” Consequently, he had programs in mind to aid in the development of Armenian thought, and, he said, he worked to have a “Summit of Minds” in Armenia in June 2019. He intended to make this an annual event, with the second one to take place this October on the themes of geopolitics and artificial intelligence.

As president, Sarkissian summarized, “I would like to see Armenia as one of the advanced countries, in the ranks of those developing systems, and being investment leaders, based on the application of [the principles of] biology, health, and artificial intelligence. This path, in my opinion, will allow Armenia to find its new place in the world and prove that a small country can be ‘successful’. The presidential initiatives are aimed precisely at that.”

Domestic Politics and the Role of the President

Sarkissian noted that classical political behavior has changed throughout the world, including the logic and form of the battle between regimes and their opposition. He said, “Polarization is the result also of the influence of the virtual world on people’s minds and behavior. Today, the virtual world, social networks, are flooded with hate, curses, [and] calls to violence, and there is no law or norm which can keep them in check. The virtual world is becoming more real than the real world. It is not only with us but everywhere that it shapes public opinion and inlfuences the behavior and decisions of the authorities and opposition.”

He called upon political forces to be extremely responsible under such circumstances in their own conduct, speech and work, in order not to permit the domestic situation to become extremely tense and to leave room for dialogue.

He declined to comment on the trials of former high level Armenian officials concerning the events of March 1-2, 2008, stating that it would be extremely improper to intervene in the jurisdiction of other government institutions, but that he was certain justice would prevail.

He was asked about his treatment in the Armenian press, with the opposition media critical and dissatisfied and the pro-government or official media somewhat “cold” toward him, and in response turned the question to what he saw as the fundamental role of the press in contemporary democratic society. He said, “The experience of the last three decades has shown that the press by itself cannot fully exist solely on the basis of ‘free market’ rules. The state, political forces, businesses and society itself must be interested in having a truly free and independent press. How? That is the topic of a long discussion.”

What is initially important, he continued, is the state formulating the issue and being aware of its necessity. He said, “I consider the establishment of a professional, impartial press a matter of national security both from an internal and external point of view.”

Returning to the initial question, he concluded, “As far as I am concerned, I work within the bounds of the president’s constitutional powers, and I do not prepare to violate them in order to please any individual or group in domestic political life. I am convinced that the institution of the president [presidency] must remain outside of political quarrels so that it can carry out its role of balancing and assisting in national unity. I understand that the expectations of the president as the head of the state are great but taking into consideration what limited and concrete powers are reserved for the president of the Republic, those expectations are frequently not realistic.” He added that of course as a citizen and individual he had his own opinion on the developments or events in the country.

He spoke further in response to a question on the problematics of the 2015 constitution, tailored by the prior president to his own needs and restricting the rights of the presidency, which perhaps is inappropriate to today’s polarized society in which the balance between the branches of government is breached. He said, “The constitution does not suppose any levers of executive power for the president of a parliamentary republic as head of state. My issue, as a president who has come a long way in life, is to find solutions for systemic matters, as well as to be the advocate for the integrity of the nation and the state.”

He preferred to work within the existing system, declaring: “Regardless of the description of the given position, it is the individual who holds the position who creates the result. I attempt to assign the meaning which I think is right and helpful to the activity of the president of the republic.” At the same time, he said, “I also hope that the public discussions and arguments on various issues will result in a result useful to society and corresponding to pan-national interests, among which would be the removal of gaps which have become apparent over time in the constitution, and in particular the insertion of mechanisms for restraints and counterbalances.”

Sarkissian said his mission, is “first of all, to take steps to establish and strengthen the institution of the presidency, which after crossing to a parliamentary governmental system in fact must be rebuilt in such a way that, independent of individuals, is able to assure the stability of the state and internal equilibrium—our people’s unity.”

Diasporan and Foreign Relations

He envisaged an important role for the presidency in maintaining relations with the Armenian diaspora and the world, in which his own background could be helpful. He said: “We are a survivor people and as a developing country with a strategic location and a global nation, we have something to say to the world. In that sense, I see myself as an intermediary, as an ambassador between Armenia and the world. My life has turned out so that I have had the possibility of seeing Armenia from both the outside and the inside. The same [is true] for the diaspora. I am the child of immigrants. My ancestors immigrated from Erzerum, Bitlis and Alashgerd to Russia, from there to Persia, and my father and mother in 1946 repatriated to Armenia. I was born and raised, educated, and formed in the homeland. Thereupon I lived for many years abroad due to work, and without modesty I can say that I know equally well our country and the diaspora and its people. Being conscious of all this and the challenges standing before Armenia and the Armenian people, I attempt and will attempt in consultation with the capable forces of Armenia and the diaspora to compose a pan-national agenda through a systematic approach.”

He said that Armenia as a state must take the initiative in relations with the diaspora, as the challenges to the Armenian people and state require uniting all national resources, and the diaspora is an important resource with 4-5 times more population than the homeland.

Sarkissian said, “I think that in order to most productively use the potential of the diasporan Armenians, especially their knowledge and experience, it is indispensable to have an institutional approach, by combining legislative and practical measures, which will be directed at broadening their participation in social [and] political life and, especially, in the scientific, cultural and economic progress of the country. Unfortunately, due to different objective and subjective reasons, we have not succeeded yet in finding the necessary contemporary model for the establishment of systematic long-term strategic relations with the diaspora.”

He did have a model in mind, and explained that 24 years ago, while he was prime minister, he foresaw creating a National Affairs Agency composed of competent specialists from both Armenia and the diaspora, either in the place of or parallel to a ministry of the diaspora which is a state body only representing one side. An independent agency would permit formulating a joint agenda with priorities and could turn into a bridge or mediator between state and diasporan structures and individuals, particularly the latter, since 80-90 percent are not part of the traditional structures of the diaspora. Creating a global network model for the Armenian nation through a strong state aside from helping achieve national goals could also give much to the world at large, he noted.

A major issue for all Armenians is the Nagorno Karabakh conflict. Sarkissian said that the prime minister and minister of foreign affairs deal with its settlement through negotiations led by the OSCE Minsk Group. Therefore he did not wish to discuss this except to note that though it had peaceful intentions, Armenia was ready to defend the rights of the people of Artsakh and its security in the case of the use of military force by Azerbaijan, which would be unacceptable and must be severely condemned by the international community.

“As far as the provocative statements by Azerbaijan concerning Armenia,” he said, “I think that they must not be left unanswered.”

He pointed out that in addition to the direct settlement of the conflict, it was just as important to develop the Artsakh Republic in all ways, first of all economically and demographically, through urgent and practical steps. Pan-Armenian investments, both of finances and intellect, were necessary. Sarkissian said he often visits Artsakh, and each time with wonder mixed with pain observes that we leave the Artsakh Armenians alone with their daily cares and issues.

He asked that we imagine how much revenue internal tourism, i.e. from Armenia, could alone bring Artsakh. Similarly, he said, seasonal work could be offered to Armenia’s able-bodied village population in Artsakh. Economic calculations, and various tax, credit and financial arrangements would be necessary for all this, so the governments of Armenia and Artsakh must prepare an appropriate plan together, he said.

Developing the Artsakh economy will not only raise the standard of living there, but also strengthen the position of the Republic of Artsakh during negotiations, the president said. There have always been possibilities in Artskah and around it, but, he underlined, “The matter is to see and correctly take advantage of them.”

On a more general topic, the president stressed the importance of Russian-Armenian relations, declaring: “Russia is Armenia’s strategic partner and ally. We are connected by shared experiences and successes fortified by many centuries of relations, as well as by the natural desire to help one another in complicated situations. For this very reason, these relations today have turned into an inviolable friendship.” At the very least, the former level of strategic dialogue based on deep ties of history and values can be maintained, while the maximal issue is to bring mutual relations to a new level, identify spheres which remained “untouchable” and create new possibilities.

He said that that bilateral relations could also turn into an important factor in the two countries’ multilateral ties, stating: “Armenia can serve as a bridge between different integration projects and regions, such as the Eurasian Economic Union and the European Union.”

This year is the centennial of the Treaty of Sèvres and next year of the Treaties of Moscow and Kars. The president commented that if the former gave the possibility to Armenia of establishing a viable state with natural boundaries, the latter two treaties ignored the interests of the Armenian people to the maximum and turned the country vulnerable. He said, “Therefore Armenia with its current problems is the direct result of the Armenian Genocide and the treaties which followed it.”

The complex geopolitical situation in the region was established by these treaties, and this came to the fore after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Sarkissian said that as a consequence, Turkey carries out a denialist policy concerning the Armenian Genocide, while it stands by Azerbaijan concerning Artsakh and therefore keeps its border with Armenia closed. This, he said, is a matter of security for Armenia and the Armenian people.

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