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MEDIAMAX News Agency INTERVIEW with VARTAN OSKANIAN, MINISTER OF FOREIGN AFFAIRS on the SECOND ARMENIA-DIASPORA CONFERENCE April 3, 2002 Q.: Mr. Minister, two months have passed since the announcement that the government has decided to go ahead with the Second Armenia-Diaspora Conference this May. What has been done since that announcement? A.: These two months have consisted of a long series of consultations both within Armenia and in the Diaspora. We began by engaging some of the participants of the last conference to work with us in formulating the topics that will be addressed at this second conference. Invitations were sent to all those who participated in 1999 to consider attending this 2002 conference as well. More than 1500 invitations were sent out by our embassies to community organizations and key individuals. In addition, through the website and the Armenian press, we have also reached out to others who may wish to participate. As a result, some 200 individuals from 15 countries have already registered. Preparatory meetings have been held both in Armenia and in the Diaspora. Our ambassadors and consuls have met with community organizations and leaders in order to inform them of the planning process and to seek their input. In Armenia, we've met with the representatives of the church, the Diaspora political parties, the intellectual community and others to seek their input on the content and format of the Conference. As we have already explained, this conference will have two main components; one is the panel discussions where a wide-range of topics concerning Armenia and Diaspora will be explored. The second component consists of identifying those projects which can be undertaken and implemented together. As a result of our preliminary consultations, the topics for discussion have been determined and are available through the embassies or at www.armeniadiaspora.com. We are now selecting and inviting the panelists who will actually make the presentations on the various aspects of each topic. These panelists will consist largely of experts and practitioners who best understand the issues at hand. Finally, we will move to determine and select the specific projects and programs which can be achieved through the collaborative efforts of Armenia and the Diaspora and are both necessary and doable. Of course, I've only described the planning work that has gone into the conference program itself. There has also been a great deal of logistical preparation: preparing the simultaneous interpretations for each session, developing the programs that will be held in the days preceding the conference, hotel and airline preparation, forming the groups of volunteers who will be available to conference participants, planning special tours and events in conjunction with the conference for those who wish to become better acquainted with organization and business life in Armenia. The conference and the days surrounding it will be a busy time in Yerevan. Q.: The reports in the Armenian press about the conference have been varied. There has been a lot of criticism, too. What are your reactions? A.: We have been following the press reports closely. All the articles, editorials, opinion pieces are compiled and read. I have to say that most of the reactions are positive. There is a great sense that such a conference is necessary and many welcome it. Of course, there are those who harshly and strongly criticize the conference. Those whose criticisms are petty, insulting, personalized and useless, we simply ignore. Others, however negative they may be, we take into serious consideration. In many cases, the subjects of criticism are the very issues which will be up for discussion at the conference, such as how the Diaspora should be represented at such gatherings, how frequently they should be held, what format should be adopted, and so on. Having acknowledged, however, that some of the criticism is legitimate and useful, I must say that much of the criticism is also groundless. For example, several editors have decided that this conference is nothing more than an election ploy for the President. This criticism is unfounded, and illogical as well. The conference will be long forgotten by the time the presidential election rolls around 10 months later in the spring of 2003. If we had wanted to use the conference as 'part of the presidential campaign' as some have charged, we would have held it later. In fact, holding it later would have been useful and given us more planning time, but we didn't want to hold it later, specifically to avoid such criticism. Another common criticism of the conference is that it is untimely, not because Armenia is not prepared, but because the Diaspora is not prepared. Of course, this is one of those reasons that never disappears. If we don't hold such gatherings because the Diaspora is not ready, then the Diaspora will never become ready, and Armenia's and Diaspora's needs will never be tackled and met. It is precisely because the Diaspora is in many ways unprepared or ill-equipped that Armenia must take the initiative to provide the forum where some of those issues can be addressed. They may not get resolved, but they must at least be put on the table for deliberation. Q.: You haven't addressed the other major criticism: that is, that this conference, like the last conference, will be merely a show. A.: The first conference was not a show but was intentionally planned to be large in scope, emotional and the first step toward the creation of an environment for formal interaction and cooperation. In fact, that environment lead to a great many joint activities and projects, such as teachers' exchanges and expanded worldwide television broadcasts, sports activities and others. We will now pick up where that left off and use this second conference to raise and articulate all the issues that are on everyone's agenda. We don't pretend that these issues will be resolved by this conference or any conference. To expect such a thing is naïve. But we have gone to great lengths to convene panels so that the content and scope is clear. We are committed to using the conference as the podium from which to recognize the problems and challenges that confront us as Armenia and Diaspora. Therefore, we are tackling the five major sectors of interest. The first is political relations and advocacy. The premise is that Armenia and Diaspora, coordinating their resources and approaches, can accomplish a lot. So, we need to examine how the two view national priorities and challenges, whether they see eye-to-eye on Armenia's foreign relations issues, and whether they even can. Also, if we're talking about political issues, obviously we need to look at Nagorno Karabagh and how we can, together, work towards guaranteeing a lasting and just resolution of the conflict. Therefore, we're going to examine the urgency of meeting the social and economic development requirements of Nagorno Karabagh. Finally, one of the panels will address the many issues, beyond Nagorno Karabagh and Genocide recognition, on Armenia's foreign policy agenda which would benefit from the Diaspora's lobbying. Information and Media was chosen as a sector, because we assume that better information about each other will lead to easier collaboration. Therefore, we're going to explore the means to smoother and more effective cooperation as well as the obstacles to such cooperation. The means obviously include the internet, and we will present the specific ways of benefiting from the potential of the Internet for the promotion of culture, for better public relations, for publishing and networking. The obstacles include such technical matters as the lack of a common keyboard and a common orthography. But other problems exist as well, and they too have to be discussed. For example, what will it take to make media in Armenia and Diaspora truly independent, how will the media reconcile their own interests with national interests? How can Armenia become an international information society and part of the global information flow? All of these are questions that we tackle individually from time to time. It's time to put them on the table, address them, and see if there are ways of professionally, consistently pursuing them to find mutually acceptable answers. These are just two sectors. Similarly detailed sessions are planned for Economic and Social Development, Education, Culture and Science and Armenia-Diaspora Organizational and Structural Issues. Q.:Aren't you now going in the opposite direction and packing too much into these two days? A.:Remember, the purpose is not, and indeed cannot be, to resolve problems in a two-day conference with 1000 participants. The purpose of this conference is to raise issues, to ask the right questions, to select the more immediate and critical among the many problems that exist, to identify the right individuals who should tackle them, and to begin to look for mechanisms for their resolution. In the Education, Culture and Science sector, for example, we will speak about such long-term and fundamental issues as the need for a national curriculum, as well as very specific immediate needs such as computerizing all of Armenia's schools, turning our higher educational institutes into regional centers, making youth camps relevant and modern for today's youth from Armenia and the Diaspora can interact, and developing meaningful and necessary educational, scientific and cultural exchanges. All of these topics should continue to be at the center of our attention after this conference is over. A commission can be established to do the detailed, time-consuming work of developing a curriculum that teaches history and language in ways which are relevant and necessary to building a national identity. How will this be done if we don't establish such a commission? How will we know who to appoint to such a commission unless there are people in place, ready to work to identify the right resources? Would this be effective if it were done either in the Diaspora or in Armenia alone, without the input of the other? The same questions can be asked in the Economic and Social Development sector. The problems facing Armenia's businesses are many. They are the same problems faced by Diasporan and local Armenian businessmen. Some problems are systemic and require long-term solutions, others require insight and experience, together with political will. This is the place to identify them, and to come up with mechanisms for finding permanent solutions. Q.:But all of this assumes that there are mechanisms in place to take these ideas and suggestions and implement them. A.: Some mechanisms are in place. The government is committed to providing permanent structures through which Armenia and Diasporan individuals and organizations can effectively interact and cooperate. Indeed, the specific projects that come out of this conference will be possible only if there are mechanisms for continuing cooperation. For example, we foresee that specific educational and cultural projects will certainly be adopted. We don't know what they will be, but they might be specific exchange programs for artists, for teachers. There might be a decision to seriously undertake turning at least one of our Institutes into a regional AUB-type magnet. There might be a decision to set up a commission to undertake once and for all the orthography issue. Perhaps we'll be able to adopt a serious program of Internet-based public relations. All of these assume that we will more efficiently and regularly utilize cooperation mechanisms that already exist At the same time, it is no secret that new mechanisms need to be considered. That is the function of the fifth panel: Armenia-Diaspora Organizational and Structural Issues. By studying how other homelands and diasporas interact, by looking to see what the Diaspora's potential truly is, and how it can benefit Armenia's statehood, we will be able to try to find appropriate mechanisms for active and continuous and regular Diaspora input into these processes. Maybe the solution is Diasporan observers in Armenia's parliament, maybe the solution is dual citizenship, maybe the solution is a national council with broad political, professional, religious and individual representation. Whatever the options are, they need to be put on the table so we can proceed. After all, what's the alternative? The Diaspora criticism seems to focus on the fact that the Diaspora is not organized enough to fully participate with decent representation. How will we ever get there if we don't start somewhere? How will we ever identify the active resourceful individuals or organizations who are today contributing to Armenia's development if we don't invite them to such a meeting and develop a common information field? Q.: What is the next step then? A.: This step, and the next step, are to raise and resolve the issues that stand in the way of our using our combined resources for the common good. I think every Armenian would agree that the top priority for all Armenians at this point is a prosperous Armenia. Our task now is to help Armenia until such time that it becomes a flourishing state which could then help the Diaspora with its specific needs. At the same time, there are things that can be done right now to meet some of the Diaspora's immediate needs, too. To be able to do all of this however, we must do what we can through face-to-face meetings, frequent professional and geographic exchanges, improved media access, better use of the internet to demonstrate and teach the value of our unique resource: the nation-state. We are not just members of a nation any more, sitting in Boston or Beirut, Vanadzor or Vienna. We are members of a nation-state with all of the benefits and responsibilities that go with that status. This conference is a step toward moving to take on the responsibilities that are ours in order to be able to reap the benefits that are also ours and our children's.