Speaking to be Heard: An Interview with Vartan Oskanian

Below is an interview with Armenia’s former Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian, conducted via email about his book, Speaking to Be Heard.

Originally published in The Armenian Weekly
June 3, 2009

Houry Mayissian: What led you to prepare Speaking to Be Heard?
Vartan Oskanian: Even when I was in office, I was conscious that a public official—elected or appointed—has a responsibility to communicate with the public, especially in a country like ours, where every event, every agreement, every international organization, everything is new. It is a learning process for all of us, and it’s important to share that process with our public so that expectations are realistic. At the same time, in the sphere of public and foreign policy, I have always believed that the Armenian perspective needs to be heard from every possible podium, in every possible forum. Each of these speaking opportunities was a chance to explain our positions, our limitations, our expectations, our policies. So, when you live your life that way for 10 years, at the end you realize there is a body of work there that represents a 10-year evolution. And I wanted that to be available as a historic record of how our history and our policies have evolved.

And I had another reason. I am honored to have served in that capacity for a decade, and in this small way, I wanted to share my experience with readers.

H.M.: As the minister of foreign affairs of Armenia for 10 years, you delivered a substantial number of speeches articulating Armenia’s positions on a wide range of national and international issues from various influential platforms, such as those of international or regional organizations, important conferences, and universities. The book features only a selection of these speeches. How was the selection process made and what does it reflect?
V.O.: There is much more included than excluded. There were some speeches that we did not have saved, some which were never recorded or transcribed. There were also some that were repetitive. In the process of explaining policy, it is important to deliver the same message consistently. As a result, sometimes within the space of several weeks, there were several similar speeches. That’s fine, when you’re presenting them to different audiences. It’s not fine when a reader is reading them.

H.M.: In your book, you underline the importance of these speeches in getting across Armenia’s positions and interests on various issues. What has guided your speech-writing throughout?
V.O.: I have always been conscious that I have two audiences—domestic and international. Actually, three audiences—the [Armenian] Diaspora too. So, I have always been careful to frame issues in a way that is relevant and understandable to all of them, because in today’s world, there is no international border for news and information. Everyone hears, reads everything. Even in the case of the international audience, there are two segments—those who understand and support our positions, and those who, to put it mildly, don’t. There again, a speech has to be aimed at all those segments, and has to use the opportunity to gain support and understanding.

H.M.: You are known as one of the architects of the policy of “complementarity,” which has been the basic principle guiding Armenian foreign policy over the last decade. In your book, you outline the difference between this and the policy of balance adopted by the first government. Can you elaborate?
V.O.: It’s a nuanced difference, but one that frees you to act more boldly. When we were applying a policy of balance, it meant balancing one act among different countries. But I wanted to achieve the maximum for Armenia, out of our various relationships, and this led me to think that we have to complement what we do with one country with what we can do with another. The nuance here is that you are doing similar things with rivals in the same area—in security, economy, energy. You are doing more with more partners, always trying not to exacerbate their differences, not necessarily to do the same thing with one as with the other, but to do what is possible with each, to complement that which is being done with each.

H.M.: In your introduction to the book, you emphasize the importance of multilateral diplomacy in Armenian foreign policy. An integral part of this policy is membership in regional and international organizations (such as the CoE, OSCE, CIS, partnerships with NATO, and the EU) which serve as opportunities for not only pursuing national interests beyond borders but also for lesson-drawing through interaction with the representatives of other states. As a newly independent country with little diplomatic and political experience, what were some of the important lessons Armenia drew from its membership in these organizations?
V.O.: Not only did we have little diplomatic or political experience, we also had limited resources. So, if we only had 10 or later 20 embassies around the world, it is difficult for us to communicate with the other 180 capitals around the world. The first thing international organizations made possible was direct contact. It was during those annual or semi-annual meetings that we could converse with ambassadors of those other countries and make sure they understood our perspectives, our policies, our positions. We also learned a very important lesson about multilateralism, that is, if you want others to be interested in your issues, your causes, your problems, you must be interested in theirs. We cannot be a member of the world community and not be concerned with global issues like weapons of mass destruction, climate change, minority rights, migration, reforming international institutions. If we’re not interested in those topics, if we don’t have something to say about them, then we shouldn’t be surprised if they leave the room when we start talking about self-determination or genocide recognition or regional cooperation. International organizations force you to become a member of the international community.

H.M.: What would you say is your most important foreign policy legacy of the two governments you were a part of?
V.O.: One was clearly our willingness to enter into relations with Turkey with no pre-conditions. This was a noble gesture on our part. After all, we are the survivors of the genocide, yet we are the ones who extended our hand, unconditionally. This is what has made it possible to even contemplate normalizing relations between our countries. The other is our clear commitment to Europe. Although we haven’t done enough I think to move towards European values and traditions, we have stated clearly from the beginning that our view is toward Europe, that is where we belong. Europe knows this, our people know this. What remains is that we give them the tools to get there.
I would add that the work we did during the last 10 years especially on bringing the international community to a more supportive position for self-determination of Karabagh was very important. Our history will show that the first administration did what it could to secure Karabagh’s security during and after a time of war. During our decade, we had the task of reversing Lisbon, of rejecting autonomy as the maximal possible status for Karabagh, and of bringing an international community to regard Karabagh’s right to self-determination as equally important to stability in the region. We ought to maintain that thinking.

H.M.: In the book, you mention your intention to write another book. Tell us about your plans in this regard.
V.O.: It’s probably better I not saying anything until the book is further along. It will be a memoir of the 10 years I spent in office. It’s being written from the same sense of responsibility that moved me to write the first one—that this is our history and it should be shared.