Tuesday, January 12, 2016

My interview with incoming Armenian ambassador to U.S.

This interview with Grigor Hovhannisian is from Aug. 2012, while he was consul general in Los Angeles (2009-13). From 2013 to 2016 Hovhannisian was Armenia's ambassador to Mexico. For more background see an earlier interview from Feb. 2009.

Armenia’s Consul in LA: Status of Armenia in the Western U.S. has been elevated

A former UN relief worker in MidEast, Grigor Hovhannissian says exodus of Armenians from region likely

Published: Friday August 10, 2012
Grigor Hovhannisian. Wikipedia
Armenia's Consul General in Los Angeles Grigor Hovhannissian was recently a subject of an anonymous complaint published by Hetq.am from a group of compatriots now living in the United States. This has prompted The Armenian Reporter's editor Emil Sanamyan to follow up with Mr. Hovhannissian on the charges made against him and other topics related to the Consulate's work. Taking into account the current crisis in Syria and Mr. Hovhannissian's background in humanitarian work for the United Nations in the Middle East, The Reporter's questions also dealt with that subject. The questions were submitted and returned in writing. 

Emil Sanamyan for The Armenian Reporter: This issue is not in your current area of responsibility but one in which you have considerable expertise: the worsening humanitarian situation in Syria and of Aleppo specifically. What kind of action should Armenia and Diaspora Armenian organizations undertake to help their compatriots?

Grigor Hovhannissian: I can only answer your question as an ex-practitioner who served in the region for several years. Therefore, this would be my personal opinion, not an official one.

Middle East is undergoing tectonic changes and this process takes a heavy toll on one of the largest clusters of the Armenian people and its oldest institutions - political and cultural. We are all seriously alarmed as the conflict unfolds in and around one of the last Armenian "strongholds" in the region- Aleppo. This being said, we should resist the temptation to become alarmists and not rush into precipitous conclusions particularly because our policy choices are fairly limited.

We must continue the world-wide Armenian debate about our Syrian compatriots' future-- something we did not do during and in the aftermath of the war in Iraq. We must maintain a long term perspective while being watchful and strongly concerned with the immediate short term security and well-being of our compatriots.

As far as humanitarian situation is concerned, as we speak, it is serious, but not yet dire. It would take a longer period, harsher sanctions and a more intense unrest and insurgency to bring this upper middle income country to a near collapse, when the economy as a whole and the population's individual coping mechanisms fail to meet increasing costs of war and destruction. 

For now, we observe accelerated economic decline, massive loss of income, damage to infrastructure, particularly in the north and a significant population displacement both internally and internationally. It's unfortunate. We already hear reports of disruptions to the supply of basic commodities (e.g. long queues at Aleppo's bakeries), however this is mainly caused by urban warfare and insecurity.

For the purpose of crisis preparedness we should build on earlier experiences of the Arab Spring, however, the Syrian crisis is likely to follow the pattern of its own. My take is that all else equal, in the immediate short term, the Syrian army will maintain its grip over much of the country and gain the upper hand in Aleppo. I expect that Syrian Armenians, who have long developed their own coping strategies, would remain largely intact.

However, it is increasingly obvious that already in the mid to long run - say within the next couple of years, there may be a massive exodus of our compatriots from Syria, and, unfortunately, from the rest of the Middle East.

For now, we should focus on advocacy efforts - at all levels and with all stakeholders as to make sure that the interest and the physical security of our compatriots is factored in while making post-war plans.  I do not believe that Armenia should induce an accelerated flight of compatriots to Armenia.

In an ideal world, a permanently stand by airlift capacity should be in place to reach out to our compatriots in various areas of their possible displacement (not just Aleppo international airport) under the worst case scenario.

AR: In your estimation do Armenian diplomats and organizations in Syria have the capacity to properly assess the humanitarian situation of the community in present circumstances?

GH: I do believe that we have adequate knowledge of the country and the community and hence all the tools to make accurate assessment. We have all heard that the Government of Armenia currently operates a plan that has three scenarios for possible development and, accordingly, an action plan for each of the plausible scenarios. 

As far as "things turning bad" - in recent years in the region we have seen total incommunicado situations in Iraq at the height of insurrection and more recently in Libya. I do not expect similar difficulties in Syria. I also believe that our country will maintain a minimum diplomatic presence in Syria and will not evacuate even under more adverse circumstances and help the community and its organizations throughout the crisis.

AR: Currently the inflow from Syria to Armenia has been relatively small, estimated at several thousand people, but this flow could increase. How should Armenia go about seeking international assistance to make preparations now for the likelihood of additional displaced persons from Syria?

GH: The international community has all sorts of contingency plans in place for massive population displacement in and out of Syria. Specialized agencies would most probably anticipate and in a way guide the outflows towards Turkey and possibly Jordan. Lebanon, would be reluctant to receive large refugee groups from Syria, because of the country's size and willingness to contain the political and demographic implications the influx would entail (Lebanon already has a very serious refugee situation with Palestinians in the camps).
So if large numbers of Armenians made it to Republic of Armenia - it would be over time, say several months, and it would be gradual. When that happens, of course, Armenia should expect the international community to assist the country in accepting, securing, sheltering those who seek refuge.

As I said above, many experts believe that the exodus of Christians from the Middle East is imminent. Under this scenario, Armenia should want to retain at least a portion of the fleeing Armenian population. International humanitarian effort will not be adequate to bring and retain that population. More elaborate schemes, through public -private partnership, through financial instruments and long term affordable mortgages should be devised to build new viable communities, or even new towns in Armenia, to make the country more attractive for our compatriots. In turn, they will bring lots of skills and talent, and certainly contribute to Armenia's rich culture, competitiveness and growth.

AR: We last spoke in 2009, shortly after you took up your responsibilities in LA. What would you say have been your main accomplishments in these three years plus? You described the consulate three years ago as a "service mission" what sort of services would you now say you successfully undertake?

GH: In absolute terms, the Consulate grew significantly in its scope and coverage. As a result, the status of Armenia in the Western United States has been elevated. The level of cooperation and interaction with our community, authorities, opinion makers and the private sector has developed along cultural, economic and diplomatic lines.

Three and a half years into my tenure, I still believe and preach a "service mission" as the main motto for the Armenian Consulate in Los Angeles. As a result, we have taken strides in the right direction-- although I realize that the evaluation of these services should come from the end users.

This being said, there are things that are quantifiable and I would like to take a minute to list activities that the Consulate of Armenia started and implemented for the first time in the last 16 years Armenia has a consular mission in the US West Coast.

·         Consulate became more accessible physically and "virtually" for consular services. We moved into the community and improved the physical and technical conditions, which now parallel those of more advanced countries. We became "virtually" accessible to our compatriots who live in States outside California through our website, downloadable applications, hotline, a Facebook page, advanced telephone system that provide pre-recorded information on all consular services 24X7. We also help all citizens who seek qualified legal assistance and cannot afford otherwise;

·         Consulate supports the Armenian community through building strategic alliances with other communities;

·         Consulate introduced Armenia and the Armenian-American community to prestigious trade, travel, and book shows;

·         Consulate is promoting business to business contacts between Armenian business, Armenian importers and their counterparts in other communities;

·         Consulate is reaching out to critically important institutions, e.g. museums, universities, newspapers, cultural institutions and linking them to/with the Armenian community; promoting Armenian artists and organizing major exhibits at the Consulate of Armenia; promoting the community and local Armenian leaders among international community representatives through hosting annual consular events;

·         Consulate started open house initiatives - open to the whole community: on Armenian Christmas eve and on Armenian Independence Day for the community to visit the consulate and celebrate.

·         Consulate brought enhanced cooperation with the already existing community initiatives, such as ArmTech, Arpa Film Festival, etc. and established professional awards - for the Armenian cineastes, Silicon Valley professionals, educators, Armenian National Basketball Team etc.

·         And of course a crown jewel - House of Armenia! We as a nation and as a country now have a home in greater Los Angeles that is a source of pride and inspiration for so many of us.

And all of the above was and is being achieved at no additional cost to the Armenian taxpayer.

AR: For as long as I remember, LA Armenians have been complaining about Armenian consuls in LA. What complaints do you hear most frequently and what do you do about them?

GH: I agree with this observation as far as the citizens or former Armenian nationals are concerned. There is a number of explanations for the above.

First and foremost is that the causes that prompted these people to leave Armenia in the first place have not been "alleviated." A certain level of dissatisfaction with our services, e.g. perceived slowness in delivering bureaucratic formalities, fees associated for the paperwork, is typical to a low income group who either migrated to the US illegally, or are in process of asylum applications, i.e. in both cases their access to US social benefits is severely curtailed. Added, is their inability to travel to Armenia, for the lack of papers and resources, and, for the fear of military draft, one can gauge the overall level of their frustration.

Can the Consulate be more forthcoming and treat these compatriots more compassionately? Yes and no. In exceptional cases, we can and we do waive fees, and in urgent cases, we help our people in any way we can. But there are things we cannot change - like the mandatory military service and registration for service, without which no males of draft age can travel to Armenia or enter into any formal transactions.

AR: One complaint I have seen in recent weeks is that you had "refused" from meeting with some of the community members - presumably on more than one occasion - why was that?

GH: I have never refused to meet with community members who want to discuss matters of concern to the community, our country, specific organizations or groups. Also, we at the Consulate do not exercise a selective approach as to who to meet and who to not. Those who claim the contrary to this statement are being disingenuous and cannot produce any proofs to the contrary.

There is hardly any organization or association in the community that has not been to the House of Armenia for an event, consultation, reception, working session, etc.

AR: What is your attitude towards community members staging protests outside the consulate with regard to events in Armenia, such as the recent murder of Vahe Avetyan?

GH: People have their constitutional right to express their views and voice their protest. As an apolitical institution, we do not and we cannot have an attitude or judgment as to the cause or purpose of those protests.  To our best ability, we guarantee that our country and our national symbols are treated with due respect during these protests.

On our official Facebook page and communications, we have thanked all community members who had expressed their solidarity with Armenia in the wake of Vahe's tragic death, that has caused a massive outrage both in Armenia and diaspora.

AR: How frequently would you say you appear in public and what sort of audiences are these?

GH: Several times a week, I attend or host public events. With minor exceptions, when I cannot, I do attend all major community events across the entire spectrum: political, professional, educational, compatriotic, religious, etc.

On a regular basis, I communicate with local media through press conferences, media briefings, and televised interviews. Since early 2012, close to 30 interviews were given to local Armenian TV outlets. In addition, our Facebook page, Consulate's newsletter, which is being mass-mailed and the website provide timely information on Consulate's activities and Consul's meetings.

AR: Do you think there is a disconnect between community expectations and consul's mandate? What are these disconnects?

GH: Over the last years, we have considerably expanded the mandate to meet the ever changing characteristics, size and distribution of the Armenian - American community in the Western U.S.

Many countries with large ethnic diasporas experience similar situations. Some countries adjusted their mandate to cater to the needs of their migrant workers (e.g. Mexican Consulates provide free medical services) and to actually foster labor migration, others regard their nationals as an extension of domestic political process , some others regard their citizenry exclusively as a vector to promoting economic interests.

Our own mandate is tailored to ensure the strong bonds between the homeland and the community, preservation of national identity, culture and language, to ensure that the rights of our citizens are respected, while not encouraging additional immigration, to contribute to the consolidation of various segments of the diaspora and to promote Armenia's interests through Armenian-American community.

Of course, this broad statement of objective creates additional expectations in the community as to Armenia's more active engagement in the support of institutions, which contribute to all the above: schools, media, charities, youth and advocacy groups. And here, unfortunately, we are lagging behind expectations, although the gap is narrowing.

AR: Several years ago, U.S.authorities charged a number of individuals associated with the Consulate (prior to your appointment) on charges of fraud and other corrupt activities. What has come of those charges? Can you ascertain that such practices have stopped?

GH: The infamous "consuls' affair" caused a major blow to the Consulate and the community in the wake of my new mission. Because of the large resonance it created, a considerable effort went into damage control.

To this date, no convictions were made against the alleged wrongdoers - none of whom were incumbent diplomats serving at the Consulate of Armenia at the time of the alleged crime.

And my answer is "Yes" I can ascertain that the Consulate is free of non-transparent and illegal practices. All transactions and services offered at the Consulate are provided in accordance with the spirit and letter of the Armenian law.

AR: Finally, as a former director of the Shushi Revival Fund, do you continue to follow events in Shushi, what is your assessment of them and is that Fund still functioning?

GH: Of course I do. I remain very passionate about the historic capital of Artsakh and I do follow developments and reconstruction efforts. 

Following my resignation from the Fund, it operated for another year or so and was dissolved based on the Trustees' decision to hand over the assets and projects to the Government of NK and the Armenia Fund. I personally regret that decision, because Shushi Fund's comparative advantage was in its ability to attract private investment into what would be an economic development plan, as opposed to reconstruction through public fundraising.

Nevertheless, Armenia Fund has made remarkable progress in the city over the last couple of years, thus dramatically improving Shushi's infrastructure and its residents' standards of living. On my part, I am happy to have been involved in the Shushi Revival Fund and for projects we accomplished.

For more information about the consulate visit http://www.armeniaconsulatela.org.

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