Nalbandian on a cruise in Sydney

I don’t like criticising. I really don’t. I much rather focus on the positive I see in people and situations – however little that positive may be – with the hope that it multiplies. Unfortunately, the visit to Sydney by the Foreign Affairs Minister of Armenia this Sunday, as I saw it, bore almost no positive elements to it.

Minister Edward Nalbandian’s first official visit to Australia was initiated by an invitation by his Australian counterpart, Bob Carr. The visit was part of a four-country tour that also included Indonesia, New Zealand and will take him to the Philippines next. The official agenda for the visit included a meeting with Minister Carr in Canberra today. The Minister also set aside some of his free time on Sunday to meet with the Armenian community in Sydney.

The first encounter with the community was during lunch on a Sydney boat cruise, to which state and federal parliamentarians and ministers – long-time friends of the Armenian community – were invited along with community representatives. The second was a meeting open to all members of the community. Both events were organised by an individual from the community, whom the Ministry of Foreign Affairs had found appropriate to approach for this purpose, bypassing all community structures, including and foremost Archbishop Aghan Baliosian, Primate of the Diocese of the Armenian Church of Australia and New Zealand. The visit very much had the hallmarks of a private function than a proper community visit and the Foreign Affairs Minister could not have been further removed from the realities of the community.

As the cruise made its way through the choppy waters of Sydney harbour on this windy day, the Australian officials delivered welcoming addresses in honour of Nalbandian. All three speeches by Minister Victor Dominello, MP John Alexander and MP Jonathan O’Dea acknowledged the efforts of the Armenian Australian community aimed towards the recognition of the Armenian Genocide. Dominello expressed his hope that these efforts will culminate in the recognition of the Armenian Genocide at the federal level, while O’Dea confirmed that a delegation of NSW parliamentarians is planning to visit Armenia and Nagorno Karabakh next year. This generated quite a bit of excitement during the otherwise uneventful reception.

When Nalbandian took his turn, he spoke of Armenia’s plans to expand its presence in the region and emphasised the country’s commitment to establishing peaceful relations with all countries of the world – including two of its neighbours with which bilateral relations remain tense, Turkey and Azerbaijan. It was all very noble and I’m not being sarcastic. From thereon, however, everything went downhill.

With respect to Nagorno Karabakh, Nalbandian maintained that Armenia was committed to a peaceful resolution of the conflict based on the principles offered by the OSCE Minsk Group Co-Chairs and accepted by the international community, while failing to even mention the right to self-determination as the main principle to which Armenia adheres for a resolution of the conflict. Listening to Nalbandian’s speech was the first Australian parliamentarian to visit Nagorno Karabakh, Walt Secord, who also lent his support for the right of the people of Karabakh to self-determination while in Stepanakert late last year…

Remarkably, Nalbandian also managed to go through his whole speech without once uttering the words Armenian Genocide even as he spoke about the Armenia-Turkey protocols and Turkey’s failure to ratify them without preconditions.

Nalbandian did affirm both of the above-mentioned positions in his speech during the meeting with the broader community later that day. The moment, however, had passed and while it was lost on some, many of us understood that the Minister chose to pass on a perfectly good opportunity to reiterate these positions in front of Australian parliamentarians and ministers who themselves have stood up in parliament to acknowledge the Armenian Genocide and support the right of the people of Nagorno Karabakh to self-determination.

Today, Minister Nalbandian was due to meet with Carr in Canberra. It was during Carr’s tenure as premier of NSW that the state parliament passed a motion recognising the Armenian Genocide. Whether Nalbandian used the occasion to press him on this issue today is not known (not yet at least) but perhaps what he chose to say and not say yesterday was an omen for what was to come.

There had been much speculation in the lead-up to the visit about the possible establishment of an Armenian Embassy in Australia. The Minister put our minds ‘at ease’ on this one too, announcing that the Republic of Armenia would be opening two embassies next year – one in Jakarta, one in Vietnam but not one in Canberra. Meanwhile, the 50,000 or so Armenians living in Australia – where in the absence of frequent and tangible links with Armenia, staying Armenian is a day-to-day struggle – were told to not feel neglected but also to not expect an embassy in 2013 or 2014 for that matter. The best the Minister could deliver was a pledge for an embassy at some point in the future, possibly 2015, and maybe an Honorary Consul at a sooner but yet unspecified date.

Having seen Nalbandian on TV, I had an impression of him as someone who was brought in to do the job few other people would do. In real life, my encounter with the man who signed the most important documents of the Republic of Armenia in its 20 years of independence, painted the picture of someone unable to persuade, impress or inspire. It saddens me to be so painfully honest about the person who occupies the position of Foreign Affairs Minister of our independent Republic, when I have enormous respect for the position itself and all that it represents.

No matter, the harsh reality remains that when all was said and done, Nalbandian’s visit delivered too little too late for this community.