On March 12, 2018, Armen Sarkissian, who will be sworn in as the new President of the Republic of Armenia in April, visited AGBU’s Central Office in New York for a candid conversation with young professionals in the Armenian community. His purpose was to initiate and foster a renewed engagement with the homeland, as the way forward for Armenia’s future success.
Mr. Sarkissian contended that after 26 years of war, financial setbacks and social hardships, Armenia is now poised to achieve the dream of having “a small republic but a global nation.” This was a recurring theme throughout the evening, along with other concepts such as good citizenship, engaging Armenians who are not connected to their heritage with real success stories and, most important, achieving unity of Armenia and diaspora.
Moderator Lara Setrakian, CEO and Executive Editor of News Deeply, framed the discussion as the start of an ongoing dialogue, a forum for the exchange of ideas with the new president. “This is a potential turning point for the Republic of Armenia,” she said. “We feel very fortunate to be having this conversation now.”
When she opened the floor to questions for the President-elect, Mr. Sarkissian turned the tables by saying “I am here to listen to you rather than to tell you. I am here to understand what are the expectations of the next generation of Armenians.” He addressed the audience: “How do you see Armenia today? What is the first thing that comes to your mind when you think of Armenia? If you were elected president of Armenia, what would you like to change?”
These provocative questions sparked a lively and freewheeling interaction with the audience, which covered the gamut of issues from doing business in Armenia, social justice, emigration, and an independent judiciary to womens’ rights, diasporan representation in the Parliament, and many related topics.
On the subject of diasporan engagement, for example, the President-elect was emphatic: “You have to keep a passport in your soul and believe you are a citizen of the country. You have to believe that you are Armenian and Armenia has to believe that you are Armenian. Armenia has to be your homeland and it has to take care of you,” he stated.
Referring to a comment about lost Armenians in far flung places who have no connection to the homeland or their identity, Mr. Sarkissian said that Armenia had to have more success stories to attract these outliers. “It’s amazing what we have achieved as a nation”, referring to the great victory of Arstakh. “After hundreds of years we showed that we can be victorious. The other way around is very damaging…Bringing back the sweet feeling of victory is fantastic,” he added.
Addressing concerns about Armenia’s business environment, the President-elect injected another theme into the discussion—good citizenship. “We’ve seen many successes and we see new projects every day, but we’ve also lost the great feeling of citizenship.” He suggested that fighting corruption is not only a matter of governance and passing laws but also developing responsible citizens. “That is the way forward and the president is the one to use his office to lead the way. A president must lead by example as a good citizen.” he underscored.
He also asserted that, unlike the past, Armenia is a unique country as it is both a member of the Eurasian Economic Union and the European Union. He explained what it means to have access to the financial support, liquidity and technology from relations with Europe, applying those inputs to Armenian talent and ingenuity and selling that output to a huge market of 200 million without custom barriers. “We are the only country that has good relations with both the European Union and Eurasia. It’s a fantastic opportunity…if we are smart we will use it…” Emphasizing the critical time to act on this exceptional position, he noted “Armenia has to have friends everywhere.”
Talking about gender equality, Mr. Sarkissian noted that although traditionally Armenian women did not have many rights, the young generation is excelling in many fields and “more women are now in the current Parliament than before.” But he is also confident that more equality could be reached. “Of course, at the end of the day the natural ratio should be 50/50,” he opined, also calling on the diaspora to not hold back from being part of the ongoing conversations inside Armenia about domestic abuse and selective abortions. “It’s a national problem and everyone from here is to contribute,” he added.
For Mr. Sarkissian, poverty is a big issue which jeopardizes the well-being of women, children, and families. “There are several problems that we are to handle in the country, and one of them is poverty. Poverty is connected to the demographic issue and is related to other issues, including rights,” he noted and added that women and children become more vulnerable in the face of emigration, especially when men go abroad for employment opportunities.
At the same time, the President-elect does not deem poverty as the primary cause of emigration. The lack of hope and injustice make people seek a better future on foreign lands. He suggested that Armenia should become more attractive both for its citizens and the diaspora. “It is important to return that hope to those who live in Armenia and create hope for those who live outside of Armenia so that they see the potential life in Armenia,” said Sarkissian.
According to the President-elect, locals can do a lot to help their own country prosper economically, and internal tourism is one way of doing it. He proposed to instill the culture of internal tourism which would not only bring economic benefits to the country but also help locals discover their culturally and geographically diverse homeland. This does not require much investment, he noted. “If we have 250,000 people visiting Artsakh, its budget will be doubled,” he said.
He acknowledged that the model of success is something we all knew over 100 years ago, that our strength is our unity. He said he believed that the next ten, twenty years will be favorable for Armenia if we invest in the future of our children, our country, and new technology.
For the President-elect, the opportunity for collective forums like the one held in New York are crucial to achieving the outcomes Armenians envision. He described the current relationship between Armenia’s national citizens and diaporans as somewhat problematic, likening it to an “invisible Berlin Wall”—one that needed to fall down in order for the global Armenian nation to face the challenges of the 21st century. Having open, free dialogues such as the gathering at AGBU was a groundbreaking step in that direction.
He concluded the evening by saying “I have the feeling that I am becoming president of a country at a good time. There are many ingredients to success and one of them is luck. I think I am lucky. Because I am becoming president at a time when there is a big opportunity for our nation.”
Established in 1906, AGBU (www.agbu.org) is the world's largest non-profit Armenian organization. Headquartered in New York City, AGBU preserves and promotes the Armenian identity and heritage through educational, cultural and humanitarian programs, annually touching the lives of some 500,000 Armenians around the world.
For more information about AGBU and its worldwide programs, please visit www.agbu.org