Speaking to be Heard: An Interview with Vartan Oskanian

Below is an interview with Armenia’s former Foreign Minister of Vartan Oskanian about his recently published book, Speaking to Be Heard.

Vartan Oskanian
Vartan Oskanian

Hourig 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.

Houry Mayissian

Houry Mayissian

Houry Mayissian is a communications professional with journalism and public relations experiences in Dubai, Beirut, and Sydney. She has studied European politics and society at the University of Oxford, specializing on the democratic reform process in Armenia as part of its European integration. She is currently based in Yerevan.


  1. The weakest area of Armenia’s Foreign Policy, and arguably its worst mistake or blind spot ever since independence, has been precisely that with regard to Turkey.
    This policy, according to Mr Oskanian amounted to “our willingness to enter into relations with Turkey with no pre-conditions”. He characterises this as “a noble gesture on our part…” since despite being victims of genocide, we “extended our hand, unconditionally… ” .
    Whereas radical and positive changes were implemented in many areas of government policy following the ouster of the HHSh from power in 1997, Armenia’s policy toward Turkey is perhaps the one area which has remained entirely dominated by the bankrupt ideology of HHSh and hardly evolved or developed to embrace the true national interests of Armenia. Arguably it is the one area of government policy that is crying out for a radical root and branch reform and change. The complete failure of the “road map” makes this increasingly clear. 
    Without such rethinking of Armenia’s foreign policy, i.e. if the policy delusions and vacuum regarding Turkey continues, we will run the risk of further sinking into the Turkish orbit in a western sponsored drive to dominate the Caucasus. Best scenario outcome for us in this situation will be to gradually lose our independent statehood and to become a Turkish Vilayet once again and later to be “integrated” into Azerbaijan – a scenario which is in fact in progress right now with the “road map”. Worst scenario will be a sudden violent destruction of our statehood through a joint Turko-Azeri aggression.
    A better Turkish policy for Armenia, at least after HHSh was kicked out, would have been – indeed can be now – to assertively explain Armenia’s deep rooted problems with Turkey for all the three (or four/five) sets of audiences that Mr Oskanian rightly distinguishes, first and foremost our own people inside Armenia as well as the Diaspora, then the various foreign audience, namely the European, US and of course Turkish. As we have not explained the nature of this deep rooted conflict to our own people , and even less to the international community, and have only extended an uncalled for and unwarranted “noble hand of friendship” towards the murderous, aggressive, xenophobic, racist-nationalist regime in Turkey, the boot, as they say, is on the other foot! We are being told to sit down with our executioners on an equal footing and “to get on with each other”! That is the pressure is on Armenia to compromise, with regard to the Genocide, Western Armenia, and Artsakh.
    This is not strange or unusual as it is not difficult to imagine what happens in this sort of unequal “relationships” between states: Just remembert what happened to Czechoslovakia and Poland in the late 1930 in their “relations/negotiations” with a similarly aggressive, unreformably racist-nationalist regime to their west – the Third Reich in Berlin.
    In the wake of the failure of the “road map” Armenia must stop sinking deeper into the quagmire and the trap set up by Turkey, and take stock. It will must rapidly fill up the void in its foreign policy and correct its disastrous neglect of the peril that is threatening it with oblivion.The time bomb is slowly  ticking in Ankara.
    Armenia must make radical changes to its foreign policy in this regard to meet the challeges of the next decade with an increasingly unstable, erratic and dangerous Turkey. 

  2. I congratulate Bernard Nazarian for his correct analysis of what should be the basis of Armenia’s foreign policy. Vartan Oskanian should read it.
    Bravo Bernard.

  3. Please let’s not forget that his book is not only aimed at domestic politics, but international as well. The line about entering into talks with Turkey without preconditions is written for his European and US counterparts.

  4. May I put in my bit now?
    Well, there are two ways and approaches as to that MOVE, or ACT,i.e., ¨extending our hand to great Turkey..¨
    First and formost ,I think is , of course directed to Eastern and probably more towards the West.Russia knows Turks and Turkey,better thatn counterparts West.
    Thence, in my view it was ¨Hazgerdian¨let me explain ,shrewed centuries old Persian King-ruler, that used the cunning ways to entrap adversaries…
    in short ,very young Armenian diplomacy acted that way and it did REGISTER a plus for RA.Showing to some Euro countries and world at large from Singapour to Chile that Armenians in spite of Genocide etc., are willing to forego grief,so tosay and try to establish -at least ,diplomatic relations-SOMETHIGN AT THE TIME OF THE PROTOCOLS was more accentuated.Mr. Lavro,Ms Clinton and the Frenchman(forget his name) see our Foreign Mionsitre-at that time nalbandian -as a result of the so called football diplomacy is HERE,AT ZURICH, as you so much wish!!! to kiss and make up.
    But then God all mighty was with us and did not let that happen(actually because fo Turkish obstinacy and superiority complex come to them from the Ancestor Ottomans).They conditioned that with Armenian to give in and placxe NK(Artsakh) back in Turco Azeri sphere,rather under their jurisdiction.
    There ,we won that POINT internationally,no not for the Protocols -imposed upon us actually- but for sheer ,as explained luck. WE learned again -if it was necessary-that Turks still do not bow down become more condescending like for aexample the Brtis..
    Latter also an Empire became GB, then ,U.K.(now), who knows in future plain England.But they did GIVE IN and changed policy of being Imperialistic.
    Going further ahead now is what counts,not experiences(which indeed are are of utmost importance) but what is TODAY, is the present and Future even more important.
    As Ministre vartan Oskanian has outlined,we were in our infancy 21 yrs ago ,by and by gaining expertice.At present this is how we stand:-
    1.Messrs. OSCE.UN.EU.We have done our best to comply with your requirements to become a ¨civilized¨ nation with membership in mentioend.
    2.Presently the Attitutude of great Turkey and sattelite state Axerbaijan has not changed.Even worse,become more agressive towards tiny Armenia/Artsakh.
    3. If in light of above you will kindly agree and endorse NK´s Independence,we shall promise to further our 2 Democracies further to your satisfaction.
    4. But if you will overlook above and in order to please the sseven sister(read oil conglomerates) you still insist that WE GIVE IN to these two.You ERR!!!
    We do deserve having been your small but faithfull ally in WWI and WWII,whereas so far we have NOT RECEIVED ANY COMPENSATIONS.
    The East-read Russian , only continues to bestow metal medals on the breasts of our remaing -alive veterans or their heis..instead of giving like uncle Sam at least a few billions of dollars to boost our Economy.
    The West ought to -Like Sarkozy= declare THAT ARMENIANS UNDERWENT TSGHASBANUTYUN!!!!! AT THE TOP OF HIS VOICE.Genocide and then bring the culprit to pay /restore Armenians rights, claims!!! enough is engouh
    Now that is the policy I ¨¨suggest¨¨ to be carefully reviewed.
    Some do not follow like I do day to day almost..nalbandian our present Foreign Minsitre is doing pretty well.VOICING OUR JUST DEMANDS!!!!
    SO THE PICTURE IS Not that bleak mr. Tchillingarian…
    Get re organized in Diaspora..please read me at ..www.armeniannews.info……Subscriber submitted articles.thanks if you do

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