INTERVIEW: Building bridges for Armenia

Nora Koloyan-Keuhnelian , Sunday 23 Sep 2018

On the eve of his official visit to Egypt, Armenian Minister of the Diaspora Mkhitar Hayrapetyan speaks to Al-Ahram Weekly

Mkhitar Hayrapetyan
Armenian Minister of the Diaspora Mkhitar Hayrapetyan

Born in Yerevan in 1990, Armenian Minister of the Diaspora Mkhitar Hayrapetyan, who begins an official visit to Egypt this week, earned his Master’s degree from the Department of Oriental Studies at Yerevan State University in 2013. In 2011, he founded the Armenian Young Politicians Association and in April 2015 became its vice-president.

Since January 2016, he has been founding president of the Civic Education and Youth Development Centre in Armenia, while at the same time contributing to the Armenian media on Middle Eastern issues and issues relating to Turkey. He is one of the founding members of the Armenian Civil Contract Party.

In December 2016, Hayrapetyan was elected chairman of the Nor-Nork branch of the Civil Contract Party and a member of its political council. Until 2018, he was party coordinator for diaspora affairs. He is fluent in Armenian, English, Russian and Turkish.

On the eve of his official visit to Egypt, part of a wider Middle Eastern tour, Hayrapetyan spoke to the Weekly.

Could you tell us more about your tour of the Middle East and what you hope to get out of it?

As an expert on Middle East affairs, it is particularly important for me to visit Armenian communities in the Middle East. Before my arrival in Egypt, I will be visiting Syria and Lebanon. In Syria, I will meet representatives of the Armenian community in the country to find out more about the current situation and the damage caused during the war.

As a result of the conflict in Syria, the Armenian community, particularly in Aleppo, has faced serious economic difficulties. The rich Armenian cultural heritage of Syria has suffered greatly and has even been the victim of terrorist acts and vandalism. In Lebanon, I will also have meetings with representatives of the Armenian community, which is an example of the way in which diaspora Armenian populations are able to live outside the homeland but still speak Armenian, attend Armenian schools and universities, establish charitable, cultural and sports organisations, and possess a rich Armenian press and literature. The community in Syria and Egypt is equally rich and no less interesting.

In Egypt, two prominent diaspora organisations have been established for the Egyptian-Armenian community, and these have been continuing their activities up until the present day. One of them, the Armenian General Benevolent Union (AGBU), was founded in Cairo in 1906. The other is the “Hamazkayin” Armenian Educational and Cultural Association founded in 1928. After the Armenian Genocide, our compatriots found salvation and shelter in the Middle East, including in Egypt, where they established Armenian communities abroad.

What have you discussed with your Egyptian counterpart before the Armenian Cultural week to be held in Egypt next week? What will be your agenda during your visit?

I was in Cyprus on an official visit in July where I had meetings with Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiadis, Commissioner for Humanitarian Affairs and Cypriot citizens Fotis Fotiu, Greek Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Terence-Nicolaus Quik, and Egyptian Minister of Emigration and Expatriate Affairs Nabila Makram. The latter expressed her desire to boost Egyptian-Armenian relations and build cooperation on diaspora issues. I was delighted to accept the proposal for greater cooperation, and at the suggestion of the Cypriot president we decided to involve Armenia in the already existing Egypt-Cyprus-Greece diaspora-relations agreement.

I will be on an official visit to Cairo from September 24 to 28. The visit has a very rich agenda, and I will be meeting with top Egyptian officials. I will have an interview with one of Egypt’s most prestigious TV presenters Osama Kamal, and I will also meet with Greek community leaders in Egypt. I plan to attend an official ceremony dedicated to the Armenian community and will meet with Primate of the Armenian Orthodox Church Bishop Ashod Mnatsaganyan and community representatives in Cairo and Alexandria.

How do you see the “Back to our Roots” initiative sponsored by the Egyptian Ministry of Emigration and Expatriate Affairs and how effective will it be in building bilateral relations between the two countries?

I welcome Minister Nabila Makram’s “Back to our Roots” or Nostos initiative sponsored by President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi that aims at helping second and third-generation Greeks and Cypriots in Egypt to become more aware of their Egyptian roots. I am convinced that the involvement of the Egyptian-Armenian community in the initiative will help to bring back young people in the Armenian community to their roots in Egypt and help to preserve this centuries-old community.

Hayrapetyan taking part in Armenia's Velvet Revolution beside his leader, Nikol Pashinian, the present prime minister

How do you see the issue of repatriation to Armenia? Is Armenia today ready to receive more Armenians from the diaspora? How important can their contributions be to the country’s economy?

After the Velvet Revolution in Armenia many of our compatriots returned to their homeland or began preparing for their return. They are hugely interested in life in Armenia, and we receive vast amounts of mail from Armenians abroad. The Armenian government’s view is that repatriation is an important precondition for socio-economic development, increased demography, and better security in Armenia, and the Armenian Ministry of the Diaspora implements activities to promote repatriation.

However, when we talk about promoting repatriation we mean creating the necessary infrastructure and conditions for it, including building institutions and putting in place the legal framework. In this regard, we are not yet ready for large numbers of people to return. We are happy to see every visitor to our country, but the state cannot afford to accept hundreds of thousands of returning expatriates since the mechanisms for this are not yet in place, and we do not have the right conditions for their socio-economic, cultural and educational integration.

However, many diaspora Armenians are investing in Armenia today, establishing their businesses on equal terms to Armenians living in Armenia. They should be confident that the state and the law are in their favour.

What plans does your ministry have for strengthening Egyptian-Armenian relations? Are there plans for official events to be organised in Armenia?

We discussed such ideas with Minister Nabila Makram in Nicosia along with perspectives for bilateral and multilateral cooperation on diaspora issues. At the same time, we announced that a quadrilateral agreement would be signed between Armenia, Egypt, Greece and Cyprus. On behalf of the government of the Republic of Armenia, I can also say that we stand ready to organise an event in our country honouring Egypt and the Egyptian people.

What are you doing to support the Egyptian community in your country and the Egyptian-Armenians who have settled in Armenia over the past few years?

The Ministry of the Diaspora is doing its best to support the small number of Egyptian-Armenians residing in our country. I would like to emphasise that every repatriated Armenian and every diaspora Armenian is important to us, and we are trying to provide them with all the necessary assistance.

Do you have plans to revive Egyptian tourism and investment in your country? If so, how can these things best be realised?

The Ministry of the Diaspora welcomes such initiatives on behalf of the government of the Republic of Armenia. I think it is not a secret that for Armenians Egypt is one of the most popular tourist destinations. It would also be pleasing if Armenia could be better known to Egyptians, notably because of its beautiful natural environment and rich history. By deepening the ties between our two countries, I am sure we will reach this level of mutual recognition one day. As regards investment, the new government of Armenia welcomes such initiatives and is ready to protect investors’ interests under the rule of law.

What are you doing to reduce emigration from Armenia?

Today we are more democratic than ever. Today, Armenia is committed to human rights and the rule of law, and its leadership is committed to the well-being of each citizen. As one of the participants in the Velvet Revolution in Armenia myself, I am committed to fighting for my country’s present and future prosperity. As a member of the Armenian government, I am also committed to contributing to the development of Armenia in every way I can in order that there will no longer be any incentives for Armenian citizens to think about leaving their country.

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