Interview with President Armen Sarkissian: Financial Times of London

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Having Lunch with the FT with the president of Armenia proves as diplomatically ticklish as it is gastronomically sensational. True to the traditions of lavish hospitality in his tiny Caucasian country, Armen Sarkissian refuses to accept that any visitor could ever treat him to lunch in his home city of Yerevan. But when I tell him of the FT’s rigid rules, he suggests a generous compromise: we should have a second lunch two days later which, he reluctantly concedes, the FT may be allowed to cover. So precedent is breached, but honour satisfied.

The first of our two girth-busting and brain-bursting lunches takes place in Ankyun, an Italian-Armenian fusion restaurant in the centre of Yerevan, a quirky urban hybrid of slab-faced Soviet architecture and grandiose Caucasian style. When Sarkissian arrives, preceded by a posse of leather-jacketed, earpiece-wearing bodyguards, we are soon drawn into a discussion of the drama of last year’s “velvet revolution” and the stand-off between the then prime minister, Serzh Sargsyan, and mass opposition on the street. “It was very, very, very tense. There was no dialogue between those on the street and the government and we were heading towards a confrontation,” he says.

Sarkissian’s instinct, which his advisers thought “mad”, was simply to walk into the crowd of protesters gathered in Republic Square to meet the opposition leader Nikol Pashinyan and hear what he had to say. “I just had the feeling that was the right thing to do,” he says.

But our conversation rapidly sweeps over a broad range of subjects, from theoretical physics, Margaret Thatcher, Lord Byron and Kim Kardashian to Sarkissian’s theory of “quantum politics”, all sprinkled with a fair dose of Caucasian culture, cuisine and intrigue.

Sarkissian has, after all, lived many lives during his 65 years. “Life is always preparing you for something, you just never know for what,” says Sarkissian, whose broad face can switch from censorious frown to avuncular grin as fast as the clouds scud across Yerevan’s skyline towards Mount Ararat.

Determined to show off the wonders of the local cuisine, Sarkissian dispenses with the menu and orders a broad sample of the restaurant’s offerings. We start by sharing three salads, beetroot and cheese, broccoli, and an olive oil-drenched tarragon creation bursting with freshness and flavour. That is quickly followed by a tagliatelle with lemon and pine kernels that is deliciously zingy. I am keen to try some local wine, given that Armenia is renowned as one of the oldest wine-producing regions in the world — as noted by Herodotus. So we taste some Koor Voskehat dry white that in its rich colour and resiny taste resembles, to my limited palate at least, a vin jaune from the Jura.

During our conversation, Sarkissian frequently harks back to Armenia’s rich and troubled past but has his eyes fixed firmly on the future. I ask him about the recent speech in which he said that if the 20th century had been the century of natural resources, then the 21st century would be that of human resources. He explains that we are living through a period of extraordinary technological change, which he describes as an era of rapid evolution, or “r-evolution”, as he has dubbed it. The ability to learn and adapt is what will differentiate the winners from losers in this century.

This explosion of knowledge is partly a numbers game. In Isaac Newton’s day, there were perhaps 1,000 people in the world studying advanced mechanics. In Albert Einstein’s day, there were perhaps 10,000 scientists worldwide researching quantum physics. But today, he estimates, there are hundreds of millions of people engaged in scientific research and technological development, not just in the famous universities and multinational companies but in thousands of innovative start-ups.

“If you can find Newton in 1,000 and Einstein in 10,000, imagine how many talented people can you find in hundreds of millions? This new world is a world of innovation and start-ups.”

Sarkissian is keen to seize the opportunities of this new revolution, and argues that the power of innovation does not only apply to science, technology and business but also to the way that countries run themselves. Governments must become a lot more agile and education systems need to be reimagined. “Armenia is one of the new start-ups of the 21st century,” he says.

The first of Sarkissian’s lives was as a theoretical physicist in the Soviet Union, winning the prestigious Lenin prize and the rare opportunity in 1984 to pursue research at the University of Cambridge alongside, among others, Stephen Hawking.

On the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Sarkissian was asked to become independent Armenia’s first ambassador to London, a post he filled again on two later occasions — a record, he believes, at the Court of St James’s. For good measure, he also opened embassies and missions in Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, the EU, Nato and the Vatican. “I dreamt that I could do both science and diplomacy. But being a research physicist is like being a concert pianist. Unless you practise every day, it is gone. It becomes a hobby,” he says, regretfully.

His third life began in 1996 when he became Armenia’s prime minister, a demanding job cut short the following year when he was diagnosed with cancer. On his recovery, he returned to London to pursue a lucrative career as a business adviser to some of the world’s biggest multinationals, interspersed with further ambassadorial spells.

But in 2018 he was once again lured back into Armenian politics after being elected by parliament to serve as president. Almost immediately, he walked into a raging political crisis. Sargsyan, who had been president for the previous 10 years, had tried to retain power by rewriting the constitution and assuming the newly beefed-up role of prime minister. But this had triggered mass protests and fears that the country might spiral into violent confrontation.

Putting his extensive diplomatic wiles to good use, Sarkissian shuttled between the two sides and consulted Russian, US and EU representatives to broker a settlement. He urged all parties to come together on the eve of the anniversary of the Armenian genocide of 1915, commemorated each year on April 24. Sargsyan’s dramatic resignation soon followed, paving the way for fresh elections. Mercifully, Armenia avoided the conflict that disfigured the so-called colour revolutions in several other former Soviet republics. Sarkissian is full of praise for the restraint shown by all sides, including Russian president Vladimir Putin. “I think everyone behaved properly,” he says.

Sarkissian is now basking in the afterglow, acting as a father figure to a young, reform-minded government led by the former opposition leader Pashinyan. Hope has finally broken out in a country more familiar with tragedy.

He notices that a song by Charles Aznavour, that late, great Armenian-French singer, is playing in the background. Sarkissian reminisces that when he was ambassador to the EU, he would invite Aznavour to Brussels twice a year, guaranteeing that pretty much the entire European Commission queued up to come to dinner.

As we fold thin slices of pancetta and pepperoni pizza and munch away, Sarkissian tells me about some of the leaders he has known best and most admired, including Israel’s Shimon Peres and Britain’s Margaret Thatcher.

In particular, he remembers a trip that Thatcher made to Armenia in 1990 following the devastating earthquake of 1988, which killed some 45,000 people. Thatcher had flown in from Moscow, where she had held important talks with the then Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. What struck Sarkissian was her “discipline and sharpness of her mind”, as well as her memory for detail. He was most impressed by her ability to listen and learn, human skills that Sarkissian ranks highly. “Those people who know how to listen are also people who learn,” he says. “The moment you stop learning, you die. Age is not the number of years that you have been living. Age is the condition of your soul.”

While in Armenia, Thatcher opened a school in Gyumri, rebuilt with British aid money and named in honour of Lord Byron, whom I learn is something of a national hero in Armenia. Sarkissian explains that in 1816 Byron spent several months living with the Mekhitarist Order of the Armenian Catholic Church in Venice, where he learnt the language and wrote about Armenia’s struggle for liberation from Turkish pashas and Persian satraps. Armenian monks live in the same monastery on the beautiful Isla San Lazzaro to this day, serving up fine food and immersing themselves in a library of ancient manuscripts. “I would love to live there, it’s a fantastic life,” says Sarkissian a little wistfully.

I am certainly not grumbling about our own enclave of Italian-Armenian cuisine. Our pizza plates are whisked away and the main course arrives: steak for the president, and salmon for me. Afterwards, the owner insists that we try a pleasingly bitter hazelnut cake with our coffee. “If you ate like this every day, you would be 200 kilogrammes,” the president jokes.

Two days later, we meet again at Dolmama, an apartment block converted into an Armenian restaurant run by Jirair Avanian, a former New York art dealer and one of Sarkissian’s oldest friends. They both studied at School No 114 back in Soviet times. “He was always the brightest kid in school,” the debonair Avanian tells me. With dark wood furniture, deep red tablecloths and flowers on every table, Dolmama has the feel of a family dining room.

When Sarkissian arrives, dressed in a grey pinstriped suit and a black V-neck jumper, he says he is fighting off a cold and orders a little cherry-flavoured vodka and a Coca-Cola. We order a tantalising array of cold starters and salads, trout and cheese parcels, aubergine rolls stuffed with walnuts and fennel, and chicken liver salad, as well as the restaurant’s signature dolma, vine leaves filled with lamb and beef. They are all prepared and presented to perfection.

Dolmama

(In Armenian drams)

Tjvjik (fried beef liver) 6,000

Cured Ishkhan trout 4,500

Eggplant rolls 3,500

Dolma 3,500

Black trout 18,000

Pork steak 12,500

Water 4,000

White wine 4,000

Cherry vodka and cola 2,800

Coffee 5,000

Total inc service 70,180 (£115)

Quickly picking up on our previous conversation, Sarkissian delivers a spirited explanation of why small countries such as Armenia, Israel, Singapore and Ireland, often the victims of bigger powers in previous centuries, are well positioned to thrive in our own times because they are so adaptable. 

Throughout its own 3,000-year history, Armenia has been at the crossroads of different civilisations, cultures and ideologies, European and Asian, Christian and Muslim, communist and capitalist. Over the past few centuries, that has resulted in several eruptions of violence between the world’s oldest Christian state and its Islamic neighbours, most recently Turkey and Azerbaijan. Armenia is still locked in a frozen conflict with Azerbaijan over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. “We are survivors,” Sarkissian says.

That tumultuous history caused millions of Armenians to flee abroad. Although the population of Armenia numbers only 3m, there are an estimated 8m diaspora Armenians scattered around the world: “Armenia is a small country, but a global nation,” Sarkissian says.

That global network of engaged Armenians, including the reality TV star Kim Kardashian with her 141m Instagram followers, will be an important asset in today’s interconnected world, he argues. Sarkissian is determined to deepen the diaspora’s involvement with its historic homeland. “They have to believe they are part of a bigger family,” he says. “We have to become a hub of new ideas and technologies and do business in many places.”

Sarkissian tucks his napkin into the top of his jumper as a giant pork steak arrives. I have ordered a trout from Armenia’s Lake Sevan, a place of legendary beauty — and fine fish. The enormous, delicate trout is meatier than any other I have tasted but still flakes off the bone at the slightest prodding.

By the quantum, I mean the individual particle. The individual person becomes powerful because they have a tool of connectivity in the world wide web

One of the aspects of our modern world that most intrigues Sarkissian is how the latest technological revolution is changing the dynamics of politics. One of the very few heads of state who is a scientist, he argues that just as we moved from a world of classical to quantum mechanics, we are now moving from a world of classical to quantum politics. In the classical political world, what matters are organised forms of connectivity: tribes, nations, religions, ideologies, parties, political institutions. Change tends to be slow and relatively predictable. But the quantum political world moves in faster, unpredictable and seemingly random ways: every connected individual can produce an effect by expressing their opinion on social media.

“By the quantum, I mean the individual particle. The individual person becomes powerful because they have a tool of connectivity in the world wide web,” he says. “Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle could be used to describe events that are happening in social life.”

Sarkissian says that many aspects of our contemporary world exhibit quantum behaviour: the spread of pandemics or the impact of terrorist acts. He saw its effects first-hand, too, during Armenia’s soft revolution, when the classical institutions of government and parliament were overwhelmed by mass mobilisation in the virtual world. Power seeped into the streets.

But did not something similar take place in the pre-internet era in October 1917 during the Russian Revolution? Yes, Sarkissian concedes. Such events used to happen once every 80 years; nowadays they can happen every year. He cites the example of Emmanuel Macron, who proved a master of quantum politics in winning the French presidency in 2017 by unconventional means, but is now its victim as the gilets jaunes have mobilised online and taken to the streets.

Despite the uncertainties created by this new world, Sarkissian is exhilarated by its possibilities. He suggests that we are living through a new renaissance as research boundaries dissolve, for example, between physics and biology, between DNA and data-processing. “I would love to come back in 50 years to see what has happened,” he says.

Affairs of state are pressing but I have time to ask him which of his many lives he has most enjoyed. Typically, he gives an answer that is both mathematical and diplomatic. “Each of them. They were all mine. When I was living life number n, I was not thinking about life number n+1,” he says. “I was just trying to live a full life when I was living it.”

John Thornhill is the FT’s innovation editor

 

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