BERGE SETRAKIAN: "WE ALWAYS SUPPORT THE STATE"

In this exclusive interview with NAM, the President of AGBU, one of the most powerful organizations in the diaspora, gives us his thoughts on the recent developments in the Armenian World. An interview without political cant or demagoguery

Nouvelles d’Arménie Magazine: How did AGBU experience and perceive the Velvet Revolution? 
Berge Sétrakian: We followed the events with a lot of interest. It is indeed a popular movement unprecedented in the history of modern democracies. This change of popular upheaval also affects a lot of countries once referred to as the free world. 20 - 25 years after the fall of the Soviet Union, the people are asking questions and demanding accountability from their leaders. This ancient world has been confronted with a wave of popular discontent starting with the Brexit vote and continuing with the elections of Trump and Macron. It’s a form of questioning the traditional political establishment. This phenomenon has also left more or less of a stain on Italy, Austria, Hungary and elsewhere. These events are a result of the rejection of migration towards Western countries but more so, from the general social crisis, related to the increasing wealth gap between the richest and the poorest. This wealth gap is generating frustration and anger. Armenia has not escaped this phenomenon and the situation in the country had only been aggravated by corruption. It’s not like Armenia has a monopoly on this—this, alas, plagues the whole world. But the leaders could not cope with it. This was too much for the people and they said: enough!

NAM: Is that a good thing?
Berge Sétrakian: It is certainly positive. As you know, AGBU, an organization rooted in the diaspora, always supports the Armenian state but that does not always mean that we are in symbiosis with the governments. We never campaigned for Pashinyan’s predecessors, whoever they were, and we told him so. We are with those in charge of the state, we are here to support them. And we will not spare any effort to this end. Just as we did yesterday, we do today. We know that Pashinyan is faced with a lot of difficulties. People expect a lot of change. It will not be easy. There's a lot hope, and maybe less realism. On the economic front, not everything can be changed overnight. We feel that Pashinyan is a dynamic person. He wants change. He is sincere. But the challenges are great. He needs the support of the entire nation, including the diaspora. We follow developments closely and we will try to provide all possible support. We do not have a choice. We can and we must succeed and I remain optimistic.

NAM: Your relations were not bad with the old authorities, correct?
Berge Sétrakian: Our relationships have always been good with all of Armenia’s governments because we do not expect anything in return for our support. We have no direct or indirect interest except that of Armenia and Armenians. Relationships were good as far as development in the country was concerned, namely through the social and economic programs we implemented. We continue doing what we have always done. We have always been consistent.

NAM: Which points, according to you, should be prioritized in the reforms?
Berge Sétrakian: Priority must be placed on institutions. Do not forget that those that are currently functioning were a result of, to a certain extent, another revolution which was also, in a sense, velvet: the one that led to the fall of the Soviet Union. Overnight all of the member states of the USSR faced a new system they were unfamiliar with. In this context, apart from the Baltic states, the only countries to begin turning towards democracy have been Armenia and Georgia. This becomes obvious when we consider countries like Azerbaijan, as well as others, which still continue the exercise of power by having simply replaced the domination of Moscow by that of former communist leaders. Armenia has proved itself more of a reformer than other countries. But its institutions rest on an infrastructure inherited from the Soviet Union. This heritage weighs on the mentality of the leaders. It's the boss who must decide everything. One of our challenges is to eliminate this logic. We must institutionalize the state. The second challenge is to inspire confidence in the international community, by demonstrating that Armenia has a stable government where one can make investments. Foreign investments are obviously essential. Even those in the diaspora, though motivated and with the means to do so, do not have enough financial stability today to meet all the economic needs of the state. Foreign investment necessitates stability and stability requires a lawful state. As for corruption, it occurs all over the world. How many first, second or third world countries suffer from it in its various, evil forms, ranging from tax evasion, to bribes or pay-equity justice? Reforms are to be made everywhere. But it should be done mindfully, with attention to changes that may be too radical. A state functions more like a big train than a little car—it cannot so easily change direction. One of Pashinyan's challenges will be to rally all Armenians and develop appropriate reforms.

NAM: Israel and Armenia are two of the very few states to have a Ministry of the Diaspora. Apparently, this ministry could be dissolved in Armenia. Do you see this as a good thing?
Berge Sétrakian: In my opinion it's not just about whether we need an independent ministry or if its functions need to be integrated with that of another. The question goes beyond that. The problem is to know how to deal with the reality of what the Diaspora is today. What worries me the most is not so much emigration from Armenia to the Diaspora, it is the emigration of the Diaspora itself, namely the abandonment of Armenian identity. It is a much more serious emigration. By that I mean, once they leave, it’s over! We lose them! At least, with the emigration of Armenians from Armenia, we have hope that once the situation in the country gets better, they will return. In the meantime, whether they immigrate to the East or to the West, these newcomers begin to integrate and breathe new life into the Diaspora. We see it in Holland, Spain in Germany ... But the situation is more problematic for the old Diaspora. The children and grandchildren of Genocide survivors are now scattered, and we risk losing a lot of them. What kept the Diaspora alive was the language, culture and memory. But it is necessary for us to recognize that today, 70% of the Diaspora no longer uses our language. It is nevertheless a vector central to Armenian identity and it is necessary find ways to replace what's missing ... Schools are important. But only less than 2% of our children attend them. We must rethink identity. Rethink oneself. As such the Church can play a vital role. A few years ago, a poll asked a number of Armenians that had minimal ties to their identity what remained of their connection to their origins. The answer was: our Church. That's why AGBU supports and promotes education of clergy. Today in the United States we see that young apostolic priests are reviving spirituality in their communities. I do not know by what magic, but they are well educated and efficient. There is a seminary in England, near Leeds, and its tuition fees are expensive. Every year the Catholicos recommends one or two qualified candidates. So far, there have been 15 graduates. You must see them and be proud of them! The AGBU awards scholarships for this purpose. Similarly, members of the clergy who will serve in French-speaking or Arab countries are directed to institutions abroad. Training church executives these past 20 years has been a priority because this clergy will serve both Armenia, but even more so, the Diaspora. The biggest challenge for the Ministry of the Diaspora, under the auspices of the Prime Minister or the Minister of Education – which is a secondary question for me—is to understand the needs of the 3rd, 4th and 5th generation Armenians who face a crisis, or rather, a choice of identity. Sadly, often it's those who succeed who tend to leave the community. It is on this basis that the AGBU started the Young Professionals program more than 15 years ago. We have 12,000 members of this group worldwide. We also have the Armenian Virtual College, which makes language learning and Armenian history accessible to anyone with an internet connection. An entirely unique dynamic methodology and pedagogy has been developed. It is not easy to reorganize the Diaspora, because there are people who are against changes and would like to maintain old structures, refusing to accept reality. For example, apart from Nouvelles d’Arménie Magazine or AGBU News Magazine, I do not see many publications in the Diaspora engaging with new generations.

NAM: Since you speak of the Church, were you shocked by the aggression directed towards the Catholicos last June/July?
Berge Sétrakian: We are experiencing a new phenomenon with so-called social networks. Nowadays it is very easy to attack or circulate false news. Some people thought that with the Velvet Revolution they could break apart everything and settle personal scores. People ask me why AGBU supports the Catholicos? Often, I ask these detractors: you criticize the Catholicos, but have you ever met the person? Often the answer is no. Do you know the educational or financial problems of the Church? No. You contribute to or attend Church? No. So on what basis do you make your judgment? Do you know that the Church runs orphanages and women's shelters, provides chaplains in the army and in prisons, organizes soup kitchens for more than 1800 retirees. Not to mention the movement of "pioneers" that existed during Soviet Period, that we managed to implement because of the initiative taken by the Catholicos, who was the bishop of Yerevan at the time of independence. He told us at the time: "There are 4000 young people at risk of idleness. I see them hanging out in the street with cigarettes at just 14 or 16 years old.” So, working with the Church, we have resumed this program. There are about 4000 young people each day, between 8-16 years old, whom have frequented these centers for more than 25 years. A whole generation had been saved thanks to this initiative. Nobody takes notice! Many people tell me, "He's just building churches." But he does not build churches just to develop construction projects! We ignore the human side of his activities: the education of the clergy, the youth training, the social projects and the hospital. We are told, "He has a hospital on his own!". Yet, it is through AGBU, with the support of our benefactors, namely Louise Simone and the Izmirlian family in this case, that this hospital exists. We are told, "He makes people pay!” But the hospital needs to be financed, otherwise the care is provided free of charge for the clergy and for the needy. We also speak of financial transparency: I can speak from my experience working at AGBU over the last 25 years, that our donors have sent fortunes to benefit the Church and we provided great financial support to its missions, providing transparency in relation to every account we financed. Let it be known that the patron or the donor is the most demanding person involved in any project. He will not give unless he is assured that every penny is accounted for and put to good use. Ask all those benefactors who have helped Etchmiadzin over the years, if they have any reservations about Vehapar’s management! His finances are transparent, and we are the witnesses. Nobody realizes it, but Etchmiadzin today has over 800 members committed as clergy, compared to the 200 it had only 20 years ago. The coffers were almost empty when Vehapar was elected to his seat. I do not envy his position because he has a great responsibility and difficulty in covering a huge budget. Sometimes people say, "The Catholicos is a dictator." It takes a leader and an authority to lead the Church, especially when it develops so quickly. Do not forget that after the founding of the Soviet Union, the Church had no place institutionally. The Vehapar tried to institutionalize the Church; and we participate in this effort. The Church, with its hundreds of clergy, has the largest army at our disposal to organize in the Diaspora. For us, the role of the clergy responds to a national need. Its members are prepared. The Apostolic Church represents our national values, not only in prayer but also in the perpetuity of our heritage. There are people who criticize Vehapar on the grounds that he was aligned with the old regime. It's ridiculous! He was in the same situation as the AGBU. The Armenian nation cannot afford a clash between the Church and the state. In private, we can air all of our criticisms, and I have had the opportunity to hear the Catholicos express his reservations about some social aspects to the leaders of the past. But publicly, the Church cannot take a position. They say, "He is not spiritual." Who am I to judge the spirituality of people? Just remember the "fakes devotees" of Molière! For me, spirituality lies in our heart of hearts through commitment to a cause that goes beyond oneself.

NAM: What has been the greatest success of AGBU in these last ten years?
Berge Sétrakian: We cannot say that the battle is won. We try to evolve with the situation, to adapt to new realities. Sometimes making unpopular decisions was necessary. For example, in Lebanon, we were forced to bring all our schools together in one institution as a result of the consequences of the decrease in the population. Our main concern is to rally those who are in the process of losing their identity in the diaspora with well-developed programming that responds to the reality of our times. This evolution is very visible in the content of our publications in recent years. There are also our activities in Armenia. Today most international organizations have partnerships with AGBU, be it the European Union, USAID and others looking for institutions with a transparent private sector to collaborate with. We try more and more to play a socio-economic role in the country. We have just launched a project to span 10 years, focused on women’s empowerment, specifically the strengthening of the role of women in business and society, because we know women in Armenia must play a bigger role. A small funding system has been created to support projects in the villages. In the diaspora we work for to ensure the continuity of identity and the maintenance of the vitality of our institutions and programs.

NAM: After the revolution, should we not think of national unity? What do you think of the trials that are being held against the leaders of the old regime? How do you see the incarceration of the former president of Armenia?
Berge Sétrakian: With regard to national unity, it is in the interest of the new regime to gather all of the political factions around him within 5 years. Before the elections, there can be polarized extremes politically, but after, there must be a moment to regather. The politics of the incarceration are unfortunately sometimes perceived as vendettas. It just needs to be better organized. Concerning the oligarchs and the scourge of corruption, it is necessary to operate by priority. I would have preferred to start by blaming those who looted the state, especially in the army. We know that there are scandals in the army with officials receiving salaries of a few hundred euros, building villas, etc. Let's start there. The question of the oligarchs: it is a pathology that was born the day after the Soviet Union collapsed. There was a sudden fall in the economy. All prices were low. And some really benefited. We must be firm in pursuing abuses and conducting audits, making sure the punishment is proportionate to the criminal behaviour. It should also be imperative to very quickly establish an antitrust law to fight monopolies, etc. However, we cannot push these businessmen to pack their bags and leave the country, making their lives difficult. In regard to the incarceration of the former president, this is an important issue. A fair trial would require a special tribunal, able to do the investigation objectively since there are a lot of questions particularly related to the nature of presidential power. Were his decisions made to fulfil his duties or were they abuses? These incarcerations can ever be justified or not, I'm not a judge and I do not have a real knowledge facts, but it sends the message, accurately or inaccurately, that there has been some abuse. It does not mean that these incarcerations are not justified, but the approach could have been different, especially when it comes to a former head of state.

NAM: Another question arises: that of the influence of the West on the events in Armenia. Is this influence, which has had positive effects on the country, not likely to increase rift with the region and with Russia?
Berge Sétrakian: This is a very serious question. We must take into account the geopolitical game and the fact that, in the new world order, we are not one of the pillars. In general, states like Armenia, Georgia and others are somewhat at the mercy of these powers. We are in a very delicate situation. Yes, there is this idea circulating that this revolution was encouraged. I do not know. I cannot make a judgment. I observe the situation in Georgia, Ukraine and elsewhere. I am confident in the new Minister of Foreign Affairs of Armenia. He has experience. He worked in the United Nations. He knows the geopolitical game. With regard to Russia, whether we like it or not, it's historically and currently the main force in the region. The United States has its own influence. Of course, each of these powers has its own interests. Georgia and Ukraine have not come out unscathed in these upheavals. Even more disturbing today is the question of the US-Iran conflict. And we are just at the border. With the more radical American regime we have today, there is zero tolerance for anything with Iran. But for us, Iran is a lifeline! The situation is also tense with Russia. There too, we see this policy of zero tolerance. On the other hand, we need Russia for our military security. We cannot say to Russia: "Keep our borders, make sure we're safe, but now we're going to flirt with the others." Especially since the assistance we receive there is otherwise minimal. Armenia, over the last 20 years, has been known to be well positioned. But the situation was not so tense. Today the game has become more complex with these conflicts between Iran, Russia and the United States. As for France, it plays an important role. France has been the most sincere in its relationship with Armenia, historically and culturally. But there are limits to what France can do. And the Western Diaspora does not have the political strength we imagine. We are not organized enough, nor in France, nor in England, nor in United States, nor in the Middle East. For example, among the ranks of the French politicians, apart from Patrick Devedjian, we have not had many people for a little over 20 years. In the United States, there is not a single Armenian member in Congress. Yet in 84-86 we had a governor at the head of the biggest American state: California. We had congressmen, we had Mr. Ignatius, who was minister of the Navy under Eisenhower. Unfortunately, we do not constitute a powerful political force. I do not know why young Armenians do not get more involved in politics in their country. One of our focuses would be to encourage young people to become more involved in public service. In Eastern Europe, under communism, the Armenians were much more integrated. But in this region too, it's decreasing. In Bulgaria we had several deputies, including two members of the AGBU. Today, even there, we commit ourselves less and less to local public service activities. In politics, to contend, you have to be present, you have to integrate into the infrastructures of the countries where we live.

NAM: Does AGBU continue to have programs in Artsakh? Does this entity have an important place in your activities?
Berge Sétrakian: Artsakh has an important place. We have invested well. For example, we have established an AUA extension for the American University of Armenia there. We also created the Tumo Center in Karabakh. More than 20 years ago, the Philharmonic was founded in Karabakh and we continue to develop and support it. It takes everything to stop the exodus of citizens to Yerevan. Unfortunately, few Armenian citizens have visited Artsakh. This is a subject on which we need to be realistic to find solutions. Per capita, we are the 3rd largest army. The first being in Singapore, the second Israel. Imagine the situation today if we had found a solution 20 years ago. I do not see, for the time being, the light at the end of the tunnel. We cannot continue like this, like the Cypriots or the Palestinians have been forced to do, always living in a state of war. We will not cede Artsakh but a just, honourable and equitable solution founded on the principles of self-determination and sovereignty must be envisioned, with certain compromises to ensure sustainable peace.