Interviews and press conferences
I want to believe that we will become stronger, as difficulties, problems and crises make you stronger. Interview of President Armen Sarkissian to the Russian RBC TV channel
President of the Republic Armen Sarkissian gave an exclusive interview to Ilya Doronov, Director General of the Russian RBC TV channel.
Ilya Doronov: Mr. President, first, thank you for agreeing to talk about the current events in Armenia, as the country is again at a critical juncture. So, my first question is, what is the political situation in Armenia today, in your opinion? Don’t you think there have been lots of political crises for a small country lately?
- First, I am happy for our meeting. Your question is both easy and difficult. If there were only a political crisis in our country, it would be possible to live with it somehow. But in reality, we have a multi-component crisis. We have a post-war crisis, a crisis of territorial losses in Karabakh, a crisis of thousands of young lives, economic and health crises, as it is all over the world. We have another wave of coronavirus. Naturally, there is also a moral-psychological crisis because this was a lost war. Some have a crisis of identity and future; so today, we are witnessing how some are leaving the country.
Ilya Doronov: Many people have started talking about emigration from Armenia again.
- Emigration has started again. There are positive and negative migrations in Armenia. There is a crisis with the Diaspora, as closely connected, Armenia and the Diaspora comprise a single whole. Anything positive or negative that happens in Armenia immediately reflects on our brothers and sisters in Buenos Aires, Marseille, or Moscow. There are many crises. Of course, there is also a political crisis.
Let me make a few observations. Firstly, people like us and our small country must have a clear vision and mission for the future. In other words, that vision must be so clear and strong that it becomes a mission. We need to understand exactly where we are going and why.
Ilya Doronov: And does it exist? Are there people who can formulate it?
- I think it does not. As President of the Republic, especially now, I am slowly but surely trying to make it distinct that it is important. Mission is a necessity, it should not come from anyone. It should be a mission that many people will discuss, those who think about the future of the country.
Ilya Doronov: With the involvement of the Diaspora?
- Involving all the communities, first in Russia, as it is the closest.
Next, another significant factor in understanding modern Armenia is that, unfortunately, due to the lack of a clear mission and program, we, as an emotional nation, began to believe in our dreams. In other words, we took the dreams for reality, and it reached incomprehensible proportions. For example, many Armenians believed that Armenia today is a country with a strong science. Armenia was a country with a powerful science when it was part of the Soviet Union.
Ilya Doronov: I want to make an observation for those who do not know. The person sitting in front of me is not only the President of Armenia, but also a scientist. That's why you know science and are well-informed.
- Unfortunately, during these 30 years, our Academy of Sciences downsized threefold. The average age of employees increased. It was easier for many young scientists to find work at other universities, in Dubna and Berkeley, but not in Armenia.
Ilya Doronov: Not inside Armenia, the most important thing.
- The worst thing is that, not inside Armenia. We have the illusion that Armenia is a country with a high IT culture. It is a fact that we have IT islands. You can find a wonderful island like TUMO. You will not even find one in Europe. The Armenians built such in the centre of Paris as well because the mayor of Paris, after seeing it in Armenia, expressed a desire to have such a centre. But it is an island.
The worst thing is that, not inside Armenia. We have the illusion that Armenia is a country with a high IT culture. It is a fact that we have IT islands. You can find a wonderful island like TUMO. You will not even find one in Europe. The Armenians built such in the centre of Paris as well because the mayor of Paris, after seeing it in Armenia, expressed a desire to have such a centre. But it is an island.
If we take, say, the example of Belarus, it is several times ahead of Armenia. And once, we had started from the same point...
Ilya Doronov: After the collapse of the Soviet Union?
- Yes. And the potential of Armenia is much greater than that of Belarus, if we look at the Armenian companies working in the US Silicon Valley, and the Armenians working in large companies.
I was in the USA in 2019 and visited Silicon Valley. I thought about 100 people would come to meet me, while about 1,000 people working there came.
Ilya Doronov: Armenians?
- Armenians who worked in Silicon Valley. They all expressed readiness to help Armenia. The greatest advantage of Armenia is that although it is a small country, it is a world nation with an immense human potential but we misuse it.
Ilya Doronov: Do you not notice people or ...
- No, it has a political history and grounds. In the first years of independence, everyone perceived that the Diaspora was our power; however, political leaders, parties, or organizations said that our compatriots living abroad, in Moscow, Paris, New York, and elsewhere would send money, and they knew how to manage it. Barriers built up. According to the Constitution of Armenia, a person who has lived in Armenia for the last seven years can become president. It is clear that he must be a citizen, but he must also live here. This is in the case when we are a world nation, and we need people with international experience.
Ilya Doronov: It turns out that the current Constitution initially contains barriers that do not allow involving Armenians living abroad so that they can help their historical homeland.
- Yes, and that is a serious problem because a person who has gained a lot of experience and has reached heights, cannot come and become a minister in Armenia. This is nonsense to me. For example, if we think that one of the possible ways to overcome the crisis is to form a government of technocrats and invite professionals, we have a phenomenal result if we view the Diaspora.
For example, conventionally, if we want to appoint a minister of high technologies, I have a whole list of 100 people from Russia only, whom I can invite.
Ilya Doronov: If they understand that in Armenia, why don't they change the Constitution?
- They understand this in Armenia, but it is always difficult to hand over the seat, the power. Therefore, we must struggle for it. For instance, the Minister of Education and Science can be from another country, say, from the USA. There are now two registered coronavirus vaccines in the United States: Pfiezer and Moderna. The latter was founded by the company of a famous Armenian, Nubar Afeyan, who is a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Can he be the Minister of Education and Science? Of course, not. The same is true of healthcare. One of the most famous figures in healthcare worldwide is Lord Ara Darzi, an Iraqi Armenian. We awarded him with the Order of Honour; he was the Minister of Health of Great Britain, adviser to Barack Obama, the Government of Japan awarded him with the most honourable award, he established the largest hospital in Qatar. Can he be a minister in Armenia? The answer is: he cannot.
Ilya Doronov: It turns out that Armenia is in such a situation now: to avoid strong competition, which makes it worse for the country? The country suffers from it.
It turns out that now Armenia is in such a state to avoid strong competition, and the situation in the country gets worse? The country itself suffers from this.
- Naturally. We have no oil, our greatest wealth is the people, the people who live all over the world. After the Armenian Genocide of 1915, the number of Armenians living abroad became immense. Unfortunately, we are increasing that number with those who left after independence and who are leaving now.
Ilya Doronov: There is an opinion in Russia that the relations between Armenia and Russia have deteriorated for the last few years. Aren’t the causes of the current political crisis hidden here?
- This is more an assessment from Russia than from Armenia. Naturally, there are different politicians and different interests in Armenia. It is difficult to answer the question unequivocally, and at the same time, it is very easy. The simple answer is obvious: whoever is in power in Armenia, at one time or another, comes to the conclusion that the Armenian-Russian relations do not have an ordinary nature. They are not only centuries-old, but also so deep that it is difficult to assess them emotionally.
I have met Armenians all over the world. No matter where they are: in Buenos Aires, the United States, Europe, the Middle East or elsewhere, most of them state that Armenia's best friend is Russia. If you ask who is Armenia's best friend, 99 out of 100 people will answer: Russia. And they are the Armenians who live in the United States, in France and elsewhere. And not only Armenians. European or Western politicians with whom we discuss the future of Armenia or bilateral relations with those countries share the same opinion. Their perception is that in any case, Armenia is Russia's partner. Those relations are so deep that it is marked not only here, but also by the Armenians of Artsakh and Russia ...
Ilya Doronov: That is, it turns out to be like a certain constant?
- Yes, it is. The world exists only on such constants.
There are two important factors that are also constant. One is trust, the other is predictability. Our relationship must be so clear and deep that we trust each other unconditionally. There must be predictability, as unpredictability in such relations and in such a world is dangerous. That means you must have a predictable partner.
Ilya Doronov: Speaking about predictability. One of the causes of the political crisis in the country is the defeat in the war. After a break of several years, there was another war. Do you think it was possible to avoid the last year's war?
- You know, this is one of those mathematical categories called "if", which is a recursive function. In fact, I think it was possible. For about 30 years, I have been in Armenian diplomacy at different times, I met with the leaders of different countries, and I think it is always possible to find solutions to similar problems, without military actions.
After the first Karabakh war, there was an organization that dealt with this issue: the OSCE Minsk Group with its three co-chairs: Russia, France and the United States.
Ilya Doronov: And in Baku, they used to say and now as well, they declare that the Minsk Group has not done anything.
- They say that now. And when we go back to the roots, when everything was just beginning, everyone was saying that the Minsk Group could find a solution to the problem. There was a mechanism of communication and dialogue.
If we look at the mistakes we made, one of them is that we began to believe what we wanted to believe or what was a dream. It seemed to us that the war was over, the issue already resolved. However, it was far from being resolved, and Azerbaijan was constantly talking about a future war. Instead of taking clear steps, for example, to strengthen Karabakh's defense capacity, to have more modern military infrastructures, to make Karabakh economically more efficient, to solve demographic problems...
The other observation is the following: unfortunately, Armenia, as a 21st -century country looking for itself (if there is no mission, you start looking for yourself), looked left or right, thinking of trying a system of government, presidential or parliamentary, thinking that maybe it is more democratic... But in this, conditionally speaking, democratic environment, two Armenias appeared, one is the real Armenia, where there is an economic, social, and human crisis, and the other is virtual Armenia, based on social networks. These two Armenias have nothing to do with each other.
On the same Facebook, I am considered, for example, a mason, even James Bond. In fact, for many years, I had a friendly relationship not with James Bond, but with the famous Soviet spy Gevorg Vardanyan. His wife, Gohar Vardanyan, and my mother were friends when living in Tehran. Gevorg Vardanyan was a phenomenal person, and in a sense, he was my teacher; if he were a scientist, he would probably become a famous academician, if he were a businessman, he would be a billionaire.
Ilya Doronov: You spoke about parliamentary or prime ministerial Armenia. Was this change in the transition from the presidential to the new system in favour of Armenia?
- First, both presidential and parliamentary governing systems can be very successful or unsuccessful. It depends on many other factors. We can consider European countries: Germany and France, one is presidential, the other is parliamentary. In Germany, no one thinks of changing to the presidential system, and in France, no one thinks of changing the government to a parliamentary system. The problem is not the form.
In 2015, the President of Armenia decided to change the Constitution. I will not comment on that. I can only mention that later President Serzh Sargsyan offered me to become the future president of the parliamentary republic. Of course, I knew the Constitution; I knew that it was not parliamentary, but super-prime ministerial, and that it had many shortcomings.
If we take what we have, and place that parliamentary-prime ministerial republic in the culture of today's Armenia... Today’s Armenia was part of the Russian Empire, it was part of the Soviet Union, it became an independent country, and straight away, they changed. In the sense of culture, it is radically different from the presidential. I would advise those countries that want to go that way to think again and look at Armenia's experience. It may be the subject of a case study at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations, and Harvard. The reality is that culture itself and those laws have a big impact. To explain in a village or even in Yerevan that the president does not have that power… But he has a voice, and a character, as well; he can also bang the table with his hand.
Ilya Doronov: And he even has connections with the whole world.
- It is not only that I have connections, I can bring investments, and invite many friends. It is not about that, but about the fact that I can be strict. The people who have done business with me know that. My colleagues in the government know that too. But not everyone, they say after all, he is the president, can’t he bang on the table and remove a minister? But the president cannot remove him, and neither order him to do something.
Every time a problem comes forth ... For example, the last issue connected with the Chief of the General Staff of Armenia. Again, we are dealing with the observation that people are looking for saviours. The goal or process identifies with the individual, and that is very dangerous. They are looking for saviours. In 2018, Nikol Pashinyan was a saviour for many in a sense. And today, the head of the General Staff is the saviour for some people, for the opposition.
When these processes started, it turned out that there were serious problems with the Constitution in the relations between the government and the General Staff.
Ilya Doronov: In other words, doesn’t the Constitution allow solving that issue?
- First, the Constitution is ambiguous, when you leave that question to the lawyers to comment, fifty percent say one thing, the other fifty percent say something absolutely different.
At that moment, as always, the president, although he has no power, has to make decisions. In this case, there was a decision that I would not sign those documents. The procedure follows, I refuse, then the Prime Minister sends it back, I refuse again.
Ilya Doronov: By the way, why did you decide not to sign?
- First, I met and had a long conversation with the Chief of General Staff. Then, I met with all the generals and talked to them for hours. I heard them all as President. Likewise, I listened to the specialists, and lawyers in constitutional issues, then, I connected my logic, and the decision was clear. I think and I am sure, there is a constitutional issue in that matter. As President of the country, I had no right to sign that decision.
Ilya Doronov: Have you been under a lot of pressure to sign? Were you pressured at all?
- Conditionally speaking, I look at the pressure calmly, because if I do what the ruling power or the government likes, then they may not say anything, they may or may not say thank you, that is not the case. If I do something that they like or that is in their logic, there will be criticism; that criticism will come from different sides, and so on. It is the same with the opposition. I declare that I do not sign, I become a hero for them. I say I will apply to the Constitutional Court this way, they say no, no, we need this. I say that this way is correct, as it is not only General Onik Gasparyan's personal issue, we have a problem with the law, how should I apply to the Constitutional Court regarding one individual? My application includes Onik Gasparyan's issue, not only his dismissal, but the appointment of the next person and solves the problem on the whole. That is right for the state. If you want to consider Onik Gasparyan's question for your political purposes, that's your problem. I say that I do not sign, I am a hero, I say that I will apply to the Constitutional Court in a way that is right for the state, then you are not a hero, you are something worse.
Ilya Doronov – Don’t you think that if ...
- In this case, I know that I did the correct thing because occasionally, they both say something positive, and criticize, and the other side says something positive, and criticizes; so, I have to go straight in the middle, where the interests of the state are.
Ilya Doronov: I wanted to ask a question about that. It turns out that you are now in the middle of these sides. Don't you think that if you sided with someone, the political crisis in the country would have found a solution long ago?
- First, I do not think it would be resolved because wrong steps would not lead to a solution. Moreover, I became president to serve the state; for this, I serve according to the Constitution, even if I criticize it and say that it has many problems. However, the president should not side with anyone, even in the parliamentary-prime ministerial republic.
I can have sympathy, but I must put it aside; otherwise I will stop being president. In that case, there is a very simple decision: I resign, I start engaging in politics, choosing the white or the black side. I could select the other side, the tricolour flag of Armenia, especially since today the majority of the society is neither black nor white, the statistics show that. But if I have to pick a side, I must first leave this building. And the president, regardless of his likes and dislikes, must act only according to the Constitution and the laws, for the welfare of the country.
Ilya Doronov: Parliamentary elections are to be held in Armenia on June 20.
- It is possible.
Ilya Doronov: Why is it possible?
- Because that day, be it June 20, 21 or 23, it will be decided when the process starts. The three political factions represented in the parliament have agreed that they will be held on June 20. There must be a certain process in the parliament, there must be the resignation of the Prime Minister, and everything else, then all that must be put on my table. Then, the day will be decided. According to this Constitution, the President has the choice to sign or, possibly, send it to the Constitutional Court. I have not signed anything for June 20 yet.
Ilya Doronov: How likely is it that there will be elections in June, and what does it depend on, apart from your signature?
But it is important.
Ilya Doronov: But for that to happen, there must be certain processes.
- Processes and procedures that must occur, naturally. I have already told you that we live in a quantum world, and everything may change tomorrow, including the decisions of political parties or other factors that may affect them. Currenntly, the political parties have decided to go to the polls. I imagined the way out of this crisis in an absolutely different way because there is a serious crisis, and the political way out of it is classical.
In such cases, in many countries the government resigns; either a government of political unity or a government of national accord forms, when some political parties come to an agreement, or national unity, when there are no politicians, there are only professionals. And that government starts solving problems. If there is a need to change the Constitution, they work considering the proposed amendments to the Constitution, and discussing them with different political forces; there is a process until certain decisions appear in the same parliament or, say, a process begins to find out the attitude of the citizens of Armenia. The same should be true of the Electoral Code, that is, there should be a process. Of course, the interim government must follow those processes, solve many problems, and in the end, elections must take place. It would be difficult to say that such elections were not fair because the government, which simply resigns because it has no interest, and it did not organize these elections. If we have questions related to the Constitution or the Electoral Code, and they are not resolved, they should be resolved, and only then go to the elections.
Understandably, in real life it is much more difficult. First, foreign policy. The Prime Minister has signed the ceasefire agreement, and who should be responsible for that? The new government? What will the attitude of the new government be?
Ilya Doronov - What about the option when, for example, the parties gather and come to you and say, Mr. President, we cannot come to an agreement, we will give you full power, and certain transitional time, govern the state?
- First, which are those parties, the three parties represented in the National Assembly, or the opposition or something else? This is the first question. Question two: does our Constitution allow such scenarios? As I already told you, no. In other words, it is necessary to change the Constitution through the parliament or in another manner. However, in fact, there may be other decisions as well.
Ilya Doronov - If we talk of the amendments to the Constitution, which is logical, first elections, then amendments to the Constitution or vice versa? And, in general, is there such a question in Armenia today: to take real steps to change the Constitution?
- It is difficult to say whether there is such a question in Armenia or not because different political parties comment differently.
As president, I have a duty to talk of it, as I have been studying how the Constitution works for three years now. Three years later, I came to the conclusion that changes are necessary. Either we have to go back to the presidential system of government, or we must have a strong presidential government, and a strong parliament that represents everyone who lives in a village or in this or that city. Or, we should take this Constitution, make certain changes and balance it. It is not balanced at all, it is really super-prime ministerial.
Ilya Doronov: Does it turn out that it was written for one person?
- You said it, not me. But the question worries me. I have talked about this topic with the Prime Minister, as well as with the leadership of the ruling party, the representatives of the opposition, everyone. I think I will continue to talk of it. However, there are other issues that are important for us: how to solve the economic issues, and how to make investments come to Armenia again. These are very significant issues, especially since Armenia was not one of the most attractive countries in the world, taking into consideration some factors, it has become much more difficult today.
Ilya Doronov: And why? In 2018, the government changed under the slogan of fighting corruption so that investments come.
- You know, firstly, slogans are one thing, and the real fight against corruption is difficult. Corruption is not a simple object that you can take and change. I think that in any country, there is always a fight against corruption, and it exists in any case.
Secondly, in fact, investments come to the country not because there is corruption or not. The country must be attractive, it must be as reliable as it is predictable and stable. These issues are important.
It seems to me that investments will come if the country is future-oriented. I think that the future of Armenia is the creation of new technologies. New technologies cannot exist tomorrow or the next day without artificial intelligence. In this sense, I was very pleased that we talked about it for a long time with President of Russia Vladimir Putin, who is indeed looking to the futureas well. And it was not only a conversation, but a specific real interest on his part followed.
I have an idea to gather the best know-how in the artificial intelligence of the world in Armenia, taking my connections with different companies and people. I have agreed with about 15 companies. That was before the war. That is, there is no need to create a new bicycle, but to learn from those who have it.
Ilya Doronov: Did the war change those plans?
- No, the plans have not changed. Simply, there was a war. The good thing is that many of our partners from Russia, Europe, Silicon Valley, India, and the Middle East reaffirm their interest. It is an important program to me.
Ilya Doronov: The situation that existed during these 30 years, when the Diaspora was just sending money to Armenia, in fact, did not lead to anything good. Should the role of the Diaspora change now?
- Of course, it must change. And here, I will return to your previous question: where are we going? Armenia's mission must be clearly directed towards the future, towards a good, strong future. In this sense, the Diaspora has a great role. In this situation, I can conditionally divide it into two Diasporas, one is the Diaspora in Russia, which is the largest and closest, and the other is the Diaspora worldwide.
We must destroy all the Berlin Walls between the Diaspora and Armenia so that anyone who wants to serve their homeland or the homeland of their ancestors can come here and start working. If he is an excellent candidate for minister, then please. Of course, there are many technical issues, a security problem, but all these matters can be resolved.
Ilya Doronov: Is Armenia able to become self-sufficient?
- Self-sufficiency is conventional. Everything in this world is relative. I am a specialist in the theory of relativity. No one is self-sufficient, that is, it is an absolutely different topic. In this interconnected and fast world, it is impossible to be completely independent. Armenia must solve certain issues in this world.
Ilya Doronov: It turns out that now the Armenian society and people have an opportunity of choosing between the blacks and the whites, as you say. As you put it, the tricoloured are expected to appear in Armenia, and people will not have to choose between the new ones, who disappointed the people, and the old ones, whom people do not want to come to power?
- The answer must be positive on my part.
Ilya Doronov: Are there such forces inside? Let me try to specify the question: are you, as president, ready to create such a movement?
- Firstly, you touched upon a topic again, the answer to which is very simple. As president, I cannot create such a movement ...
Ilya Doronov: Yes, for that, you have to resign...
Secondly, in any country, and in any nation, there are always people who think differently. The whole nation should not be divided into blacks and whites, even if one of them has great ideas, and represents the best in the world. People always want something unique, which gives us other opportunities to develop, or leads to problem-solving. I am absolutely confident that after some time, Armenia will become multicoloured. I cannot say how long it will take.
Ilya Doronov: Another painful question. You said that it is not possible to attribute failures to the neighbour every time. Do you think it is possible to have normal relations with Azerbaijan after the war? Is it possible to build them? Should it be done?
- The answer to your question, in theory and principle, is probably possible some day. But when, how many years later, I do not know, I cannot answer because it is very painful for Armenia, as it was painful for the Azerbaijanis in 1994, 1995, 1996. However, before talking about normalizing relations or some programs, there are many painful issues today that must be resolved. There are Armenian prisoners of war in Azerbaijan. There are no Azerbaijani prisoners of war in Armenia or Karabakh.
They are families, they are people, they are children, they are parents ... This is very painful in Armenia. If we look at all this from the viewpoint of international law, this is wrong. Before talking about different things, I think it would be right for Azerbaijan to return all the prisoners of war at this point, showing a certain attitude, humanitarian and humane.
Besides the prisoners of war, there are questions related to missing people. I have met with the parents of the missing, it is very difficult. When people lose their child or parent, it hurts. But when people live in uncertainty every day, when a person is missing, their relatives hope that, in any case, they are alive. This number is not small, the answers to many questions are on the other side of the border. Azerbaijan can help those families by providing information or the bodies of those who died.
The issue of the missing is another wound. Looking to the future is one of the ways not only to overcome problems, but also to build a dialogue.
Ilya Doronov: Was it a mistake that Armenia did not recognize Karabakh even during the war?
- Let me not answer that question.
Ilya Doronov: In that case, I will ask the last question. How did the war change the Armenian society?
- We are still going through that process. I cannot say how it has changed, but it is still changing. Different groups of people change in different ways. However, as a society, the people who live on the territory of the Republic of Armenia or in Karabakh have changed, or those who live outside Armenia. I cannot judge today, but the fact that we, as a nation, will no longer be what we were six or seven months ago, is a fact. I want to believe that we will become stronger.
Ilya Doronov: Thank you very much.
- Thanks to you.