Armenian President Sargsyan Speaks at Harvard University
Updated: Jul 6
On March 30, Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan visited the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University where he met with the Armenian students and gave a speech. Afterwards, President Sargysan responded to questions by the audience and spoke about Armenian American relations, the Nagorno Karabakh peace process, existing problems and challenges, and his working visit to the United States.
President’s Sargsyan’s speech at Harvard University translated into English:
Dear Faculty and Students; Ladies and Gentlemen;
I am delighted to be hosted at this prestigious academic institution. Born in the Land of the Free, and named after John F. Kennedy—one of the iconic presidents of the USA, this school generates ideas that transform into policies in the United States of America and beyond its boundaries. Hundreds of leaders—statesmen and public figures, scholars and journalists—educated here over the decades have indisputably been a strong influence on national and global matters.
Kennedy School is the most international professional school at Harvard. I was impressed to learn that in recent years, it has educated students from 115 countries and territories, which evidently broadens the geography of the academic and scholarly impact of the School. Indeed, the School’s true wealth are its students – the people who study under the motto “ask what you can do” and strive to make the world a better place.
For us – Armenians, the world became a better place when we restored our statehood 25 years ago, after nearly 600-year-long interruption. Millennia-old Armenian history may be generalized as “a struggle for freedom” – political freedom, religious freedom, freedom to be the master of one’s own fate on one’s own land. Our new statehood rose again by regaining freedom in 1991 to bring about new challenges stemming both from the responsibility to build a statehood and specific external threats.
Laying the foundations of our state to meet the needs of democracy and free-market economy was of high priority. As we pursued that goal, we had to overcome the consequences of a devastating earthquake that had struck Armenia in 1988, the war, and the economic blockade imposed on us. In a word, we had embarked on a journey through straights that seemed to be impassable. Today, perhaps the greatest achievement at home, as I see it, is the respect for free speech and a vibrant civil society. Secondly, I believe that nowhere else than within the walls of this school the importance of effective decision-making mechanisms by state institutions can be best appreciated. The large scale domestic reforms currently underway in Armenia are aimed exactly at building such mechanisms. To that end, we closely cooperate with all of our international partners.
We are concluding the first quarter century of Armenia’s independence with a reformed Constitution – the backbone of our statehood. Last year, we amended the Constitution for a second time since independence. I consider them a breakthrough, as the renewed Constitution provides a transition from a semi-presidential to a parliamentary form of government, opening a new chapter for the development of political parties. These amendments lay foundations for a new political system and a new political culture in our country.
What do we aim to achieve? It is very straightforward: we want to have better governance. We have a small country and limited natural resources, but the challenges we face are enormous. Well, there is a disproportionality of resources versus challenges i.e. addressing big problems with little capacities. This is exactly where the good governance makes big difference and this is where the strategic objective of the Constitutional Reform underlies. More democracy and a more targeted fight against corruption. Here we have great potential we need to capitalize on. It goes without saying that unfavorable external circumstances – closed borders with Azerbaijan and Turkey, the global economic problems, a complex geopolitical situation in the region, and others create certain limitations. However, we see the solutions to our problems primarily at home. More than anything else, we rely on our own strengths and abilities. We do understand that it is our responsibility to make our country a better place. No one is going to do it for us. Yes, we have allies, partners and friends, and we value our cooperation within various formats: but let me be clear, it is our own duty to materialize the dream of a more prosperous and a more free country. We do understand it.
In the meantime, we take persistent action in the economic field, where free-market economies are taken as a development model. We try to tap into all the possibilities for economic growth, relying on our competitive advantage anchored in human capital, on the one hand, and synergizing different integration processes, on the other. Armenia is obviously a small market: no matter how liberalized the economic environment is and how sound the financial system is, the country needs to be integrated with larger economic arrangements in order to be attractive to larger economies. This was rationale behind our accession to the Eurasian Economic Union.
However we do not see this at all as an obstacle to broaden our cooperation with the EU, including deep partnership in economic reforms.
The agreement on Iran’s nuclear program was a very positive development for Armenia. The lifting of sanctions from neighboring Iran creates new opportunities for Armenian businesses in a familiar market of 77 million. We pursue joint energy and transport projects with our neighbors. We have initiated a number of regional infrastructure projects-construction of a modern highway connecting the North and South of our country is underway, the construction of an Armenia-Iran railway is being discussed with Iranian partners, and are actively engaged in the implementation of joint economic projects between Eurasian Economic Union and Silk Road Economic Belt. Through such initiatives, Armenia seeks to mitigate the damage caused by the decades-long unlawful blockade by her neighbors to the East and to the West.
Some of our neighbors are yet to disown their policy of economic blackmail, which has created dividing lines in the region leaving the Armenia-Turkey state border as the last closed border in Europe, given that, Turkey is a member of NATO and they are linked with the EU by Customs Union. However, Turkey keeps its border sealed against Armenia – a country that has effective partnership with these two organizations.
Economy is a key factor in international relations, and economic relations often dictate the political agenda. However, economic diplomacy should not under any circumstances, be a tool for political blackmail. Economic diplomacy is a tool for development, a tool for cooperation and integration. Economic cooperation, especially in conflict zones, is one of the best means for confidence building, which is a shortcut to peace. There is plenty of evidence of this in European history.
Ladies and Gentlemen; We have been struggling for security and peace from the first days of independence. The demand of the people of Nagorno Karabakh to exercise their right to self-determination, constantly raised in the Soviet period, transformed in the 1990s into the bloodiest post-Soviet war. The people seeking to exercise their constitutional right under international and domestic law confronted weapons, violent force, and ethnic cleansing.
22 years have passed since the 1994 ceasefire but the people living near the state border of Armenia and in various parts of Nagorno Karabakh are still living under a daily threat of shootings. It is clear that the Azerbaijani regime abuses the combination of this conflict and the oil-and-gas revenues to justify domestic problems. I believe such a behavior may be familiar from the theory of democracy and international relations. This is the reason why the Azerbaijani authorities are keen on maintaining tension along the border and presumptuously brag about it, publicly blame the mediators for inaction, and try to appear as a hero in front of their own people. They dub the proposal of the OSCE Minsk Group for security measures along the line of contact is “strange” and pretend to be surprised by such a proposal.
There are frequent speculations around the word “occupation” in the context of Karabakh conflict. Without entering into the realm of history, I have to make a small observation here. Those that use the word ‘occupation’ often forget that Karabakh was a victim of occupation herself for 70 years. To all those who consciously or unconsciously use the word “occupation”, I would like to ask: but “what was Karabakh’s annexation to Azerbaijan in 1921, thanks to Stalin if not occupation? After receiving this generous gift, Azerbaijan, instead of creating normal conditions for the people of Nagorno Karabakh and using soft-power tools, created such unbearable conditions that the people of Nagorno Karabakh were the first to rise up immediately after the emergence of the first signs of weakening of centripetal Soviet power. Was it because of a happy life? The protests of 1988 were so powerful that the beginning of the collapse of the USSR is commonly associated with the Karabakh Movement. The initial occupation was the very cause of the conflict. Hence, Nagorno Karabakh has nothing to do with the notion of territorial integrity of the present-day Azerbaijan.
Armenians had firsthand experience of Azerbaijan’s policy of complete depopulation of Nagorno Karabakh from Armenians. There was indeed the bitter precedent of Nakhijevan—another region populated by Armenians. In addition to driving out the Armenian population, the precious cultural legacy of the Jugha cross-stones was barbarically destroyed in 2005. Not even a tiny piece, not even a crumb of that marvelous medieval treasure survived. The whole region has been cleansed of Armenians and all traces of Armenian culture.
Anyone who nowadays views Nagorno Karabakh in the context of Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity is implicitly endorsing the cruel Stalinist policy of dīvide et īmpera, a policy that inflicted deprivation and grief upon millions of families.
This logic is alive as we speak. It has reached the ridiculous point of not allowing foreign citizens with Armenian origin to enter into Azerbaijan. Regardless of whether Armenians are citizens of the United States, Russia, or any other state, they are banned from entering Azerbaijan. At the same time, they are promising to ensure the security of Armenians if Karabakh becomes a part of Azerbaijan. Why, on earth the people of Karabakh should believe this?
We confronted a situation in which our neighbor’s perception of negotiations is far from the modern understanding of this word. I believe that Negotiations is one of the most popular and widely-taught courses at Harvard. I am confident that one of the things you learn here is that the successful outcome of any negotiation requires at least a compromise. Maximalist and unilateral demands cannot solve any problem. Here is an example for you to imagine the situation we are dealing with when negotiating with Azerbaijan: Azerbaijan believes that non-resumption of warfare is a concession in itself. Clearly, maintaining peace is an obligation, international obligation rather than a concession.
Surely, many of you will take my comments with a grain of salt as I am an interested party. And that is fine for an academic community. Doubt is the engine of science. As I stand in this institution, I cannot resist the temptation to make you an offer. I would invite Dr. Allison to consider the possibility for a study by the Institute of Politics at Harvard University, which would thoroughly study the Armenian and Azerbaijani media coverage, scholarly articles, public statements of high-ranking officials, and reports of civil society institutions (if any can still be found in Azerbaijan), and draw your own conclusions. I am not asking to take my word as Gospel. You can study and see who is preaching war, who is inciting border tensions, who preaches hatred against not only the Armenian authorities, but also the Armenian people. Why do I emphasize this? Let’s assume that the governments reach agreement at some point: how are the societies, hating each other going to reconcile? I believe such a research project would produce interesting findings, including for us.
Ladies and Gentlemen; President Kennedy said: “Mankind must put an end to war before war puts an end to mankind.” This statement unfortunately remains relevant in the 21st century.
The crisis in the Middle East again proved that no challenges stand alone in the present-day globalized world. We saw the Middle East crisis, especially the situation in Syria, escalate to a global humanitarian crisis that posed new challenges for all of us. It came as a sobering reminder that borders no longer divide, they unite. “They” are now a part of “us” and what “did not concern us” and was “far” now concerns us. The refugee crisis is a case in point: it has grown into a pan-European problem that has even challenged the EU’s solidarity and stability, an everyday threat absorbing enormous resources. Another horrendous byproduct of the Middle East crisis has been the expansion and proliferation of international terrorism: the horrific terrorist acts in Paris in November 2015 and in Brussels a few days ago, as well as the bomb explosions that occurred in this beautiful city during the Marathon three years ago, remind us that terrorism does not recognize borders; its main pursuit is to destroy the values and virtues created by civilized mankind. Hence, this evil can only be defeated through the collective will of the international community and a combination of persistent efforts.
By virtue of her geographic position and historical circumstances, Armenia is closely connected to the problems in the Middle East. We are experiencing all of its tragic consequences firsthand. The conflict has affected, among many others, dozens of thousands of Armenians living in the Middle East: Armenians that are the heirs of the survivors of the first genocide of the 20th century—the Armenian Genocide. The history of the ancestors is now repeating for the heirs, who have to leave their homes behind. Armenia has already accepted around 20,000 Syrian citizens. In per capita terms, this is the second highest figure in Europe.
This, however, is only one aspect of the problem. The rich Christian, including Armenian spiritual and cultural heritage of the Middle East is now referred to in the past tense: a heritage that for centuries enriched and diversified the region’s cultural palette. The Middle East is being emptied of Christians and the Christian heritage.
It is clear that the solution to the current refugee crisis lies in addressing its root causes – establishing comprehensive and durable peace in Syria. The international community must stand united. We very much welcomed the Russian-American initiative on peaceful settlement in Syria. Without this cooperation, the ceasefire in Syria, as fragile as it may be, would certainly not have been achieved. I can confidently say the same about the agreement on Iran’s nuclear program.
As a small state, we remain convinced that we should do our best to support cooperation between the superpowers. Our foreign policy model is based on the principle of combining the interests of different power centers. We are not trying to reap momentary benefits from disagreements between big players.
This foreign policy model of course has historical roots, too. Back in the beginning of the 20th century, when superpowers fell in the Thucydides Trap, to quote Mr. Graham Allison, and the World War One broke out, Armenia paid a high price: under the guise of the war, the Ottoman Empire perpetrated the genocide of the Armenians. We could certainly do nothing to keep the superpowers out of the Trap, but this is an illustration of the potential consequences for the small nation when the big ones clash. It has explicit or implicit painful consequences for any small nation, often with irreversible losses.
Irreversible were the losses of the genocide that befell the Armenians. The world now recognizes and condemns this atrocious crime, but what is of utmost importance to us is the recognition by Turkey and facing its own history. The Centenary of the Armenian Genocide showed that Armenian-Turkish reconciliation is not a top-down exercise. The Turkish authorities opted for flagrant falsification of history. I am not referring to the denial of the Genocide. In 2015, the Turkish authorities suddenly decided that on April 24, the main Commemoration Day of the Armenian Genocide Centenary, they will be commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Gallipoli – a date that is usually commemorated in March. This was clearly an act of absolute cynicism and a failed attempt at belittling this day of symbolic importance for the Armenian nation.
Nonetheless, I am glad or at least increasingly more hopeful that, the more aggressive the stance of the Turkish authorities, the louder the voice of the Turkish society about the Armenian Genocide. An intellectual generation is growing in Turkey today, and this crème de la crème of society will eventually become strong enough to make their government to speak the truth. I am sure that the day will come.
I am aware of a simplistic belief that exists outside of Armenia as if Armenians jubilate when bad things happen in Turkey, for instance when the Turkish military shell Kurdish-inhabited towns and villages, or when terrorist acts are committed inside Turkey. That is absurd. We are strongly interested in Turkey’s peaceful and democratic development. It is our belief that fundamental democratization is the only way in which all the peoples living in Turkey will feel as fully-fledged citizens and will be able to lead a dignified life. Ethnic and religious minorities will not be taken as second- or third-class. Unfortunately, we are witnessing the opposite trends in public and political life in some of our neighboring countries, which is worrisome.
Ladies and Gentlemen; Being in the United States, I cannot but discuss the Armenian-American friendship. The evolution of our partnership is quite interesting. The USA was the first country to open an embassy in Armenia and implement aid programs. 25 years have passed, and we now have an extensive agenda of cooperation with the USA, a dialogue on international and regional security matters, and close cooperation in economic and democratic development and humanitarian, defense, and energy matters. The American Armenian community, which is one of the most flourishing and largest communities in the Armenian Diaspora, is an essential bridge between us and the USA. We believe that our bilateral partnership is currently at the highest level.
Ladies and Gentlemen; From here I will be heading to Washington DC to participate in the Nuclear Security Summit upon President Obama’s invitation. I am proud to note that, in the 25 years of independence, Armenia has grown from a country receiving international aid to a contributor to the world peace. Armenia, being a responsible member of the international community, currently has stationed in Afghanistan, Kosovo, Lebanon, and Mali.
We still have a road to travel to become a stable democracy. With the achievements of these 25 years, we sum up the history of a so called “newly-independent” state and turn the chapter to embark upon the ‘maturity’ stage. I am ready to take your questions.