Interview of Foreign Minister Zohrab Mnatsakanyan to the Latvian daily newspaper «Latvijas Avīze»22 September, 2019
Question: People in Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia sometimes argue what we are geographically – Central Europe, Eastern Europe, Scandinavia or some distinctive Baltic region. What does Armenia belong to – Europe, Asia or the Middle East?
Zohrab Mnatsakanyan: I would say that Armenia is more than its present territory. Armenia is everywhere where we have left traces and evidence of our ancient civilization: Caucasus, Europe, the Middle East – Syria, Lebanon and Jerusalem. Also North Africa, Iran and even the South-East Asia.
At all times, the Armenian people have strived for knowledge, for the new and unknown, they have displayed the spirit of discoverers, researchers and also of very apt businessmen. We are proud of our spiritual heritage which is national and at the same time belongs to all mankind.
Similar to the nations of Europe, the Armenians as well accredit the greatest value to the aspiration for freedom, democracy and human rights. Armenia is situated at the crossroads of civilizations, therefore during the thousands of years we have accumulated experience how to coexist with other nations, religions and cultures. We learned to absorb the most valuable [things] they could offer, but we remained Armenian.
Question: Now the ancient ship of Armenia has reached the 21st century. A question – how to survive in this globalized and not always comfortable world? Your country is sometimes said to have multi-vectoral foreign policy. Does it mean that it tries to maneuver between Russia, Europe and other great powers?
Zohrab Mnatsakanyan: The term ‘multi-vectoral foreign policy’ is a not very precise label we sometimes found ourselves with. If I had to characterize the foreign policy of Armenia in just a few words, I would say – it is pro-Armenian. The national interests of Armenia – freedom, security, protection of national sovereignty - are in the center of our foreign policy. I think, the Latvians understand it very well.
At the same time, we are very well aware of our geopolitical situation. We are aware that we live in a region which can hardly be called peaceful, that there are serious, even existential threats to the security of Armenia. This is the reason why we are trying to consolidate the support of our friends and allies, what is more, in a way that prevents facing a situation when we have to build our relations with one partner at the expense of the other.
Question: It seems that Armenia has succeeded in that. You have partnership status with the EU, as well as participation in the Eurasian Economic Union and the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CTSO).
Zohrab Mnatsakanyan: First of all I would like to emphasize that the relations with Russia are very important for our country, especially in the area of security. As for now, Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, and Tajikistan have joined the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CTSO) which has already been mentioned. In turn, Armenia’s participation in the Eurasian Economic Union gives access to a strong market of 200 million.
Similarly, we also value very highly our relations with the EU, we are involved in the Eastern Partnership policy of this organization. At the same time, Armenia has stable and long-standing ties with many EU countries, and the Armenian diaspora helps to maintain them.
Another important cooperation partner of Armenia is the USA. And our relations with the neighbors, Georgia and Iran, are also of vital importance to us. In recent years, we have enhanced our cooperation with the great powers of Asia: China and Japan.
Question: I have always admired the Armenians, their ability to preserve their language, their church and traditions even in foreign countries. Did you know that there is a quite active Armenian community in Latvia too?
Zohrab Mnatsakanyan: In Riga, I had a meeting with the representatives of the local Armenian community. They are citizens and patriots of Latvia but have not forgotten their roots – something I was very pleased to learn.
Armenian businessmen invest in Latvian economy. One of the most prominent examples is the Kempinski Hotel in the center of Riga next to the Opera.
Question: Is there something in the experience of both Armenia and Latvia that our countries could exchange?
Zohrab Mnatsakanyan: Neither Latvia, nor Armenia can boast of any rich natural resources. We have neither oil, nor gas. Therefore, the human resources is the most important asset in both countries. The future lies in education, innovations, creative and advanced technologies, in the ability to mobilize emerging talent.
For example, many schools in Armenia, including those in rural areas have laboratory facilities where the students can deepen their knowledge in science. The main goal of this plan is popularization of technical and engineering professions. Possibly, Latvia could use this experience as well.
Question: Is the Russian military base situated in the territory of Armenia an important factor for the security of your country?
Zohrab Mnatsakanyan: It is one of our security guarantors. Unfortunately, the modern Turkey, which is a member of NATO, rather aggressively refuses to establish any relations with Armenia, and continues to deny the Armenian genocide that took place in the Ottoman Empire.
Question: Two years ago I visited the Genocide memorial in Yerevan, so I know very well how important the memory of the genocide is for the Armenian people. What are the obstacles that impede the reconciliation nowadays? A hundred years have passed since those tragic events!
Zohrab Mnatsakanyan: Armenia would like to establish good relations with Turkey, its neighboring country. What is more, we have never tried to impose the condition that the normalization of the relations could only follow the recognition of the genocide.
Unfortunately, the Turkish politicians and government officials still deny the fact of that tragedy. One even hears statements that casualties, if any, had been related to the “displacement of bandits”. And that sounds not only as a denial, but also as a justification of genocide.
Question: Armenia is the first state in the world which adopted Christianity, and the Armenian alphabet has a 1500 year long history. How did you manage to preserve your language during Soviet times? If I am not mistaken, Armenia and Georgia were the only Soviet republics that had a clause in their constitutions which stated that the official language of the republic is Armenian or Georgian respectively.
Zohrab Mnatsakanyan: That is something we should be grateful to our fathers and grandfathers for. In Armenia as well as in Georgia there was a significant popular movement that demanded the official status for the national language
Similarly, we succeeded in our demands that the Soviet authorities allow us to commemorate the April 24th, i.e. the Genocide Remembrance day. It was 1967, also deep Soviet times. The Genocide Memorial complex and museum were built in Yerevan.
Question: The suffering of Armenian people is not over yet. What is happening to the Syrian Armenians?
Zohrab Mnatsakanyan: The lands of historical Armenia had been incorporated into Ottoman and Russian empires respectively. Therefore the Armenians who nowadays live in Syria are more than just emigrants or diaspora. In fact, they are a historical, natural part of the territory which we call Syria – and that since the 4th century AD.
Unfortunately, in 2011, a murderous civil war broke out in Syria, and our fellow Armenians were among its victims. Until then 100 000 Armenians lived in that country, nowadays only approximately 20 000 remain there. People are scattered all over the world, approximately 25 000 repatriated to Armenia.
Our cultural heritage, too, was destroyed during these years, many Armenian churches were razed to the ground by Islamic terrorists.
Question: The tension in the Middle East has escalated in these days after the Saudi oil plant attack. What would a possible conflict mean for Armenia?
Zohrab Mnatsakanyan: This situation is not exactly simple. Iran is our neighbor, it has a big Armenian community, i.e. appr. 100 000 people. At the same time, we value good relations with the USA, an important partner of Armenia. Let us hope that the present tension won’t escalate to a military conflict and everything will be settled peacefully.
Question: I would like to ask also about Nagorno-Karabakh or Artsakh. What is this territory nowadays? Is it de facto independent state Artsakh or a part of Armenia after all?
Zohrab Mnatsakanyan: First and foremost, Artsakh or Nagorno-Karabakh is people who live there. 150 000 of our fellow Armenians, where each of them has a name, home, family, each of them has faced an existential risk of survival. A little bit of history: in the 1920s, by the decision of the Communist party the Armenian-populated Nagorno Karabakh was included into the Soviet Azerbaijan.
Unfortunately, during the next 70 years, the part of our people who lived there were subject to discrimination and persecutions. It goes without saying that the rest of the world learned nothing about it, because of the reclusive nature of the Soviet Union.
Toward the end of the 80s, Nagorno-Karabakh saw the national awakening movement, demands for the right to exercise self-determination.
Aggression from the side of Azerbaijan followed, and the ethnic cleansing began. Despite many human casualties, Nagorno-Karabakh could defend itself. Armenia is the closest ally on Nagorno-Karabakhand and, practically, the only guarantor of its security. Currently, there is a military balance in the region.
Nagorno-Karabakh as well as Armenia has enough of will and capacity to sustain this situation. Neither aggressive rhetoric, nor threats of a new war will change anything.
Question: To the National Library of Latvia you gifted a book about Matenadaran, the depository of ancient manuscripts, one of the most important sanctuaries of the Armenian people. What did you write in it?
Zohrab Mnatsakanyan: That I am grateful for the opportunity to visit this temple of knowledge. As you say – the Palace of Light – such a beautiful and impressive building.
I was very moved by the story about people who donated their books to the library, who formed several kilometers long human chain to transfer the books from the old building to the new one.
It is a visible monument to the thirst for knowledge, characteristic for Latvian people. And another evidence which tells how spiritually close in fact are our nations.