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Honesty is the best policy for Armenian ambassador

By Peter Mazereeuw      

Armen Yeganian arrived in Ottawa three weeks ago to begin his first posting as an ambassador, but the Armenian envoy is no rookie when it comes to relations with Canada.

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Armen Yeganian arrived in Ottawa three weeks ago to begin his first posting as an ambassador, but the Armenian envoy is no rookie when it comes to relations with Canada.

Mr. Yeganian arrives from the capital of Yerevan after a four-year-stint as director of his foreign ministry's Americas department. It was in that position that he joined Armenian Foreign Minister Edward Nalbandian in a visit to Canada last year, where they met with then-Canadian foreign minister Lawrence Cannon and a number of other prominent Canadian politicians.

"I was [already] a little bit familiar with the bilateral relations between Armenia and Canada," he says

Mr. Yeganian inherits what has historically been a challenging post. Armenia's relationship with Turkey has been strained for nearly a century by the deaths of countless Armenians after the Ottoman army invaded Armenia in the First World War. While the Armenian government has been taking steps to reconcile with Turkey, the well-organized and sizeable Armenian diaspora in Canada has traditionally opposed this move until Turkey agrees that the killings constituted a genocide. This puts diplomats like Mr. Yeganian in a difficult position.

"That's very healthy and good that people in the diaspora as well as in Armenia might have different opinions," he says. "[But] I think our president has put a lot of [his] political capital…on the table [in an effort at reconciliation], and he was not afraid of doing that. So of course, as a diplomat and as an ambassador, I fully support from day one the rapprochement attempt with Turkey."

Balancing delicate issues like this will put Mr. Yeganian's diplomatic skills to the test. He says his approach is always the same: honesty before expediency.

"Some people say if you tell the truth to your friend you might lose a friend, but if he is that kind of friend then you had better lose him," he says. "What's very important is your name. If you are honest and kind and warm with your friends, that stays, that never disappears."

Mr. Yeganian says he hopes to boost economic relations between Canada and Armenia, despite the physical distance between the two countries. He singles out the IT sector and diamond polishing as two industries he believes can easily grow their ties bilaterally. He says diamond polishing is traditionally an Armenian specialty, and there are already 70 Armenian masters here training Canadians in their craft.

Prior to his last posting, Mr. Yeganian spent three years as a counsellor in Armenia's Washington embassy, his second posting in the American capital. He has also been posted to Moscow, and says while the big cities impressed him, Ottawa is a better fit.

"This is exactly the size that I prefer," he says, comparing Canada's capital to Yerevan, which is a similar size. "Moscow was a very interesting experience, but it is a huge city and sometimes you find yourself lost."

Mr. Yeganian is joined in Canada by his wife, Maria, and their three sons. Gevorg is 16, Nikoghayos is 14, and Levon is six years old. In the Armenian tradition, the oldest is named for Mr. Yeganian's father, the second for his father-in-law, and his third son for his paternal grandfather.

"We decided to come here all together, to go through the difficult parts of such a big move and also the nice parts of it all together," he says. "My two [older] sons are great helpers to me… My little one is the one that is enjoying [it] 100 per cent so far."

Mr. Yeganian says he and his family are big soccer fans, and regularly played in Armenia. Mr. Yeganian was part of a diplomatic soccer team in Yerevan, and says he misses the game. The Ottawa Diplomatic Association may well have another set of feet for next year's Diplomatic World Cup.

But soccer is just one hobby for Mr. Yeganian, who has a multitude of ways to fill his spare time. He has an extensive stamp and coin collection, including Armenian coins dating back 2,000 years. The written word, however, trumps all of his other past-times.

"On top of everything is books, books and books again," he says. "What I left in Armenia…is my library, which I miss terribly.

"I'm a fan of serious science fiction," he adds, singling out the Dune series as his favourite. "It trains you, in terms of being open and imaginative."

When asked about his long-term ambitions, Mr. Yeganian says only that he wants to remain a diplomat. He says it is especially rewarding representing a small country because he can educate those who don't know much about Armenia. Mr. Yeganian says few people know that Armenia was the first country in the world to officially adopt Christianity.

"Culture is the language that everyone speaks. You bring it to people, [and] people get surprised and start thinking about visiting Armenia. This fascinates me," he says. "You bring your country closer to other nations."

pmazereeuw@embassymag.ca

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