“I’ll seek to keep pace with innovative programming, so that our Department reaches the level of a modern organization of the 21st Century”
Dr. Razmik Panossian, newly designated Director, told Aztag Newspaper
This interview is translated from Armenian, edited and slightly abridged. It was given by Razmik Panossian to Aztag Armenian newspaper, Beirut, Lebanon, 18 April 2013. It was reprinted in Jamanak Armenian newspaper, Istanbul, Turkey, 22 April 2013; and in Asbarez Armenian newspaper, Los Angeles, USA, 26 April 2013.
The interview was conducted by Aztag reporter Silva Karavartanian
Translated from Armenia by Vartan Matiossian
For the original Armenian version click here https://archive.aztagdaily.com/archives/116201
Dr. Razmik Panossian, the newly designated director of the Armenian Communities Department of the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, recently visited Lebanon. Armenian-Lebanese by origin, he emigrated to Canada at an early age. He obtained his doctorate from the London School of Economics and Political Science in 2000. He has published many articles and books on Armenians, Armenia, Artsakh, Armenian identity, and related issues, as well as given many lectures around the world. He has cooperated and worked with international organizations (UN and others).
On this occasion, “Aztag” had the following interview with him:
“AZTAG”: First, we want to congratulate you on your new position as director. It is well known that the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation operates mostly in the Diaspora, but we have learned that you recently visited Armenia. What can you say about your activities in Armenia?
DR. RAZMIK PANOSSIAN: The Armenian Department of the Gulbenkian Foundation should, in general, reflect the Armenian reality of today, which is composed of the diaspora and Armenia. Hence our subsidies will be allocated accordingly. Currently we do not have an office or a representative in Yerevan; in the future we may perhaps consider having a representative. Our cooperation with Armenia focuses on publishing, on Yerevan State University – its students and faculty – and the Matenadaran. There is also another important realm, which is new for us: supporting civil society in Armenia. We support civic education initiatives. In general, our focus is on education and learning, and our aim is to contribute to the reinforcement of Armenian language and culture.
“A”: Currently there is a strong emigration wave from Armenia and a high proportion of unemployment among the youth. Have you made any investment in this regard, bearing in mind that social and charity areas are part of the basic principles of the Gulbenkian Foundation?
R.P.: The Foundation is very big, and the Armenian Department is just a small part of it. The Foundation has its cultural and educational work, its orchestra, its museums and science research centre, and so on. But in the case of our department, the Armenian world is the target of our work, and mostly from an educational point of view. Our projects with civil society in Armenia is related to youth. It focuses on young people so that they can think of ways to improve their situation and their country, and not just think of leaving.
“A.”: In the case of Artsakh, are you going to take any initiative or make any investment? Are you willing to do that?
R.P.: For the time being, there is no decision in that regard; of course, we might be willing to assist. I do not think that there is a special project or program in Artsakh that we currently support. If in the future opportunities arise as part of our programming plan for Armenia, why not? We could help.
“A.”: You do not have an office in Lebanon. Do you think to open one, since the Gulbenkian Foundation has cooperated with the Armenian Lebanese community, in particular, for a long time?
R.P.: No, there is no plan to open an office now. We are, however, thinking of having a representative in the future. I would also like to say that the biggest portion of assistance from our budget goes to Lebanon. For example, in 2012, around 600,000 American dollars were allocated to Lebanon, mostly to Armenian schools and students. That amount went to different parts of the community. In the future we will try to be fair and widen our realm of assistance in order not to leave out any important sector.
My aim is to take decisions in a more modernized way, to seek more accountability, and to introduce a more “tendered” approach in programme or project selection and development. Our aim remains the same: supporting Armenian education, language and culture. I have been on this job for almost two-and-a-half months, and I have come to realize that we need a five-year programming plan for our Department that is based on strategic considerations. There has not been such a serious plan until now, but we must have a clear direction. I did not want to invent that direction sitting in Lisbon, but base it on the needs of Armenian communities. Hence my travels to get acquainted with Armenian leaders, intellectuals and others in various countries such as Armenia, France, Lebanon, then Istanbul, and afterwards the United States. Of course, there is also Latin America, but right now I unfortunately do not have the time to visit those communities. After listening to the views of people in all these places, I will prepare the programming plan in order to make it more grounded in reality and actual needs. I will work on the plan during the months of May, June and July, in order to start activities after September, in October and November. If we see that to implement our programmes more effectively in Lebanon we might need a local employee or representative, who can coordinate and organize activities and grants, then we can look into the feasibility of creating such a position.
“A.”: Are you going to make any changes related to college scholarships allocated by the Armenian Department or to applications?
R.P.: Yes, we are going to make some changes. My predecessor had put a temporary freeze on scholarships, except for Armenian Studies. I decided to keep it frozen until our new programming plan is ready. There are two principles that I have to take into account here:
* First, are we are going to assist students in need? or
* Support outstanding students?
We can try to combine both. It is possible to check outstanding grades, but it is more difficult, sitting in Lisbon, to check the cases of needy students – whether the family of that student is actually in need or not. I will try to combine both principles because I believe that every student with outstanding grades must have the opportunity to continue his/her education. In the case of universities, the decision will be taken in Lisbon, while, in the case of primary and secondary schools, the decision can be taken by the educational institutions which the students attend.
“A.”: Although you have said that your activity is mostly educational and cultural, given the current crisis of Syrian Armenians, have you done any contribution or assistance in that regard? Are you going to be receptive if Syrian Armenian students apply for scholarships?
R.P.: In the case of university scholarships, I have already noted that they have been temporarily frozen, but when we start anew, we will evaluate all applications. In the case of humanitarian assistance, we have already transferred an amount through local charitable organizations, and I have also spoken about this to Catholicos Aram I in order to give some additional assistance through the Catholicosate.
“A.”: What kind of difficulties or challenges does your department confront? Are you going to make changes in the staff? Who decides such changes?
R.P.: There are two basic challenges:
The first is external, namely, I will seek to modify some previous practices and keep pace with innovation, so that our department reaches the level of a modern organization of the 21st century: to change the old ways and to work based on a programming plan. We will stress new ways to cooperate with the schools, on the basis of reports and accountability. Our scholarships must have impact; if they are not going to have impact and will not bring change, then there is no need to distribute money left and right.
My challenge is how to introduce these changes within Armenian communities. In Lebanon, I met the prelate and I will also meet Armenian principals to explain our new style of work. We will emphasize, to give another example, innovative and modern publications while at the same time maintaining some support for the classical works.
The second challenge is internal. The Armenian Communities Department has been almost isolated from the other departments within the Foundation for some time now. I will make an effort to reintegrate it. This will entail organizing Armenian cultural events in Lisbon and making our national heritage visible to the local public.
There have been no changes in the staff; the director changed. We may add one or two new staff members, according to our needs. With regard to project approval decisions, if the budget for the proposed initiative is more than 12,000 Euros, then the proposal is submitted to the Board for ratification. If it is less, two key persons decide: the Director and Board member Mr. Martin Essayan, who is the great-grandson of Mr. Gulbenkian. I have very good relations with Mr. Essayan; we understand each other very well and we complement one another.
“A.”: Being a skilled diaspora scholar, you have frequently published serious studies and articles. In one of them, you have stated that, after Lebanon, the center of the diaspora may become Los Angeles, and later, Russia. On what basis have you said that?
R.P.: This is something historical. If we look at Armenian historical reality, our national centers have generally been in the diaspora and these intellectuals centers have changed location over the years. Constantinople/Istanbul and Tiflis/Tbilisi, and to certain extent Geneva, have been the Armenian intellectual centers of the nineteenth century. After the Genocide, Constantinople lost its position in general for well-known reasons. Tiflis weakened because of Sovietization, and Lebanon became the center, with the community being organized in the 1920s and 1930s, and where nation-building was stressed until the 1960s-1970s. Afterwards, many Armenians and intellectuals moved to Los Angeles during the Lebanese civil war, and the center of the diaspora changed to a certain extent and became Los Angeles. Now, if we look at the development of events and what is going on in the Armenian world, we realize that the number of Lebanese Armenians is decreasing, while the current situation of Armenians in Syria is very worrisome. In Los Angeles, there is some assimilation, but there also is a comprehensive community life, with schools, newspapers, and so on. However, the current growth rate of the Los Angeles Armenian community is not too great. In the future, the new rising center of the diaspora will most likely be the Armenian community of Russia, where there are one to two million Armenians. However, the assimilation rate is very high due to various factors, most notably the lack of Armenian schools. There are Saturday and Sunday schools, but as far as I know there is not a single day school for the entire Armenian community of Russia….
“A.”: You have just mentioned Istanbul, and you are quite knowledgeable about the nuances of Armenian-Turkish relations. As a political scientist, what do you think about Armenian-Turkish relations? Do you receive applications from Istanbul Armenian students?
R.P.: This will be something new for us and reflects one of our interests. We believe that our Department should invest in Armenian-Turkish relations. Of course, not within the official or political framework, but within the cultural and civil society framework. Why? What is at stake in this? A foundation such as Gulbenkian always looks towards the future to see which direction the world is heading. In the next ten years, Armenian-Turkish relations will have fundamental importance for us, Armenians, and there is a need to develop or understand those relations. We must be able to assist in such a way that Armenian voices are heard accurately. We must not forget that the Armenian community has been an important presence in the Ottoman Empire and had a crucial role in its modernization process. Currently, Turkey is a country which is changing significantly, in my opinion, positively from a democratic point of view . . .
“A.”: But crackdowns and pressure on freedom of opinion continue in Turkey, and yet we have the events of Samatya . . .
R.P.: Yes, I am not saying that Turkey is a perfect country, that it is a completely democratic country, etcetera, but the direction is such; Turkey is a country that has changed much and still remains on a changing course. This has given Armenians, Kurds, and other minorities the opportunity to make their voice heard. Indeed, events happen, but Armenians feel less pressured. The important thing is to see how we can take advantage of this opportunity.
“A.”: We are on the eve of the beginning of events for the centennial of the Armenian genocide. Are you going to organize anything in this opportunity?
R.P.: I have not thought of anything so far, but I am sure we will organize something. The Gulbenkian Foundation is not a political organization, it does not deal with political issues, but the Armenian Genocide is not political, and it not possible that the centennial goes by without us organizing something….
 Subsequent to this interview, the amount was increased by the Board of Directors to 25,000 Euro.