Exclusive interview of Mediamax with Veronika Zonabend – spouse of social entrepreneur, former state minister of Artsakh, Ruben Vardanyan.
- Veronika, thank you for agreeing to give us an interview. This is the first opportunity to communicate with you since the unprecedented events of this fall. We all understand how difficult all of this is for your family, and it is certainly not easy to talk about what you have been and are going through. Naturally, the first question is about whatever news you have received from Ruben. When was the last time you talked? Do you have any idea about the conditions under which he is being kept? How do your children perceive what is happening?
- Yes, this year has been really difficult; no one expected such events to happen. We don't know how soon the situation will be resolved. There is no significant news from Ruben. Once a week, we are allowed a very brief phone conversation. We are concerned that international lawyers are not allowed to see him.
Of course, we really miss communicating with him. This week marks three months since he was detained. The children endure this situation steadfastly: they consider it their duty to support each other and are very supportive of me. They have matured during this time.
- Ruben Vardanyan led many social projects and initiatives. As far as I know, all initiatives and projects continue regardless of the fact that Ruben himself is in an Azerbaijani prison. How do you cope without him?
- Of course, it’s difficult without Ruben, and at the same time, the need to continue our initiatives has become a fulcrum for us. It is important for us that the projects we started together live and continue to benefit communities. A lot of people depend on us, and we support our activities to the extent that circumstances currently allow. Being able to help others, even at such a time, motivates us and gives us strength.
Although a lot has happened in our lives and in the world over the past two years, the work of our projects does not stop, because they are oriented toward the long-term: their horizon is 20–25 years. For example, the UWC Dilijan school opened in 2014, but we started implementing this project even earlier, realizing that we would only be able to see the first results in 10-15 years. And only now are they becoming noticeable.
Of course, we could not imagine that the situation would change so dramatically, but Ruben began talking about the fact that we were entering a perfect storm 15 years ago. Back then, it sounded like some kind of futurological theory, but now events are unfolding at incredible speed and leading to global changes in all systems.
How do we survive all this? In different ways, but if we are talking about our projects, we hope that we will withstand this storm and be able to implement our plans. I am happy to see that we managed to assemble a team that supports us, is ready to remain involved in the projects and continue working despite all the difficulties. Of course, we also encounter opposition and see negative news in the media. This is natural: now, everything has escalated, including processes associated with Ruben’s personality, which were previously latent.
And yet, a lot of people support him. Our family is deeply grateful to all of them. There were collective appeals from cultural figures, students, and teachers of the SKOLKOVO business school, and appeals and interviews by respected people who were outraged by the illegal detention of Ruben and called for his release. Recently, 150 internationally renowned humanitarians, politicians, and businessmen signed an open letter in support of Ruben.
- Ruben Vardanyan’s projects do not only operate in Armenia. Has anything changed in the management of these projects? Do projects outside Armenia continue to operate?
- Yes, all our projects continue to operate. Our activities have always been aimed at building bridges between different countries, civilizations, cultures, and generations. The SKOLKOVO School of Management and the Matena International School of Leadership and Professional Development are raising new generations of leaders in Russia and Armenia who are capable of establishing a dialogue with the whole world. At the international school in Dilijan, UWC Dilijan, teenagers from 82 countries study and grow up with the understanding that they need to hear others and be able to negotiate.
Photo: UWC Dilijan
The Tatev Revival program, which includes a cable car, the restoration of the Tatev Monastery, and the development of local communities, is also, in a sense, about building bridges. It is aimed at reviving Syunik, creating a point of attraction for residents of Armenia and foreign tourists. The result has been a 17-fold increase in the annual tourist flow to the region since 2010, the economy has revived, and social and cultural life has intensified. At the same time, the ancient monastery, which was also the largest university in the region during the Middle Ages, is a symbol of spirituality and enlightenment. It is here, according to Ruben, that the spiritual revival of Armenia and the Armenian world will begin.
Among the programs of our charitable foundation “Schools of the World” (Scholae Mundi), in Armenia and Russia there are those that finance the education of talented and active high school students at UWC, including UWC in Dilijan. There is also a scholarship program for foreign students who enroll at international universities. There are summer educational programs (“Just Dilijan It!”) for children and teenagers, which are held in Dilijan. Children from Artsakh also participate in them.
In general, programs to support forcibly displaced residents of Artsakh are a separate large arena. They help women, youth, and children adapt to new conditions, receive psychological support, acquire new skills that will allow them to overcome difficulties, develop their potential, and find their place in life. Assistance is provided to Artsakh artisans to ensure the continuity of their craftsmanship. All of this is just part of the great work that our foundations and institutes and their partners are doing and which concerns education and development. And then there are the programs of the agency “We Are Our Mountains,” which was founded by Ruben and his partners in order to promote the development of Artsakh, and now focuses its efforts on helping the forcibly displaced people of Artsakh.
Returning to where I started, I repeat: all our projects are aimed at destroying artificially created barriers. Unfortunately, today, we are seeing renewed polarization and divisions in the world. New walls are being built, both literally and figuratively.
- Ruben has helped a lot of people in his time: if I'm not mistaken, about 1,500 scholarships, hundreds of charity projects, not to mention major programs like Tatev Revival, which changed the whole environment in Syunik.
- Yes, and I am glad that we gave people a chance to self-actualize. I am sure that some of them, having achieved success, will return the good they have received in their lives, not only from us and our programs, but also from other people they have met on their way. We call this gratitude in action. It is an understanding that we have to pay back our debts, that we are all responsible for what the world will be like, that it is our duty to help those who need it and to give new generations a chance. That is why I am sure that some percentage of those who have received scholarships or other support from us and our programs will pass on the baton of goodness.
- A huge number of people have expressed support for Ruben Vardanian and your family. Why do you think his detention has had such wide resonance across the world?
- Ruben has been and remains a "glocal" and a visionary , no matter the category under which the media and individuals try to put him in. He is a leader who leads by example and analyzes the past and is able to discern future trends before most people notice them and he uses these skills to try to benefit the future generations . In his interviews and speeches, he has talked about world phenomena about which people have not yet even begun to think. Watch his interviews from 15 or 10 years ago: it is amazing how accurately he foresaw what is happening now, tried to prevent these problems, and encouraged others to at least think about them.
Ruben is also a global leader and a man with a wide range of connections. Those who have interacted with him in both business and humanitarian endeavors understand him, trust him, and see the sincerity of his intentions in everything he does. He fulfills everything he says and does not accept double standards, which, alas, have become the norm in the world. That is why it is not surprising that so many people supported him.
- At various times, Ruben Vardanyan was active in Artsakh, Armenia, Russia, and the West. Is his detention perceived the same in all countries?
- Ruben is a multifaceted person, and everyone who has ever interacted with him or even just knows about him sees him in his own way. I can only say that no one remains indifferent to him. Of course, there are different assessments of the political situation, but everyone who knows Ruben personally considers him an outstanding and decent person with a big heart and sees his current situation as a great injustice.
- Do you think that if everyone knew about the consequences of Ruben Vardanyan's move to Artsakh, he would have acted differently? Would you?
- I think that he anticipated what the consequences of his decision might be, but nevertheless, he did what he did. I don't think he expected such a negative scenario to materialize, but I'm sure he wouldn't have changed his mind either. In the letter that reached us, he wrote that he had no regrets. Ruben said that the chance of success was always very slim, but that he felt it was his duty to at least try.
And I had no choice but to support him. I trust him completely and believe that I should support him in all his aspirations and endeavors. I realize that people like Ruben are born once in a hundred years. And no matter how hard it is for me personally, I realize that he cannot belong only to his own family. To whom more has been given, more will be asked. Of course, you have to follow your own path. Ruben is following his, and I have no right to interfere.
- What steps are being taken by family and friends to secure Ruben's release?
- A large and professional team of lawyers and human rights defenders is working to secure the release of Ruben and other prisoners from Artsakh who are illegally detained in Azerbaijan. I am very grateful to our friends who strive to do their best every day.
It gives us strength. Sometimes, it is difficult to hold back emotions; there are very difficult moments. But when you realize that you are not alone, you believe that everything will be resolved and you can find the strength to work with double the energy for Ruben's return.
- New Year and Christmas are coming soon. What message would you like to convey, and to whom?
- We should appreciate every day we have and believe in the future. There are many good people in the world. I believe that goodness and love prevail anyway.
And I would like to wish everyone that in the new year, we all have the understanding that we can make a difference. We really can. The kind of world we will live in depends on each of us. And each of us has to do what we can. I really like Seneca's maxim: "Do what you ought to, and come what may."
Kindness, peace, love, and happiness to you! Take care of your loved ones!
Ara Tadevosyan talked to Veronika Zonabend