Interview With Hagop Pakradounian: "The problem is that we always try to find solutions outside of Lebanon."

Posted in Broader Middle East | 18-Sep-07 | Author: Manuela Paraipan

Manuela Paraipan is WSN editor "Broader Middle East".

On September 12, 2007, WSN’s Manuela Paraipan met with Hagop Pakradounian, member of the Armenian Tashnag Party and member of the Lebanese Parliament. The meeting took place in Bourj al Hammoud at the Tashnag Party’s headquarters.

WSN: Please tell me about the party's history and I'd also like to know when you joined it.

HAGOP PAKRADOUNIAN: The foundation of the party goes back to 1890 in Tbilisi, Georgia. The actual name of the party is the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF). The main reason the party was founded was due to the situation of the Armenians under the Ottoman Empire. The word for federation in Armenian is “Tashnag,” so we are known in Lebanon as the “Federation.”

From 1890 to 1908 we had a liberation movement against Turkey and just after 1908 when the constitution of the young Turks began to be implemented, we stopped having fights with the Turks. We entered the democratic and parliamentary movement.

We were against the tsarist regime in Armenia, too. The tsar oppressed the Armenians. The Tashnag Party is an Armenian revolutionary party with a socialist ideology. Just after the genocide, most of the Armenians - more than one and a half million - were killed, and others were deported. Some came to Syria and Lebanon. At that time there was no independent Lebanon. It was known as Mount Lebanon and it was part of Syria. In 1920 when the French mandate declared Greater Lebanon, we were present here with our population. Interestingly, the most ancient party in Lebanon now is the Tashnag Party. In Lebanon it was founded in 1904. Some of the party members and leaders came to Lebanon and at that time, there were students at the American University here and at Saint Joseph University and they formed the Zavarian student association that is part of the Tashnag Party. It is its student branch. The party entered political life in the 1920s and we tried to organize Armenian life in Lebanon. When we were deported from our homeland. We came as refugees here and we needed to organize ourselves. We tried to organize community life by building schools, churches and our cultural and political life. We had our first member in the Lebanese Parliament under the French mandate in 1932-34. After this, we always had MPs in the parliament and starting in

1960 we had ministers in the cabinet. We tend to represent around 80 - 85% of the Lebanese Armenians. But there are other Armenian parties in Lebanon.

I was born in 1956. When I was 13 years old, I enrolled in the party. I became a member of the junior association. In time I became responsible for the student association and the youth association, and afterwards I was the head of the party's press department. In 1986, at the age of 30 I was elected for the first time as a member of the central committee. From 1986 onwards, I have either been in the central committee or the political bureau and I was a candidate in Beirut in the 2000 parliamentary elections, but we lost. But in 2005, I succeeded, having won 94% of the Armenian votes and non-Armenian votes.

WSN: Why did Tashnag join forces with the FPM in the latest parliamentary elections?

HP: We are allies of FPM and the story goes back to 2000 when we failed in Beirut. At that time, there were two lists. We were on the list of Dr. Salim al Hoss. The late Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri headed the other list. In 2000, we had problems with Rafiq Hariri. The main problem was that we demanded to keep our independence with regard to political decisions. From the 1950s until 2000 we had the Armenian parliamentary block, where the Tashnag Party had one member. The others were either independents or members of the other Armenian political parties or close to them. The Armenian parliamentary block has never been an attached block. It was independent. Rafiq Hariri said that we didn’t need an Armenian parliamentary block. This was the main issue. What we meant by this block is not the name Armenian, but just a block of Lebanese Armenians who can make their own decisions. Our political position originated in 1943 and remains that of a moderate position. We believe in dialog and refuse to use weapons to solve our differences.

When the civil war started in 1975, we adopted the policy of positive neutrality. First, we said that we refused to take part in the war. Secondly, we refused to kill or to be killed and thirdly, we believed that the problems in Lebanon could only be solved through moderation and dialog. In a situation where the logic of the war dominates, no one hears the dialog. And we had 15 years of war, massacres, destruction and refugees. Then, at the Taef we sat for dialog and to reach a new agreement.

All the other communities respect this moderate position. In the Taef Agreement, the Armenian community was recognized to be among the 7 main communities in Lebanon. There are 18 communities here. This means that a government cannot be formed without a representative of the Armenians.

Coming back to the elections, when we failed to reach an agreement with Rafiq Hariri we lost the elections, despite the fact that we got 85% of the Armenian vote. However, due to the electoral law we failed and other Armenians who were with Hariri's bloc were elected but they did not have Armenian representation. At that time we tried to make the Lebanese understand that something is wrong with the electoral law - that non-Christians decide the Christian representation. Lebanon is a mosaic of communities in spite of the numbers. There are less Christians than Muslims, but everything is 50-50. Without a just and fair representation, the communities wouldn’t feel comfortable in this culture. Not everyone understood our point of view back then. In 2005 before the assassination of Rafiq Hariri, we tried to reach an agreement and in fact we succeeded in reaching a formal understanding. However, after Hariri was assassinated, his son Sheikh Saad for his own reasons and perhaps under the pressure of his father’s martyrdom could not get the message and could not understand the situation and we felt that were going to lose in Beirut too because we could not ally with Saad Hariri.

We boycotted the elections in Beirut. It was meaningless to take part in an election that you know a priori you cannot win.

Just before we established a link with General Aoun, he suddenly declared in Paris that if he were to form any list in Mount Lebanon he would not take any Armenians except from the Tashnag Party. This is because the Tashnag represents the majority of the Armenian community in Mount Lebanon. Afterwards, we allied during the elections here and in Bekaa, where we won par excellence. When they refused our participation in the new government we became the opposition and it was the first time that an Armenian MP placed a no-confidence vote for the government. It was the first time in our history. This is why we are with General Aoun. But the bloc that is formed by General Aoun, the Reform bloc, is not a bloc of General Aoun himself. Decisions taken in this bloc are not decisions made by General Aoun alone. On any subject, if we or somebody else is against it and we don't agree then it will be the decision of General Aoun and he declares it in his name, or in the name of FPM. Regarding things that we are in agreement, it will come out as a decision of the bloc.

WSN: Not long ago, the Tashnag Party was accused of forging the Metn district elections. How did you respond and what is Tashnag's current relationship with Amine Gemayel?

HP: We still expect to be shown proof of the forgery accusation. We know that we did not do it. The people who tried to do it are neither sympathizers nor members of our party. We know who they are, their families and their political affiliations. We are waiting for President Amine Gemayel to show us proof. In effect we went to the tribunal against Gabi Murr because he tried to accuse the Armenians as a community of opposing peace in Lebanon. On 10 October, we will have the first session at the tribunal in this case, but not against Amine Gemayel because he talked about the Tashnag Party. We have no relation with Amine Gemayel. He went to our patriarch and tried to make himself understood. We said this was all right because the patriarch represents the community, but the accusation was a political one and it was against the Tashnag Party. We appreciate his first step of going to the patriarch but in the end the patriarch is not a political man; he does not represent the party. We were the accused side and we expect him to make another positive step towards us. We are not asking him to say sorry, and I said at that time that I don't want him to go to the balcony of his palace in Bikfaya and say that he is sorry. He knows how to find a way; we have mutual friends, and we are friends of the Kataeb and of Gemayel family. We were allies for 50 years in Mount Lebanon and Beirut.

I am from the same village and we are good friends of the Gemayel family, and in two days time I will attend a mass for Bachir Gemayel.

It is not in the interest of any of the political parties to end the relations, especially since we are living in the Christian area and the main problem is the union of the Christians. We come from different communities and thus far we have not had the ability to unite and have one position even now for the presidential elections.

For example, we see that Fuad Siniora has gained the majority of the Sunnis, Sheikh Nasrallah and President Berri the majority of the Shias, Walid Jumblatt the majority of the Druze but in fact for the Christians there is no one personality. In fact, there is General Aoun representing the majority of the Christians, but there is no political agreement and political acceptance of this majority.

WSN: How do you see the understanding between FPM and Hizbollah? Is it a step forward for Lebanon?

HP: We really want that such understandings occur between most of the Lebanese political parties and communities. In fact, what we see in this understanding between Aoun and Hizbollah is a very positive step. I know very well what Hizbollah’s position as 5 or 10 years ago. We have tried to forget many of these positions, and General Aoun has tried to bring Hizbollah more to the Lebanese ideology and to a Lebanese political presence.

We should not forget that there are lots of Christians in the Bekaa, Baalbeck and southern Lebanon where the Shias are present. We saw the first result of this understanding during the July war in 2006 and I have wondered what would happen to the refugees from the Shia areas that are in the Christian areas if General Aoun hadn't made the understanding with Hizbollah. Would it have been possible to see the majority of Christians and the union of the Lebanese that accepted the war without the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU)? It was the first time that Hizbollah agreed that the Lebanese who are in Israel should return to Lebanon. Before this, Hizbollah considered them to be traitors. It was also the first time that Hizbollah spoke about the Lebanese prisoners from Syria.

Everyone in Lebanon knows that the problem of Hizbollah's weapons cannot be resolved through pressure and through war. Hizbollah should have some Lebanese guarantee that they can give back the weapons to the authorities but they have felt that this guarantee is a Christian guarantee.

Hizbollah felt more relaxed knowing that it has a Christian cover in its resistance against Israel. After all, Israel attacked Lebanon and not Hizbollah. We all paid for this war. As a teacher, as a merchant and a citizen, we all are participating in the resistance movement. The very fact that I am as a Lebanese citizen still living in my country demonstrates that I am helping the resistance against Israel. Otherwise I can pack my bags and take off to the US or Europe.

WSN: What have the Christians gained?

HP: First it was understood that Christians are not Israel's allies. Regarding Israel, we were accused as Christians, not as Armenians, of being allies of Israel. We showed the Christians that we are really Lebanese and we consider Israel an enemy. This also relaxed the Christians living in the Shia area. We want the various communities of Lebanon to have good relations. We must try to strengthen Lebanon and recognize that we are all Lebanese citizens.

Until now we have failed to recognize Lebanon as our homeland - to form a state in Lebanon and to have a real citizenship. Our citizenship is our community, the state is our region and our homeland is the village. The idea of one state, one nation and one citizenship is very important.

Through the MoU it is not that we already reached that target but it's a step forward. I participated in several dialog sessions in the parliament; I was one of the 14 leaders who attended at the invitation of President Berri. 95% of the conclusions we reached are written in the MoU. Even the part about the Syrian - Lebanese relations, where Hizbollah admits to having diplomatic relations with Syria. Hizbollah believes in Lebanon's independence and refuses any sort of Syrian interference.

WSN: How do you see the Lebanese political leaders solving the issue of the upcoming presidential elections?

HP: The problem in Lebanon is that we always try to find solutions outside of Lebanon. As Lebanese, I don't close my doors and windows to others. We are in the situation that the Syrians are not here and we feel we have the obligations of having independent elections. But we are not able to. Every political group tries to make its position better by asking the others to help, to interfere. We are seeing several ambassadors. Yesterday we met with the Charge d’Affairs of the US Embassy. We were told that the US would not interfere, that the presidential election is a Lebanese matter and that they are neither with nor against any candidate. The issue is that we have to decide. I want to believe that after I make my independent choice, the Russians, French Chinese, Syrians, Iranians and everyone else will not interfere.

The problem is that neither we can believe that they are not interfering nor can we believe that we as Lebanese don't want them to interfere. Every such action is either positive to me or against the other. The president is a Christian and a Maronite. He will represent both the Christians and the Muslims. He is not only elected by the Christians. He should be a strong Christian with a popular basis and elected based on his program, not because he is the son of a prominent Maronite family.

The majority of Lebanese should accept the president. The president is a guarantee for the Christians in Lebanon and outside Lebanon. As Christians we have real problems in the Middle East beginning with Iraq, Egypt, Syria as well as other parts of the region. We need a guarantee especially since this is the only Christian president in the Arab world. We need a president with a program that can solve the main problems in Lebanon.

WSN: What problems are you referring to?

HP: The problem with our relations with Syria, the Israeli occupation, UN Resolutions 1559 and 1701, the problem of Hizbollah and we have social, economic and other types of problems. I did not want to name it but since we are in a bloc where General Aoun is a candidate, we support him.

If Hizbollah feels comfortable and if Hizbollah will give its weapons to the authorities with General Aoun as President, what is the problem then? Let him be the President.

We are talking about 14 March and 8 of March. General Aoun was the founder of 14 of March. Actually, this was the date in 1989 when Aoun declared a war of liberation against Syria. Afterwards in 2005, the 14 of March turned into the Cedars Revolution. Who can tell that General Aoun is not support an independent, sovereign Lebanon?

Who can say that General Aoun had relations with Syria? He was the first person to be expelled from Lebanon because he was anti-Syrian. Now he has some relations with Hizbollah. We should look at this relationship – is it just for a short time or for the future of

Lebanon? It’s not because General Aoun wants to be president. He signed the understanding because he believes in it, as do we. Now, there is this constitutional problem. Since 1943, 10 presidents were elected with a quorum of 2/3. Why this quorum?

Half of the parliament is Christian and the other half is comprised of Muslims. It is very wise not only to have a president with a quorum of 2/3 and a simple majority election but also to have a president with greater roles. It’s better for all Lebanese if the president comes to Baabda to represent them all. Why did those who worked on the constitution and at the Taef Agreement support 2/3? Imagine that a Maronite president is elected with 65 votes and out of 65, 64 are non-Christian votes. Can he represent the Christians?

So we are talking confessional. Since we are within this system and until we change it and it cannot be changed by an election of a president we have to work within its framework.

It should be changed from the grassroots. No is not the time to change it. We should have a president who represents all people of Lebanon and is in line with the constitution. Otherwise, I am afraid that Lebanon is headed for destruction. In 1989 when Ambassador Murphy said either Daher or chaos, now we have either a president or total destruction.

In this respect I am not very optimistic. If a simple majority elects a president this president cannot be the president of all of Lebanon. We don't know now what will happen next – there should be a quorum of 2/3 and if after this quorum a simple majority elects the president it is

OK – we have the case of Suleiman Frangieh who was elected by simple majority by a difference of one vote. There is the possibility of having two governments, two presidents - everything is possible.

This is why we say that we should do our best to have the wisdom to elect a president by consensus. We should make some concessions so that we can keep Lebanon free and independent.

Manuela Paraipan, WSN Editor "Broader Middle East", reports from Beirut, Lebanon.