Armen Sarkissian: "The moment you stop learning, you die"


Dining with the FT with the president of Armenia is diplomatically delicate and sensational from a gastronomic point of view. True to the traditions of lavish hospitality in his small Caucasian country, Armen Sarkissian refuses to accept that any visitor can ever treat him at lunch in his hometown of Yerevan. But when I tell him about the strict rules of the FT, he suggests a generous compromise: we should have a second lunch two days after that, to his reluctance, the FT could be authorized to cover. So the previous one is violated, but the honor is satisfied.

The first of our two lunches to break through and break the brain takes place in Ankyun, an Italian-Armenian fusion restaurant in the center of Yerevan, an eccentric urban hybrid of Soviet architecture with face-to-face and grandiose Caucasian style. When Sarkissian arrives, preceded by a group of bodyguards with leather-clad headphones, we are soon involved in a discussion of last year's "velvet revolution" drama and the stalemate between then Prime Minister Serzh Sargsyan, and mass opposition on the street. "It was very, very, very tense. There was no dialogue between those on the street and the government and we headed towards a confrontation," he says.

Sarkissian's instinct, which his advisers thought "crazy", was simply to enter the crowd of protesters gathered in Piazza della Repubblica to meet the leader of the opposition Nikol Pashinyan and hear what he had to say. "I had the feeling that it was the right thing to do," he says.

But our conversation quickly overwhelms a wide range of topics, from theoretical physics, Margaret Thatcher, Lord Byron and Kim Kardashian to Sarkissian's theory of "quantum politics", all sprinkled with a good dose of Caucasian culture, cuisine and intrigue.

After all, Sarkissian has lived many lives during his 65 years. "Life always prepares you for something, you never know for what," says Sarkissian, whose broad face can go from the censored frown to the smirk with the same speed with which the clouds touch the skyline of Yerevan towards Mount Ararat.

Determined to show off The wonders of local cuisine, Sarkissian dispenses with the menu and orders a large sample of the restaurant's offerings. Let's start with the sharing of three salads, beets and cheese, broccoli and a tarragon creation soaked in olive oil full of freshness and flavor. This is quickly followed by a tagliatelle with lemon and pine kernels which is deliciously zingy. I am eager to try a local wine, given that Armenia is renowned as one of the oldest wine producing regions in the world – as noted by Herodotus. So let's taste some dry white Koor Voskehat that in its intense color and its resinous taste recalls, at least for my limited palate, a vin jaune from the Jura.

During our conversation, Sarkissian often refers to the rich and tormented past of Armenia, but his eyes are fixed on the future. I ask him about the recent speech in which he said that if the 20th century had been the century of natural resources, then the 21st century would have been that of human resources. Explain that we are experiencing a period of extraordinary technological change, which he describes as an "era of rapid evolution, or" evolution r ", as he has nicknamed. The ability to learn and adapt is what differentiates winners from losers in this century.

This explosion of knowledge is partly a game of numbers. At the time of Isaac Newton, there were perhaps 1,000 people in the world studying advanced mechanics. At the time of Albert Einstein, there were perhaps 10,000 scientists worldwide looking for quantum physics. But today, according to estimates, there are hundreds of millions of people engaged in scientific research and technological development, not only in the famous universities and multinationals, but in thousands of innovative start-ups.

"If you can find Newton in 1000 and Einstein in 10,000, imagine how many talented people you can find in hundreds of millions? This new world is a world of innovation and start-ups."

Sarkissian wishes to seize the opportunities of this new revolution and argues that the power of innovation does not only apply to science, technology and business, but also to the way countries manage themselves. Governments must become much more agile and education systems must be re-imagined. "Armenia is one of the new start-ups of the 21st century," he says.

The first of Sarkissian's lives he was a theoretical physicist in the Soviet Union, winning the prestigious Lenin award and the rare opportunity in 1984 to pursue research at Cambridge University alongside, among others, Stephen Hawking.

During the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Sarkissian was asked to become the first independent ambassador of Armenia in London, a post he held on two subsequent occasions: a record, he believes, at the Court of St. James . For good measure, it has also opened embassies and missions in Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, the European Union, NATO and the Vatican. "I dreamed I could do both science and diplomacy. But being a research physicist is like being a concert pianist. If you don't practice every day, it's not anymore. It becomes a hobby," he says with regret. .

His third life began in 1996 when he became prime minister of Armenia, a demanding job interrupted the following year when he was diagnosed with cancer. Upon his recovery, he returned to London to pursue a lucrative career as a business consultant to some of the world's largest multinationals, interspersed with additional ambassadors spells.

But in 2018 he was again drawn to Armenian politics after being elected by parliament to serve as president. Almost immediately, he entered a furious political crisis. Sargsyan, who had been president for the past 10 years, had tried to maintain power by rewriting the constitution and assuming the role of reinforced prime minister. But this had triggered mass protests and fears that the country could lead to a violent confrontation.

Using his extensive diplomatic wiles, Sarkissian toured the two sides and consulted with Russian, US and EU representatives to negotiate an agreement. He urged all parties to meet on the eve of the anniversary of the Armenian genocide of 1915, commemorated every year on April 24th. Sargsyan's dramatic resignation soon followed, paving the way for new elections. Fortunately, Armenia has avoided the conflict that has disfigured the so-called colored revolutions in several other former Soviet republics. Sarkissian is full of praise for the moderation shown by all parties, including Russian President Vladimir Putin. "I think everyone behaved correctly," he says.

Sarkissian now basks in the afterglow, acting as a paternal figure for a young reformist government led by the former leader of the Pashinyan opposition. Hope has finally broken out in a country more familiar with the tragedy.

He realizes that a song by Charles Aznavour, the late, great Armenian-French singer, is playing in the background. Sarkissian recalls that when he was ambassador to the EU, he invited Aznavour to Brussels twice a year, guaranteeing that virtually the entire European Commission was lining up to come to dinner.

While we are cutting thin slices of bacon and pepperoni pizza and munching, Sarkissian tells me about some of the leaders he has known and admired most, including the Israeli Shimon Peres and the British Margaret Thatcher.

In particular, he recalls a trip Thatcher made in Armenia in 1990 following the devastating earthquake of 1988, which killed about 45,000 people. Thatcher had come from Moscow, where she had held important talks with then-Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. What struck Sarkissian was his "discipline and sharpness of his mind", as well as his memory for details. He was very impressed by his ability to listen and learn, human skills that Sarkissian ranks highly. "Those people who know how to listen are also the people who learn," he says. "The moment you stop learning, you die. The age is not the number of years you have lived. The age is the condition of your soul."

While in Armenia, Thatcher opened a school in Gyumri, rebuilt with British aid money and named in honor of Lord Byron, who I learn is something of a national hero in Armenia. Sarkissian explains that in 1816 Byron spent several months living with the Mekhitarist order of the Armenian Catholic Church in Venice, where he learned the language and wrote about the Armenian struggle for liberation from the Turkish pashas and Persian satraps. Armenian monks live in the same monastery on the beautiful Isla San Lazzaro until today, serving fine food and immersing themselves in a library of ancient manuscripts. "I'd like to live there, it's a fantastic life," says Sarkissian a little sadly.

I'm certainly not mumbling about our enclave of Italian-Armenian cuisine. Our pizza dishes are taken away and the main dish arrives: steak for the president and salmon for me. Subsequently, the owner insists that we try a pleasantly bitter hazelnut cake with our coffee. "If you ate like this every day, you would be 200 pounds," the president jokes.

Two days laterwe meet again in Dolmama, a condominium converted into an Armenian restaurant run by Jirair Avanian, a former art dealer from New York and one of Sarkissian's oldest friends. Both studied at school n. 114 in Soviet times. "He was always the brightest kid in school," the avant-garde Avanian tells me. With dark wood furniture, red tablecloths and flowers on each table, Dolmama has the atmosphere of a family dining room.

When Sarkissian arrives, dressed in a gray pinstripe suit and a black V-neck sweater, he says he is fighting a cold and orders a small cherry-flavored vodka and a Coca-Cola. We order a tantalizing variety of cold appetizers and salads, trout and cheese packages, eggplant rolls stuffed with walnuts and fennel and chicken liver salad, in addition to the characteristic dolma of the restaurant, vine leaves filled with lamb and beef. They are all prepared and presented to perfection.

Taking up our previous conversation quickly, Sarkissian provides a lively explanation of why small countries like Armenia, Israel, Singapore and Ireland, often victims of larger powers in previous centuries, are well positioned to prosper in our times because they are so adaptable.

Throughout its 3,000-year history, Armenia has been at the crossroads of different civilizations, cultures and ideologies, European and Asian, Christian and Muslim, communist and capitalist. In the last few centuries, this has caused several explosions of violence between the oldest Christian state in the world and its Islamic neighbors, most recently Turkey and Azerbaijan. Armenia is still stuck in a frozen conflict with Azerbaijan on the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. "We survived," Sarkissian says.

That tumultuous history has caused the flight of millions of Armenians abroad. Although the population of Armenia contains only 3 m, there are about 8 million Diaspora Armenians scattered around the world: "Armenia is a small country, but a global nation," says Sarkissian.

That global network of Armenians involved, including reality TV star Kim Kardashian with his 141m followers on Instagram, will be an important resource in today's interconnected world, he says. Sarkissian is determined to deepen the involvement of the diaspora with its historic homeland. "They must believe that they are part of a larger family," he says. "We must become a center of new ideas and technologies and do business in many places."

Sarkissian puts the napkin on top of his sweater as a giant pork steak arrives. I ordered trout from Lake Sevan in Armenia, a place of legendary beauty – and excellent fish. The enormous and delicate trout is more meaty than any I have ever tasted, but it still warms up from the bones to the minimum prompt.

One aspect of our modern world is that most of Sarkissian's intrigues are like the latest technological revolution is changing the dynamics of politics. One of the very few heads of state who is a scientist, argues that just as we move from a world of classical to quantum mechanics, we are moving from a world of classical politics to quantum politics. In the classical political world, what matters are organized forms of connectivity: tribes, nations, religions, ideologies, parties, political institutions. Change tends to be slow and relatively predictable. But the quantum political world moves in quicker, more unpredictable and seemingly random ways: every connected individual can produce an effect by expressing their opinion on social media.

"As for the meaning, I mean the individual particle. The individual becomes powerful because he has a connectivity tool in the world wide web," he says. "Heisenberg's uncertainty principle could be used to describe events that are happening in social life".

Sarkissian states that many aspects of our contemporary world show quantum behaviors: the spread of pandemics or the impact of terrorist acts. He saw his first-hand effects even during the soft revolution of Armenia, when the classical institutions of government and parliament were overwhelmed by mass mobilization in the virtual world. Power filtered through the streets.

But didn't something similar happen in the pre-internet era of October 1917 during the Russian revolution? Yes, Sarkissian concedes. These events happened once every 80 years; nowadays they can happen every year. He cites the example of Emmanuel Macron, who has shown himself to be a master of quantum politics by winning the French presidency in 2017 with unconventional means, but now he is his victim as a gilet jaunes they mobilized online and took to the streets.

Despite the uncertainties created by this new world, Sarkissian is exalted by his possibilities. He suggests that we are experiencing a new renaissance as the boundaries of research dissolve, for example, between physics and biology, between DNA and data processing. "I'd love to come back in 50 years to see what happened," he says.

State affairs are pressing, but I have time to ask him which of his many lives he has enjoyed the most. Typically, it gives an answer that is both mathematical and diplomatic. "Each of them. They were all mine. When I lived life number n, I didn't think about life number n + 1," he says. "I was just trying to live a full life when I lived it."

John Thornhill is the FT innovation editor

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