A Busy New-Comer in Geneva

A Busy New-Comer in Geneva

  • His Excellency Mr. Andranik Hovhannisyan, Ambassador of Armenia 

He has definitely gotten off to a flying start: since his arrival in the City of Calvin, a little over one month ago, Andranik Hovhannisyan has piloted one delegation after another coming to Geneva, for the centenary celebrations for the ILO, for the World Health Assembly, for the Human Rights Council…

It goes without saying that he has been very busy, yet despite his tight schedule, His Excellency nevertheless took the time to receive us in his country’s mission on a pleasant sunny summer day.

Q: Ambassador, just how long have you been here ?

I arrived exactly four weeks ago. On May 7th I presented my credentials to Director General Michael Møller at the United Nations Office in Geneva. Since day one, I have been at work, in meetings, writing reports… In addition, there has been no lack of various conferences and events – disaster risk reduction, World Health Assembly, the 100th anniversary of the ILO combined with its huge annual conference. It seems to me that Geneva is one of the world’s busiest cities in terms of international affairs.

Q: Ambassador, could you tell us a little about your background?

For the last five years, I was an advisor to the Minister of Foreign Affairs in Armenia. This gave me the honor of joining two successive ministers during their meetings and foreign trips. It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for a diplomat and gave me the chance to see how diplomacy works at the high level. I am very thankful to the two ministers who provided me with this opportunity of closely working with them.

Before that, I was in Washington, D.C., where I served as deputy chief of mission. Washington is an important diplomatic hub, a place where world affairs and diplomacy are vivid and visible par excellence. It was indeed very interesting, in a very intense way of communicating not only with the government offices and fellow diplomats but also the staff of the U.S. Congress, as well as a dynamic think-tank community.

Before that, I served Armenia in different positions both in the Ministry and in Vienna, where I had a stint with the Armenian Permanent Mission to the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe. My first overseas posting was in Damascus in Syria, where I served as an attaché in the Armenian embassy.

I am a graduate of the Department of Arabic Studies of the Yerevan State University, where I also did my PhD studies. I also studied Arabic language and literature in Cairo University for one year in 1996-1997. Afterwards, I took an intensive course in international relations at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy of the Tufts University at Medford, Massachusetts.

Q: Where did your interest in Arabic come from?

Already in my early school days, I was very interested in the history of Armenia. Then I decided to learn one of the languages of the region adjacent to my country. This would enable me to understand how our neighboring countries view Armenia. For centuries, the Armenian nation has been an integral part of the multi-cultural and multi-religious mosaic of the Middle East, and we have a long history of contacts and communication with the Arab people.

Today many Armenian communities live in the Arab countries, and we have an important footprint in this part of the world. Our cultural habits and cuisine also have much in common with those of the Arab world. So, from there came my interest in the Arab history and culture.

I first started to learn Arabic at the University, but I never thought about becoming a diplomat. I was more thinking about an academic career – to be a historian. When I was in Cairo, the ambassador of Armenia invited me to work at the Embassy as an intern. This is how I fell in love with diplomacy. So, just after returning from Cairo, I went back to university to finish my studies, and then I applied to enter the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. This is my twenty-second year in the diplomatic service of Armenia.

Q: Did you ever regret your change of trajectory?

No, never! It is a very interesting, challenging job, an honor and privilege to serve my country.

Q: What are Armenia’s main areas of interest here in Geneva?

Geneva has a very vibrant international community. As a permanent representative in Geneva, I cover the United Nations and the other international organizations. This includes, but is not limited to ICRC, UNHCR, ITU, WHO, ILO many other organizations with which Armenia has a decade-long tradition of close cooperation. And I have another hat to wear – soon I will also be accredited as a bilateral ambassador to Switzerland.

As for Geneva then it also includes the Human Rights Council, where Armenia is trying to be elected for the next three years. So, one of my important tasks here is to promote Armenia’s candidacy for the Council. The elections will take place in New York in October.

As the Human Rights Council is based here in Geneva, the team here also presents Armenia’s approaches and vision in a clear and meaningful manner so that other countries will know what we are going to do when we are elected.

Last year, Armenia passed through fundamental changes in terms of strengthening its democracy and promotion of human rights. The protest movement of April/May led to what became known as the “Armenian Velvet Revolution”. It was a peaceful and non-violent movement that involved tens of thousands of people. It brought in a new government, which came with a strong mandate from the people. I would also like to mention that at the forefront of this protest movement in Armenia were youth and women, some of the latter with their baby strollers and children. Armenia was on the headlines of the world major media outlets and The Economist magazine named Armenia “a country of the year”. Afterwards, we went through a period of snap parliamentary elections, which international observers followed closely. They concluded that the elections respected all the international standards on fundamental freedoms and enjoyed broad public trust. The ruling party won more than 70 % of the votes.

Now, the Government is trying to do its utmost to fulfill the aspirations of the people of Armenia at building a more democratic society with the promotion of human rights based upon good governance and the rule of law in addition to fighting corruption and strengthening the country’s economic profile.

So, I think that in this environment, it is a high time for Armenia to become a member of the Human Rights Council, both to learn more from international experience in the field of human rights and, if we can, in some way or another, to contribute from our experience to the international human rights agenda. I hope that our international partners will support us in this venture.

The Foreign Minister of Armenia will speak on these issues, including on our bid for the membership, at the June session of the Human Rights Council, where we also plan to open a photo exhibition of the Velvet Revolution and to have a side event on the democratic transition of Armenia.  

And of course, when we talk about Armenia’s foreign policy priorities first and foremost it is about the peaceful resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.  Certainly, in Geneva we put more emphasis on the human rights and humanitarian aspects of the conflict, on respect of the fundamental freedoms of the people of Nagorno-Karabakh (Artsakh) and full implementation of their inalienable right to self-determination. The denial for respecting these rights of the people of Nagorno-Karabakh and the use of force and coercive measures against them created the conflict and thus its settlement should take full account of the security of Nagorno-Karabakh and its status based on the legally binding expression of free will of the people of Nagorno-Karabakh. 

Q: What about the economic situation since the revolution. Has it improved?

You are asking a good question. As a rule, after a revolution in any country, the economic situation may change to worse than before because of the change of government. In Armenia, this was not the case. It shows that the institutions are functioning well and that they can absorb this kind of shock – a revolution. The GDP growth of Armenia is one of the best in Europe. The World Competitive Index of the World Economic Forum places Armenia in nineteenth place out of 140 countries. There are also other figures showing that the economy is doing fine.

I would also like to mention that the government has proclaimed that now the time has come for the revolution also in our economy. Having succeeded in the political realm, the government now wants to push forward the economic development in a revolutionary manner.

We have several fields of our economy that are very important. A lot of attention is paid to high tech and innovation, which is an area of the economy that is developing at a rate of 20 % annually, and which is responsible for 6 % of our GDP.

The innovation and creative education attach particular attention of the Government efforts. We have a start-up programme called TUMO, which is a place for creative education for youth and children. It is a sort of after-school programme where kids can get acquainted with the novelties of the high-tech and robotics. It is a very innovative educational platform, which attracts the interest of other nations as well. Recently, the TUMO center was also set up in Paris, another one in Beirut, and if I am not wrong Tirana and Berlin are following the suit. Many foreign dignitaries were excited after the visits they paid to the TUMO Centre in Yerevan, and they wanted to replicate it in their own countries. It has become a brand on its own.

In October Armenia will host The World Congress on Information Technologies, one of the most important annual events that envisages to gather together all big names and brands of this field.

There are some other areas of economy that can be of interest, but since we are in Geneva, I would like to mention that the wine production has substantially increased over the years. We have good brands of wine that are produced in Armenia. We are one of the oldest wine-producing nations in the world, and actually, one of the oldest wineries was found in Armenia and was estimated to be 6,000 years old. The place is called Areni, and people still produce wine there.

Q: It seems to me that you are in particular famous for “Armenian cognac”.

Yes, Armenian cognac is also a very famous product. During Soviet times, the republics had their own visiting cards in different spheres, and in the sphere of producing alcohol, Armenia produced brandy. “Ararat”brand was the most famous. Armenia continues to produce it, and in fact is one of the largest producers of brandy in the world, however, in parallel, we are developing our wine production. We have already registered some noteworthy success in this regard.

Otherwise, Armenia is famous for its agricultural products. My country is considered to be the birthplace of apricot. Its scientific name is Prunus Armeniaca, translated as an Armenian plum and it can be found on many symbols of Armenia. 

There is also a strong mine industry, including gold, copper and other minerals. Jewelry and pharmaceuticals are among main spheres of economy too, but, of course, the list is not exhaustive.  So, we are trying to catch up with new technologies and to develop the traditional spheres of economy for the wealth of our nation.

Tourism is another important sector of Armenia’s economy that registered 10% growth last year alone. As one of the ancient nations and the first Christian country of the world, Armenia hosts large number of historic-archeological sites for almost all periods of the development of the humankind. This rich heritage includes artifacts of ancient civilization of Urartu, Hellenic temple, medieval castles and fortresses, magnificent churches and monasteries, together with the beautiful mosque in the center of capital Yerevan and the world biggest Yazidi temple.   

The National Geographic Traveller qualified Armenia not only historical and cultural, but also an extreme touristic country with such activities as skiing, camping, hiking, zip-lining, paragliding, off-road driving.

Furthermore, Armenia also attracts with its numerous museums, galleries, concert halls, theaters and hosts more than 40 cultural events and festivals annually for lovers of classical music, arts, jazz, films, food, dink and many others. There is much to explore in Armenia.

Q: Regarding the Middle East, it seems that you have also received quite a high number of refugees from Syria. Could you tell us a little about that?

It is true. Syria is one of the places where Armenians have been living for many centuries, and especially since the genocide in Ottoman Empire. Syria was the first country to open its doors to our people, and therefore many ended up living there, most of them in Aleppo. As time went by, many of these Armenians later migrated to other places in the world, but the Aleppo community remains the mother community of the diaspora. Because of this devastating crisis, many Armenians fled from Syria and so now, according to our estimates, there are only 25.000 Armenians left in Syria.

About 22.000 Armenians found refuge in Armenia. At some point Armenia was considered to be the third country receiving Syrian refugees on a per capita basis. The government has extended every kind of support it could to the Syrian people, and we have sent several tons of humanitarian aid. The Consulate General of Armenia in Aleppo was the only diplomatic mission in the war-torn city to function uninterruptedly during all these years of war and crisis. The doors of the Embassy in Damascus also were always open.

Q: Ambassador, since you are a newcomer in town, I will not ask you all the tricky questions that I normally ask a diplomat during an interview, but rather ask if you have a message for the international community.

We are here in the city of peace, so, people should listen more to each other, work together in peace and harmony, not only based upon the national interest but also for the humanity as a whole. I think that the city of the League of Nations, the city of multilateralism and multilateral diplomacy is the best place to think about our common future, and to add our voices to all that has been done through the centuries for making our life better in a peaceful environment.