By Stephen Kurkjian
Rouben Shougarian, who in 1993 became newly independent Armenia’s first ambassador to the United States and spent his career as a diplomat, academic, writer and advocate for democratic values championing Armenia’s well-being passed away in Boston on Monday, April 20.
Shougarian, 57, had lived in the Boston area since 2008 with his wife, Lilit Karapetian-Shougarian, a renowned pianist, and three sons Narek Shougarian, Tigran Shougarian and Haik Shougarian. In a statement posted on social media, the family stated: “It is with great sorrow that we announce that our loving father and husband, Ambassador Rouben Shougarian, PhD, passed away peacefully this morning in Boston, Massachusetts after suffering a stroke last week.”
Since coming to the United States, Shougarian served as the academic force for the program at Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy that trained hundreds of Armenian civil servants in public policy and administration. But as important, he became a leading voice – pragmatic as well as idealistic – for the Armenian-American diaspora as well as a succession of Armenian administrations on the multiple challenges facing the fledgling democracy.
Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan said in a statement that Shougarian, whom he knew well and admired, “embodied the best features of an Armenian intellectual, with a broad worldview, an active civic attitude, patriotism and firmness in his beliefs.”
Added Armenia’s Foreign Minister Zohrab Mnatsakanyan, “Armenia has lost one of its best and brightest,” in an interview. “Rouben’s composure and judgement were so important in forging Armenia’s relationship with the United States. He set a very high standard at a time when Armenia was going through some of its darkest hours.”
Mnatsakanyan said Shougarian traveled often back to Armenia and maintained his interest and concerns about the health and political well-being of Armenian citizens. He said he was heartened by 2018’s Velvet Revolution in which citizen protests led to the Pashinyan’s ascension as head of the government. His last contact with Shougarian had come in on April 8, Mnatsakanyan said, during a video conference in which they had discussed with other officials how Armenia was responding to the Coronavirus crisis.
Varuzhan Nersesyan, Armenia’s current ambassador to the United States, was also on that video call with Mnatsakanyan, and said Shougarian’s “institutional memory” was valuable in recalling how the two countries had worked together with previous health crises.
In a statement, Nersesyan said of Shougarian: “He was among the first who at a very young age became engaged in the state-building processes in post-independence Armenia, and unreservedly dedicated himself to its strengthening and development. As Armenia’s first Ambassador to the United States, he made invaluable contributions to shaping the foundations of Armenian-American relations, setting a high standard of excellence for all future diplomats.”
Michael Lemmon, who served as US ambassador to Armenia between 1998 and 2001, greatly admired Shougarian’s intellect and integrity in working to repair the relationship between the two countries after an effort to negotiate a settlement with Azerbaijan on Nagorno-Karabagh foundered. In addition, Lemmon credited Shogarian with fostering a pragmatic Armenian foreign policy of “complementarity” with the West and Russia, and “advancing the vision of a ‘new Armenia’ that is secure, democratic, prosperous, at peace and fully integrated into regional and international processes and institutions.”
Dr. Gerard J. Libaridian, historian and a senior advisor to the first President of independent Armenia Levon Ter-Petrossian, stated that Shougarian was “a statesman by nature” and “an integral part of the decision-making process” who “contributed substantially to the expansion and deepening of relations between the two countries.”
Shougarian was only 30 when he was named as Armenia’s first Ambassador to the United States. On being officially introduced at the White House, President Clinton then in his 40s, said to Shougarian that it was “nice to see someone younger than me” coming to work in Washington.
Shougarian’s unexpected death elicited statements of sadness as well as appreciation from numerous Armenian-American leaders and organizations that had gotten to know Shougarian well since he settled in the United States in 2008. Among them the Armenian Assembly of America, whose president Carolyn Mugar said: “Rouben Shougarian was among Armenia’s pioneer diplomats who served the very young republic of Armenia with great skill and distinctive professionalism. A devoted son of Armenia, he subsequently applied his knowledge and experience in training Armenia’s next generation of public servants by directing the Tavitian Scholars Program in Public Policy and Administration at the Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy shaping the values for Armenia that all future generations can be proud of.”
“Amb. Shougarian was an insightful analyst of Armenia and Artsakh and the region,” remarked Marc A. Mamigonian Director of Academic Affairs at the National Association for Armenian Studies and Research. “He was a man of genuine integrity who brought incredible knowledge grounded in his experience and his studies. He was able to be both an objective observer and critic while also deeply committed to Armenia’s well-being and freedom.”
In addition to his achievements as a diplomat and in academe, Shougarian published numerous articles on conflict resolution, regional cooperation and the new geopolitical identity of the Black Sea/South Caucasus region. Dr. Shougarian also authored three books: West of Eden, East of the Chessboard (2010); The Politics of Immaculate Misconception: The Ides of the Post–Secular Age (2013) and Does Armenia Need Foreign Policy? (2016; Second Edition, 2019).
Born in Moscow, Shougarian moved to Armenia with his family in 1966 and received undergraduate and graduate degrees in world history and international relations from universities in Yerevan in the 1980s. When Armenia gained its independence from the Soviet Union, in September 1991 his foreign policy training earned him a position as an adviser to the parliament’s foreign relations committee. Within months, he was elevated to the role of spokesman for the government of Ter Petrosian’s government.
In 1993, Ter-Petrossian named Shougarian as Armenia’s first ambassador to the United States. His intelligence and warmth served him and Armenia well in Washington’s diplomatic circles. He served as ambassador to the U.S. for six years, returning to Yerevan in 1999 to take on the position as Armenia’s Deputy Foreign Minister, where he remained until 2005 when he was appointed to be Armenia’s ambassador to Italy, Spain and Portugal.
But his long-standing belief that Armenia needed to stay committed to democratic values and standards cost him those positions. Concerned by the lack of fairness and openness that characterized Armenia’s national elections in 2008, Shougarian and three other Armenian diplomats issued a public appeal on February 23.
The statement expressed the signatories’ “feeling of responsibility before the Republic of Armenia and the Armenian people” and their “profound respect for the right of Armenian citizens to choose at free elections,” as well their “support to our compatriots who have risen to struggle for freedom, protection of the right to a fair election and establishment of true democracy in Armenia.” They appealed to all parties, and “especially to the representatives of all the structures in the country responsible for the maintenance of public order and peace to avoid the temptation of using force as a solution to these problems.”
The statement was disseminated in Armenia, including at a rally in Yerevan where it was read out loud by the man who is now Armenia’s Prime Minister, Nikol Pashinyan.
In an interview, one of the four signatories to this statement, Ambassador Armen Baibourtian, today Consul General of Armenia in Los Angeles, explained that it was not intended as a political statement and was motivated by a desire to prevent violence. Baibourtian said that Shougarian was the driving force behind the statement because he felt a strong sense of responsibility towards the Armenian people and that “democracy doesn’t have an alternative.”
All four signatories were dismissed from their positions and expelled from the foreign ministry; the violent crackdown they had hoped to prevent unfolded on March 1, 2008. Shougarian was also stripped of his Ambassador title in the dismissal, but friends recalled that he had called them in a happy mood more than a year ago and told them that his rank of Ambassador had been restored by the government.
In an interview, Baibourtian credited Shougarian for establishing while ambassador for six years a long-standing constructive relationship between Armenia and the US government. “He was there at the beginning, and was the architect in establishing the cordial and pragmatic relationship that is based on trust that exists between the two countries,” Baibourtian said.
Following his dismissal from the diplomatic corps and his uncertain future status, a number of concerned Armenian-Americans including Carolyn Mugar and Dr. Joyce Barsam, a trustee of Tufts University, sought a solution. The result was Shougarian’s hiring by Tufts’ Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and assuming a crucial role with the Tavitian Scholars program which annually brings members of Armenia’s government for a 6-month program in Public Policy and Administration. (In a cruel twist, Aso O. Tavitian, the Armenian-American businessman and philanthropist who has funded the Armenian scholars program, also passed away suddenly this week.)
Barsam credited Shougarian with expanding the program from its initial focus on future diplomats to training civil servants throughout the Armenian government. “He was the backbone of our program, and the students were drawn to him,” Barsam said. “He had a deep knowledge of history, diplomacy, literature and music. And he was the personification of integrity and honesty.” She said at last count more than 330 Armenian civil servants had graduated from the program.
Lilit, his wife, said yesterday that while her late husband had helped shape the history of Armenia’s democracy, he had recently told her that he saw the key importance of now being an educator. “It was important task for him to help his students in thinking more broadly, independently and creatively,” she said. “He will be missed a lot but his work and legacy will live on in people’s lives and hearts.”
Anna Ohanyan, Professor of Political Science and International Relations at Stonehill College, remarked that “his work with the Tavitian program has been of critical importance to Armenia’s state-building. Training successive groups of professionals, he has made enormous contribution to strengthening the institutions of Armenia’s nascent statehood. As such, his work in this program, along with his years of diplomatic service, were nothing short of state building for Armenia and its people.”
Stephen Kurkjian, an award-winning reporter and editor for The Boston Globe, spoke to Ambassador Shougarian’s Fletcher’s class on three occasions in recent years about the role of a free press in a democracy.