Just 24 hours after returning to New York from his first post-war visit to Armenia and Artsakh, AGBU President Berge Setrakian took the time to respond to questions from members and friends of AGBU. He shared his personal observations and insights about the current realities from his unique perspective as head of the global non-profit for 20 years and his engagement with the homeland over the last 30 years in various leadership roles. He spoke about how these impressions and conclusions could inform strategies and solutions to advance the AGBU mission in the coming months and years. Here are highlights of that informal Q&A.
Q. What did you wish to accomplish during this first visit since the war?
Frankly, I was determined to see for myself the fallout of the war from multiple angles. By all accounts, it is a complicated and bitter new reality for the people of Armenia and Artsakh, if not the entire Armenian world. It’s one thing to keep up with the news and talk to informed sources from afar and quite another to assess and process the state of affairs on my own.
Along with Vasken Yacoubian, the president of AGBU Armenia, our foremost interest was gauging the mood of the people. After all, they are the ones who AGBU serves in various capacities, whether through education, culture, humanitarian relief, or socio-economic development. We sought to engage with as many people as we could, both in Armenia and Artsakh. We wanted to hear from the displaced families in southern Armenia and those forced to flee their homes and resettle in what is left of autonomous Artsakh after the ceasefire agreement. We also wanted to meet the local clergy and see the damage and ongoing threats to the churches and ancient holy sites in Artsakh perpetrated by Azeri forces. Only then could we make clear-headed strategic decisions about how AGBU proceeds from here. How does the tragic outcome of this war impact our current efforts and suggest new priorities going forward? These were the questions on our minds.
Q. What was on your itinerary?
It was fortuitous that my visit coincided with an already planned mission arranged by His Holiness Karekin II scheduled from June 3 to 6. It was an ambitious and potentially treacherous itinerary that would give us access to Syunik, Artsakh and Armenian territories now occupied by Azerbaijan and monitored by Russian peacekeepers. Over the four days, we managed to visit the village of Shurnukh near the borders in Syunik to meet with displaced families, evicted from their homes by Azeris who now occupy half the village. We also visited with the people of Goris and paid tribute to the fallen heroes at the newly established cemetery for the martyrs of this region. Once in Artsakh, we made it a point to visit the ancient Amaras and Gandzasar monasteries. Of course we spent time with the people of Artsakh and as a new reality, we interacted with Russian soldiers and even visited the Russian military base. All the while, we were constantly made aware of the presence of Azeri forces wherever we went.
Q. How would you describe the overall situation?
I would say tense in terms of the new geopolitical order in the region and the upcoming parliamentary elections in Armenia. It is also still quite intense when you consider the heavy cloud of uncertainty that lingers over the entire country and the overwhelming shock and grief among Armenians from all walks of life.
It’s fragile given the numerous unknowns and factors at play. Obviously, there is much disarray in leadership compounded by the politically divisive rhetoric and strife coming from the political parties before the snap parliamentary elections on June 20. Then you have territorial aggressions on Armenia’s sovereign lands, the POWs still held in Azerbaijan, and the general public inconsolable over the loss of 5,000 lives.
You visit the cemeteries. You see all these Armenian flags, waving in the wind, like an ocean. Then you look at the graves with the birthdates on display. Born in 1998, 1999, 2001. It hits you in a gut-wrenching way that the country has been robbed of such potential. For a small country, 5,000 dead and 12,000 injured are big losses. The first Artsakh War resulted in a larger number of fatalities, but at least their sacrifice led to victory and the survivors were proud of their achievement.
Q. What can be done to move toward national healing?
When I see such political discord and lack of transparency, wrapped up in all this conjecture and second-guessing the truth, when confidence in the institutions of government is bankrupt, the Church once again is the only anchor. When people are in distress, they get closer to God. The need to connect on the spiritual plane was quite palpable wherever we went. Vehapar and his entourage were welcomed in a very authentic way by all the local communities we visited. It reinforced the relevance of the Armenian Church in times of crisis, just as it has throughout our history.
Q. What about the political situation on the eve of the elections?
Obviously when you have two foreign ministers resigning in less than a year, the insecurity only escalates. Unfortunately, the electorate is left with a very difficult choice. By now we would have hoped to have fresh faces with bold new ideas grounded in professional expertise in governance. These deep divisions internally are akin to other countries like Israel and the United States. But unlike those examples, Armenia doesn’t have the governing institutions as a counterweight to such instability. No matter who in this current line up prevails, there will be opposing forces that will forestall progress. The problem is that our window of opportunity for effective government is closing fast because of the geopolitical dynamics on our borders and in Artsakh. We must be better prepared for challenges that are bound to come.
Q. Have any of the candidates reached out to you for an endorsement?
I made it a point not to engage, on or off the record, with any of the political players. Not because I am not concerned about the political situation, since it clearly impacts the lives of the people we serve, but because AGBU has consciously resisted the temptation to overstep boundaries. As a national entity that operates independently and is concerned with the fate of the nation, AGBU has succeeded in doing its work across the globe and over multiple regimes in Armenia and Artsakh. Right now, a force like ours can be an effective antidote to all the rancor, because our programs and projects are explicitly designed to bring people of good will together.
However, I must admit that during my stay, I did voice my concerns with representatives of foreign governments in Armenia, including the Russian, French, United States and European Union ambassadors.
Q. Can you share with us what those diplomatic encounters were about?
In addition to meeting with RA President Armen Sarkissian and President of Artsakh Arayik Harutyunyan, I had the opportunity to meet with the ambassadors of the countries directly involved in the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict through the Minsk Group. Naturally, they cannot say too much but they expressed their concerns. I felt compelled to respond, and speaking for the global AGBU community, I expressed our collective disappointment and sense of abandonment by these major powers we considered allies. I pointed out how they were silent or vapid in their statements, in effect leaving Armenia on its own, except for the Russian involvement in arranging the ceasefire.
Ultimately, the Russians will protect Armenians for as long as their interests are also served. Right now, Armenian-Russian interests are more aligned because both, for their own reasons, do not wish for Turkey and Azerbaijan to control the Southern Caucasus region.
Q. What were your impressions when you reached Syunik and Artsakh?
This is where the impact of the war is very black and white. We had to take the old road through the Lachin) corridor and cross Azeri land as we could no longer take the new road through Karvajar which was completed in 2017 by funding from the All Armenia Fund and contributions from the Diaspora. Those territories were now gone to Azerbaijan. We had to be escorted by Russian army units both ways of our trip. In the village of Shurnukh, there were 13 houses where Armenian families were living. The Azeris told the villagers, ‘Get out. We are here.’ There is such trauma now that the Azeris can just come in and the Armenians won’t dare resist. So these 13 families had to cross the road and find refuge with Armenian villagers “across the street”. We promised to help promptly rebuild new houses for them to be ready before next winter.
Q. What about the churches in Artsakh? Are they protected?
On our way to Amaras, the scene was quite haunting because the city of Shushi, overtaken by the Azeris, stands above it on the hill. The entourage wanted access to Dadivank but the Russians said, ‘Sorry, we don’t think we can arrange it.’ Apparently, there were three Armenian priests who had left the monastery to visit their families, with every intention to return. Now the Azeris will not allow them back in, leaving just two priests and one deacon there. While we were driving back from Artsakh, the priest remaining behind called Vehapar to report, ‘I celebrated the most beautiful Badarak today. But there were no worshippers because the church was surrounded by Russian soldiers protecting it from the Azeris.’ If they don’t protect the centuries-old monastery, the Azeris would surely go in and take it over.
Q. These scenes sound quite disturbing. Where do we go from here?
As a realist, I have to conclude that we Armenians are essentially on our own in these very critical times. This is when we have to remind ourselves of our organization’s history. We have seen this movie before, where everything seems doomed. But the Armenians never lost sight of a brighter future, especially the new generations. All through the decades, AGBU, for its part, persisted in making life better for Armenians, no matter whose authority they were living under.
Those who remain in Artsakh are the most vulnerable to oppression and attempts to obliterate their Armenian identity and history. But AGBU, as others, has the tools and the experience to help them retain their Armenian identity, in terms of language, religion, tradition, history, and the pride of belonging to the wider global Armenian community. We’ve done this across the Diaspora, in host countries that welcomed us as minorities and appreciated our culture or those that held us at arm’s length. This is something we can start working on before it may be too late, just as we did after the 1915 Genocide.
We must plan for all types of scenarios in a proactive and strategic way, learning from the past and being innovative to keep the youth engaged. Only by taking actions that uplift lives and move people forward can we reignite that Armenian spirit of survival. The flame is weak right now, but it is never extinguished and that is why, even as a realist, I am hopeful about the future. We need more diplomatic skills and political maturity within the leadership – leaders with wisdom, experience and the ability to have a vision for the future of the country and thus for the nation.
Q. What about the AGBU programs that were thriving in Artsakh before the war?
Vasken Yacoubian and I met with beneficiaries of AGBU programs in Artsakh. We were both very impressed with the determination of the participants to persevere and prosper. We met with some of the women from the AGBU Women’s Entrepreneurs (W.E.) program, which is designed to help women gain financial independence. One participant started is producing packaged artisanal tea, the product quality of which could rival those found in Europe. Another woman started a cosmetics enterprise that took off even during the pandemic. Another woman told us she is going to launch a center for psychological welfare and support and a social center so that families can come together in this time. There was a tremendous sense of solidarity among these community members.
We also met with the participants of AGBU LEAP (Learn to Earn in Artsakh Program), which was going strong before the war in helping youth and adults learn English and develop other skills to boost their careers in key industries such as tourism and public administration. Though their lives have been turned upside down, they still show up everyday to push forward and this year’s LEAP cohort is preparing to celebrate its graduation this June. TUMOXAGBU in Stepanakert has also reopened its doors and the students amaze us with their willingness to continue developing skills for inventions and creative projects. In addition to all this, we are committing ourselves to multiple relief and rebuilding initiatives in the region. Under the auspices of Etchmiadzin, we committed to the funding of a new kindergarten in Stepanakert for the children from Hadrout and other displaced families. We also decided to develop a support program for the local clergy whose role is essential under the circumstances.
Q. Any final thoughts?
It occurred to me that Armenia’s national identity was redefined in the 1990s by the military defeat of Azerbaijan and the victory of recouping historical Armenian lands. Today, the people must not go the other extreme and define themselves as victims because that relieves them of their own responsibilities as individuals and as a nation. AGBU will help foster an identity of resilience through activities geared to celebrating Armenian culture and identity formation, driving upward mobility through job readiness and skill enhancement, all while delivering messages of solidarity and hope in everything we do.
Q. What can Armenians around the world do to help make this happen?
All who share our resolve to make progress despite the significant hurdles are essential. We need mentors, experts, partnerships, technical advisories, an array of inspired ideas from talented, competent people in and out of the country. We ask those with the means to donate even more generously, even when the return on investment is riskier than before. We have the experience, the local and global networks, and international partnerships to transform lives. When we find common ground with government, we are open to cooperation. But the urgency is too real to wait for the politics to catch up with the high priorities before us.