Haig Der Manuelian is a partner in the real estate department of Holland & Knight LLC. A well-known lawyer and founding member of the Armenian Assembly, he is very active in Boston promoting Armenian issues. Our conversation took place in the building of the Armenian Library and Museum of America (ALMA) in Watertown, the heart of Boston's Armenian community. Der-Manuelian talked about his projects as he led us through the museum: "If you ask many American Armenians where Armenia is located - in Africa or in Latin America-they don't know. The Americans don't know either. And I want to have exhibits, materials, and books here so that people can come and have a clear idea about Armenia and Armenians."
In your opinion, what role can the Diaspora play in Armenia?
This museum should become a kind of grandfather for generations to come in order to preserve our Armenian-ness. If we have a strong community it can bring its protection to Armenia. The American president and senators don't care about Armenia. They only think about votes and raising money to get elected. Some say that we, the American Armenians, have a powerful lobby in this country. This is what the New York Times writes, but it's wrong, it's not the case. The community has no relations with the government. It's true we have well-known lawyers and doctors, but we don't have anyone in the government, we don't have a lobby. As long as we lobby to send money to Armenia, the community here has no power. Turkey can destroy Armenia within a second, but it is also because of the community here that it doesn't do so. If we are safe here, it means that Armenia is safe as well. The American-Armenian community is very important for Armenia. It is the most powerful community. And the US, as you know, is the most powerful country.
So, are you saying that the lobbying activity has become weaker now?
Since September 11 th the conditions have changed. Everybody's attention has turned to the fight against terrorism. I personally hate Bush's aides because they are friends of Turkey. They always help Turkey. And this Turkish Armenian Reconciliation Commission was created at the wrong time. It has done harm, because the timing was favorable for us but now everything has been postponed, since supposedly they are going to solve all the problems.
But didn't the Armenian Assembly of America take part in its creation?
Van Krikorian was a member of the Armenian Assembly and it was insanity. If I had been present I wouldn't have agreed. Because even if it is a good idea, if it fails it will harm our organization. It was insanity that the chairman of the board of our organization became a member of this organization. I was against it. Since September 11 th our position has gotten worse. And the fraud during the Armenian elections has made our work more difficult.
What impact did the elections have?
When we say that Armenia is democratic now, that it is a friend of the United States, they come from Turkey and say, "There is no democracy in that country." The international observer group saw and witnessed that the elections were fraudulent. Israel is paying for those lobbyists to go to the Congress and say that Armenia is a bad place, these kinds of things happen there, they are corrupt, etc. It creates a lot of problems for us because this becomes a pretext for rejecting our appeals.
When I speak to Diaspora Armenians, they all one complain that it is bad in Armenia, that it is impossible to work there, to do business. You have been to Armenia thirty times now. Do you share this opinion?
Many people are stingy. They don't want to spend their money and they look for excuses. Many people expect to see nicer houses when they go to Armenia. But if you go there you see that all our wealth is there. The nature, the people, the museums. The world doesn't know this. Armenia is a beautiful place. The people are talented, sympathetic. But it is true - it is very hard to do business there, because you don't know what new requirements they will put before you tomorrow, the day after tomorrow, if you invest your money in Armenia. You'll lose your money-that's hard to take.
Why will you lose your money?
Because that's the way it is. The bribery and the laws make it impossible to do business. Let me give you an example. Archeologists have been doing excavations in Armenia-they have found age-old objects. A professor from here was taking part in the digs. We agreed to bring some artifacts here, to organize a display and send them back. I was in Armenia, the professor's colleagues brought these artifacts to my room and told me to take them with me. I told them that it was inappropriate, that they should come with me to the airport, because the customs department would ask for permission to take them out of the country. They told us that all the necessary papers were there - with stamps, photos, and the government's permission. The next morning I took these objects to the airport and showed all these papers, but we were not allowed to take them with us. We had made all the arrangements in the States but everything fell apart. Even with government approval we were unable to bring these artifacts here. Things like that happen there and what can you do? In this country, if such a thing happens you hire a lawyer and go to court. You are confident that in this country judges don't take bribes, policemen don't take bribes.
In your opinion, how can we change our country?
In America, if something like that happened, journalists would write about it, and they would keep on writing, and then laws would be adopted and things would gradually change. The journalists should write; the lawyers should fight. There are laws in Armenia, of course. But no one pays attention to them. The judges just put money in their pockets. You won't get anywhere that way. The Diaspora can do nothing from here; you have to change it.
When wealthy Diaspora Armenians who want to invest in Armenia ask for your advice, what do you tell them?
It depends. If they ask my advice as a lawyer I have to tell the truth. My advice would be: "If you want to invest in Armenia, you might as well throw your money out on the street, it won't make any difference. If you want to do charity for orphanages, to build something, just make a donation, but don't invest in Armenia."
But isn't it necessary for people to be able to invest, to have confidence? How can we get to that point?
If rich people want to invest and waste their money, let them do it.
Why don't you set up an office in Armenia to defend the rights of Diaspora businesspeople?
You cannot defend their rights in Armenia. How would you do that? Here, if there is an argument, we go to arbitration. In Armenia, if you go co court, someone will come and say - give me $10,000 and I'll get whatever you want. That's not court.
When you meet with state officials in Armenia, do you discuss this issue?
You know, when I talk about these things, it's not important to them, because I'm not a rich person. Manoogian is rich, Kerkorian is rich, Mugar is rich, and Hovnanian is rich. If you're rich they'll do whatever you want, in accordance with the law or not. When I speak to senior officials they listen to me politely but they don't pay attention. And the government ministers don't have any brains at all, or they do, but their ears are corked up. They treat us like enemies.
I don't think they do. How is it manifested?
The ministers do. Whatever you say, their answer is "No." No, no, no - without listening.
What do you dislike most about Armenia?
The bribery. I love Armenia. When I land at the airport I start singing for joy, I feel happy. I love the people of Armenia. The bribery is a gaping wound, and it should be treated.
What should be done?
First, groups should be created that will change government policy, that will demand the resignation of ministers, so that the government doesn't do such things again. Freedom of press is the most important thing for Armenia. All this should be covered by the press.
But the press has no impact. Nobody really pays attention to what we publish.
The time will come-it will have an impact.