INTERVIEW: 'I also consider myself, in some way, Egyptian' - Armenia’s former FM Nalbandian

Nora Koloyan-Keuhnelian , Sunday 3 Nov 2019

Ahram Online interviewed Edward Nalbandian, Armenia’s former foreign minister and first-ever ambassador of independent Armenia to Egypt, during his recent two-day visit to Egypt

Ambassador Edward Nalbandian
Ambassador Edward Nalbandian

Throughout our wide acquaintance since the 1990s, he never failed to amaze me, both as a diplomat and as a human being.

His warm smile and attitude towards everyone he meets, his vivid memory so as to remember the name of each and every person he ever encountered, makes him a distinguished character who had an important impact in every society he touched, in every position he occupied, and in every country he visited, throughout his 40-year diplomatic career.

Edward Nalbandian (63), Armenia’s former foreign minister (2008-2018) and first ambassador of Armenia to Egypt (1992-1998), was on a two-day visit to Egypt, a country very dear to his heart.

The prominent diplomat’s main purpose in this visit was to present his book, “Diplomacy of Armenia 2008-2018,” to his Egyptian friends.

The book is a collection of speeches, interviews, articles and lectures by Nalbandian during the 10 years of his tenure as minister of foreign affairs of the Republic of Armenia.

Nalbandian spent almost 14 years in Egypt. In 1986, he was appointed first secretary of the Embassy of the former USSR in Egypt.

When Armenia became independent in September 1991, Nalbandian was invited to become Armenia’s representative in Egypt, becoming its Charge d’Affaires in 1992, and then appointed in 1994 as the ambassador of Armenia to Egypt.

In October 1992, Nalbandian established the Armenian Embassy in Cairo, one of the first embassies Armenia opened in the diaspora after its independence. From Cairo, he was accredited as Armenia’s ambassador to Morocco and Oman, residing in Egypt. At that time the Armenian embassy was located in Dokki. Currently, its premises are in the Zamalek district.

“Egypt is very dear to my heart, as I spent the most important phase of my life in Egypt. I consider myself, in some way, also Egyptian. I cannot forget the 14 special years I spent in this country; they were unforgettable. Part of those years was discovering this great civilisation which I admire. Let me tell you, I admire its people. I went to many countries, but Egyptians are special,” Nalbandian told Ahram Online.

Ambassador Edward Nalbandian
Ambassador Edward Nalbandian with the Former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak

“Let me also mention Egyptian-Armenians, who came from this environment, so they are absolutely a wonderful community. I had the opportunity to meet some of them yesterday. It was so joyful.”

Nalbandian sees that the community formed a bridge between Armenia and Egypt, especially after independence, “and for that reason Armenia decided to open one of its first embassies in Egypt.”

Nalbandian says he values the importance of Egypt as a country in the Middle East, “and on the international level, in the African continent, in the Arab world, and in general. I wish all success in all aspects to Egypt and Egyptians, to enhance its regional and international role in the future. Despite all the difficulties Egypt is facing, I am sure we are expecting a bright future for this great country and its great people,” Nalbandian told Ahram Online.

Nalbandian left Egypt in 1999 for France, to represent his country there from 1999 to 2008.

Armenian foreign policy was characterised by many as effective during the period Nalbandian became the head of its foreign ministry. He succeeded in making the voice of Armenia better heard in the international arena.

In a difficult geopolitical environment, Nalbandian succeeded also in widening the reach of Armenia’s interstate relations and played an important role in strengthening the country’s presence in regional and international affairs.

The Nagorno-Karabakh settlement process was one of the most important achievements of Armenia’s foreign policy during Nalbandian’s period in the office.

The many lectures Nalbandian gave, including in Washington, Madrid, London, Helsinki and at Stanford University, beside the articles he published on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, show how this diplomat prioritised his efforts for the sake of the cause.

“Anything related to the Nagorno-Karabakh issue cannot be settled without the consent of the people of Artsakh (the Armenian name for Karabakh),” Nalbandian stated in interview with Aravot daily in 2015.

In one of the interviews he gave to an Austrian weekly magazine, Profil, in 2010, Nalbandian seemed confident about the future of Armenia in the context of major changes taking place in its environs, including the influence of Iran and the power Turkey was establishing — neighbours that sometimes can be described as “aggressive."

In the 2010 interview he stated that, “We strive for stability and security in our region, but it doesn’t depend only on us. We are trying to have normal relations with all our neighbours and that’s why we initiated the process of normalisation with Turkey. We have good relations with Iran, we have good relations with Georgia and we are trying to settle the conflict between Nagorno-Karabakh and Azerbaijan to have normal relations with Azerbaijan as well.”

Ambassador Edward Nalbandian
Ambassador Edward Nalbandian with Egypt's then Foreign Minister, Ahmed Abul-Ghait

A few months before the interview, in October 2009, Nalbandian and Ahmet Davutoglu signed a landmark agreement in Zurich to normalise Turkish-Armenian relations. Armenia should not shake hands with Turkish murderers unless they confess and repent for the genocide they perpetuated, was the Armenian public’s cry at the time.

According to Nalbandian, from the very beginning of the normalisation process, Armenia told Turkey that in no way would Armenia allow to be questioned the fact of the Armenian Genocide, or sway from its determination to widen its international recognition.

The Western-backed process began with Turkish president at the time Abdullah Gul and his historic September 2008 visit to Yerevan, following an invitation by his Armenian counterpart, Serj Sarkissian, to attend a soccer World Cup qualifier between the national teams of the two neighbours.

The two leaders watched the return leg of the match in the Turkish city of Bursa a year later, just four days after their foreign ministers, Edward Nalbandian and Ahmet Davutoglu, inked two protocols committing to the establishment of diplomatic relations and the opening of their borders. The deal faced domestic opposition in both countries.

Subsequently, the Turkish side took no practical steps to ratify the agreement. “The main and only reason for the suspension of the process is the resumption of the Turkish attempt to link the normalisation of relations with other issues like the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, which has nothing to do with the Armenian-Turkish normalisation process,” Nalbandian stated in interview with Profil.

An article published in The Times of Israel in September 2019 said the Israeli foreign ministry stated that Armenia had decided to open an embassy in Tel Aviv soon, a decision Israel warmly welcomed.

Ahram Online asked Nalbandian to comment on the issue. “In general, during the past years, we had the intention to open an embassy in Israel. But also we were waiting for reciprocity; that Israel too will open an embassy in Armenia. When you intend to open an embassy in a country you expect reciprocity from the other side. So let’s see what the days will bring,” Nalbandian said.

In November 2017, Nalbandian visited Israel and met with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. “I remember my very good meeting with Netanyahu and our conversation about it at that time. We agreed on what I told you now,” Nalbandian said.

Ambassador Edward Nalbandian
Ambassador Edward Nalbandian with Pope Shenouda III of Alexandria

Nalbandian held a book signing at Cairo's Downtown Diplomatic Club for his 1,327-page “Diplomacy of Armenia,” published by the MGIMO University of Moscow.

Along with speeches, interviews and lectures in Russian, French and English, the book also includes 126 pages of archival photos of meetings Nalbandian had with world leaders and prominent political and religious figures throughout his diplomatic career.

Current Ambassador of Armenia to Egypt Karen Grigorian, in office since January 2019, values highly Nalbandian’s achievements, diplomatic and political, in both Armenia and Egypt. “Nalbandian did a great job in developing our bilateral relations. He established very good connections with Egyptian officials during his time in office. Those officials are now his friends. Nalbandian values the meaning of ‘friendship’ very much,” Grigorian told Ahram Online.

In 1988, Nalbandian received a PhD in history at the Institute of Oriental Studies of the USSR Academy of Science. He is currently lecturer at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO), from where he graduated in 1978, and he is an honorary professor at Yerevan State University.

Nalbandian received a number of high state awards since 1982, including from Armenia, France, Russia, the Vatican, Spain and other countries. One of the most recent was in 2017, when awarded the Russian Order of Friendship by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, for his great contribution to strengthening friendship and cooperation with Russia.

Beside Armenian, Nalbandian is fluent in Russian, French, English and Arabic. Born in Hraztan town, Nalbandian is married with one daughter.

After being introduced by Grigorian at the Diplomatic Club in Cairo,  Nalbandian stressed: “Armenia is not a small country. It is not only this small piece of land, but a hundred other Armenias all over the world. Armenians live everywhere; their communities have created small Armenias, which create a unity all over the world.”

Ambassador Edward Nalbandian

Ambassador Edward Nalbandian

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