Friday, April 10, 2009

Interview with Armenia's new consul in LA

Armenia’s new consul in Los Angeles pledges better constituency services and outreach
Interview with newly appointed Consul General Grigor Hovhanissian
by Emil Sanamyan
Published: Thursday February 19, 2009

Grigor Hovhanissian comes to Los Angeles after two and a half years as executive director of the Shushi Revival Fund, an Armenian government entity. Prior to that, Mr. Hovhanissian worked from 1993 to 2006 for the United Nations in field offices in Armenia, Africa, and the Middle East. Born in 1971, Mr. Hovhanissian is a graduate of the Middle East Studies department of Yerevan State University and has a master's degree from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.

Mr. Hovhanissian spoke with the Armenian Reporter's Emil Sanamyan on February 12, about a week into his posting. They discussed Mr. Hovhanissian's background and plans in the new assignment.

From Arabic studies to the heart of Africa

AR: How did you begin working for the United Nations?

GH: I did a year of postgraduate study in Beirut, where I met some UN people working with Shiite refugees in Lebanon and did some research work for them.

And when I went back to Armenia, I had an offer from the local UN office to do something similar, working with Armenian refugees displaced mostly from Azerbaijan but also from Central Asia. That was my first exposure and experience with international civil service. In 1993-94, I helped design and implement shelter projects for refugee resettlement in various parts of Armenia.

AR: And from Armenia you went to Congo. . . .

GH: Yes, it was actually the Great Lakes region of Africa, specifically the province of Kivu in the eastern part of what at the time was known as Zaire. Since I knew French [which is widely spoken there] and already had experience with refugee protection and resettlement, I was offered [a chance] to go there.

It was in the early aftermath of the Rwanda genocide, and we had to deal with a number of issues from security to crisis management. Those countries - Rwanda, Burundi, as well as Congo, Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, the Central African Republic - are still coping with the aftermath of that genocide.

AR: It must have been tremendous for someone learned about the Armenian experience to find himself in Rwanda immediately after the genocide. . . .

GH: That was a real issue for me. Imagine a relatively inexperienced young man getting involved in things like forensic expertise of mass graves and seeing an army, millions of people fleeing in search of security. I was grateful to my colleagues who realized the special sensitivity I had to this situation. [That experience] marked me big time.

From the Great Lakes I was posted to a more political-coordination position with the UN office in the Congolese capital of Kinshasa, dealing with UN mediation in the civil wars both in the Democratic Republic of Congo (Zaire) and Congo-Brazzaville.

AR: This is a bit off topic, but our readers like to know about Armenians in exotic places. Did you meet many in Congo?

GH: Yes, of course. Not just in Congo, but in even less frequented places. There are plenty of natural resources in that area, diamonds in particular, and our compatriots from as far away as Lebanon and France reached all the way to the rainforest.

I saw a small Armenian chapel in Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic. And in fact one of the senior officials in that country's former regime was a Lebanese Armenian.

And in Zimbabwe, there was a prominent doctor Levon - I forget his family name. He first arrived there with the Soviet mission to UNESCO, and eventually settled down and opened his own clinic. There were a few [Armenian] families in Namibia. Armenians from Armenia found their way to South Africa.

Since I traveled most of the continent, and was specifically looking for compatriots, I could find at least a few Armenians in almost every country I visited.

AR: And then it was on to the Middle East. . . .

GH: Yes. From 2000 to 2004 I was working in Jerusalem, Gaza, and the West Bank, dealing with the crisis in the Palestinian territories. And from 2004 to 2006, I was with the UN Mission for Iraq, which because of the security situation was remote-operated. I was senior advisor to the special representative of the UN Secretary General, based in Amman, Jordan.

That was the period when the U.S. was transferring authority to the Iraqi government, and we were dealing with capacity building for that government. But our real presence [in Iraq] was extremely limited. We were doing in-and-outs to the "Green Zone" [area of central Baghdad heavily protected by U.S. forces].

AR: And I imagine you had come into contact with Iraqi-Armenians who were displaced to Jordan?

GH: Yes of course. And in Iraq itself, the UN mission as well as other international offices had a number of ethnic Armenian employees as well.

And you will recall that for many years our compatriot [from Cyprus], Benon Sevan, headed the very important [oil-for-food] operation dealing with Iraq. It was a great regret and disappointment when unverified and outright accusations made this very prominent person resign after a very long and productive career with the United Nations.

And back to Armenia

AR: How did you make the leap from working for the UN for over a decade to going back to Armenia and working for its government?

GH: It was a pretty gradual process. At some point I decided that despite my career at the UN, for full professional satisfaction I needed to move back to Armenia. I am very attached to our country and everything happening there affected my life and work, so I decided that it would be better to experience it from inside. So I moved back and did not regret it.

I began by teaching at the university - Arabic studies and country studies. Then I was offered [a chance] to establish and lead the Shushi Revival Fund, which is both a political and a development venture. I was very happy doing that job until very recently, when totally unexpected for me, I was offered [a chance] to become Armenia's consul general in Los Angeles.

AR: What was your mandate at the Shushi Fund and who were you in effect answerable to?

GH: The fund has a Board of Trustees chaired by the mayor of Yerevan. The mission statement was to create a framework to facilitate investments and development of the town of Shushi.

It was not a charity per se, since charity is good for building schools and hospitals; but to really have a city that is developing and economically viable, you need more than that. So we went about designing a master plan for Shushi's development. We did that with help from an Orange County-based company. And we did some basic infrastructure work, like water supply.

We thought of ourselves as sort of a vector that underscores the importance of Shushi as a historical capital of Artsakh (Karabakh) to attract wider involvement in Shushi's future.

AR: And in two years with the fund, what were you most happy and most unhappy with?

GH: Unhappy with the pace of programs. It has been slower than initially expected. Perhaps initial expectations were really too high. There were also some setbacks related to the international economic crisis over the past year affecting the flow of investments.

And I was certainly happy that with our small team we managed to organize a telethon between Shushi, Bethlehem, and Moscow, which was an unprecedented thing to do and was broadcast on Orthodox Christmas Eve in 2008. It drew quite a bit of attention as well as support.

The Los Angeles mission

AR: What did President Serge Sargsian ask you to do as consul general?

GH: I was given a very clear sense of mission.

I am here to serve the needs of our community; interpret the government's position vis-à-vis various issues the community has, including repatriation; try to smooth over any tensions between various community groups; work to improve Armenia's image; and maintain our diplomatic presence to promote political and economic relations with the United States.

We are here on a service mission, and that I think that is the key word. We will particularly be focusing on improving the quality and expanding the quantity of services of this consulate for our compatriots and all people with goodwill for Armenia.

AR: You are the sixth head of the mission since the consulate opened in 1995. Before speaking with you I spoke to a number of my colleagues and friends and heard repeatedly the refrain that the consulate is widely perceived as an OVIR - the Soviet era-legacy passport and visa agency known for its bureaucratic hassles - and that there was not nearly enough outreach to the community.

GH: To be perfectly blunt and frank with you, I heard these same things in Armenia. But I should note that I found this office well-managed and quite efficient.

I know that there have been issues of a logistical nature and with the efficiency of consular services. Sometimes the overall discontent comes from a very basic thing - our inability to deliver services in a well-managed and timely way. We will be assessing these issues as a matter of first priority.

In terms of outreach, the complicating factor is that the consulate is located in the Beverly Hills area of Los Angeles, which is not the most convenient location relative to where most of our constituency lives - in Glendale, Pasadena, Hollywood, and elsewhere. We will try to reconcile these [disconnects].

What is clear is that we need to improve the outreach and quality of services.

AR: What have you done in your first week in Los Angeles other than moving in?

GH: Meeting with community members, getting introduced to leaders of the Church, political parties, civic groups, and various organizations. I am trying to complete this introductory part as quickly as possible to be able to get down to practicalities and tangible things. I want to note that I found these briefings extremely important and I am very grateful to all our community leaders who have been very forthcoming.

In the future, being the field person that I am, I will try to be out with our constituency as much as I can.


Consulate General of the Republic of Armenia
50 N. La Cienega Blvd., Suite 210
Beverly Hills, CA 90211
Tel: (310) 657-6102
Fax: (310) 657-7419

The consulate does not currently have a web site.

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