By Harut Sassounian
Throughout the years, since Armenia’s independence in 1991, I have had the unique opportunity of spending hundreds of hours with the country’s three previous Presidents, discussing privately with them Armenia’s many problems. I offered them my professional assessments and frequently my criticisms of the way they were running the country. Although the Presidents were not pleased that I was pointing out their shortcomings and mistakes, they understood that my intent was not to disparage them, but to help them improve the living conditions of the population.
Ever since the earthquake of 1988, I have been doing charitable work in Armenia and Artsakh, initially as President of the United Armenian Fund (UAF), subsequently the Armenia Artsakh Fund (AAF), and as Vice Chairman of Kirk Kerkorian’s Lincy Foundation, delivering over $800 million of humanitarian aid to Armenia and Artsakh by the UAF and AAF, and managing $242 million of infrastructure projects funded by Lincy. Despite all the corruption prevailing in Armenia during those years, I fought hard to protect the humanitarian supplies and funds, persistently bringing to the attention of the Presidents the abuses by high rankling officials, and demanding that they be disciplined or fired.
During my 58 trips to Armenia and Artsakh, I saw firsthand the miserable conditions of most people in our homeland, deprived of money, food, medicines, clothing and other basic needs. Seeing the Presidents’ neglect of the people’s deprivations, I frequently and forcefully brought their dismal situation to the attention of the country’s leadership. I was particularly upset when I heard government officials speaking about Armenia needing investments, not charity. I found such remarks to be callous of the people’s suffering. After each such pronouncement, I confronted these officials explaining the negative effect of their statements.
Consequently, I was surprised when Armenia’s new Prime Minister, Nikol Pashinyan, a man of the people, during his remarks in New York on September 23, 2018, announced that in the context of Armenia-Diaspora relations, work must be encouraged, not charity: “Armenians can assist Armenia only with one option: carry out economic activity in Armenia, establish any business, and work. Today, Armenia’s understanding is the following: It is a country where it is possible to carry out economic activity, establish a business, earn profits, get rich and enrich. Our message to all of you is the following: get rich and enrich. We want Armenia to be known as such a country. Not charitable, but developmental projects must be implemented in Armenia….”
To be fair to the Prime Minister, in his speech, he also spoke about many other topics which I agree with whole-heartedly. He has tremendous support both in Armenia and around the world! He has practically eliminated corruption in Armenian society and has represented the voice of the people who had remained voiceless for more than a quarter of a century since independence. However, just as I have told the previous Presidents, I would like to provide the following explanations to the new Prime Minister:
- I fully support the Prime Minister’s initiative that Armenia needs economic investments in order to create jobs and expand exports. By creating jobs, not only the people will have the income to pay for their daily expenses, but the government will also have the tax revenues to support the country’s and population’s multiple needs.
- However, the Prime Minister’s urging that “work must be encouraged, not charity,” would deprive hundreds of thousands of poor people of their basic necessities. Investments take time to trickle down to the people and produce results. In the meantime, if charitable efforts are discouraged, many poor people will not survive.
- Not all Diaspora Armenians can invest in the Armenian Republic. There are dozens of charitable organizations which by law cannot get involved in economic activities, as they can only do charity. Since the earthquake and Armenia’s independence, Armenian and international charities have provided a large amount of aid to Armenia and Artsakh. If it were not for this humanitarian assistance, the standard of living would have been even lower, jeopardizing the survival of many Armenians. By discouraging charity, we are simply asking charitable organizations not to help the needy people of Armenia.
- Armenian governments so far have been unable to meet the many needs of their population due to lack of money. Diaspora’s charitable organizations have provided the aid that the government could not. If there were no charitable assistance in Armenia ever since independence, the people’s many needs would not have been taken care of and Armenia would have been a poorer country.
- Even if the Diaspora would start investing in Armenia today, that does not mean that the influx of new funds would take care of all the needs of the people overnight. Certainly, a large number of people would eventually be employed, but many others, such as the elderly, would still be left with hardly any income from their negligible pensions. Those who are unaware of the extent of appalling poverty in Armenia should read the Guardian newspaper’s Sept. 29, 2018 article by Nick Danziger, titled: “‘It’s better to die’: the struggle to survive poverty in Armenia.”
- There is the mistaken notion that if there were many investments in Armenia, there would be no need for charity. In almost all countries, even in the most advanced ones, there are hundreds of charitable organizations that tend to the needs of the poor. In the United States alone, billions of dollars are provided annually to needy individuals and families by charitable organizations. If the Americans require charity, Armenians would certainly need charitable assistance for a long time to come.
Paradoxically, Prime Minister Pashinyan’s wife, Anna Hakopyan, recently launched her own charitable organization “My Step Foundation” to support educational, healthcare, social and cultural projects. She is doing what’s absolutely necessary because the people of Armenia desperately need help.
WASHINGTON, D.C. – The Armenian Assembly of America (Assembly) mourns the loss of Virginia “Ginny” Ohanian, who passed away peacefully on September 13, 2018.
Both Ginny and her late husband Michael were staunch supporters and core members of the Assembly from the beginning. They were close to Stephen Mugar and actively participated in all of the Assembly’s work. In 2013, she was honored, alongside Ann Hintlian and Nevart Talanian, with the Assembly’s Distinguished Humanitarian Award.
“Ginny was a remarkable individual with a sparkling sense of humor who cared deeply and passionately about Armenia and its people. Her generosity and commitment to Armenia and the Armenian Assembly served as an inspiration to us all. She will be missed greatly. This is a loss to the entire Assembly family,” Assembly Co-Chairs Anthony Barsamian and Van Krikorian said.
After visiting Armenia and Artsakh as part of the Assembly Mission Trip in 1999, Mrs. Ohanian became committed to the reforestation of the country. Of the thousands of supporters of the Armenia Tree Project no one individual has given as many “tree gifts.” She took it beyond just planting trees.
Mrs. Ohanian had said: “I saw for myself the need for trees, jobs and education. I thought this was a fitting way to memorialize Michael’s and my ardent devotion to the Armenian Assembly,” thus giving the funds to open the Michael and Virginia Ohanian Environmental Education Center at the Karin Nursery in Armenia.
Mrs. Ohanian, her sister, daughter, and daughter-in-law were at the ribbon cutting in 2004. In 2011 the Michael and Virginia Ohanian Center for Environment Studies was opened in Margahovit, Lori Marz province. This center trains students, teachers and professionals in best forestry practices and conducts environmental education lessons with students from all regions of Armenia.
Her son Bruce is a long-time Assembly Trustee, and her daughter-in-law, Lu Ann Ohanian, is also a Life Trustee and a member of the Assembly’s Board. Mrs. Ohanian’s daughter Veronica Heath and husband Donn have been members and supporters of the Assembly and the Armenia Tree Project.
Mrs. Ohanian was a life-time member of the Holy Trinity Church in Cambridge where she was an ardent supporter and a member of the Women’s Guild, and a longstanding seasonal parishioner of St. David Armenian Church in Boca Raton, FL. She was very active along with her husband in the Armenian General Benevolent Union. Michael was an excellent golfer, winning the Massachusetts Amateur. Mrs. Ohanian thought it only fitting after he passed that she establish a college scholarship through the Ouimet Society named the Michael Ohanian Scholarship. Her other philanthropies include: Armenian Heritage Park, Berkshire Hill Music Academy, Bentley College, the Belmont Hill School, and Massachusetts General Hospital.
The wake will take place on Wednesday, September 19 from 10:00 am – 11:30 am with a funeral service to follow at Holy Trinity Armenian Church of Greater Boston at 145 Brattle St., Cambridge, MA.
WASHINGTON, D.C. – Congressional Caucus on Armenian Issues Co-Chairs Representatives Frank Pallone, Jr. (D-NJ), David Valadao (R-CA), and Jackie Speier (D-CA), along with Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-CA), Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, Jr. (R-WI), and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI) returned from Armenia with a better understanding of the challenges facing the region. Reps. Valadao, Pallone, and Gabbard also visited Artsakh.
Reflecting on his past trips to Armenia and Artsakh, Armenian Caucus Co-Chair Rep. Pallone stated: “The progress of the country economically and politically is immediately evident. I visited Armenia several times in the 1990s and early 2000s. Great strides have been made in terms of economic development and improvements in the political system since then.” He continued: “Overall, this trip was a great opportunity for Armenia Caucus members to learn what we need to follow-up on when we’re back in Congress to improve U.S.-Armenian relations with regards to trade, military cooperation, and many other areas.”
The four-day trip, from September 18-21, allowed for several face-to-face meetings with high-level government officials. The delegation met with Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan, who acknowledged the Congressional Delegation’s visit as a crucial step towards strengthening Armenia’s relations with the United States, and expressed his gratitude for their efforts towards deepening bilateral relations in all areas.
They also met Prime Minister Karen Karapetyan, National Assembly Speaker Ara Babloyan, Foreign Minister Edward Nalbandian, Deputy Foreign Minister Ashot Hovakimian, and His Holiness Karekin II, the Supreme Patriarch and Catholicos of All Armenians at Holy Etchmiadzin.
Armenian Caucus Co-Chair Rep. Valadao said: “Living in the Central Valley, I have heard many stories and descriptions of Armenia from my neighbors and friends. Having the opportunity to experience the country they love firsthand was an unforgettable and enlightening experience. In addition to visiting historic landmarks and learning more about the Armenian culture, I met Armenian business leaders and government officials, examining the positive impact of the strong bond between our two nations.”
In addition to official meetings with the leadership of Armenia and Artsakh, the delegation met with Syrian refugees who found shelter in Armenia, the business community, and beneficiaries of U.S.-funded projects. They also went on special tours and visited American University of Armenia, Impact Hub Yerevan, Megerian Carpet Museum, and Armenia Fund’s rehabilitated music school.
“I saw first-hand the enormous contributions that the diaspora has made to build a bright future for Armenia. The hospitalities extended were second to none, whether it was a visit to the American University of Armenia, to winemakers or music students, Armenia is on the move with a deep determination to continue building a just and democratic society. I left the country with a great sense of gratitude and pride,” Rep. Eshoo stated. “My recent visit to Armenia as it celebrated its 25th year of independence, was an extraordinary experience for me personally and as a Member of Congress. I believe the trip strengthened the relationship between the United States and Armenia, and it also deepened my understanding of the challenges the country has and how the United States can be a helpful partner,” she continued.
Rep. Sensenbrenner previously visited Armenia in 1991 and had the opportunity to observe the Armenian referendum, during which 95% of the population voted for independence from the Soviet Union. He witnessed the country during a crucial transition period as it took its first steps towards democracy, and was able to return many years later to see how the nation developed. The Congressional Delegation’s visit coincided with Armenia’s Independence Day on September 21.
“The need for cooperation between our two countries is ongoing, and this diplomatic mission was important to strengthen relationships and continue to keep lines of communication open. U.S. support has helped bolster Armenian democratic institutions and civil society, and our two countries must continue to work together to advance these interests. The U.S. and Armenia share strong bonds, as America is one of the largest destinations for the Armenian diaspora,” Rep. Sensenbrenner said. “These Armenians have gone on to contribute greatly to their new homes, as well as being influential in the continued struggle for recognition of the Armenian Genocide.”
At the Armenian Genocide Memorial Complex and Armenian Genocide Museum-Institute, the U.S. legislators laid flowers at the eternal fire of the Armenian Genocide Monument and observed a moment of silence in tribute to the victims.
Rep. Gabbard noted: “One major issue that continues to be unresolved, is global recognition and condemnation of the Armenian Genocide. It is unconscionable that the United States government still has not formally recognized and condemned the Armenian Genocide. I stand with Armenians in America and around the world in condemning the Armenian Genocide, and I call on my colleagues to adopt House Resolution 220 so we never forget, or repeat, the suffering endured by the Armenian people.”
Armenian American Rep. Eshoo added: “Despite efforts beginning in 1975 to formally recognize the Armenian Genocide, Congress has yet to acknowledge what took place 102 years ago. The deliberate annihilation of 1.5 million Armenians, Assyrians, Greeks and other minorities by the Ottoman Empire is a fact that must be acknowledged by the United States. Likewise, the issue of Nagorno-Karabakh must be resolved and the Minsk Group is important to this effort.”
Members of the delegation met with Artsakh President Bako Sahakyan and National Assembly Speaker Ashot Ghoulyan. During these meetings, they discussed the latest developments in the Artsakh peace process, the role of international organizations in preventing border incidents, as well as the efforts of the Armenian Caucus in strengthening U.S. relations with Armenia and Artsakh. President Sahakyan honored Reps. Pallone, Speier, and Eshoo with Medals of Gratitude for their longtime and substantial contribution to the recognition of the Republic of Artsakh.
Speaker Ghoulyan emphasized the importance of U.S. humanitarian assistance to Artsakh, and acknowledged the latest amendment introduced by Rep. Valadao to ensure continued U.S. support to the de-mining process in Artsakh. Last month, Rep. Valadao spearheaded a bipartisan amendment along with House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Rep. Ed Royce (R-CA), House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence and Armenian Caucus Vice-Chair Adam Schiff (D-CA), Rep. Pallone, and Rep. Speier to ensure continued funding for de-mining projects in Artsakh.
Reps. Pallone and Gabbard traveled to Artsakh by helicopter with Assembly Co-Chair Anthony Barsamian, Artsakh Foreign Minister Karen Mirzoyan, Artsakh Representative to the U.S. Robert Avetisyan, and Armenia Fund, Inc. President Maria Mehranian. The U.S. Representatives addressed the Artsakh Republic National Assembly during one of its sessions. Rep. Pallone described Artsakh as a state with a legitimate government, which declared independence consistent with international law, and has built an effective political structure. Rep. Gabbard emphasized the importance of the United States’ active involvement in the peace process and expressed support for the legitimate right of the people of Artsakh to self-determination.
“The resilience and courage I witnessed in the people of the Nagorno-Karabakh region who remain in an ongoing conflict over their independence, further demonstrates our shared values of freedom, democracy, and self-determination. We must support a diplomatic resolution to this ongoing conflict, such as what has been proposed by the Minsk Group (made up of the United States, France, and Russia), to allow for the people of Nagorno-Karabakh to exercise their freedom and independence,” Rep. Gabbard said in a statement.
Rep. Valadao also traveled to Artsakh and met with The HALO Trust to learn more about mine clearance along the borders. Following his visit, he stated: “Families in Nagorno Karabakh live under the constant threat of landmine accidents and I am grateful for the efforts of The HALO Trust to make Nagorno Karabakh a more safe and secure region.” Rep. Valadao continued, “While their work is renown worldwide, I appreciated witnessing their work and learning more about their efforts and dedication firsthand.”
The six Members of Congress are part of an exchange with Armenian Members of Parliament who are expected in Washington, D.C. in the coming months.