By Arab News
By Faisal J. Abbas, Arab News Editor-in-Chief
A phrase Armen Sarkissian likes to repeat when describing his vision for Armenia is “small nation, global state.” As president of the republic, he doesn’t mince his words when it comes to his country’s strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats.
Occupying only 29,743 square kilometers of territory, Armenia is comparable in size to Belgium or the US state of Maryland. However, while there are fewer than three million Armenians citizens living in his country, the Armenian diaspora worldwide is estimated to be between five and seven million — with the US alone accounting for up to 1.5 million.
Renowned for their contributions globally, including in the Arab world, Armenians have left their mark in science, politics, sports, culture and entertainment. This is probably why Sarkissian not only considers his country’s diaspora a major point of strength, but goes as far as to say that Armenians abroad are as important a national resource as oil is to Gulf countries. In fact, he believes in this idea so much that he wants his country’s constitution to change, to enable more Armenians living abroad to participate in government.
“By constitution, an Armenian from abroad cannot become a minister unless he lives four years, the last four years, in Armenia, and carries only an Armenian passport, which I consider complete nonsense in this new world,” he tells Arab News in his first interview with a Saudi media outlet. “It should be the other way around. You have to bring people that are so successful worldwide. There are hundreds of thousands of experienced people and we’re not using them. I mean, imagine a Gulf state that decided not to use oil.”
To complement this, Sarkissian also believes in investing heavily in human capital at home and is proud of what Armenia has achieved in the fields of technology and science, something he says all smart nations — such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the UAE — are already doing.
But despite this promising vision, the vibe is not all that positive in Yerevan, as people are acutely aware of their nation’s weaknesses and the threats it faces. The geopolitical shadows of the past seem to haunt the present — much like the eternal flame at the heart of Tsitsernakaberd, the genocide memorial dedicated to the lives of the 1.5 million Armenians who perished at the hands of the Ottoman Empire in 1915-1916.
Modern day Turkey — one of Armenia’s four neighbors, along with Iran, Georgia and Azerbaijan — still does not recognize the genocide and remains at odds with Yerevan. Last year, a second war erupted between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Yet again, the conflict was over the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh, internationally recognized as Azeri. Turkey publicly supported Baku, while Iran is said to have silently supported Armenia — though this is disputed by some academics and analysts in Yerevan.
The war ended with an Azeri victory and a cease-fire brokered by Russia, leaving a Armenia in a struggle to prevent the harsh geopolitical realities of the present from interfering with its ambitious vision of the future.
This was a challenge for Sarkissian, but also meant discovering new — and much needed — horizons and opportunities for Armenia. One obvious opportunity was Saudi Arabia, which since last year has been advocating for a peaceful solution between Armenia and Azerbaijan.
A historic visit
Sarkissian made history in October when he became the first Armenian president to visit Saudi Arabia since the independence of his country in 1991. Although the two countries have never been mutually hostile, neither have they had diplomatic relations since Riyadh supported Azerbaijan’s position in the first Karabakh war in 1988-1994.
Sarkissian says that is “unfortunate,” and that one of his “first goals” upon becoming president in 2018 was to establish diplomatic ties with the Kingdom, which he describes as a “very important, very influential and very prominent state, the guardian of the faith of Islam.”
During his visit, Sarkissian sat next to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman at the Future Investment Initiative conference, often referred to as “Davos in the Desert.” He revealed to Arab News the substance of his discussions with the crown prince, which he says were not lengthy but “very specific.”
“First of all, it was a discussion about the respect of the two sides for each other as a nation, as a state, and as individuals. The second thing was that we spoke about our diplomatic relations, and we agreed that in reality our diplomatic relations started with that visit, and I’ve made invitations for the minister of state and foreign minister of Saudi Arabia, and of course His Royal Highness, to visit Armenia.
“The third most important part of our discussion was focused on the future, and I was very happy to find in my discussions with His Royal Highness that he is very focused on the future of his country, on the future of the region, on the future of the Gulf and the future of the world.”
Sarkissian says a timeline for exchanging ambassadors and opening embassies is a matter for the relevant departments in his government and the Saudi Foreign Ministry. “To be honest, for me this is secondary, because what we agreed to is to consider that we have opened a new page in our relations,” he says.
Sarkissian regrets that his visit was limited to one day, but he met many people — and the major influencing factor for him was his conversation with the crown prince. “I do believe in his honesty as a leader and where he is leading his nation, and that’s very much in the right direction,” he says.
However, Armenia also enjoys friendly relations with Iran, a regime infamous for interfering in the affairs of its neighbors and influencing decisions to serve its interests. Would this deter any prospect of normalization of ties with Saudi Arabia and moderate Arab states? “No, not at all,” says Sarkissian. Armenia is not a religious state and already enjoys “excellent relations” with Arab countries as well as Iran, which “didn’t take the path of destroying Armenian heritage or churches —in fact the government financed the restoration of Armenian churches in Iran.”
He explained that it is in his country’s interest to maintain good relations with Tehran. “We are a landlocked state,” and Yerevan already has troubled relations with two neighbors (Turkey and Azerbaijan), so it cannot afford to upset the relationship it enjoys with the remaining two, Iran and Georgia, which he describes as his country’s gateway to Russia and the Black Sea.
Nevertheless, Sarkissian does understand what he describes as the “concerns” of Saudi Arabia. “I do understand and I see the tensions, I do understand and see Iran and the Gulf, Iran and Lebanon, OK, and I see what Saudi Arabia is doing in the region and the Gulf.”
But what exactly are the depths of the Armenian-Iranian relationship? Does Tehran play any role militarily, or interfere in security or policy affairs, as it does with almost all its neighbors?
I do understand the concerns of Saudi Arabia. I do understand and I see the tensions, I do understand and see Iran and the Gulf, Iran and Lebanon
“They don’t interfere in military or security,” Sarkissian insists. “They have their interests in what is happening now in the south of Armenia, which of course concerns Iran.” Yerevan and Tehran enjoy a relationship that is historic and cultural, and have mutual interests such as energy and trade, he says.
But what about perceptions of Tehran’s secret support for Armenia during the recent Karabakh war? And how does President Sarkissian interpret Iranian military drills near the Azeri border?
“That’s their own policy, they don’t interfere in Armenia,” he replies. “I think … if they feel a danger happening on their borders it is their internal issue.”
Sarkissian also strongly rejects suggestions that the Karabakh conflict was not just a land dispute, but also a religious war between Christian-majority Armenia and Muslim-majority Azerbaijan. “It was never a religious war,” he says. “Armenia has wonderful relations with a lot of states where Islam is a major religion, states where Islam is the only religion, or states that have Islam as their state religion”.
“The other side (referring to Azerbaijan and Turkey) sometimes like to use that (the “religious war” description) in order in order to accumulate support from Islamic world, but Armenia never tried to get support from Christian states.”
Meanwhile, several Armenian analysts have criticized what they describe as Pakistan’s open and ideological support for the Azerbaijani-Turkish axis, and say that joint military drills with the Azeri side further complicate the situation. Sarkissian says Yerevan has no diplomatic relations with Pakistan — “I’m trying to build them, because I don’t come from the concept that if somebody supports my competitor or the enemy I shouldn’t talk to him.
“Pakistan is not a country we can ignore. We are not in a position of going to war with Pakistan, that’s complete nonsense. We should try to have a dialogue and see where it takes us, and again I don’t see any again contradiction between having a dialogue with Pakistan and our deep and good relations with India.”