Is This the World Leader Most Eager for a President Biden? - OZY | A Modern Media Company
Armen Sarkissian, Armenia's president, speaks during an interview in Yerevan, Armenia.
SourceNazik Armenakyan/Bloomberg via Getty

WHY YOU SHOULD CARE

Because Armenia could be the next Syria.

By Pallabi Munsi

  • Armenian President Armen Sarkissian, who’s been at the forefront of his country’s political life for a quarter century, buttonholed Joe Biden in early 2019, trying to get him to run for president.
  • Now Sarkissian’s country is at war and sees in Biden a lifeline.

Politics, like the universe, is relative, or so believes Armen Sarkissian, the physicist turned president of Armenia. In his telling, quantum physics can be a helpful guide to the turbulent geopolitics of recent years. “The world is changing, rapidly so. … And [all] politicians will come and go,” he told Russia Today last year.

Yet some have remarkable staying power, like Sarkissian — prime minister of the country from 1996–97, its longtime ambassador to the United Kingdom and now president since 2018 — and Joe Biden, the longtime senator-turned-vice president, now the U.S. president-elect.

So perhaps it’s not surprising that he thought he could apply his own force to global affairs by bantering in hushed tones with Biden at the Munich Security Conference in February 2019. 

In buttonholing Biden about whether he’d run for president, Sarkissian, 67, appeared to get quite the scoop — as the two whispered about it, months ahead of Biden’s formal announcement. Asked about the exchange later, Sarkissian had a good laugh and drank a sip of water before saying of his friend: “Whether Biden will run for presidency or not is … quite obvious … just have patience.”

Now, patience is running out for Armenia in light of the war that has broken out in the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh.

And while Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan recently claimed that Azerbaijan’s uncompromising posture has exhausted all hopes for a political settlement and urged all Armenians to “take up arms and defend the Motherland,” Sarkissian believes negotiations, not the use of force, are the way to solve the conflict. “Imagine the Caucasus becoming another Syria,” he said recently in a desperate plea for support from the international community. 

That support likely would be more forthcoming from a Biden administration, making Sarkissian a global winner when Biden takes the oath of office in January. While plenty of world leaders and traditional American allies will breathe a sigh of relief if Biden, a known quantity on the global stage from his time on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, takes over, Armenia has many reasons to be thankful. As Eduard Abrahamyan wrote in the Central Asia Caucasus Analyst, Armenia has long had stronger ties with Democrats and didn’t recalibrate well in the Trump administration. Even though the foreign-aid spigot has remained open, “Yerevan’s ability to interact positively with the Trump administration is limited, given its geopolitical collision course with Russia and China, compounded with escalating diplomatic tensions with Iran,” wrote Abrahamyan.

ARMENIA-YEREVAN-PRESIDENT-CHINA-AMBASSADOR-MEETING

Armenian President Armen Sarkissian during a meeting with Chinese ambassador to Armenia Tian Erlong.

In Biden, Armenia sees a glimmer of hope. During his presidential campaign, he pledged to formally recognize the 1915 Armenian Genocide — though Barack Obama made the same pledge and did not follow through, as the massacre of 1.5 million Armenians is a touchy subject for Turkey. Biden also vows to reinvigorate U.S. engagement in resolving the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.

Vahagn Avedian, historian and author of Knowledge and Acknowledgement in the Politics of Memory of the Armenian Genocide, remains skeptical. “So far, the United States has failed to be with Armenia,” and the country, in turn, has always been “caught between a rock and a hard place.” Perhaps why, he says, it has veered toward Russia.

Europe and the U.S., have upheld a balanced approach toward Armenia and Azerbaijan, especially in regard to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict during the past 20 years. The criticism toward these two governments has been, Avedian maintains, in almost perfect parity, carefully avoiding favoritism to uphold the image of perfect objectivity on behalf of the mediators of the conflict.

But what is different now, says Emil Sanamyan, of the University of Southern California Institute of Armenian Studies, is how Biden called for U.S. leadership to stop the advance of Azerbaijani troops into Nagorno-Karabakh and end the “flow of military equipment to Azerbaijan.”

Mike Pompeo -  Armen Sarkissian in Washington

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, right, meets Armenian President Armen Sarkissian at the U.S. State Department in Washington, D.C.

Source asin Ozturk/Anadolu Agency/Getty

“Following the collapse of the cease-fire announced by Secretary of State Pompeo on Oct. 25, a large-scale humanitarian disaster is looming for the people of Nagorno-Karabakh, who have already suffered too much and need to have their security protected,” Biden recently said in a statement.

If Biden follows through, Sarkissian will play an important role in bridging the gap between Armenia and the West — despite the fact that as president, he holds a mere ceremonial role in Armenia’s new democratic system. That’s because it will require strong political will, diplomatic skills and political knowledge. 

“In terms of the democratic system, he might be the second fiddle, but he has higher popularity because his role has been that of an auxiliary foreign policy person — looking at diaspora and economic outreach,” says Sanamyan.   

The outreach draws in all kinds. Sarkissian has hosted Prince Charles in Armenia; made Dariga Nazarbayeva, daughter of the Kazakhstan president, head of the organizing committee of the Eurasian Media Forum; and made sure Kim and Kourtney Kardashian get “positive vibes” when they visited the country, walking hand in hand with Sarkissian and having dinner at the Armenian Palace.

In his pre-political career, Sarkissian was always keen to apply new touches to working theories. He helped design the game Wordtris, a Tetris spin-off that was popular on PC and Nintendo in the early 1990s.

Now the conflict tearing his country apart may be his most difficult puzzle yet.

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