First Woman and First Diasporan Ambassador builds vital bridges


April 2001 - Armenians in Bulgaria

Multiple Routes 

First Woman and First Diasporan Ambassador builds vital bridges

by Hratch Tchilingirian

When in 1994 Sevda Sevan was appointed Armenia’s ambassador to Bulgaria, she held three records. She was the first female to head an Armenian diplomatic mission; she was the first Diasporan with the rank of Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary; and was the first Diasporan to acquire Armenian citizenship by giving up her Bulgarian citizenship. 

A successful Bulgarian writer and novelist, she still goes by her nom du plume, Sevda Sevan. She was born Fransuhi Bahchejian in Novazagora, in 1945 to refugee parents who had escaped to Bulgaria from Rodosto, Turkey in 1923. When she became an Armenian citizen, the intellectual-cum-diplomat acquired a long name: Fransuhi-Sevda Bahchejian-Sevan.

In early 1994, then President of Armenia, Levon Ter-Petrossian, suggested to her to become Armenia’s Honorary Consul in Bulgaria, even though, she says,  “I was a writer and was not a businessperson. But he thought someone who knows Bulgaria well could help in the development of bilateral relations.” She was first appointed an Honorary Consul and later a Charge d’Affairs.

Sevan was instrumental in establishing the Armenian embassy in Sofia and organized a number of initial bilateral political exchanges, including in the sphere of defense. Indeed, in appreciation of her work, in 1996 Ambassador Sevan was made an “Honorary Officer” of the Armenian Army by a decreed of the President and Defense Minister of Armenia.

For decades she had been active in Bulgarian literary and intellectual circles. After the end of Communism, Sevan was among the first Bulgarian-Armenians who took upon themselves to reorganize the life of the Armenian community. She reestablished AGBU’s Sofia chapter in 1990, which had been closed throughout the Communist period.

Among her literary works, Sevan is well known for her novels “Rodosto, Rodosto,” (1981), “Balkanian Wars” (1983), and “Der Zor,” (1997), a trilogy recounting the experience of the Armenian genocide, the struggle of minorities in the Balkans, and the Karabakh liberation movement in the late 1980s. Her novels have been reprinted several times and have been translated into several languages.

A graduate of the Philology Department of Sofia University, Sevan wrote her first novel at the age of 30. “My grandmother who had gone through the desert of Der Zor and had buried all her relatives, and who was saved by a miracle, used to say that there isn’t anyone to write about what we saw and experienced,” she explains. “Maybe, as a child, this stayed with me. In the beginning I used to write poetry, in Bulgarian, because the Armenian school was closed when I was in the second grade. I was completely assimilated into Bulgarian society,” she adds.

Nevertheless, she speaks perfect Armenian today. Her frequent travels to Armenia have helped her regain what she had learned as a child at home. Right after the earthquake in 1988, Sevda and her husband went to Armenian to provide assistance to the victims in the disaster zone. She stayed there for seven months working in the hardest hit villages and continued to go back thereafter. For sure, Armenia has had a lasting effect on her life.

“My future is Armenia,” she says mater-of-factly. “I believe the land is divine and is our future.”

The people of the tiny village of Gareni, on the slopes of Mt. Aragads, have given Sevan a plot of land to build her home. “I started building a house there, I haven’t been able to finish it as it’s getting expensive by each passing day,” she says, “But, I have planted 52 fruit trees, which will keep me company for the rest of my life.”


Q & A

Q. Could you give us a general overview of the activities of the Armenian Embassy in Bulgaria?

AMB. SEVDA SEVAN: In the last six years our embassy has been involved in very active political and diplomatic relations. So far some 25 bilateral agreements have been signed between Armenia and Bulgaria and high-level mutual visits have taken place by the officials of both states, including presidential, parliamentary, and ministerial visits.

For me one of the most important tasks of our diplomatic mission is to establish the legal foundations of Armenian-Bulgarian relations. As you are aware, with every agreement that Armenia signs with another country, its independence and statehood is strengthened.

Among the 25 agreements, we have an important defense agreement with Bulgaria and a number of projects related to our army. [Details are not public.]

Q.  How about agreements in the sphere of transportation?

In the last few years, I have given significant consideration to bilateral developments in the sphere of transportation. We only need to look at the map and everything becomes clear. Armenia and Bulgaria are located at crossroads; they are on either side of the East-West bridge. And considering that Armenia continues to be blockaded [by Turkey and Azerbaijan], it was very important for us to bring Armenia out of this loop. Armenia’s only transport route was Iran. But now we have signed a number of multi-model transportation agreements with Bulgaria, which include ground and sea travel and transportation of goods. These bilateral agreements would eventually become trilateral with Georgia. This would link Armenia with the TRACECA transport corridor, [the European-supported project that would link Central Asia via the Caucasus to Europe]. Once this corridor becomes functional, road and transport taxes through the participating countries will be reduced significantly.

It is obvious that transportation is the most important aspect of Armenia’s economic development. While, sadly, Armenia’s industry is not fully functional, we must ready the transportation routes for the day when industrial production in Armenia picks up pace and functions in full capacity. 

The envisioned transport route from Armenia to Bulgaria is via the Georgian port of Poti on the Black Sea cost. This is the shortest route to the West and southern Europe, for instance, Italy and Greece.

There is another significant aspect to Bulgarian-Armenian transportation.

It might sound a very technical issue, but it’s very important. Currently there are two standards of railroad tracks: European and Soviet. When Soviet-made transport rail wagons reach the European continent, they need to be transferred to European-made wagons, as the standards are different. But the rail tracks in the port city of Varna [Bulgaria’s Black Sea coast] are able to accommodate Soviet rail standards and goods are transported without being transferred into intermediary wagons. This makes the task easier and cheaper.

However, we should bear in mind that by singing an agreement it doesn’t mean we have everything functioning smoothly and in full capacity. It will take years until the whole system becomes fully functional, but we have to have long-term view of these issues and establish the foundations for the future.

Q. What is the volume of transported good between Armenia and Bulgaria?

I must say, sadly, the volume is very small due to the existing economic difficulties in Armenia. There is virtually nothing coming from Armenia to Bulgaria. There was a time when Bulgarians were exporting goods to Armenia, but now that seems to have declined too, because Armenia started to produce those basic goods that were being exported, such as cigarettes and beer.

On the other hand, we have to realize that both countries are going through transitions. Of course, Armenia’s situation is much more difficult. There is the blockade, the unresolved Karabakh conflict, and internal political, economic, social changes, all these slow down the development of the country. I must add that sometimes we create our own problems and not every problem is caused by outside factors.

Q. Economic or political problems?

I consider economic problems as most significant, because everything is dependent on economic development. Even the current tense internal political situation in Armenia has been developed because of economic conditions. Poverty causes a lot of problems, including violence. This is my conviction. Improved economy resolves many, many problems. 

Q. What is the current state of Armenia’s economic relations with Bulgaria?

We have an Armenian-Bulgarian inter-governmental commission, which is dealing with such matters.

Indeed, it was a long, persistent process to convince the Bulgarians to open an embassy in Yerevan. Five years ago they had decided to open only one embassy for the three South Caucasus states, which they did by establishing an embassy in Tbilisi. As we were the first and only regional state to have opened an embassy in Sofia, we were a little upset. According to protocol, Bulgaria was to establish an embassy in Yerevan within months after we opened our embassy in Sofia in 1994. But they didn’t, as they also had major financial difficulties. Finally, in January of this year they opened an embassy in Yerevan, especially, as a visa regime was established for Armenian citizens entering Bulgaria.

Q. What are some of the main political issues, besides transportation, that are significant?

In addition to transport, relations among Black Sea Economic Cooperation (BSEC) countries is also important, as all Balkan and Caucasus states are members. Armenia’s relations with this multi-national organization and its bilateral relations with each individual country remain part of our attention.

From the very beginning, Armenia has had the wisdom of establishing diplomatic relations and embassies with Balkan states, especially, Greece, Macedonia, Serbia, Bulgaria and Romania.

Of course, it is another issue how much Armenia is able to utilize the services of its embassies in these countries, as Yerevan faces major financial difficulties and embassies function with minimum staff. Normally, we have an ambassador and two diplomats in each country. This makes our work more difficult. We don’t have large financial base or budgets to work with. For example, our embassy in Sofia [an apartment in a residential building] is rented with a nominal fee from a very nice Armenian elderly woman. And, unlike other countries, the local Armenian community does not have the means to provide financial support to the embassy. The facilities we have are not adequate, especially in view of the fact that there are 40,000 citizens of Armenia living in Bulgaria.

Q. Currently, citizens of Armenia living in Bulgaria are almost four times larger than the local Bulgarian-Armenian community.

That’s true. On one hand, it is sad that so many Armenian citizens have left Armenia due to difficult economic conditions, on the other, I am very happy to see citizens of Armenia in Bulgaria rather than in America -- because, I know that those who go to America hardly go back. They are ‘blinded’ by the opportunities and facilities America provides. They establish more permanent networks and relationships there, which makes it virtually impossible for them to return.  Plus, America is far away from Armenia. Bulgaria is much closer. Also, the lifestyle, religion and history of the Bulgarian people are very similar to Armenians. So Armenians feel very much at ease here and frequently go back to Armenian to visit. I’m sure when the situation in Armenia becomes normal, the majority of them will return. This is very important. Because if people keep leaving Armenia, as they have in recent years, then what’s the significance of independence or statehood?

All of them have come to Bulgaria for economic reasons. We don’t even have one person who has come for political reasons. The overwhelming majority is here temporarily. Those who have settled permanently are either married to Bulgarians or have come here during the Soviet period 20-30 years ago, these are the families who ‘repatriated’ to Soviet Armenian from Bulgaria and later came back.

We also have cases where parents with military-service age children apply for Bulgarian citizenship to avoid sending their sons to Armenia to perform their mandatory military service. Many families, who had come to Bulgaria when their children were small, now find it difficult to send them away to Armenia. Besides, as it is the case with a large number of families, the children who have grown up in Bulgaria speak very little Armenian and their preferred language of communication is Bulgarian.

Q. When was the largest influx of emigrants from Armenia?

I would say 1993-1994. In those years the number reached 60,000. We don’t have exact counts, but we know that there were 7,000 legally registered firms owned by citizens of Armenia in Bulgaria. If you multiply this number with number of family members, not only parents and children, but the extended family members and relatives, then you can have an idea about the numbers.

Then there was a time when the numbers went down to about 25-30,000, but now it has increased again. When the economic situation in Armenia stabilizes, people return; when it declines, people immediately come back. I should note that Bulgaria is not heaven. The economic situation in this country is not any better; there is large unemployment too. But Armenians are very creative (jarbig) and industrious. I don’t know of any Armenian in Bulgaria who is unemployed. Only recently, just one citizen of Armenia came to the embassy for assistance, which we could not provide.

Everybody works, whether in the markets or businesses. Many of them are traders and craftsmen. 

Q. How about criminality?

Yes, there is also a small number of criminals compared with the large number of Armenian citizens living here. I would say perhaps 20 or so cases a year. There are Armenians who are connected with the Russian or the Ukrainian organized crime rings and get into trouble. But this is a small number.

I must add that the centuries-old respect the Armenian community enjoys in Bulgaria remains unaffected by these sporadic incidents or criminal activities.

Q. It is said that the local Armenian community and those who have come from Armenia do not interact with each other?

That’s true. There is virtually no interaction between the two segments of the community. They might be together, perhaps, in the church, but they do not socialize with each other. The work and business style of citizens of Armenia is very different from Bulgarian-Armenians.

The Bulgarian-Armenian community does not have rich people and has many, many difficulties of its own. It cannot provide assistance to new comers. We don’t have local Armenians who own factories or large businesses that could provide employment to new comers.

There is also difficulty with language – Eastern and Western Armenian. Over the decades Bulgarian-Armenians have lost their language. All Armenian schools were closed during Communism. Of course, this was not specific to Armenians, but to all minorities in Bulgaria.

Q. But is the large influx of people from Armenia changing the “character” of the community?

As I said, the two groups do not have contacts with each other. My impression is that citizens of Armenia don’t socialize much with each other either. On the other hand, they attend church. I would say, probably, half of the church attendance is by the new comers.

The Armenians who come from Armenia put all their energy and efforts toward survival, toward work and learning the language. Each person or family has one basic endeavor: to secure their livelihood and find their place in Bulgarian life. On the other hand, the roots of the Bulgarian-Armenian community are much deeper and older. We have families who trace their roots to several hundred years, and some even 1000 years.

The ones who are coming from Armenia are assimilating much faster, their children, who are growing up here, know very little Armenian or not at all. But, I remember our parents used to force us to speak Armenian at home. In fact, this was such a forceful effort, that my husband, who was a Bulgarian, whenever I spoke to an Armenian on the phone in Bulgarian, he would yell from the other room, “Hayeren khosa” (speak Armenian). 

Q. Why do you think Armenians from Armenia are more easily assimilated?

They don’t have the ‘instinct’ yet. They don’t have the ‘reflex’ for preservation of Armenian identity (hayabahbanum), like the Diaspora Armenians do.  On the other hand, it is important for them to learn the language quickly to adjust their lives to the realities of this country. Also, there are no Armenian schools. Armenian language is taught only four hours a week in a state school. This is not enough. Probably, they have more chance of learning Armenian at home than in the school. Besides, at the school, the level of Armenian language teaching is much lower than what the child had learned in Armenia.

Q. As a woman do you have difficulties working in a male-dominated Armenian political and diplomatic milieu?

First, let me say that being a female diplomat has had great advantages in my dealings with foreign diplomats and Bulgarian officials. It enhances my work on “ladies first” basis [she laughs].

But in Armenia, it is extremely difficult. Armenians are not used to it yet. Till now I have difficulties in my dealings with officials in Armenia and at the embassy. I don’t know how long I would survive [she laughs]. On top of it, I’m Diaspora Armenian. Being a woman and a Diasporan makes it even worse. But in as much as my body is weak [she had heart surgery], my character is very strong [she laughs].

I must add that because Bulgaria was also a Communist country, unlike the non-Communist Diaspora, we better understand the Armenians living in Armenia, more or less, we had the same system.

Q. What are your thoughts on the role of the Diaspora?

Given the recent turn of events in Armenia, the Diaspora should not give up; on the contrary, it should stand on Armenia’s side, with even more organized and unified fashion. We should bear in mind that for ten years the people of Armenia has seen blockades, cold years, economic devastation, so on; it is normal that we would have these problems.

I believe Diaspora’s assistance to Armenian should increase. True that for years people have been complaining that aid is being stolen, so on, but as Charles Aznavour once said, it’s still going in the Armenian’s pocket.

Perhaps, because for centuries we’ve lived under the arms of emperors and rulers, and as survival mechanism, we have become cunning (khoramang) and seek personal and material well being before anything else. I understand this, it’s natural. But today, as we’ve had a second chance to have an independence state, we are not allowed to work for our personal interests. I believe in the last few years this has been our fundamental problem, our tragedy. If we are able to overcome our personal interests and ego, we will go a long way in our national life.

We should continue helping Armenia with a healthier attitude. We should not just throw money like throwing a bone to a dog, but distribute them with care, respect and supervision. If you don’t trust, then you can supervise it yourself. One shouldn’t go around complaining about steeling, if they are not willing to do the job themselves. Of course, it is wrong to steel and it should not be condoned or encouraged, but this is the reality we have and we need to deal with it without hurting those who need assistance. The important thing is to participate.

In my opinion, we should concentrate on the youth, the new generation in the Diaspora -- to tie their lives with Armenia. It’s difficult, but Armenia is ours. We should take care of our own land, each and every Armenian has that right and responsibility, whether living in the Diaspora or Armenia.

If we prepare at least one generation in the Diaspora in such a spirit, the rest would be easier.  Remember, the generation that went to Armenia from the Diaspora [in the 50s] used to be called “akhbar” by the locals, but it was this generation that instilled a new quality into Armenia’s life, they brought different “values” from the respective countries they came from. Some of the most successful people in Armenia are “akhbar”. They brought both Armenian values and the values of their respective countries.

In 1994, when a citizenship law was established in Armenia, I was the first Diasporan to become Armenian citizen, but there were 1,000 more after me.

Our talents and abilities are our treasures. We have to offer this to our homeland, perhaps as a sacrifice, but we must present it to our land.


[related article, see Armenians in Bulgaria]

Hratch Tchilingirian
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