Armen Sarkissian, the president of Armenia, is incandescent with rage. “Five thousand brave and selfless Armenian soldiers were killed in this war,” he tells me at his office, referring to 2020’s conflict with Azerbaijan and Turkey. “There must be accountability for their deaths.”
Sarkissian strikes me as the only Armenian politician whose anger is welded to a constructive program of national revival. The man once described by Zbigniew Brzezinski as the “Vaclav Havel of the Caucasus” radiates no grievances against foreign powers. Where other politicians complain about being abandoned by allies, Sarkissian appears to be animated by the cold Naipaulian belief that that “the world is what it is”: nations that are nothing, that allow themselves to become nothing, have no place in it.
The most remarkable fact about Armenia is that it exists at all. Few countries have survived more suffering through the ages than this tiny Caucasus republic located at the strategic intersection of Europe and Asia. Armenia converted to Christianity in AD 301, before any other state in the world, and its history ever since has been a chronicle of interminable calvary. Competing empires reduced it, in Gibbon’s phrase, to a “theatre of perpetual war” for a millennium. The Russians deluged it from above. The Arabs and the Persians savaged it from below. And the Turks, having swallowed up all of historic Armenia’s western flank, inaugurated the twentieth century with the slaughter of 1.5 million Armenians.
The 2020 war with Azerbaijan and Turkey over Nagorno-Karabakh, the ethnically Armenian territory given a century ago to Azerbaijan by the Kremlin, has shattered the relative stability that followed Armenia’s independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. The economy, shaken by the pandemic, is crumbling. Blood continues to run on its disputed borders. The national morale is shaken. Tens of thousands of ordinary people are pouring out of the country for opportunities abroad, reviving Armenia’s tragic tradition of expatriation. Armenia’s population is just under three million. Its sprawling global diaspora — a legacy of the genocide perpetrated by Turkey — is thought to exceed twelve million.
In June, Armenia conducted snap parliamentary elections. Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, the activist turned politician who supervised the war effort, was unexpectedly returned to power. The impression of closure conveyed by the result concealed the country’s deadly divisions. In Yerevan, young men complained bitterly that they had been betrayed by their own leadership. How do you rebuild a nation devastated by foreign aggression and demoralized by infighting?
“You begin by looking inwards,” Sarkissian tells me. “You ask yourself difficult questions and make necessary changes.” And the change that is indispensable to healing the national psyche and securing Armenia’s future, he says, is constitutional reform. The war, after all, exposed not only Armenia’s military deficiencies but also the fatal defects in the national charter that governs Armenia’s unlikely democracy. The current constitution, written in 2015, was designed to safeguard the interests of individuals, not the prospects of the nation.
The war in Nagorno-Karabakh came unexpectedly in the early hours of September 27, 2020, when Armenian positions reported heavy shelling from the Azeri side. By the first week of November, Azeri troops were punching into Shushi — the mountainous linchpin of Armenian defense. When Pashinyan agreed in November 2020 to cede substantial tracts of territory held by Armenia as part of an armistice mediated by Russia, a mob stormed the prime minister’s office fully intending to lynch him. He survived. But the election that followed did not so much heal the national rift as harden it.
Sarkissian has emerged as a unifying father-of-the-nation figure in a land unravelling under the burden of loss and recrimination. For years Armenia’s most respected statesman on the international stage, he was elected three years ago to the largely ceremonial presidency. When the war broke out with Azerbaijan, he activated his extensive international connections to drum up support for Armenia. Three separate sources tell me that India had come close to airlifting a cache of arms to Armenia. But the war effort was so poorly managed that the administration in Yerevan, operating without a command structure, was unable to figure out how to receive the materiel. Sarkissian maintains that this period of “national depression” can be converted into an opportunity for a “national revival.” To recover and rebuild, however, Armenia will have to eschew its historical habit of searching for “saviors” and assume responsibility for its own future.
Sarkissian’s belief in the sanctity of self-reliance and striving, his faith in the perfectibility of the self and his contempt for self-pity, are not ideological reflexes. They are beliefs absorbed from his own life. Sarkissian grew up in extreme hardship. He was ten when his father died of cancer. His mother, Zhenya, widowed in extreme youth, worked three jobs to give Sarkissian and his sister, Karine, a semblance of a normal life. The Soviet Union offered no avenue for unconnected individuals to rise above their station. But Sarkissian realized he could be the master of his own destiny the moment he was enrolled at school: “The classroom was the only capitalist space in the Soviet Union. It was pure competition.”
He was so competitive that Soviet grandees showered him with awards and even acceded to his request to travel to England in 1984 as part of an exchange program. As a young theoretical physicist, he did research work alongside Stephen Hawking at Cambridge. What he most fondly remembers about his first exposure to the West, however, is the absence of hierarchies in science. The Soviet Union panegyrized the notion of equality; the scientists in England practiced it.
When the USSR finally disintegrated, Sarkissian was asked to open the newly independent Armenia’s first international mission in London. His success in advancing Armenia’s cause abroad — he went on to open half a dozen embassies across Europe — earned him enough respect at home that he was invited in 1996 to become Armenia’s prime minister.
A year into the job, Sarkissian was diagnosed with advanced cancer. Armenia was newly independent and required stability, so he kept the news of his illness to himself and scheduled chemotherapy around his work. One evening, however, he spied his son keeping a watchful eye on him while he received treatment — a scene that exhumed memories of his own harrowing childhood, when he had seen cancer devour his father. Sarkissian immediately made arrangements for a handover. He resigned, moved to London and began intensive therapy.
Upon his recovery, he deployed his skills as a scientist and mathematician to build a lucrative career as a private businessman during the telecoms revolution. He also did stints in between as Armenia’s ambassador to the UK — making him one of the longest-serving representatives of any country to London. He returned so frequently to the post that Queen Elizabeth branded him “the champion of all ambassadors.”
What makes Sarkissian seem indispensable to many Armenians today is his deft handling of the Velvet Revolution — an upheaval that ranks second only to the war in the Armenian pantheon of recent political turmoil. In the spring of 2018, hundreds of thousands of protesters poured into the capital. Led by Nikol Pashinyan, then an anti-corruption activist and parliamentarian, they demanded the resignation of Armenia’s longtime president, Serzh Sargsyan. Barred by law from a third term, Sargsyan had rewritten the constitution in 2015, transferred executive power to the prime ministership, then engineered his election to the newly empowered office when his presidential term ended in 2018. The brazenness of the power grab provoked a mass uprising. Everybody expected tanks to roll into the capital, as they had a decade before. It was Sarkissian, according to supporters of the revolution, who averted a massacre.
Sarkissian was sounded out for the presidency in the hope that he would endow an ornamental office with gravitas and dignity. He repeatedly spurned the offer. But the requests intensified — and with them the promise to let him steer Armenia’s foreign policy. He relented in 2018. Sworn into office just days before the protests erupted, the new president announced to his staff one morning that he was going for a stroll to Republic Square, the beating heart of the revolution. His advisers and security balked at the idea; they could not protect him from the crowd outside.
“Maintaining peace and preventing violence were my highest obligations to my nation,” Sarkissian tells me. “It would have been a cowardly abdication of my duties had I stayed in the palace.” Accompanied by a pair of guards, he emerged into streets awash with almost a quarter of a million people. Armenians at home watched in disbelief. As Sarkissian inched his way up to Pashinyan, the muted jeers that had greeted Sarkissian intensified into loud cheers.
If the old guard believed that Sarkissian would protect their interests, they were disappointed. Sargsyan quit days later, and Pashinyan was elected to the prime minister’s office within a week — all without any loss of life. The Velvet Revolution was not preordained to be peaceful. It was Sarkissian’s intervention that kept the peace.
Pashinyan, for his part, has not delivered on the promise of constitutional reform implicit in the revolution he spearheaded. It is too early to call him an authoritarian – he governs with a legitimate democratic mandate – but the practical consequences of Pashinyan’s failure to prioritize constitutional reform, and his unwillingness to devolve power to other branches of the government, proved disastrous for Armenia during the war. When I interviewed him last year, Pashinyan described the war to me as an “existential threat” to Armenia. His insistence on being the sole decider of the response to that threat on every front, military to diplomatic, did not serve his country well.
Preserving the sovereignty of Armenia, an ancient civilization marooned by covetous powers, has always required a command of statecraft that, to put it bluntly, nobody in the executive possesses. A foreign diplomat in a neighboring country who watches Armenia closely and interacts with its leadership explained to me:
Pashinyan… can be incredibly persistent and stubborn. Sarkissian is in a different league. He’s a scientist. He’s a capitalist, but he didn’t have his fingers in the pie here. He made his fortune by working hard in the West: a Soviet Thatcherite who wants to turn Armenia into the Israel of the Caucasus. … With the exception of Erdogan and Aliyev and maybe Imran Khan, he can get a meeting with almost any world leader. For a tiny country, that is a huge asset. He was just not utilized during the war. …If he had had a say in how the war was run and how the peace was negotiated, I can confidently say that country would not be suffering so much today.
Meanwhile, Sarkissian is maximizing the minuscule authority vested in his office. Between consoling families of the fallen — and of those taken captive by the Azeris — his hours are devoted to forging new relationships abroad and luring innovators and investors to Armenia. In the fall, Sarkissian convened the third Summit of Minds — a two-day conference modelled on Davos that drew foreign politicians and business titans to the spa town of Dilijan — as part of his program to turn Armenia into a major destination. A day after the summit, he flew to Saudi Arabia, where he was received with full ceremony by Prince Mohammad bin Salman, the de facto ruler of the kingdom. The visit was made historic by virtue of the not unimportant fact that Saudi Arabia and Armenia do not have diplomatic relations. It was another example of Sarkissian using his extensive personal friendships cultivated as a private businessman to benefit his beleaguered country.
Perhaps the only head of state who is also a scientist, Sarkissian has embarked on an ambitious initiative to foster a technological revolution at home. The physical foundations of his plan are being laid just outside Yerevan at Advanced Tomorrow (ATOM), a cyber and scientific innovation hub comparable to Israel’s start-up village Yokneam Illit and Bangalore’s Electronic City. Cajoling major IT and tech companies to help develop global centers of mathematical modeling, AI and machine learning inside Armenia has been relatively easy: the Armenian diaspora, one of the most prosperous and influential in the world, has been eager to help.
Sarkissian’s conception of “nation” extends beyond the frontiers of Armenia to encompass the global Armenian community. What is today Armenia was after all once marginal to Armenian life, which flourished in lands now held by Turkey. The Armenian identity — its literature, culture, cuisine, lore — was developed outside Armenia. Historically, Armenians built and administered other people’s countries for them. Today, however, such expertise cannot be put to Armenia’s benefit. For one of the requirements for service in government is uninterrupted residence in Armenia for several years.
Sarkissian is aghast that all his outreach to draw talent to Armenia is in the end frustrated by “absurd and meaningless regulations.” A luminary of the diaspora such as Noubar Afeyan, the founder of Moderna, must spend a minimum of five years living exclusively in Armenia before he can quality for service in the Armenian government. “Armenia is a small country, but a global nation,” Sarkissian tells me. “And this pettiness is depriving future generations of Armenians. It’s madness.”
By convention, changes to the constitution take effect only when a new president is sworn in. Sarkissian has just over three years left in his seven-year term of office. Armenia, by his own admission, cannot afford to wait that long. So is Sarkissian willing to resign in order to expedite the reform’s implementation? “Being the president of Armenia has been the greatest honor of my life,” he says. “But I did not accept this job to feel honored. I accepted it to serve Armenia. And I will not stay in it a second longer if it means impeding Armenia’s progress.”
This article was originally published in The Spectator’s January 2022 World edition.
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