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18.6.14

A Bold New Plan: Interview with Razmik Panossian

 Nanore Barsoumian

As Diasporan Armenian organizations struggle to shift their focus to better accommodate the needs facing Armenians worldwide—both in the independent republics, as well as in communities faced with renewed challenges—the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation recently drafted a bold five-year plan of action that it hopes will “create a viable future for the Armenian people.” Mindful of the challenges ahead, the foundation’s director of Armenian communities, Razmik Panossian, discussed the plan in a Skype interview with the Armenian Weekly.
The foundation’s four priority areas include preserving and developing the Western Armenian language through education; investing in Armenian youth and civil society; improving Armenian-Turkish relations by supporting initiatives that aim to “encourage a common understanding of their long shared history”; and preserving the Armenian literary tradition. As controversial as some of these approaches can be, it is necessary to search for new paths of engagement —from the diminishing use of the Western Armenian language to the displacement of Armenian communities in the Middle East and under-explored opportunities within Armenian-Turkish relations.
Panossian joined the Gulbenkian Foundation in February 2013. He received his Ph.D. from the London School of Economics and Political Science, and has lectured at the London School of Economics and at the School of Oriental and African Studies (University of London). He is the author of The Armenians: From Kings and Priests to Merchants and Commissars (Columbia University Press/Hurst & Co., 2006). He was director of policy at the International Centre for Human Rights and Democratic Development (a Canadian federal institution) and has served as an international consultant, including at the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) in New York. He is currently based in Portugal.
The full interview with Panossian is below.

Nanore Barsoumian—Dr. Panossian, you toured key Armenian communities, and the feedback you received became the basis for your plan. How do you assess the most urgent challenges facing Armenian communities today?
Razmik Panossian—The first point I should make is that I talked to the communities and I’ve been thinking about these issues within the mandate of the foundation, which is education, culture, publishing, etc. So I’m looking at the issues from that perspective. These are not all the challenges of the community; they are the challenges of the communities that pertain to our mandate. In that light, the first thing that really struck me as a major challenge is the whole idea of passing culture from one generation to another. And in this field, the Western Armenian language is the primary issue. We’re still reliant on old ways of trying to transmit culture. Our definition of culture is stuck as a community in the old classics. We haven’t really been able to modernize it in a way, to be able to redefine culture and to speak the cultural language of the younger generation. So that is a big issue. In that overall context, I’ve realized some very specific things, like the loss of the Western Armenian language. We always think that Western Armenian is doing relatively OK in the Middle East, but once I went there I realized that it is not. They have huge problems with Armenian schools, and with younger people not learning the language.
The second issue is what I mention in the plan, the schism between the daily reality of the youth and Armenian culture, which comes through books and the language of grandparents, without having much pertinence to the daily lives of younger people. When I say younger, I’m not just talking about 15- or 16-year-olds; I’m talking about people in their 20s. They’re immersed in the technological world, and we haven’t been able to really make Armenian culture an integral part of that.
Another part is us being stuck on publishing books on paper. Of course, books on paper are important, and we must continue doing that. But everyone is going in the direction of short texts and electronic publications, while we’re still being asked to publish Naregatsi, Khorenatsi, and all the classics. They are important, but at some point we need to move on.
I recently got a request to publish a dictionary in print. And I thought, who the heck publishes dictionaries in print in this day and age when everything is online? I said, ‘Well, give me an online proposal, because that would be interesting.’ Anyways, those are some of the things that struck me.

N.B.—Talk about the situation of the Armenian schools in Lebanon.
R.P.—There are certain ways of looking at Lebanon. Yes, the community has many schools, but the numbers of students and schools have declined rapidly. I think it’s now one-third of what it used to be in the 70s. It’s because the community has declined in terms of numbers, demography. No one denies the fact that the number of Armenians in Lebanon is less. So that’s one real, objective element. The other is that whereas in the past it was taken for granted that Armenian parents automatically sent their kids to Armenian schools, today, many parents are not, some for real, genuine economic reasons. They cannot afford fees, which is understandable, so you think of ways of dealing with that. However, many of them are middle and upper middle class families, and they are not sending their children to Armenian schools for other reasons, relating to the quality of the schools, relating to the perception that if they go to an odar [foreign] school—Arabic, French, etc.—they will be rubbing shoulders with future elites. So the Armenian school system in Lebanon has come to be in a crisis situation, where pedagogically it has fallen behind. Again, I’m generalizing; there are some really good schools and many not-so-good schools. Nevertheless, pedagogically they have fallen behind.
In addition, Armenian teachers are not really valued, and are underpaid from what we see. Structurally and financially our schools are also constantly in the red, and in an untenable situation. This is not sustainable. We had to ask the question, how long can we just send a check—metaphorically speaking—without asking questions? So in Lebanon, we said we all know we have a major problem, and we need to collectively find a solution for this. We commissioned a study, which is online now on our website. The study highlights a lot of these issues, offers solutions and recommendations of what the school systems can do in order to improve the situation. It’s a structural problem, and it’s a pedagogical problem. It’s multifaceted. It requires a holistic approach.

N.B.—So you’re going to go from supporting these schools financially to also having a say in the way they teach—am I understanding this correctly?
R.P.—Well, we will continue financing education. What we have done is two things. We have said, we are putting an end to distributing small amounts of money to most of these schools without asking too many questions. So what we’re going to be doing is giving fewer schools larger amounts of money, but it is going to be for a program to fix the problems that they have. It’s not going to be just to plug a little hole.
We made our commitment to Lebanon clear, and we declared that we will continue supporting the educational system and schools in Lebanon, but we simply are not going to underwrite an untenable situation by constantly giving small amounts of money. We need to work on a solution, and the solution needs to come from [the schools]. It has to come from below. We cannot impose a solution and we should not impose a solution. The report basically suggested some ideas and this was a bit of a shock to them, because they’re used to the approach of “OK, I have a check. Here it is. Do something with it, and hopefully you’ll tell me what you did with it,” to going and saying, “Hold on. We’re not giving you a check right away. We want to discuss the problems with you, think of a solution, and we’re going to finance this solution.”

N.B.—With the recent influx of refugees from Syria into Armenia, there’s also now a sizable Armenian population in Armenia who are Western Armenian speakers, and they are in need of education. Is the Gulbenkian Foundation also working on that?
R.P.—For the Syrian crisis, we did a number of things. One element of this is in Armenia. In addition to pure humanitarian assistance that we send to Syria to support the community there, we partnered with the AGBU and the Ministry of Diaspora to pay the fees of all Syrian-Armenian students studying in Armenia, because our forte is education, especially higher education. We’re paying one third, the ministry is paying one third, and the AGBU is paying one third. That’s our way of giving some relief to Syrian-Armenian refugees who are trying to continue their education—by at least paying their fees. There were some 230-250 students that got their fees paid for. That’s one element of the work there.
The second element is a program that we are doing from here, with our partners in Portugal. It hasn’t kicked in yet, but it will in a couple of months, and that is to support Syrian Armenians who are studying at any institution of higher education outside of Syria—in Jordan, Iraq, Lebanon, France; it doesn’t matter where, they can apply to get a scholarship. This, we are doing as part of a global initiative that’s being run out of Portugal, and we will support only the Armenian students because that’s our mandate.
In terms of school-level support for Western Armenian in Armenia, we are in talks with the Ministry of Diaspora, which has plans in this regard. We had a discussion with the minister a few weeks ago to see if we can help finance such projects.
It is quite interesting that there are about 8,000 to 10,000 or so Syrian Armenians in Armenia and their kids are going to schools. Will they be able to get an education in Western Armenian, or at least Western and Eastern Armenian? I don’t know. Eventually, they will probably be Eastern Armenian-speaking, but at least we should give them a chance to study Western Armenian if they so choose.
The Western Armenian issue is the diaspora’s problem, and the diaspora should look for solutions within itself, and not rely on others, on Armenia…in order to fix its problems. We need to take responsibility and say, OK, it’s an important branch of the Armenian language, it’s the Armenian that we speak in the diaspora, and we need to try to perpetuate it. And if Armenia helps, that’s great. We can cooperate with them when they can.

N.B.—In your report, you say that support to youth and civil society in Armenia will be a priority, especially because it has been neglected by diasporan donors. Can you talk a little about this initiative? Can you also explain why it’s been the case that these movements or organizations haven’t been receiving support from the diaspora?
R.P.—It’s a trick question [laughs]. I cannot speak on behalf of other organizations. I should not, and will not speak on behalf of other organizations. Every organization has a right to choose its priorities and finance those priorities. However, what we have realized is that when we look at Armenia, the civil society sector, especially the young civil society sector, has been to some degree successful in getting funding from non-Armenian sources. But not totally successful. Those warm and fuzzy sentiments about civil society have long but faded in the European capitals, so funding has decreased to some degree compared to the 1990’s.
Nevertheless, a civil society has emerged in Armenia. It is relatively weak compared to the state and to public institutions, and it rarely gets financial support from Armenian Diasporan sources. I don’t want to go into analyzing the reasons for that. I can do that off the record. But in terms of our organization, we see that the future of the country is based on this kind of activism. We started exploring this possibility a few years ago, started financing some organizations; some of them are quite involved in the environmental movement, which is, unfortunately, like everything in Armenia—politicized. We have to be careful not to politicize things. So we thought that civic education, supporting groups like these, and giving them capacities, would add value.
So of course civil society is one element of the work. We’re not saying that everything is civil society. We will work on specific programs with the Minister of Diaspora and we will work with academic centers in Armenia as well.

N.B.—One of the four priorities is improving Armenian-Turkish relations with the focus on three areas. I’d like you to discuss these further, starting with the first one: reinforcing community structures and institutions. What does this entail?
R.P.—The reinforcing community organizations is basically meant to say that we will continue supporting certain schools, which is the most important element of our community support work there. It’s educational work. We will also work with other organizations that are not community organizations, but the types of things the Hrant Dink organization does, for example, which have pertinence in the Armenian community. But I think that falls more into the other sectors, which you will ask me about in a second. When we say community support, the support is more geared for the schools basically, and other initiatives that are community based.

N.B.—Is the focus basically on Armenian schools currently in Istanbul, or elsewhere? For instance, there are some Armenian classes being held in Diyarbakir. Do you envision any sort of support towards those types of initiatives?
R.P.—At this point it is Istanbul, because that is the center of the Armenian community. There is nothing that says that we cannot support a similar initiative if it comes from Diyarbakir, for example. I am aware that there are some initiatives to teach Armenian in Diyarbakir or to open a small resource center for publications on Armenian materials and things like that. Nothing prevents us from supporting that kind of work provided that it’s a well-thought project and it has some local support.

N.B.—The second area of focus is on dialogue between Armenians and Turks, and Armenians and Kurds. It is a controversial initiative that requires caution. Can you discuss this plan further, including some of the opportunities and pitfalls that you might encounter?
R.P.—This is the type of work that we would like to encourage with the Hrant Dink Foundation and Anadolu Kultur. Those are the two organizations that immediately come to mind. They have been doing some amazing work in terms of publications, conferences, etc. So I think we will look at various initiatives that come from there. Some of the projects we supported last year are rather unusual for us. For example, we supported the making of films on Armenian issues in Turkey. One was by a Turkish organization, the other by an Armenian organization—both working through Anadolu Kultur. It is a way of talking about Armenian presence, Armenian issues in Turkey. Again, film production is not something we do on a regular basis. It’s not really a core part of our work, but here, we thought in the context of Armenian-Turkish dialogue these would be interesting initiatives. When we get those kinds of proposals, we will look at their merits.
We are also involved in an initiative called Repair. It’s an Armenian, Turkish, French, English website that is encouraging dialogue. That’s something that we thought is interesting because it encourages dialogue between different communities.
We have to understand that Ottoman history is part of Armenian history, and it is the part of Armenian history that we know very little about—well, not very little, but we don’t know as much about it because of language issues.
Pitfalls? Well…everything is politicized, especially issues related to Armenian history, genocide… And so we have to be careful in a way that we don’t appear to be politicizing the issue. We’re looking at history. We’re looking at research. We’re looking at Ottoman studies. We’re looking at dialogue. But we’re not looking at current politics, and that’s not our mandate. Of course, we understand many things are politicized—that’s where the risk factor comes in to some degree. You can’t engage in dialogue without discussing some difficult issues in the Turkish-Armenian context. So we need to be prepared to discuss those difficult issues.

N.B.—The issues are based on political circumstances—in the past and today. So it might be hard to navigate that without touching…
R.P.—It is, and we shouldn’t be naive at all in the process. But I think it’s a risk we’re taking, and if a foundation like ours, which is not political and is above community politics and doesn’t get engaged in partisanship—if a foundation like ours cannot promote this kind of dialogue, who else is going to do it? We see that there is a bit of a niche for us there.

N.B.—What initiatives might you be working on leading up to the Centennial of the Armenian Genocide, within this context of improving Armenian-Turkish relations?
R.P.—We will do something in the European context to commemorate the 100th anniversary through music, concerts, something along those lines. We’ll be doing publications as well. I don’t know if we’ll get really involved within Turkey on the 100th anniversary commemorations because, again, it is something that is going to be extremely politicized and I don’t know if we can really bring a value added to that, to be honest. I don’t think our strength is there. We’re thinking beyond the 100th anniversary. We’re thinking about—as I put it in the five-year plan—April 25, 2015. Where are we going to be at? We’re encouraging that kind of long-term thinking. I think there are enough people doing 100th anniversary commemorations that the foundation doesn’t have too much of a value added on that.

N.B.—And the third area within this is encouraging research and training in Ottoman studies. Why is this an important field? How do you see it contributing to improved Armenian-Turkish relations?
R.P.—Well, because in order to have dialogue you need facts. In order to have facts, you need the research. And if research is lacking, and if it’s politicized, you don’t really have a good base. We believe that in Ottoman studies, there is a lot of research that could be supported—the type of work that the Gomidas Institute publishes. It’s very interesting. It’s original material. It doesn’t have political interpretation. It is just a publication of original material, and people can do whatever they want to do with it. I think we will be encouraging that kind of research. We have to understand that Ottoman history is part of Armenian history, and it is the part of Armenian history that we know very little about—well, not very little, but we don’t know as much about it because of language issues. Not too many Armenians can read Ottoman Turkish. We want to encourage this kind of research to look at the Ottoman archives, for example.

N.B.—So this is both geared towards the Armenian Diaspora, Armenia, and the Turkish public, because everyone needs that sort of education.
R.P.—It’s targeting the academic community and to anyone who is interested. It has to be factual. It has to be based on the realities. We want to do translations between Armenian, Turkish, and Kurdish, because we really don’t know very much about each other and these communities. We don’t know enough about history. We shouldn’t neglect that part as well.

N.B.—Your last priority issue is the preservation and availability of the Armenian literary heritage—and the emphasis here is on making texts, books, newspapers, and journals available online for greater accessibility. Talk about the significance of this initiative.
R.P.—It’s significant because if you don’t have an online presence in terms of searchable material, you really don’t have a presence anymore, right? We have a wealth of information in print, which is not digitized, and I don’t understand for the life of me the point of publishing newspapers in this day and age without having a digital platform, without having that type of presence. We need to increase the digital footprint of Armenians in the digital world. So we’re not only trying to produce new things in electronic format, but to also make the wealth that we have in print available in electronic format, and in a way that is searchable. It’s not enough just to have PDF documents up, but for them to be searchable. There is the technology to do this.
The one example is the digitizing of the Armenian Review. It’s a fantastic idea to make years and years’ worth of research available to the public. There are other libraries of rare and very difficult-to-find Armenian periodicals from the 1700’s onwards. Why not digitize these and make them available? I’m in discussion with the Mekhitarist Congregation in Vienna to digitize their library, for example—to support a part of that digitization.

N.B.—Is there anything in your plan that we haven’t touched upon?
R.P.—Well, the one thing I would like to say is there is a part in the plan, towards the end, where I say that we want to encourage strategic long-term thinking within the Armenian community, the Armenian world. We don’t have the pretense of being a strategic center. We’re not. We’re a funding organization. But I think we do have tremendous capacity to bring people together—because we’re neutral, and above politics—to discuss key issues. For example, this year we want to do something on Armenians at 2115. Where are we going, in general? Not 2015, but 2115. And then after that we want to do once-a-year more specialized event—a strategic session, sort of a Davos for Armenians, without all the bells and whistles and hype of Davos—where we would come and say, OK, where is the Armenian Diasporan educational system going? So you bring in the key educators and experts together and start thinking about these issues. I would like to also bring together Armenian writers and Armenian computer technicians—who usually don’t come together—to discuss the interplay between the Armenian language, culture, and the digital age, and look for avenues of cooperation. I think I want to use the department’s capacity to bring people and resources together to do this kind of strategic thinking about the future of Armenians.

N.B.—Using 21st-century tools.
R.P.—Exactly. Sometimes you have to do it the old-fashioned way of putting people together in the same room, but using 21st-century technologies to do this. That’s where we’re trying to go. We have to remember it’s a five-year plan, it’ll take a while to put everything in order, we can’t do everything all at once. We’re a relatively small team, but nevertheless I think we’re thinking that in two to three years we’ll be in a position to say that we did a good part of the plan.

N.B.—I have a quote here by you that I really like, similar to what you noted a minute ago. It’s from your plan. You say, “We must go beyond conservative approaches, take risks, and embrace new ways of contributing to Armenian society. In short, through this plan we seek to turn the department into a transformative agent within the global Armenian community so that its future is more viable.”
R.P.— I did go to various places, presenting the plan. The first reaction was, “What the heck is going on here! We’re not used to Gulbenkian being like this.” The second reaction was, “There are some good ideas.” The third was, “What is it that we can do together?” And people are seeing that we’re being open, we have priorities. People can accept a “no” answer for their funding proposal as long as there is a logic behind it. And I think that’s appreciated.

N.B.—And I wish you the best of luck!

"The Armenian Weekly," June 13, 2014

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