A new political profile for the Armenian community will emerge from the parliamentary elections if newly elected MP Hagop Kassardjian gets his way.
Kassardjian, who won an Armenian Orthodox seat in Beirut’s District Three, said the issue involves turning Armenian-Lebanese into Lebanese-Armenians.
On Sept. 3, the 54-year-old businessman became the first Ramgavar party official to gain a seat in Parliament in the country’s history, after decades of political representation limited to the larger Tashnak and Hentchak parties.
The balance of power among the three groups dramatically shifted in the 2000 round. The Hentchak and Ramgavar parties allied with former Premier Rafik Hariri while the Tashnak party retained its traditional pro-government alliance and joined forces with Premier Salim Hoss.
Before the election, the Tashnak Party dominated five of the seven seats held by Armenians six Armenian seats and the Protestant seat in Beirut.
The other two MPs, allies of Hariri, rejected the Tashnak Party speaking in the name of all Armenian legislators.
Hariri’s near clean-sweep in Beirut meant that the Tashnak Party now controls only two seats, in Metn and Zahle. The other four were won by Hariri list candidates Kassardjian, Hentchak Party official and incumbent Yeghia Djeredjian, and two non-party independents.
The Protestant seat is now held by a non-Armenian, also backed by Hariri, meaning that six, rather than seven, Armenians are now in the legislature.
Kassardjian said that the idea of reconstructing a new Armenian bloc was no longer valid.
“It’s high time to act as Lebanese of Armenian origin instead of Armenians who hold Lebanese citizenship. After two or three generations here, the Armenian political community must open itself up to the rest of the country.
“The new generation is keen on their Lebanese nationality and on Lebanese issues. We already know that they’re proud of their culture and language,” he said, indicating that fears of losing a national identity by melting into a larger majority were unfounded.
The MP said that in practical terms, a seven-member bloc was not as useful as welding Armenian issues to larger groups of MPs.
“It’s more powerful to go in as a group of 25 MPs,” he said.
Could he join forces with Zahle MP George Kassardji, a Tashnak Party ally and critic of Hariri, particularly on telecommunications issues?
“We can work with him,” Kassardjian said, stressing he enjoyed good ties with the Zahle MP who once requested a vote of confidence in Hariri as minister of post and telecommunications.
Kassardji’s fiery criticism over the past years, Kassardjian said, was probably meant to “build up a political personality.”
“We’ll see if he continues with this in the next government,” Kassardjian said.
But repairing relations with the Tashnak Party, after what Kassardjian called a “fiery” campaign, has yet to materialize.
Bourj Hammoud, the center of Tashnak party activity, saw tension and physical confrontations during both rounds of the polls, as critics accused the party of pressuring its opponents and seeking to control the voting of thousands of Armenians.
“Ramgavar Party officials have opened contacts with the Tashnak Party, but haven’t received a response … their leadership, moreover, has not changed since the elections. I believe that they have a lot to explain to their rank-and-file about the party’s performance in the elections. The election results were a shock.”
Kassardjian played down the idea, voiced both by the Catholicos, Aram I Keshishian, and less publicly by Tashnak officials, that Armenian MPs should gain the votes of a majority of Armenians if their representation is to be sound. The unsuccessful Tashnak-backed candidates in Beirut, for example, picked up some 65 percent of the community’s votes, he said.
“But this is a dangerous idea and contradicts Taif. We can’t apply this to every community,” he maintained, an indication that the entire electoral system would need an overhaul that would create even more sectarian close-mindedness.
Asked about his positions on national issues, Kassardjian said that the controversial statement by the Maronite Bishops calling for the Syrian Army to withdraw was “perhaps not issued at the right time, but it should be taken positively, as a way to create dialogue among all parties.”
He said he had no objection to General Michel Aoun’s return to the country, “since there doesn’t seem to be any outstanding files waiting for him here.”
As for the release of former Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea, Kassardjian said that in principle, if the families of the late Prime Minister Rashid Karami and Dany Chamoun were to drop charges, “everything could be solved.”
“It would then require a presidential pardon or a law passed by Parliament.”
The situation in the South, he added, would remain precarious until there is a comprehensive regional peace deal.
“Just because Israel withdrew doesn’t mean we should expect peace.”
Kassardjian said his top priority as an MP would be to help solve socio-economic problems, saying the situation was “unprecedented” in the country’s history.
“In any other country, there would have been social unrest by now,” he said, highlighting the need for attracting investment and shoring up sectors like tourism.
He also identified boosting agriculture, redeveloping the country’s industrial base and seeing through administrative reform to spur investment as top goals. The other major evil to be eradicated, he said, was stemming the “brain drain,” which is linked to providing jobs.
The key to take-off, he added, was seeing a “unified” government that represents all political currents appointed this month.
“The next government needs politicians, not technocrats,” he said, agreeing with Speaker Nabih Berri’s recent comments that the next Cabinet’s drive to shore up the economy would result in painful decisions for the public.
“We’ll need politicians to implement difficult measures,” he said.
Noting that Hariri’s return to office was not a certainty, Kassardjian said it was too early to speculate about which Armenians would be in the next Cabinet.
The road to Parliament
Born in 1946, Kassardjian graduated from the American University of Beirut with a degree in civil engineering in 1971.
He is a member of the Armenian General Benevolent Association, both in Lebanon and France, where he resided for a decade.
He is the chairman of the board of Setrak Kassardjian and Sons, an iron and metals import-export firm based in Dora, and a member of the Chamber of Commerce.
Kassardjian was elected chairman of the Ramgavar Liberal Democratic Party’s international committee in 1995 and re-elected in 1998.