Nature, history and people make Armenia really fantastic country to live in – Dutch Ambassador’s interview to ARMENPRESS
YEREVAN, JULY 29, ARMENPRESS. The relations between Armenia and the Netherlands have a rich history of centuries. There are many famous facts proving this, for instance, that the Christianity was brought to the Netherlands by Armenian-Roman Catholic Bishop St. Servatius in the 4th century. And now, the Armenian-Dutch relations are further deepening and developing, Ambassador of the Kingdom of the Netherlands to Armenia Nico Schermers said in an exclusive interview to ARMENPRESS on the occasion of the 30th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between Armenia and the Netherlands.
- Mr. Ambassador, thank you for hosting us, thank you for accepting our invitation. It’s a great honor and a great chance to talk with you about Armenia-Netherlands relations on the occasion of the 30th anniversary of establishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries. I would like to start from the beginning, from the basis. I know as the observers say that the Armenian-Dutch relations start from the 4th or 5th centuries. We have quite rich history. So what do you know about the Armenian-Dutch relations, the history and how much is it important in terms of strengthening today’s present relations between the states?
- Thank you very much and thank you for this opportunity to discuss about the Dutch-Armenian relations. Well to be honest, the relationship officially starts probably in the 4th century with the arrival of St. Servatius who was an Armenian-Roman Catholic Bishop coming to the Netherlands and he became the first Dutch-Roman Catholic Bishop. So in that regard, he brought Christianity to the Netherlands. Armenia brought that to the Netherlands. But, of course, in the centuries after that many more relationships were built, and I think just to mention a few: in 1666 the first printed Armenian Bible was printed in Amsterdam. And in 1695 the first world map in Armenian was also printed in Amsterdam. So in that regards, you see already many relations there. But what people do not always realize is that the tulip, we have a picture of tulip there, is very famous for the Netherlands, but it originates from this area and it was brought to the Netherlands in probably the 16th or 17th century. We developed it and made it a bigger plant than it is here in Armenia. Here they are pretty small. But in the end, it’s another sign of the relations that already exists for a long time between our two countries.
- Few months ago we had a presentation of a very interesting book “Armenia in the Ancient Dutch Maps”. You participated with your Armenian counterpart. I didn’t even know that Armenia could have been printed, painted in the maps of such a far country for Armenia. How do you explain this?
- Well, first of all, the initiative was taken by my counterpart in the Netherlands, Ambassador Balayan. And of course, I very much liked to contribute to that initiative because maps is something that was and has been always very important to the Netherlands. We were traders, and in order to be able to trade, you have to know how the world looks like. So the early Dutch traders were always gathering information about the environment they were to make sure that they could put that information into maps. Therefore, it’s not surprising that they also found out about Armenia in those days and put that in the maps.
- I suppose that the Armenian-Dutch relations and contacts are also coming through Armenian traders because Armenians were very famous in the East and in the West, in this area, right?
- Exactly, and that is one of my messages for your first question. I think that what the Dutch and the Armenians have in common is that we have always been traders and travelers. You will find Dutch people and you will find Armenian people all over the world. Yes, indeed, as you say, this is important for exchange of information.
- Armenia marks the 30th anniversary of establishment of diplomatic relations with a lot of countries this year, and the Kingdom of Netherlands is one of them. In this regard, I would like to hear from you what kind of events are planned or have been implemented on this memorable occasion?
- Yes, well, to be honest, for the Netherlands a 30 years is a very short time. We have celebrated with many countries 400 years of diplomatic relations already. But still, it’s of course very important to this part of the world. In that regards, we decided to organize concerts earlier in the year, on the 30th of January which marks the day of the 30th years of diplomatic relations. However, we had to postpone that, luckily we could organize it in May and that was basically the highlights of our side of this celebration. It was concerts performed by an Armenian artist Hayk Melikyan, a piano, he played a number of Dutch and Armenian composers. So that was really a mix of our two cultures. He did that in front of the Dutch organ, which is situated in Yerevan, the Music Chamber of Yerevan. So, that’s the big organ you may have seen it, that is made by a Dutch company in 1975. So, another link between our two countries.
- Any other events memorable?
- Certainly, on our side, we have also hosted the World Press Photo earlier in the year. We are also going to host Mr. Herman Noordermeer here in Armenia. He is famous for his printing techniques, he won a prize last year in the Yerevan Print Biennale, and therefore, we thought it’s nice to bring him to Armenia. So we are still considering for the rest of the year whether there might be other events that we also will put under the banner of the 30th years of diplomatic relations. In the Netherlands, of course, we had the activities of my counterpart in the Hague. The most important one was the exhibition called “Under the Spell of Ararat” in the Assen, which is, of course, also very memorable exhibition and is demonstrating to the Dutch audience what Armenia means.
- Maybe we could organize an Armenian-Netherland football match?
- That would be very interesting. Though, Henrikh Mkhitaryan is now going to Inter…
- Are you happy with that?
- I don’t have any… well with Roma, we had some Dutch football players, but with Inter, I don’t know at the moment.
- By the way, are you a football fan?
- To some extent yes.
- Any clubs?
- PSV Eindhoven. I was born in Eindhoven and luckily we have in Eindhoven an Honorary Consul of Armenia, Mr. Willy van de Kerkhof, who played for the PSV and for the Dutch national team and was one of my youth heroes in football.
Photo: Willy van de Kerkhof wearing shirt of Dutch national team
- On this point, how would you assess the general level of the bilateral relations between Armenia and the Netherlands? Are you confident about the future?
- As an Ambassador, it’s my duty to try to find opportunities to bring it to a higher level and to the benefit basically for my country. My counterpart in the Hague is basically doing similar things for the benefit of Armenia. But together, we think that we can bring the level still to a higher level. But I also want to stress that two years ago we started with the Embassy and in the short time that we have been here we already note that many things have been established and the links are getting more intensive. And it is due to the work of my colleagues here in the Embassy, and also because of the enhanced attention the Embassy generates with a vigor audience for a certain country. The Netherlands arrives here with an Embassy, it attracts attention from the public and connections are going to be established.
The Embassy was established on the 23rd of September 2020, that was the date I went to your president with my letters of credence and that was the moment Armenia and the Netherlands formally had an embassy here in Armenia. However, I should see we are still in the Marriott, we have a couple of rooms here, in terms of physical presence, we are still temporarily located here. We are working on more prominent offices. We hope to get there probably next year.
- Many observers say that Netherlands had a great interest in Armenia after 2018? How would you explain it? What was the motivation of that?
- That is a very simple one. As I mentioned before, the Netherlands stands for rule of law, democracy and human rights, and we do that for a very good reason. Rule of law protects businesses from irregular activities. If you have a rule of law, it’s very clear to everyone what to expect. Dutch companies usually tell us that they are ready to pay taxes as long as it’s predictable what the tax is going to be and for how long it is going to be. If that changes, it becomes more difficult for them to plan in the long-run. With the appearance of the Velvet Revolution in 2018 it became clear that Armenia is also standing for rule of law, and that means that doing business in Armenia becomes more predictable. It’s clear that you have a deal with a company, it’s in the contract and that is what you have to fulfill. As soon as corruption is coming into the picture, it becomes much more difficult because you are never certain who is going to knock on your door. Therefore, since 2018, Armenia has jumped quite substantially on the Corruption Perceptions Index, that registers the perception of corruption in a country. Armenia has made some enormous progress on that list. That is a good indication for Dutch companies to decide whether to come to the country or not.
- One of the most important news and developments in Armenian-Dutch relations was the recent two-day official visit of Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan to the Netherlands, where he had a lot of important meetings, including with the Prime Minister Mark Rutte. How would you assess Pashinyan’s visit in general and what important highlights could you point out concerning his visit?
- I think, first of all, politically it was a very important visit to demonstrate to both countries that we have contact at this level, at the prime ministers level, that the chiefs of both countries are speaking to each other about a number of important topics. And also it was very important to show in political terms that Prime Minister Rutte is supporting Prime Minister Pashinyan in his efforts to strengthen democracy and rule of law in Armenia. That is something where the Netherlands stands for, rule of law, human rights, democracy, and we have noticed that Prime Minister Pashinyan after the Velvet Revolution has started the procedure or process of changing Armenia. And that is something we want to support. That was the message of the Prime Minister. But also, in other terms, we have noted the difficult situation of Armenia in recent years, and I think the message of the Prime Minister again in relation to the prisoners of war, it is that we are standing by Armenia, are doing everything we can to bring them back.
On the cultural side, it was important for Prime Minister Pashinyan to open this exhibition I mentioned before, the exhibition “Under the Spell of Ararat”, which, I’ve heard so far, is tremendous exhibition and many people, who are going there, are fascinated by what Armenia brings in terms of history. This demonstrates to the Dutch people what Armenia actually is. If you ask the average Dutch person they have heard of Armenia, they don’t know where it is, they don’t know what it is and what it stands for. And this exhibition is, therefore, very important to support the cultural ties between our two countries. And economically, the very important of the visit was that the Prime Minister also made clear to Dutch businessmen what Armenia can offer to them, what opportunities it brings and what they can do with it.
- Now for the economic cooperation. I remember in one of your speeches, it was I think last year, you said that Armenia and other South Caucasus countries are not big economies, but you still see big potential for economic cooperation in such areas like agriculture, IT and tourism. Could you, please, be more specific in these regards and what other spheres of mutual interest in economy do you see?
- I’m afraid I can’t answer the entire question because I think there are opportunities everywhere. But as an Embassy, we have to prioritize because we try to first cover the big sectors and then the smaller sectors will either come later or companies will have to find their missions themselves. Armenia, in that respect, is a very small economy. The 3 million people for a Dutch company is usually very small market. But, more importantly, there are, indeed, many positive developments in the sectors I mentioned and as you mentioned. IT sector is perhaps the most interesting one. Armenian schools or Armenian curriculum, I am not sure what it is yet, but in any case there are many Armenians who are quite active in software development. And that is something that is highly needed in Western countries, in countries like the Netherlands. We have a “square kilometer” in Eindhoven which is probably the most smartest square kilometer in the world, even smarter than the Silicon Valley, because all important international companies in the world in IT sector are concentrated in that square kilometer. This sector is basically focused around the old Phillips companies and the Dutch Technical University that is located in Eindhoven, are attracting, of course, many software developers. We don’t have them in the Netherlands. So we are looking also in other countries, and Armenia is one of the interesting countries for growth in that regard. We see that already happening as many Dutch IT companies have contacts with Armenian developers and have even already started branches here in Armenia.
In agriculture, we see similar developments. Armenia has an interesting geography and in that regards, your mountains, slopes, high altitudes, a lot of water, a lot of sun, that’s a very fertile ground, soil, that’s all combined is interesting to develop agriculture. It’s not that we expect much to import from Armenia or to sell much to Armenia, but I think that the growth potential in Armenia is in the export, that is where Dutch technology, Dutch companies are interested in to play a role and to support Armenian companies to become net-exporters to the rest of the world.
- And the Netherlands is very developed in agriculture sector, isn’t it?
-Yes, absolutely. The Netherlands is the second agricultural exporter in the world. After the Second World War we decided to focus very much on agricultural sector. We have a very famous, a world famous university in that regard, Wageningen University. So, we have a lot of knowledge build-up and are trying to improve the quality of seed production, of analysis of soils, etc.
- According to the Statistical Committee of Armenia, the bilateral trade turnover between the two countries amounted more than 228 US dollars in 2021. It’s a good amount.
- It’s a good amount. I am not sure what it is based on because I think this is not according to the last couple of years. So it might be, there has been one single very big transaction for something which I am not very aware of. It’s a good amount. If we can keep this amount for the years to come, that’s something very useful, I think.
- Do we have prospects to enlarge the trade turnover?
- On the short-run, I would say that is probably difficult because there is not much Armenia can export to the Netherlands or Armenia can buy in the Netherlands. I think the interest is much more to the long-term that we have to develop only agriculture and IT sites.
- We’d also like to hear your general views on Nagorno Karabakh conflict settlement and Armenia-Azerbaijan talks on normalization of bilateral relations. What are your comments and how do you see the comprehensive resolution of the NK conflict?
- Well, I wish I had an answer to your question. It's a very complex situation, the conflict is not over, that is also the formal position of my government, this issue has not been settled yet. In terms of how the things are going, we encourage very much the initiatives taken by the President of the European Council Charles Michel to bring the two leaders together and start the process of dialogue, because whatever happens, it has to be done through diplomatic discussions and negotiations. A number of positive steps have been set in recent months. Of course, there are a lot of difficulties and hurdles still to be taken, and that is really a political challenge for both leaders, and I can only speak on what I see here in Armenia. I think that the Prime Minister is in a very difficult position but he's also taking very brave steps in getting into these peace negotiations with Azerbaijan. That is also what my Prime Minister mentioned during Pashinyan's visit in the Netherlands that he is applauding him for this kind of efforts, that he is taking bold steps and they are painful in some way, but it's unavoidable that Armenia gets further into this process. Also if you look at it in a bigger picture with Armenia in between a number of countries that are not particularly friendly to the country, you have to find a way to settle the peace agreement, also to become less dependent on a country like Russia.
- Both Armenia and Artsakh want peace, want a fair resolution. But the question is what is the format of the negotiations? Moscow says that the West refuses to cooperate with Russia within the Minsk Group, though the US and France responded that they are willing to work also in the role of Co-Chairs of the Minsk Group. What is Netherlands’ position on the negotiation process around NK and on the future activity of the format of Chairmanship of the OSCE Minsk Group? Is Netherlands supporting the internationally recognized OSCE Minsk Group Chairmanship?
- Yes, because we are a member of OSCE, and this mandate has been established by the OSCE, so we are very much supporting the efforts of the OSCE Minsk Group Co-Chairs in that regard. Unfortunately, Russia indeed has complicated matters very much by invading Ukraine. However, what I indeed also understand is that both the US and France are still willing to cooperate in that regard. Hopefully, that can continue in the near future. How that is going to be done I don't know, that is something you should ask the three members of the OSCE Minsk Group Co-Chairs. But the formal position of the Netherlands is that we support this format. So we look very much to this Group in that regard. But we also look, of course, to the EU in their efforts to bring further the process.
- What is your opinion about the new process of normalization of Armenian-Turkish relations, as four meetings have already been held between the Special Representatives of Armenia and Turkey? The last one was on July 1, in Vienna. Do you see real possibilities of normalization and establishment of diplomatic relations between Armenia and Turkey?
- Again, here it’s not the question whether I see it or not. I think the point is that it is very necessary that this kind of relationship is going to be normalized, and yes, I must say that the process has been slow to start up, perhaps. At the same time, in the last round we have seen some concrete results. As you know, according to the official statement, the parties have “agreed to enable the crossing of the land border between Armenia and Turkey by third-country citizens visiting Armenia and Turkey respectively at the earliest date possible and decided to initiate the necessary process to that end”. Maybe this is the start to further steps to be taken in the near future. Your guess is as good as mine.
- Apart from political topics, it is interesting to discuss your personality, your hobbies. I have many friends who know that you have hobbies, like climbing the mountains. Can you share with our audience about your experience and hobbies that you have here in Armenia? I suppose you like Armenian geography.
- Yes, very much, and there is a simple reason for it because I come from a country that is very low and very flat. Our lowest point is, I think, minus 7 meters below sea level, the highest point is 333 meters or 335 meters above sea level which is lower. Wherever I go in Armenia, I will always be higher than the Netherlands. That makes it interesting for me to go to the mountains. I don’t have mountains in my own country. So, I try to make good use of my spare time here to explore as much as I can of Armenian mountains, as possible.
- Which tops have you reached in Armenia?
- Well, very interestingly, last year on the 29th of August, it was exactly one year after I arrived in Armenia. I was on the summit of north peak of Aragats. So, I celebrated the first birthday of the Dutch Embassy in Armenia on the highest point of Armenia. We also visited the south peak of Aragats. I also visited last year the west peak and Ajdahak and many other mountains in Armenia. It’s not only about the high mountains, you also have fantastic mountains in Tavush to climb, which are not so high, but you have very nice work formations, gorges, forests, or in Vayots Dzor where you can climb a mountain and find on the top of a mountain a berd [fortress] or a vank [monastery], this is fantastic.
Photo from Twitter account of Ambassador Nico Schermers
- The Indian Ambassador in Armenia has said in an interview to ARMENPRESS that he has reached the top of Mount Ararat last August. Do you have any plans to reach the top of Ararat?
- Yes, unfortunately, we had plans to go in August, but we could not for some reason organize the trip to Turkey to do that. So, I’m afraid I have to wait one more year. And I hope then I will be able to cross the border directly from Armenia to Turkey because it will save me a lot of time to travel.
- How do you feel in Armenia in general? What do you like most about Armenia?
- It’s not so much about what I like most, it’s the combination of factors. That’s make Armenia something that gives me the feeling of being at home. It’s the nature, it’s the weather, it’s the culture, it’s the people, it’s the food, it’s the wine and history, all together make Armenia really a fantastic country to live in.
- How is your progress in Armenian language studies?
- It’s going well. But I have to admit that entering a conversation is still very difficult. Armenian language is not so difficult. I think it’s a language everyone can learn, but in any case it is different from Dutch, the word order is reversed. Whenever someone is talking to me, I hear the words and I understand the words, but I don’t understand yet the sentence. So, it’s still difficult, but I try to do my speeches now in Armenian.
- And the last question will be about your country, the Netherlands. What can you tell about your country? What is important for Armenian people to know about your country? And what is your message to the Armenian audience on this respect? And the last part, why Netherlands isn’t called Holland officially?
- Actually, already for much longer, Holland is just the part of Netherlands. Two provinces in the West, North and South Holland were the original trading parts of the Netherlands in the past centuries. We have 12 provinces, so we like to call it the Netherlands, it is the combination of all the provinces, and not only two.
The Netherlands is famous for many things, we have discussed about tulips, wheatmeals, wooden shoe and perhaps the coffee shop which are also very famous parts of the Netherlands. But I think there is much more too in the Netherlands. What I want to highlight is that in terms of economy we stand for quality, we are innovators, we stand for social and environmentally sound products. So these aspects are very important to us. But more in a general framework, I again would like to mention rule of law, democracy and human rights. We are very proud of the fact that we include, we try, in any case, to include as many groups of our society as we can.
- Mr. Ambassador, thank you very much for this very interesting and useful conversation.
- Thank you very much. It was a pleasure.
Interview by Aram Sargsyan
Photos by Hayk Manukyan