By Aram Arkun
CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — President of Armenia Serge Sargisian delivered a speech at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University on March 30. He also met with Armenian students there and with Harvard University Marshal Jackie O’Neill. The audience at the speech contained many Armenians not connected with the university, in addition to Harvard students and faculty.
Sargisian was introduced by the very well connected and influential Dr. Graham Allison, director of Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. Allison has served in high positions such as Assistant Secretary of Defense and at present is on the advisory boards of the US Secretary of State, Secretary of Defense, and the director of the Central Intelligence Agency. He was a founding member of the Trilateral Commission, a director of the Council on Foreign Relations, and on the boards of directors of various international companies and banks, including Getty Oil, Chase Bank and Chemical Bank.
Allison declared that it is an honor for Harvard to have a president of a country to spend time at the university. After he presented a brief biography of the president, the latter began his speech.
Sargisian mentioned the great influence of the Kennedy School both in the US and abroad, the latter due to its international students. He then spoke about the restoration of Armenian statehood 25 years ago after nearly 600 years (though he did not mention the exception of the brief interlude of the first Republic of Armenia). He said that while overcoming the consequences of the 1988 earthquake in Armenia and the war over Karabagh, achieving democracy and free-market economy was of high priority. Armenia’s greatest achievement in this period, he continued, “is the respect for free speech and an active civil society.”
“Effective decision-making mechanisms” for state institutions are still being built through domestic reforms, he said, and stressed that constitutional amendments last year will lead the way to “better governance,” including more democracy and a targeted fight against corruption. Armenia economically has a “competitive advantage anchored in human capital,” he added, but it must be integrated in larger economic networks in order to be attractive to large economies, so it joined the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU). This is of course a Russian-dominated organization, but the president noted that it should not be an obstacle to broader Armenian cooperation with the European Union.
Sargisian proclaimed that the lifting of sanctions on neighboring Iran should create all kinds of new business opportunities for Armenia, including joint energy and transport projects, including the construction of a North-South highway and an Armenia-Iran railway, as well as joint economic projects between the EEU and the Silk Road Economic Belt. These initiatives are an effort to mitigate the damage caused by the decades-long blockade of Armenia by Azerbaijan and Turkey.
Sargisian pointed out that the Armenian-Turkish state border is the last closed border in Europe, which, he said, was part of a “policy of economic blackmail.” Sargisian said that in addition, Azerbaijan’s authorities deliberately maintained tension along their borders with Nagorno Karabagh and Armenia as a way of dealing with their domestic problems.
He briefly spoke about the 70-year occupation of Karabagh by Azerbaijan during the Soviet period, which led to the protests of 1988, and which indicated, he said, that Karabagh had no connection to the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan succeeded more completely in depopulating the region of Nakhijevan of Armenians and in 2005 even destroyed thousands of khachkars (cross-stones) in Julfa which were a part of the Armenian cultural legacy there.
Today, Sargisian said, Azerbaijan even extended this approach to not permitting citizens of other states who are of Armenian origin to enter its territory, and is intransigent in negotiations to the point of considering that its non-resumption of warfare is itself a concession.
Sargisian invited Dr. Allison to consider a study at Harvard of Armenian and Azerbaijani media, scholarship, official public statements and the reports of civil society institutions to see who preaches war and hatred.
Sargisian brought up the crisis in the Middle East, especially Syria, and how it affects tens of thousands of Armenians there who are the descendants of survivors of the Armenian Genocide. Armenia by virtue of geography and history is also affected. It has, he said, already accepted around 20,000 Syrian citizens, which, per capita, is the second highest figure in Europe.
He said that a “comprehensive and durable peace in Syria” must be established through united international efforts, especially between Russia and the US, in order to solve the broader refuge problem emptying the Middle East of its Christians.
Sargisian noted that it is to Armenia’s interest to support cooperation between superpowers, as their conflict has grievous outcomes for small nations, with the Armenian Genocide during World War I being just one example. Sargisian said that though the world recognizes and condemns this crime, “what is of utmost importance to us is recognition by Turkey and its facing its own history.” He pointed out that Turkey continues its denial and in 2015 cynically commemorated the centennial of the Battle of Gallipoli on April 24 instead of the usual date in March. On the other hand, he was hopeful that a new generation in Turkey one day would become strong enough to make its government speak the truth. Fundamental democratization in Turkey, he added, would also allow all ethnic and religious groups living in that country, including Armenians, to feel themselves to be full and equal citizens.
Sargisian concluded by noting that the US was the first country to open an embassy in Armenia and implement aid programs. Today, he said, cooperation was extensive between the two countries, and the Armenian-American community serves as “an essential bridge” between the two. He said proudly that “in the past 25 years of independence, Armenia has grown from a country receiving international aid to a contributor to the world peace. Armenia currently has its peacekeepers stationed in Afghanistan, Kosovo, Lebanon, and Mali, as a responsible member of the international community.” Though Armenia still has a way to travel before becoming a stable democracy, Sargisian said that after 25 years of independence, it is time to sum up the history of a “newly-independent state” and enter into the stage of “maturity.”
Questions were then taken from the audience for almost half an hour. Allison started off with an easy one, about the Washington Nuclear Security Summit. Others asked about the probability of war and the negotiations concerning Karabagh, the most beneficial fields of US-Armenian cooperation, what the president takes back with him to Armenian from his Boston visit (“pride”), and how the portfolio of Armenian exports might change over the next 25 years.
In response to a question by Berge Jololian of Watertown, Mass. on what the president will do to assure the proper representation of the Armenian populace in the Armenian parliament, especially when some deputies run private businesses, Sargisian responded that first he has asked for technical assistance from the US, EU, UN and others to assure fair elections. Secondly, he said that electoral laws must be reformed according to international standards. Finally, he questioned why people with private businesses can’t be in parliament. Some of these businesses belong to the wife, uncle, nephew or other relatives of the deputy. He suggested that this demand should be made of Armenian citizens as well as of the government: in other words, he said, let the citizens not vote for such candidates.
The final question came from a Kennedy School student originally from Russia whose mother grew up in an Armenian village. He asked what programs Armenia had to engage its diasporan communities in the effort of helping Armenia grow and prosper. Sargisian responded that this was the most difficult question that he had been asked. If Armenia, he said, could take advantage of even ten percent of the abilities of the diaspora, it would become one of the strongest states in the world, but unfortunately, it has not yet been able to find the key.