Nation shall speak peace unto nation: An interview with THORDA ABBOTT-WATT, UK Ambassador to Armenia
Ambassador Abbott-Watt joined Her Majesty's Diplomatic Service in 1974, and has served in Tajikistan, Serbia, Ukraine, Germany, and elsewhere. She gave this interview in January, on the occasion of her one-year anniversary in Armenia.
- How do you like living in Armenia?
It's a beautiful country. This is obviously a very important anniversary for me because I've been here for a year now. And I've been reflecting over the last year and thinking what a very interesting experience it's been and in particular how very welcoming Armenia has been for me.
- You have been posted to various countries. In general, do you leave something behind in the countries where you work, or do you take something with you from those countries?
What you take to a country, I think, apart from the obvious things, which are one's instructions to defend British interests abroad-you take a small part of your own country with you to share wherever you're going. And when you leave, if you spend any time in a country, you take a few physical things - we take books and pictures - but you also take a bit of the spirit of the country with you, I think. I don't think you ever forget places that you have spent time in.
Was there a country that you became attached to and it was hard for you to leave?
Yerevan in the snow ( Laughter ). No, I think probably the most difficult job I've ever done was in Tajikistan, because I went in two years ago on my own to open up an embassy in a country where I didn't speak the language-I speak only a little Russian-and to begin with, no embassy building. I took my embassy in a trunk, which was a computer, an electric kettle, a padlock, a flag, one or two other small things, and that was very difficult, but that was difficult not because of Tajikistan. It was difficult because one had to start right at the beginning. But once again, I left with very happy memories.
- Why did you decided to become a diplomat?
Well, my father was a diplomat, and he was also a soldier before he was a diplomat. And I didn't want to join the army because I'd been to school for seven years, and I'd spent seven years wearing a uniform. And I think having been a child of the sixties, I grew up almost with the BBC's motto: Nation shall speak peace unto nation. And I really felt that was something worth being part of. I am not ashamed of being an idealist. I am also a realist; there are times when, sadly, I believe that armed conflict is inevitable. But by the same token every time war breaks out, I regard it as a failure of my profession.
- I was going to ask about that. There are instances when a diplomat disagrees with a particular approach of his or her government ' s policy but he or she is obliged to defend it. Have there been any such moments in your career?
Because you accept that your job is to represent your country, your government and your people, because we have a democratic system in Britain, and I believe in that system. I am bound to serve any government that my people elect. And I don't have a problem with that. I have been in the service for nearly 30 years, which means that I have served under a complete range of governments. And yes, sometimes I have to implement policy that I don't necessarily agree with or think is the best way of going about things, but it doesn't happen very often. And I tell myself, this is my job, and I do it.
There are other alternatives. You can ask, for example, to be moved to another desk. If you still feel very strongly that something that your secretary of state was proposing was something that you couldn't live with in your conscience, you can honorably resign from the service. I am lucky. I never had my principles tested that far.
Usually in Britain, the national interest is the national interest regardless of which party is in power, and what you tend to get are differences of emphasis. So that it would be unusual for there to be something that I felt so strongly was wrong that I would feel I needed to resign. I hope I would have the courage to do it if the circumstances ever arose.
And of course I have the opportunity to influence policy. The role of the ambassador is to advise the foreign secretary on what foreign policy should be towards Armenia, and the role of foreign secretary is to then instruct the ambassador as to what that foreign policy is. So it's a two-way process.
- Did the students studying diplomacy differ from other students during your years in college?
Well, we don't have a separate school for diplomats. We recruit people and then we train them actually inside the service. But I have taken part in recruitment, and the qualities that we are looking for, we have a very clear idea of what they are. You have to have a reasonable level of intelligence. But that's not the only criterion. You have to have what we call particularly resilience: you have to be tough, but also flexible. And we like people with language abilities, we like people who have taken their education to a higher degree. Once you got those basic requirements-and there a lot of people with those basic requirements - you look for flexibility, you look for toughness, you look for the sort of person who will enjoy doing the work that we do. Because it is a strain; you leave your home and your family behind for three years at a time.You want somebody with bit of a spark, with a bit of enthusiasm, and if you go back into people's outside interests, most of the people who are in the service do have outside interests away from work, but it's no use if your only passion is opera, because you may serve in a country where they don't have opera. So you need a range of interests, and people do the most extraordinary things. You get people who are very keen on sport. You get people who read a lot, people who play musical instruments, people who paint, people who write in their spare time. Most people have a range, a package of outside interests, rather than just one.
It would be unusual to have somebody join the service who hasn't traveled before, particularly if they'd been to university. A lot of students take what we call a gap year between school and university and use that to travel. If somebody comes to us at the age of 25 and wants to join the foreign office, but has never lived or worked abroad or traveled extensively, whose only travel experience is to go across to France and stay in a hotel for two days and come back, then one would ask some questions about why they thought that the foreign office is for them.
- What do you like the most about Armenia?
Gosh, there are a lot of things that I like about Armenia. I think it's a cliché to say people, but I like the honesty that people have here. I like some of the beautiful places that I have been. Echmiadzin, I think, is a wonderful church and I have been to two services there. Those are memories that I think will always be with me. The hospitality of Armenians, and the willingness to sit round a table. Ordinary Armenians, who have no idea who I am or what I do half the time, but people who are prepared to talk to me about Armenia and to help me understand it more.
- Have you come to this conclusion after meeting with ordinary people or with officials?
I meet both. Officials have to be nice to me. That's their job. (Laughter ) Whether they like me or not, they have to be reasonably civil. What I think touches me particularly is when people who don't have to be nice to me actually look after me, take me to their homes, talk to me about Armenia, answer my questions about Armenia.
Having said that, every government minister that I have met, without exception, has been incredibly courteous and helpful and has also listened to my questions and answered them. Beyond the level of simple courtesy, people have genuinely tried to be helpful.
- How do you spend your free time? Are there places that you visit periodically?
Fortunately, I am able to see quite a lot of Armenia while I am actually working. For holidays I do tend to go back to London, because my other half lives in London, and we try and see each as much as we can; he comes out here and I go home. He comes here often, which is also nice. He's coming here next week, in fact.
In free time, I do generally find I have quite a lot of work and catching up to do over the weekend. But I do drive myself here, and I tend to just drive the car, and when I see something interesting I park it and I just go and walk. And I find that just walking around different parts of Yerevan is very interesting. I enjoy the markets particularly.
-Let's turn to politics. What are the British interests in our region?
I think Britain is interested in the stability of the region as a whole. This is an area which although geographically, it might not look as though it is next door to Europe, in global terms, it is next door to Europe. This is a country which already has a border with NATO. If Turkey joins the European Union in due course, Armenia will be on the borders of the European Union. So there is an interest in peace and stability in the region.
We have an interest in the promotion of good governance across the world. We have an interest in the elimination of poverty worldwide. Both those policies impact on Armenia. And then of course we have the standard interests of any British embassy abroad, to protect British nationals, to issue visas to people who want to travel to the United Kingdom, and to extend British commercial links. There are British companies operating here and obviously I look for other opportunities for British companies to come over.
- The number of such companies is not great here. The investments in Azerbaijan are much bigger, particularly in the oil sector. Doesn't this mean that your policy toward Azerbaijan differs from your policy toward Armenia?
Well, Armenia has difficulties; it's true that the commercial opportunities for western companies are not of the same scale in Armenia as they are in Azerbaijan. But Armenia has a difficulty, because as a country, you don't have a lot of exportable natural recourses, and you also have a blockade covering two frontiers. But that is looking at trade in a slightly old-fashioned sense of goods being moved from one part of the world to the other. A lot of trade now is in services, things like computer technology. Our two largest companies, our two most prominent companies here are British Mediterranean, who are part of British Airways, and HSBC, and they are both able to operate here, and they would not be here if they were not doing good business.
And, of course, if you are developing things like computer software, you can transport it by pressing a button. You do not have to take it in a truck through Georgia.
British commercial interests are larger in Azerbaijan than in Armenia. Won't this influence Britain's attitude toward the settlement of the Karabakh problem?
Our straight commercial interests are larger in Azerbaijan yes, but there is not a direct read across to the political interest. The two are different.
- How would you characterize British activity in Armenia? Aid? Development programs?
We have a significant development program, yes, about 2 million dollars a year here. But we are obviously members of international groups which Armenia wants to join or is already a member of, so that the political dimension is not just bilateral. There is a clear bilateral element there, but beyond that, as a member state of the European Union, we are interested in Armenia's relationship with the EU and the commitments that it has undertaken, and also as a member of the Council of Europe, we follow issues like press freedom, alternatives to military service, the abolition of the death penalty. So we also have interest as part of wider groupings as well as bilateral interest.
- It may sound odd, but is there anything that the British might learn from the Armenians?
- Oh, yes. The way Armenians are very family-oriented. I find that very attractive, I find that people here still together value their families, and look after their families, these last ten days, everybody has been visiting their families. I think that's something that perhaps because we live very fast-paced lives in London, and we all move out of home quite quickly, I think that's something that we need to remember-the importance of the family, and coming here has reminded me about that. I think ordinary Armenians have got a lot of basic values right-the home, the family, looking after people, hospitality. And by the time I leave Armenia I hope I'll be able to make good khorovats.
Do you like khorovats?
Yes I like a good khorovats. A good khorovats is excellent. The food generally in Armenia, the fresh food, is wonderful, because you don't use chemicals. I don't think all Armenians actually appreciate possibly until they go abroad how much nicer your food is, because most of it is organically grown. Obviously the apricots are wonderful. But you have pears, and cherries as well, and plums that I also like.
- What values are important for diplomats? Armenian diplomats?
Gosh, I was going to say, I can give you a long list of values that diplomats ought to have. But trouble is that I probably don't have any of them. I think again courtesy and hospitality in terms of the way that you present yourself is useful. I think we have to be very careful. It's very easy to go into somebody else's country and say, you are not doing this the way we do it so therefore you're wrong. You've got to change and do it our way because we know best. Because, look, we are richer, so we must know best. I try very hard not to do that. I try very hard to remember to say that at the end of the day, Armenians have to decide what sort of Armenia they want. It's your country. I have the right to say OK, if this is the club you want to join these are the rules, this is what you have to do to be a member of this club. But you have to make the decision about whether you want to do that. So I think a degree of humility when you're in somebody else's country isn't a bad thing.
- And the last question: How would you assess freedom of the press in Armenia?
Certainly, there is a wide range of opinion available in the written press. On television, there is the very well-known case of two small channels which have tried to obtain television licenses, and the way that the law is structured doesn't appear to allow them to qualify. And I think that is unfortunate. I think that it gives Armenia a bad reputation. I would like to see space for, and the possibility for, smaller independent channels to be able to bid for airtime, with some chance of success.