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A-D Conference 2002 - Interview with Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian

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MEDIAMAX News Agency
INTERVIEW
with
VARTAN OSKANIAN, MINISTER OF FOREIGN AFFAIRS
on the
SECOND ARMENIA-DIASPORA CONFERENCE
April 3, 2002

Q.: Mr. Minister, two months have passed since the announcement that the
government has decided to go ahead with the Second Armenia-Diaspora
Conference this May. What has been done since that announcement?
A.: These two months have consisted of a long series of consultations
both within Armenia and in the Diaspora. We began by engaging some of
the participants of the last conference to work with us in formulating
the topics that will be addressed at this second conference. Invitations
were sent to all those who participated in 1999 to consider attending
this 2002 conference as well. More than 1500 invitations were sent out
by our embassies to community organizations and key individuals. In
addition, through the website and the Armenian press, we have also
reached out to others who may wish to participate. As a result, some 200
individuals from 15 countries have already registered.

Preparatory meetings have been held both in Armenia and in the Diaspora.
Our ambassadors and consuls have met with community organizations and
leaders in order to inform them of the planning process and to seek
their input. In Armenia, we've met with the representatives of the
church, the Diaspora political parties, the intellectual community and
others to seek their input on the content and format of the Conference. 
As we have already explained, this conference will have two main
components; one is the panel discussions where a wide-range of topics
concerning Armenia and Diaspora will be explored. The second component
consists of identifying those projects which can be undertaken and
implemented together.

As a result of our preliminary consultations, the topics for discussion
have been determined and are available through the embassies or at
www.armeniadiaspora.com.

We are now selecting and inviting the panelists who will actually make
the presentations on the various aspects of each topic. These panelists
will consist largely of experts and practitioners who best understand
the issues at hand. Finally, we will move to determine and select the
specific projects and programs which can be achieved through the
collaborative efforts of Armenia and the Diaspora and are both necessary
and doable.

Of course, I've only described the planning work that has gone into the
conference program itself. There has also been a great deal of
logistical preparation: preparing the simultaneous interpretations for
each session, developing the programs that will be held in the days
preceding the conference, hotel and airline preparation, forming the
groups of volunteers who will be available to conference participants,
planning special tours and events in conjunction with the conference for
those who wish to become better acquainted with organization and
business life in Armenia.

The conference and the days surrounding it will be a busy time in
Yerevan.

Q.: The reports in the Armenian press about the conference have been
varied. There has been a lot of criticism, too. What are your reactions?
A.: We have been following the press reports closely. All the articles,
editorials, opinion pieces are compiled and read. I have to say that
most of the reactions are positive. There is a great sense that such a
conference is necessary and many welcome it. Of course, there are those
who harshly and strongly criticize the conference. Those whose
criticisms are petty, insulting, personalized and useless, we simply
ignore. Others, however negative they may be, we take into serious
consideration. In many cases, the subjects of criticism are the very
issues which will be up for discussion at the conference, such as how
the Diaspora should be represented at such gatherings, how frequently
they should be held, what format should be adopted, and so on.

Having acknowledged, however, that some of the criticism is legitimate
and useful, I must say that much of the criticism is also groundless.
For example, several editors have decided that this conference is
nothing more than an election ploy for the President. This criticism is
unfounded, and illogical as well. The conference will be long forgotten
by the time the presidential election rolls around 10 months later in
the spring of 2003. If we had wanted to use the conference as 'part of
the presidential campaign' as some have charged, we would have held it
later. In fact, holding it later would have been useful and given us
more planning time, but we didn't want to hold it later, specifically to
avoid such criticism.

Another common criticism of the conference is that it is untimely, not
because Armenia is not prepared, but because the Diaspora is not
prepared. Of course, this is one of those reasons that never disappears.
If we don't hold such gatherings because the Diaspora is not ready, then
the Diaspora will never become ready, and Armenia's and Diaspora's needs
will never be tackled and met. It is precisely because the Diaspora is
in many ways unprepared or ill-equipped that Armenia must take the
initiative to provide the forum where some of those issues can be
addressed. They may not get resolved, but they must at least be put on
the table for deliberation.

Q.: You haven't addressed the other major criticism: that is, that this
conference, like the last conference, will be merely a show.
A.: The first conference was not a show but was intentionally planned to
be large in scope, emotional and the first step toward the creation of
an environment for formal interaction and cooperation. In fact, that
environment lead to a great many joint activities and projects, such as
teachers' exchanges and expanded worldwide television broadcasts,
sports activities and others.
We will now pick up where that left off and use this second conference
to raise and articulate all the issues that are on everyone's agenda. We
don't pretend that these issues will be resolved by this conference or
any conference. To expect such a thing is nave. But we have gone to
great lengths to convene panels so that the content and scope is clear.
We are committed to using the conference as the podium from which to
recognize the problems and challenges that confront us as Armenia and
Diaspora. Therefore, we are tackling the five major sectors of interest.
The first is political relations and advocacy. The premise is that
Armenia and Diaspora, coordinating their resources and approaches, can
accomplish a lot. So, we need to examine how the two view national
priorities and challenges, whether they see eye-to-eye on Armenia's
foreign relations issues, and whether they even can. Also, if we're
talking about political issues, obviously we need to look at Nagorno
Karabagh and how we can, together, work towards guaranteeing a lasting
and just resolution of the conflict. Therefore, we're going to examine
the urgency of meeting the social and economic development requirements
of Nagorno Karabagh. Finally, one of the panels will address the many
issues, beyond Nagorno Karabagh and Genocide recognition, on Armenia's
foreign policy agenda which would benefit from the Diaspora's lobbying.

Information and Media was chosen as a sector, because we assume that
better information about each other will lead to easier collaboration.
Therefore, we're going to explore the means to smoother and more
effective cooperation as well as the obstacles to such cooperation. The
means obviously include the internet, and we will present the specific
ways of benefiting from the potential of the Internet for the promotion
of culture, for better public relations, for publishing and networking.
The obstacles include such technical matters as the lack of a common
keyboard and a common orthography. But other problems exist as well, and
they too have to be discussed. For example, what will it take to make
media in Armenia and Diaspora truly independent, how will the media
reconcile their own interests with national interests? How can Armenia
become an international information society and part of the global
information flow? All of these are questions that we tackle individually
from time to time. It's time to put them on the table, address them, and
see if there are ways of professionally, consistently pursuing them to
find mutually acceptable answers. These are just two sectors. Similarly
detailed sessions are planned for Economic and Social Development,
Education, Culture and Science and Armenia-Diaspora Organizational and
Structural Issues.

Q.:Aren't you now going in the opposite direction and packing too much
into these two days?
A.:Remember, the purpose is not, and indeed cannot be, to resolve
problems in a two-day conference with 1000 participants. The purpose of
this conference is to raise issues, to ask the right questions,  to
select the more immediate and critical among the many problems that
exist, to identify the right individuals who should tackle them, and to
begin to look for mechanisms for their resolution.  In the Education,
Culture and Science sector, for example, we will speak about such
long-term and fundamental issues as the need for a national curriculum,
as well as very specific immediate needs such as computerizing all of
Armenia's schools, turning our higher educational institutes into
regional centers, making youth camps relevant and modern for  today's
youth from Armenia and the Diaspora can interact, and developing
meaningful and necessary educational, scientific and cultural exchanges.
All of these topics should continue to be at the center of our attention
after this conference is over. A commission can be established to do the
detailed, time-consuming work of developing a curriculum that teaches
history and language in  ways which are relevant and necessary to
building a national identity. How will this be done if we don't
establish such a commission? How will we know who to appoint to such a
commission unless there are people in place, ready to work to identify
the right resources? Would this be effective if it were done either in
the Diaspora or in Armenia alone, without the input of the other? The
same questions can be asked in the Economic and Social Development 
sector. The problems facing Armenia's businesses are many. They are the
same problems faced by Diasporan and local Armenian businessmen. Some
problems are systemic and require long-term solutions, others require
insight and experience, together with political will. This is the place
to identify them, and to come up with mechanisms for finding permanent
solutions.

Q.:But all of this assumes that there are mechanisms in place to take
these ideas and suggestions and implement them.
A.: Some mechanisms are in place. The government is committed to
providing permanent structures through which Armenia and Diasporan
individuals and organizations can effectively interact and cooperate.
Indeed, the specific projects that come out of this conference will be
possible only if there are mechanisms for continuing cooperation. For
example, we foresee that specific educational and cultural projects will
certainly be adopted. We don't know what they will be, but they might be
specific exchange programs for artists, for teachers. There might be a
decision to seriously undertake turning at least one of our Institutes
into a regional AUB-type magnet. There might be a decision to set up a
commission to undertake once and for all the orthography issue. Perhaps
we'll be able to adopt a serious program of Internet-based public
relations. All of these assume that we will more efficiently and
regularly utilize cooperation mechanisms that already exist   At the
same time, it is no secret that new mechanisms need to be considered.
That is the function of the fifth panel: Armenia-Diaspora Organizational
and Structural Issues. By studying how other homelands and diasporas
interact, by looking to see what the Diaspora's potential truly is, and
how it can benefit Armenia's statehood, we will be able to try to find
appropriate mechanisms for active and continuous and regular Diaspora
input into these processes. Maybe the solution is Diasporan observers in
Armenia's parliament, maybe the solution is dual citizenship, maybe the
solution is a national council with broad political, professional,
religious and individual representation. Whatever the options are, they
need to be put on the table so we can proceed. After all, what's the
alternative?  The Diaspora criticism seems to focus on the fact that the
Diaspora is not organized enough to fully participate with decent
representation. How will we ever get there if we don't start somewhere?
How will we ever identify the active resourceful individuals or
organizations who are today contributing to Armenia's development if we
don't invite them to such a meeting and develop a common information
field?

Q.: What is the next step then?
A.: This step, and the next step, are to raise and resolve the issues
that stand in the way of our using our combined resources for the common
good. I think every Armenian would agree that the top priority for all
Armenians at this point is a prosperous Armenia. Our task now is to help
Armenia until such time that it becomes a flourishing state which could
then help the Diaspora  with its specific needs. At the same time, there
are things that can be done right now to meet some of the Diaspora's
immediate needs, too. To be able to do all of this however, we must do
what we can through face-to-face meetings, frequent professional and
geographic exchanges, improved media access, better use of the internet
to demonstrate and teach the value of our unique resource: the
nation-state. We are not just members of a nation any more, sitting in
Boston or Beirut, Vanadzor or Vienna. We are members of a nation-state
with all of the benefits and responsibilities that go with that status.
This conference is a step toward moving to take on the responsibilities
that are ours in order to be able to reap the benefits that are also
ours and our children's.

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