Interviews and press conferences
President Armen Sarkissian’s Interview to the Serbian newspaper Politika
Ahead of his official visit to Serbia, President Armen Sarkissian answered questions from Serbian newspaper Politika.
Question: The devastating earthquake of 1988 in Armenia, which killed 25,000 people, linked the Serbian and Armenian people. Each December Armenia commemorates the deaths of seven Serbian crew members who died in the crash of this humanitarian aid plane. How much does Armenia know about Serbia at all and what is your first thought about Serbia?
President of Armenia Armen Sarkissian: The destinies of the Serbian and Armenian peoples have many similarities. Throughout history, we have often fought side by side against the same conqueror for freedom; in the late 19th and early 20th centuries our national liberation movements and the Hayduk groups closely cooperated. Today, I think, we have a common dramatic perception of history, which is explained by the enormous losses of our two peoples and the similarities of our national destinies.
Tragedy is said to bring people closer. Indeed, I remember how the tragic death of Serbian pilots, helping us during the 1988 Spitak earthquake, deeply pierced our already wounded hearts. The monument erected in their memory always reminds us of Serbia, which was a symbol of rebellion and dignity in our eyes since the Soviet times.
For the last three decades, our two countries have faced the same challenges in terms of security and development.
Question: Trends are such that more and more young people and Diaspora are also moving out of Serbia. The Armenian people are known for their great Diaspora and their respectable people in the world. What does the relationship between the Motherland and the Diaspora look like and what lessons could Serbs learn from your experience?
President of Armenia Armen Sarkissian: The Armenians have an old and multi-layered Diaspora, widespread in our neighbouring countries and almost all over the world. As time went by, earlier communities formed their spiritual-cultural centres, artisan and commercial networks in their countries of residence, and often established cities and villages, as, for instance, in the areas from the northern shores of the Black Sea to the Carpathians and Transylvania, where Armenian settlements exist to the present day.
In some places, Armenians had local government with their own laws and codices, as, for instance, in Poland and in the Armenian cities of Transylvania. Other places had strong spiritual and educational centres: the Armenian Congregation of Saint James, in Jerusalem, is one of the guardians of the holy places alongside with the Latins and the Greeks until now, also the Mekhitarists Congregation in Venice and in Vienna, which have spread their educational network around the world and the Lazarian Seminary in Moscow, which later became the Lazarian Institute of Oriental Languages, a training centre for diplomats and translators.
Enterprising Armenians, skilled in trade and crafts received commercial privileges from the African and European coasts of the Mediterranean to Persia, Russia, India, and Singapore. At one time, Armenians became an irreversible factor of trade between East and West on those powerful land and sea routes. Thus, Armenian life developed in parallel, both in Armenia and abroad.
In 1918, the relations between the Diaspora and Homeland intensified after restoration of Armenian statehood: hundreds of thousands of Armenians began returning to Armenia in the 1920s, and especially at the end of World War II to rebuild what was left of the Greater Homeland after World War I. The relatively rapid development of Soviet Armenia was to some extent conditioned by the high professional capacities of the Armenians from abroad.
Today, the relations with major Armenian communities in the Americas, Russia, France and other countries in the world have become more diverse and practical. On the one hand, they are aimed at the development of Armenia, and on the other, at meeting the needs of the Diaspora, especially in preserving its identity.
I know that your Diaspora is also patriotic and connected to Serbia. By the way, in many countries, the Serbian Diaspora supports the Armenian Diaspora, especially on the Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day, for which we are grateful. We will both benefit if the Armenian and Serbian Diaspora structures find ways of cooperation and, in certain areas, coordination. Both Armenia and Serbia keep their diplomatic representations active in this mission and the exchange of experience and possible cooperation can be fruitful.
Question: Serbia is about to sign an agreement with the Eurasian Union and is therefore already facing the criticism from the EU. Armenia is in the Eurasian Union, but tends to connect with other world poles. How do you manage to balance relations between Russia and the West?
President of Armenia Armen Sarkissian: Armenia is, indeed, in a unique geopolitical position where civilizations and interests intersect. Armenia has been successful in emphasizing the common interests of world poles rather than contradicting them in building relations and cooperating with various actors. One of the priorities of the foreign policy of the Republic of Armenia is to deepen engagement in the international organizations and processes, strengthen cooperation with friendly and partner states, as well as resolve regional problems and create an atmosphere of cooperation. Among the goals of Armenia’s foreign policy is to ensure the international community understanding of Armenia’s positions, as well as to provide support for them. Armenia advocates and seeks to establish relations based on open borders and partnership, always being ready for a healthy dialogue.
Joining the EAEU (Eurasian Economic Union) in 2015 and signing the Comprehensive and Extended Partnership Agreement with the EU in 2017, Armenia has become a unique bridge between the two. This can be most beneficial both for us and our friends and colleagues. We have been communicating this to our partners on both sides, and there seems to be a common understanding of this issue.
Question: Armenian poet and cultural activist Babken Simonjan called Serbs and Armenians brothers in suffering. Speaking about the pogroms of Serbs in Croatia, His Holiness Patriarch Irinej of Serbia said that only Armenians, Jews and we, Serbs, had experienced this kind of persecution. How do Armenians live today who have all this in their historical memory?
President of Armenia Armen Sarkissian: If World War I is a closed page for Europe, it remains an open wound for Armenians. Our loss was immense: every tenth victim of that war was Armenian. However, far beyond the loss of human life was the loss of the historical Homeland. The Armenians were almost completely driven out of the territories where they had lived for millennia and created a unique civilization. Without our right to return, our homes, estates, churches, schools, all our possessions were taken away from us. During further decades, traces of Armenian civilization were consistently destroyed in our own homeland, and today only a few ruins remain there. For the Armenians, living in the Diaspora, the greater part of whom are offsprings of the survivors of the Genocide of 1915, as well as for those living in Armenia, it is a deep and incurable trauma, and it will remain so, as long as this crime against humanity remains unpunished.
But we are like a phoenix, rising from the ashes, that is why we exist from time immemorial to this day. This is witnessed by our current history, our determination to move forward, to develop and to remain true to our identity, wherever we are, in Armenia or abroad.
The same is true for you: the will and spirit of the Serbian people have been and remain the guarantee of your reliable future.
Question: When Saint Sava, the great Serbian saint and the first archbishop of the Serbian Orthodox Church,for the first time visited Armenia in 1218, he was impressed about Armenian churches and monasteries, and invited Armenian architects and builders to Serbia to participate in the construction of Serbian monasteries and churches. The Serbian and Armenian lapidary inscriptions in the monasteries also testify to this, as a fact that the Serbs and the Armenians have nurtured their mutual relationship since the 13th century. Since many Serbs view Armenians as brothers in Christ, can you give our readers a glimpse of the Armenian people's perception of them as Armenians, though they are distant in terms of territory, they are spiritually close to the Serbian people?
President of Armenia Armen Sarkissian: The spiritual connection is stronger than the territorial. In spite of the ups and downs of history, our spiritual brotherhood has remained inseparable for centuries with Greeks, Russians, Georgians, Persians, and other peoples of the same religion or different. In the case of Armenians and Serbs, they are quite old and deep. There were Armenian churches in Belgrade and elsewhere in Serbia that were later destroyed by the Turks in the 18th century. These churches were also scriptorial centres where Armenian manuscripts were written. The “Tagharan” (Book of Songs), written in Belgrade in 1688, is today at the Nuremberg National Library.
In their turn, many Serbian writers and scholars, in particular Vuk Karadzic, the founder of the new Serbian literary language, have published their books at the Armenian Mekhitarist Congregation in Vienna and have established close ties with them. The famous Serbian Dictionary (1818) by Vuk Karadzic was first published in the Mekhitarist printing house.
These ties have left a deep mark in the memory of our two peoples. Today, indeed, we perceive Serbs as brothers, not only in faith but also in destiny.
Maintaining spiritual and historical relations requires permanent attention, otherwise they are just a memory. Today we need to get to know each other better. The shortest path to this is cultural and scientific-educational exchange and development of tourism, about which I will talk during my meetings.
Question: You are visiting Serbia these days, what will be the main topics at the meetings with our statesmen?
President of Armenia Armen Sarkissian: The historical ties of our peoples, and the common challenges we face call for a new impetus to the Armenian-Serbian cooperation and for raising our friendship to a new level.
My program is quite full. With President Vučić, we will have the opportunity to discuss a wide range of issues and reach certain agreements. I will also meet with Prime Minister Ana Brnabić, the President of the National Assembly Maya Gojković, and His Holiness Patriarch of Serbia Irinej. I will be visiting Belgrade Science and Technology Park, Academy of Sciences, etc. I hope that during these meetings we will outline an agenda of the Armenian-Serbian cooperation in different areas.
The scientific-technical field, mathematics, physics, astronomy were developed in Armenia since the Soviet times. Today, our country is the regional leader in information technologies. As the high technologies are also developed in Serbia, I think one of the key issues on our agenda should be a closer cooperation between the respective enterprises of the two countries in new technologies, large volumes of information management and artificial intelligence. I strive to make Armenia a hub for artificial intelligence and new technologies. One of the new presidential initiatives is the ATOM (Advanced Tomorrow) program aimed at the development of science and technology in Armenia. Within the framework of the ATOM project with various components, we are planning to create a “Museum of Tomorrow”, a city of science and technology, featuring international leading technology companies and organizations, research centres and universities, with whom we are preparing to sign cooperation documents.
In the context of the unprecedented political changes that took place in Armenia a year ago and which is known in the world as velvet revolution, I consider that the most important advantage of our country is the youthful and innovative spirit. Our country has a spirit that looks to the future and is convinced that it will be better than the past.