By Hans Weber and Pietro Andrea Podda
Recently, the Prague Forum has met with His Excellency Ashot Hovakimian. Ambassador of Armenia to the Czech Republic. The delegation of the Prague Forum has been composed by the President Hans Weber, Pietro Andrea Podda and Milos Janu. The discussion has focused about current topics related to Armenian economy. culture and politics. Prague Forum: How long are you already posted in Prague, and where have you been posted before?
Ambassador: I joined the diplomatic service immediately after Armenia gained independence, it means exactly 30 years ago. As a specialist in Balkan and Slavic Studies, I was invited for consultations to the newly created Armenian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, from which, after some time, I received a proposal to join the diplomatic service. Since then I have been posted to many diplomatic missions, among which the first was Greece, where I opened the Armenian Embassy in 1993, then followed Poland, where I served as an Ambassador for almost 8 years, simultaneously covering Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia. Directly from Poland I was transferred to Austria, where my mission lasted for over 5 years – both as an Ambassador to Austria and the Permanent Representative of Armenia to the OSCE and the international organizations based in Vienna. From Vienna I served as a non-resident Ambassador to Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic as well. So, as you understand, this is my second time serving as Armenia’s Ambassador to the Czech Republic. After Vienna, in 2011 I returned to Armenia, where I was appointed Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs and served in this capacity until my appointment as Ambassador to the Czech Republic in the beginning of 2019. With now residence in Prague, I am currently non-resident Ambassador to 4 other countries: Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia and Montenegro.
Prague Forum: Have you visited many parts of the Czech Republic, and what did you like most?
Ambassador: As I have been here as an Ambassador before, I had the chance to do some traveling for working purposes and leisure even back in the days. Ever since my new assignment here I had the chance to hold working visits to several regions, including the Hradec Kralove Region, the Moravian-Silesian Region, the Zlin Region, the Karlovy Vary Region and the South Moravian Region. I have also had the chance to travel to Ostrava and Frýdek-Místek several times, where, as you know, the famous Czech brand “Marlenka” honey-cakes based on a traditional Armenian recipe are produced by our compatriot Gevorg Avetisyan, who recently was nominated for one of the highest awards of the Czech Republic. We have also had the chance to visit such cities as Jihlava, where we have a small Armenian community and where in 2005 the first Armenian Khachkar or Armenian “cross-stone” in the Czech Republic was installed in the city center, dedicated to the victims of the Armenian Genocide. This year, quite recently in September, I visited KralupyNad Vltavou, for the official opening ceremony in the central park of KralupyNad Vltavou of another “khachkar” dedicated to the victims of the Armenian Genocide. Most often we had the chance to visit Brno, where we have the presence of an Armenian community, as well as quite active cooperation with the Brno Philharmonic, which during recent years has been quite active in presenting Armenian music and culture to the Czech audience. For example, this October the “Moravian Autumn” music festival taking place in Brno introduced an extensive Armenian program dedicated to the 30th anniversary of Armenia’s independence, with the concluding concert of the Festival performed by the Armenian Philharmonic Orchestra. The Armenian Program of the “Moravian Autumn” Festival was followed by 2 other concerts of prominent Armenian musicians in Prague-world-famous Armenian violinist Sergey Khachatryan performed in Rudolfinum with the Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra, followed by the unprecedented concert of the genius Armenian jazz pianist Tigran Hamasyan at the concert hall of the Prague Conservatory. Going back to your initial question about places I have visited, I’d have to mention that we had much more planned in mind, especially in terms of fostering inter-regional cooperation, but, unfortunately, several working trips had to be postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and also taking into consideration that my, being accredited to 4 other countries, entailsextensive travelling to these countries as well, but hopefully we will soon be back on track with all our plans in the near future.
Prague Forum: Which is your favorite place in Prague?
Ambassador: For me it is -Dejvice. I live and work in this area and I really like it here. It is one of the most pleasant places, which I consider to be one of the best in the city. It’s very green and beautiful, with a lot of parks to choose from when going for a walk, a hike or some biking! I often go to the Petrin area and the city center as well, I like to walk down towards the Hrad and stroll around the nice little streets and alleys of Mala Strana then cross the bridges towards Stare Mesto for a beautiful scenery of Prague, but Prague 6 remains my favorite-it is my home away from home! And of course extensive and long way biking across the Vltava to all four directions!
Prague Forum: What opportunities does Armenia offer to Small and Medium Sized Companies?
Ambassador: Small and medium-sized entrepreneurship is one of the most important factors in increasing the competitiveness of the Armenian economy, ensuring inclusiveness and sustainable development. For the purpose of strengthening the SME sector and increasing competitiveness in Armenia the Government emphasizes several strategic directions like increasing the accessibility of financial resources, capacity building of SMEs and development of business culture, ensuring the accessibility of markets for SMEs, providing a favorable institutional and legal environment for SME development. In 2020, the Government of Armenia approved the Small and Medium-sized Entrepreneurship Development Strategy for 2020-2024 and a further associated action plan was developed as well. It is planned to facilitate the growth of the SME productivity by 3% in 2020-2023, and by 7.5% in 2024. The Government actively supports the development of SMEs in Armenia through various assistance schemes, comprehensive and targeted assistance is provided to start-ups and already existing SMEs to start a business, develop and create new values. The Government of Armenia, in its Program for 2021-2026 reaffirms its commitment to undertake complex steps to eliminate the obstacles existing in the SME sector. The main steps of the Government are to be geared towards the growth of the specific weight of SMEs in the GDP and proportional territorial development- the aim is to make the portion of SMEs in the GDP reach 55% in the course of 5 years. In the overall context of the development of the SME sector in Armenia, several important objectives have been set. A social innovation support center is planned to be established for the development of social entrepreneurship and a social environment and steps are to be taken for the improvement of the social system through the training and requalification of an inclusive workforce. Wider opportunities are to be created in various sectorsof the economy for the involvement of women, particularly for women to be able to combine work and motherhood. Measures will be taken to create favorable conditions for the promotion of nonagricultural entrepreneurship and the acquisition of non-agricultural skills in villages, particularly for shaping and enhancing skills that are currently in high demand. The Government will foster the establishment, development and functioning of sector-specific associations in the sphere of the development of SMEs, particularly by granting functional powers and courses for the development of entrepreneurial skills will be introduced in different stages of the educational system Among other activities, the Armenian Government plans to implement measures for the functioning of the “Made in Armenia” brand, particularly for the representation of the manufacturers of Armenia and the increase of the level of their “recognisability” in international markets. The concept of “Make in Armenia” is also to be developed, to promote the engagement of foreign companies.
Prague Forum: What are the main topics on the agenda in the relationship between Armenia and the Czech Republic?
Ambassador: Armenia highly values its relations with the Czech Republic, based on historical friendship and mutually beneficial cooperation in bilateral and multilateral formats, including those of the UN, OSCE, CoE and other organizations. We have quite active inter-parliamentary cooperation, with Inter- parliamentary friendship groups having been operating in both parliaments, as well as an ongoing intergovernmental cooperation framework with an Intergovernmental Commission on economic issues operating through regular sessions and discussions. Indeed, last month was marked by 2 high-level Czech
visits to Armenia accompanied by business delegations: the visit of the Czech Foreign Minister and the session of the Intergovernmental Commission led by Deputy Minister of Industry and Trade Martina Tauberova. We see the Czech Republic as a like-minded country, with which we not only share the same humanistic values, but the relations with which are anchored on sustained democratic traditions. The wave of peaceful transition that started off in the Czech Republic three decades ago found its reflection beyond its borders, setting off peaceful democratic changes. Now we are in the on-going processes of democratic reforms and transformations in all the fields, including the public sector, economy, justice, etc. And the Czech Republic is a reliable partner for us in this sense, in sharing its experience and supporting Armenia on its democratic path. Utmost interest exists in further enhancing the relations with the Czech Republic not only within the bilateral agenda, but as well within the Armenia-EU cooperation framework, including the implementation of the EU-Armenia Comprehensive and Enhanced Partnership Agreement. The leading role taken up by the Czech Republic in promoting the EU Eastern Partnership framework is commendable, and we stand ready to join efforts in further fostering this cooperation platform in the spirit of mutual respect and understanding, inclusivity, effective cooperation and a merit-based approach. Armenia is keen to working towards not only fostering intercultural exchanges and activating the mobility between the peoples of our countries in terms of tourism, but also promoting trade and mutual investments, as well as joint endeavors in the spheres of ITand high technological solutions- a field full of potential and aspirations for both of our countries. We are also thankful to the Czech Republic for its approach to humanistic issues of importance not only for the Armenian people, but humanity in general. Both of the chambers of the Parliament of the Czech Republic have officially condemned and recognized the Armenian Genocide. The Czech side has also been and continues to be a strong supporter of the efforts of the OSCE Minsk Group Co-Chairmanship in reaching a peaceful and long-lasting solution to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, based on the commonly known principles of international law.
Prague Forum: A thorny topic: the relationships between Armenia and some of its specific neighbours. Any step towards normalization? Ambassador: Since proclaiming independence 30 years ago the Republic of Armenia, following the principles of universal values, has been building its statehood and active communication with the outside world, by joining and actively participating in the activities of around two-dozen international organizations and establishing diplomatic relations with around 180 countries. As you know, Turkey and Azerbaijan are not among those countries with which diplomatic relations were established, conditioned by the Nagorno- Karabakhconflict. Armenia is ready for a constructive dialogue on peace and collaboration, free from preconditions and threats. Only when all these issues are properly addressed and an unconditional and complete withdrawal of the Azerbaijani Armed Forces from the territory of the Republic of Armenia is undertaken, prospects for sustainable peace and development in our region will become visible.
Prague Forum: Indeed, you also hold good relationships with neighbors like for example Iran. Can you tell us about the common projects?
Ambassador: The development of traditional neighborly relations between Armenia and Iran is based on a number of shared realities: shared borders, historic and cultural ties, and mutual economic interests. There is a large Armenian community in the country. Iran is Armenia’s 4th economic partner. Armenia’s main southern transit route passes through Iran, as does Armenia’s strategic access to Asia and the Middle East, a reality only exacerbated by the blockade of Armenia imposed by its two neighboring states. And the international sanctions against Iran, in this sense, are also affecting Armenia as well. We share significant interests with Iran in energy cooperation and we are currently implementing several joint projects aimed at providing Armenia with important alternative sources of energy. In the energy sector, a gas-for-electricity exchange program is being implemented. The construction of the 3rd high-voltage power transmission line is underway, planned to be completed by the end of 2021. The implementation of the program will significantly increase the volume of the exchange and sales of gas and electricity. Importance is attached to joint efforts for the development of logistics and infrastructures, transport interconnection and the implementation of energy programs and regional programs of bilateral interest. Currently, discussions are underway with Iran regarding building a North-South international transport corridor.
Prague Forum: Armenia defines itself as a “knowledge economy”. Can you tell us more about the knowledge-oriented sectors of the economy and their development?
Ambassador: Armenia is a country where education and scientific output remains the main asset of the economy, whilst technological advancement and innovation have been set as the main guarantees for sustainable development. Due to how the society embraces and values education and science and the country’s legacy as an education center and tech-hub since the time of the Soviet Union, Armenia has registered rapid success in the developing global tech world. Currently Armenia occupies a leading position in the region in the field of information technology in terms of its share in the country’s GDP, growth rate in the number of companies and total turn over. Currently about 5% of Armenia’s GDP comes from IT. Tech is now the largest foreign investment in Armenia and many of the world’s most powerful technology firms— including Intel, Microsoft, Google, IBM, Synopsys and Cisco—all have a physical presence there. Armenia has already gained successful experience in establishing technological centers-like the TUMO Center for Creative Technologies, where young people of all ages can take up innovative and free extracurricular educational programs in the field and the “Armath” engineering laboratories, which are established in schools and Vocational Training Institutions to promote the development of engineering and robotics skills among students. These two initiatives have become Armenian brands that are now being exported abroad, with international TUMO Centers having been opened in several cities- Paris, Beirut, Moscow, Tirana, Berlin, Kiev. Influenced by Armenian diaspora companies like Service Titan, which is now valued at about $9.5 billion, and native Armenian firms such as Shadowmatic, which won the Apple Design Award in 2015, Armenia’s startup scene has also been growing rapidly during the last 20 years. Among the success stories in Armenia’s startup scene we can mention the Crowdfunding Formula, the PicsArt app, the Vineti app, the Krisp app, the Intel in Air, the Zoomerang app, ggTaxi and many many more. The Armenian government provide spreferential tax breaks specifically designed for IT companies and tech startups. The government is also making it easy to start a business in Armenia, offering an “open door” policy which is designed to attract foreign businesses and investors. According to the World Bank’s Doing Business report, Armenia ranks as 10th in terms of the ease of starting a business.
Prague Forum: Armenia is certainly one of the most ancient countries in the world, despite changes in the geographical borders. How do Armenians live their connection with a rich and glorious past?
Ambassador: Armenia is, indeed, one of the cradles of ancient civilization, with roots going back into pre- historic times. We have millennia-old heritage not only in terms of tangible, but also intangible cultural and religious heritage. Armenia is the first country that adopted Christianity as a state religion, which, together with the Armenian language and traditions, has played quite an important role in preserving the Armenian identity throughout centuries, especially in the times of the absence of Armenian statehood.
For us, Armenians, culture has a strong connection to our history and identity. Armenia is among those countries whose historical and cultural heritage is as well dispersed well beyond the borders of the Republic of Armenia – both in all neighboring countries and in very distant places. The level of protection in those countries is very different. In this regard, I’d like to mention, that Artsakh (Nagorno Karabakh) is also an integral and inseparable part of the Armenian cultural heritage landscape. The cultural and religious monuments of Artsakh, which are extraordinary examples of Christian Armenian architecture, provide material evidence of the long history of Armenians in the region and are integral to the contribution of Armenians to the cultural heritage of the world. Armenia has legitimate concerns about the fate of the rich Armenian historical and cultural heritage, around 4000 monuments (monasteries, churches, distinctive Armenian cross-stones/khachkars), which are now under the control of Azerbaijan.
The destruction of cultural heritage, be it intentional or unintended, in the event of armed conflict or in time of peace, is a loss not only to the group, community or nation it belongs to, but is an encroachment on the common historical-cultural legacy of humanity.
This year we celebrated the 30th anniversary since the modern-day Armenian statehood came into existence. Our nation, that possesses a centuries-old history, having passed through many hardships and trials and having survived genocide, not only withstood all those challenges, but also restored its statehood in its historical homeland. Even in this short period of time we were still challenged to fight for the preservation of our identity and the right to live in our homeland. The Artsakh wars and the achievements and losses of the Armenian people once again testified to the strong will of the Armenian people to live and create in their native homeland and the unbreakable faith in building a bright future for the new generations.