'There are no Christians to the east of us'

Serzh Sargsyan, the prime minister of Armenia (and a former defense minister and interior minister before that), came by the editorial board Oct. 19 to discuss the Armenian genocide resolution, democratization in Armenia, and military tensions in the Caucasus region. Sargsyan spoke through a (very good) translator, which means that the transcription will inevitably sound a bit second-languagey at times. Some highlights:

(On his visit to the United States.)

Jim Newton: So what brings you to Los Angeles?

Serzh Sargsyan: You are probably aware of the destiny of our people. We are spread all over the world. One-third of our people live in Armenia; two-thirds live abroad. And within the system of Armenian diaspora the role of Armenian-Americans is very important. And in California and Los Angeles most part of the Armenian-American community lives. [...] I have been to the United States many times, but I was in a different status: I used to be the defense minister of Armenia, and it was not mandatory for the defense minister to meet all the Armenian communities. But the prime minister is obliged to, so this is my obligation that I'm conducting.

Newton: How long are you here for?

Sargsyan: I leave tomorrow. But it's a sufficient time to meet my compatriots. You know Armenians are indeed one country with its diasporans, one country without. Without our diaspora we are just [a] three million-strong nation that is situated somewhere in Caucasus region. And about which most people in the world may even not be aware of. But with our diaspora, we're a totally different country.

Matt Welch: Do you feel some sense of responsibility for the diaspora in other countries?

Sargsyan: Of course. Of course, but we have some kind of national specifics. I don't know if it's good or bad, but it is that way. Wherever our compatriots live in the world, first of all they think of themselves of belonging to that very country, and then only to belong to the Armenian nation.

At some period when I was not really very informed about this, there was some curious situations happening. For example we have a compatriot, an Armenian-American who lives in New Jersey, [...] and we've been talking to him. And he was saying like, "Our president said this and that" and so on. And I was saying, "No, our president didn't say this, he couldn't say this!" And after having a long argument it turned out that he meant the United States president and not the Armenian president. And I meant the Armenian president!

Welch: Uh, can you characterize your discussions in Washington with Vice President Cheney and Defense Secretary Gates?

Sargsyan: Well we have discussed with Secretary Gates about Armenian-American relationship in the security area, in the area of military cooperation. In recent times our military cooperation has deepened a lot. And the United States assists us in reforming our armed forces. They assist us to increase our capabilities in peacekeeping. Of course we have serious problems in our region; we have unresolved issues, there is a probability of re-launching of military activities in our region, because there are some unresolved conflicts, but at the same time we are doing our best to increase our capabilities in peacekeeping.

Welch: Uh, just to interrupt, probability or "possibility"?

Sargsyan: Both. (Laughs.)

Welch: Fair enough. Go on.

Sargsyan: But in order to be able to take part in international peacekeeping activities our armed forces need to be compatible with the internatinal armed forces, need to be collaborative with them, and need not to be less prepared. We're taking part of [the] Kosovo mission with a small contingent, and another small contingent is participating in Iraq as well. And it's obvious that the defense secretary of the United States was curious to discuss this.

As regards meeting with the vice president, it's obvious that the range of issues was broader, because our cooperation with the United States is not limited to military or security issues. The United States has an invaluable role in developing democracy in our country. They have an important role in solving the social problems that exist in Armenia. Apart from the annual government assistance that is rendered from the United States to Armenia, we also have a very important area that's called the Millenium Challenge Account. And as you may know, the United States is never assisting any country with closed eyes. United States assists those countries that make their own effort to be better, that make everything possible to improve themselves. We have also spoken about regional issues with the vice president. I've told him about our problems, our issues in the region, and I asked him, I requested assistance from him. It's been my first meeting with the vice president, and if I may say so, I'm very glad for this meeting.

Welch: Did you discuss the Armenian genocide recognition resolution?

Sargsyan: No.

Welch: Can you characterize how important -- if at all -- such resolutions are from the standpoint of, uh, the foreign relations of Armenia?

Sargsyan: You know, it's extremely important. But first of all I wouldn't say that it's important from the point of view of the Armenian foreign policy -- it's extremely important from the Armenian perspective as a nation, as a people.

We can divide this issue into two parts conditionally. The first part is merely the historical justice. And the second perspective is today's security initiatives, from the point of view of today's security.

You know we cannot be calm and relaxed having a neighbor that has committed a genocide and is now rejecting it. They not only refuse to recognize the genocide, but they commit a blockade of [the] Armenian border now. And we are having a neighbor that refuses to establish normal civilized relationships.

We understand that we have not selected the place that we live now in the world. And we are aware that we have lived in that area for centuries, for thousands of years, and we are to live there for thousands of years ahead. But our neighbors should understand this as well. You know, homeland -- fatherland, motherland -- is not a place, is not an apartment that you can sell and go somewhere else. It would be very good if everyone understood this. And if we have problems it would be good to resolve these problems by communicating with each other, by negotiating, by discussing.

Tim Cavanaugh: How large a role does religion play in this, given that both of the countries we're talking about are predominantly Muslim countries and Armenia is predominantly a Christian country?

Sargsyan: We have long avoided talking about this factor and taking it into account. And not only in respect of our relationship with Turkey but also with neighboring Azerbaijan. But irrespective of our wish, this factor exists, and the factor is very big. The factor is as big; as we can expand it over milleniums and thousands of years, this was probably the only reason of our conflict. There are no Christians to the east of us. And if I can use this word, we are at the edge of Christianity. But the edge has the amortization problems. And over thousands of years we were wearing out. (Ambassador Tatoul Markarian whispers into the prime minister's ear.)

Sargsyan: The ambassador reminds me to tell that we have excellent relationship with many Muslim countries. (Room erupts in laughter.)

Jon Healey: Ahhh, "some of my best friends" ...

Sargsyan: I think we are dealing with informed people here, people who are professionals.

Newton: That's why you're an ambassador!

Sargsyan: In respect of the Karabakh issue, we have a problem, and probably we are one of those rare people in the world that's a small Christian minority [that] is subject to a large Muslim majority, in the case of Karabakh. And here as well this factor has a very important role. And once again I want to say that yes, this factor exists.

Newton: May I ask, will it in your view damage the relations between the United States and Armenia if the Congress does not approve the resolution?

Sargsyan: No, never. Never. And I have to say that in passing this resolution, the lion's portion of the role belongs to the Armenian community in the United States, not the Republic of Armenia.

Lisa Richardson: Excuse me -- will it exacerbate relations between Armenia and Turkey?

Sargsyan: If it's passed? I don't think that it should exacerbate, because there is no other level. I don't think Turks will invade Armenia. We have no relationship; the border is closed. And I mean, frankly speaking, even if Turks do something wrong to Armenia, I don't think it's going to be fair, anyway.

What can Armenia do? We cannot influence U.S. politics. U.S. politics can be influenced by citizens of the United States, including the Armenian citizens. Unfortunately Turks think this way once in a while, and they say that the Republic of Armenia needs to influence the Armenian community in the United States. God will judge how fair they are, saying this. I think they are not fair.

You know, France has passed a similar resolution, and I don't think something awful has taken place. I think after all, being it in one year, 10 year or 20 years, this problem cannot [last]. And the sooner the better, for us and for the Turks.

Newton: Why does this issue matter more to Armenian-Americans than to Armenians?

Sargsyan: I wouldn't say it is more important for the Amernian Americans than for the Armenian Armenians -- I think for all the Armenians in the world this issue is very important. But for one part of our people this problem was more important because it concerned themselves immediately.

If we don't take into account the Armenians that came to the United States recently, the rest of the Armenians fled to the United States after the genocide. The genocide took place in the western Armenia, which is now in Turkey. And in many circumstances, someone's grandmother was killed, someone's grandfather was killed, someone's uncle was killed. And the world is for the humans, everyone can live anywhere. It's good if someone chooses where to live voluntarily. Because of the genocide these people were deprived of living in their own homeland. And apparently because this issue concerns themselves directly, they are more sensitive about this issue.

(On the problems with Armenian democracy.)

Welch: The, uh, 2003 elections in Armenia were criticized by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, by the U.S. State Department I believe, by non-governmental organizaitons. Um, and the crackdown after the elections were also criticized. My question is, do you agree with those assessments, one; and two, what are you doing to prepare the upcoming elections to be free and fair?

Sargsyan: [...] I'm surprised with your question. Why do you go back to the year 2003? Some five years have passed since then. And after that there were elections held in Armenia, that [the] international communitity evaluated very highly. And these elections were considered to meet international standards. And this is the ground base for us. And we think that there can be no worse elections in Armenia in the future.

Welch: Partly because I just read today that Hasnik Navasardian -- if that name means; if I mangled the pronunciation -- she warned against your consolidation of power, and she expressed doubts that the elections will be held in a free and fair way.

Sargsyan: I don't know what to say. I think that's an evidence of existing democracy in Armenia that some Hasnik Navasardian is free to say anything. (Laughs) Do you know of any country that has no people that are not satisfied with the country? It's a battle, it's a struggle, it's a competition, the elections. And everyone understands that this struggle has two parts -- there are winners and losers. And there will be people that will not be satisfied always. And the problem is to make the number of these people lower.

And I think we've reached this goal at the time of 2007 parliamentary elections; and the most important factor was that our people believed in these elections. Not by 100%, but the majority believed it. And it's good that the opinion of the international organizations corresponded to the opinion of our people. [...] Again, others can express their opinios. And these kind of opinions have importance for us in terms of keeping ourselves fit. Will it be good if all the newspapers and all the journalists write that Armenia is a brilliant country? [...]

Welch: We asked our readers to submit questions to you, so I'd like to ask you one. This comes from Garen Megerditchian. Sorry for mispronouncing it. It involves the case of a judge named Pargev Ohanian, and he says the story of Pargev Ohanian is "symptomatic of the prevalance of corruption in modern-day Armenia." He says, "your government has so far not been effective enough in rooting out corrupt practices among government officials. How can you explain this failure to clean house?"

And I should say that most of the questions were, "Welcome to the United States, Mr. Prime Minster."

Sargsyan: You know these kind of questions are always helping us, in many terms, first of all in terms of explaining the policies of the government. First of all, please inform [...] Mr. Garen Megerditchian through your newspaper that our government exists for three, four months now and it's impossible to eliminate corruption within that period of time. If it was possible it would have been done before myself. The government works for only three or four months now.

The second problem is that the system of justice in Armenia is indeed independent already, and neither the government nor the head of the government will influence it now. We have our own problems in the fight against corruption, and I have never refused that there exists this problem.

What have we done? We have already made some changes in our systems. For example in our tax system, in our customs. [...] And the aim of this policy is to fight against corruption in various directions -- to improve the legislation, transparency of activities, less dependence of all the processes upon state officials, increase of salary of the state officials, and so on.

But you can always accuse any government that the very government is not fighting corruption effectively enough. This can be done especially easier by people that are not professional in the field. The professionals have a different opinion, and the international organizations that are dealing with this issue have a different assessment of the area. We have added some indicators, improved our indicators already this year. And the most important indicator is that of the tax collection that international organizations take into account very much. We used to have not very good indicators in tax collection, but I hope to have fairly good ones by the end of this year. It's probably a bit difficult for you to understand this, but the state structure in Armenia is a bit different.

Cavanaugh: You, uh, came of age and were educated and entered into leadership positions in the Soviet period. How equipped are you, and what are you doing to modernize the economy of Armenia? And stapled question to that is: How important is the diaspora to the Armenian economy?

Sargsyan: First of all I need to repeat that Armenia is one country with its diaspora and another one without its diaspora. And I'm convinced that having such a resource, the diaspora, we are not really effectively using this resource. Before leaving for the United States, a couple of days before, I had a meeting with the leadership of the Russian-Armenian community, with the world congress of Armenians. And I brought an example there: International experts assess the Armenian capital, the combined Armenian capital of the world to be equal to $100 billion. When I told about this to a group of Armenian businessmen in Moscow, they smiled, these Armenian businessmen in Moscow smiled after hearing this figure, and said this much money they had themselves. (Laughter). I told about this to [...] a prominent businessman in the United States and the United Kingdom, and he said it's not true, it should be at least $300 billion.

Let it be not $300, not $200, let it be $100, OK? If we could attract at least 1% of these resources every year to Armenia, then within a short period of time there will remain no social problems in Armenia. That is, again we are using a very small portion of our resources, and this is very important.

And for using these resources it doesn't really matter when you were born, in Soviet times or after that. And believe me, it doesn't really matter if you have graduated from Sorbonne, from Harvard, or from Yerevan State University. We have people in our government who are responsible for the development, they have serious education, they know the modern ways of doing business, they know the modern economy, and it's important that the prime minister is able to consolidate all these efforts.

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