Influencing Armenia

The Fletcher School’s big footprint in a small nation creates a network of leaders who think in new ways

Mount Ararat overlooking Yerevan, the capital of Armenia

Armenia is a crossroads between East and West. Bordered by Turkey, Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Iran, it’s been part of the Roman, Byzantine, Ottoman and Russian empires—not to mention the Soviet Union—with rare periods of political independence. As the USSR crumbled in 1991, the Republic of Armenia was born anew. The nation of 3.3 million people faced daunting challenges, still recovering from a devastating earthquake in December 1988 and a war with Azerbaijan over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh.

Given those circumstances, building a national government from scratch was difficult, especially when it came to developing a diplomatic corps where none had existed. And so, in 1999, 15 young diplomats from the Armenian foreign ministry took a six-month leave of absence and flew to the United States to pursue an intensive program in international relations and diplomacy at the Fletcher School. They were the first group of Tavitian Scholars at Tufts.

Now in its 16th year, the program, funded by the Tavitian Foundation, has paid for more than 250 early and mid-career Armenian officials to study at the Fletcher School. Not just for diplomats anymore, the program offers executive training to a range of Armenian government officials and central bankers. The latest scholars arrived on campus in January.

In a nation roughly the size of the state of Maryland, Fletcher has educated more people per capita than in any other country in the world. The Tavitian Scholars Program has created a deep network of highly trained administrators who hold positions throughout the government, from the foreign and justice ministries to the office of the president.

Illustration: IngimagesIllustration: Ingimages
“You get an educated group like that, and it begins to become a critical mass for positive change,” says Jeswald Salacuse, the Henry J. Braker Professor of Law at the Fletcher School, who has taught in the program.

Act of Kindness

Aso O. Tavitian, H13, understood Armenia’s problems and wanted to help. Of Armenian heritage, he was born in Bulgaria but escaped that communist country in 1959, landing in Beirut, Lebanon. An Armenian English High School teacher taught him English for three months, after which Tavitian was accepted at Haigazian College on a full scholarship. He couldn’t afford his living expenses, though, and it looked like he wouldn’t be able to pursue his education. Then an anonymous benefactor stepped in. Tavitian later learned that his poorly paid teacher made his education possible—an act of generosity he’s never forgotten.

Tavitian came to the United States in 1961. He studied nuclear engineering at Columbia and later co-founded Syncsort, one of the first companies to develop and market stand-alone software. Through his Tavitian Foundation, he seeks to match the generosity of his mentor and honor his Armenian roots.

In the 1990s, Tavitian sponsored several students from Armenia to attend the Fletcher School. Later, he spoke with the country’s new foreign minister, Vartan Oskanian, EG83, F93, A08P, who was trying to figure out how to train the fledgling nation’s diplomats. Having been part of the Soviet Union for seven decades, Armenia had no homegrown diplomatic corps—that was always Moscow’s purview. The Fletcher School’s name came up.

Through Joyce Barsam, J62, G89 , J89P, A91P, A94P, G91P, a trustee of Tufts at the time and vice president of the Tavitian Foundation, Tavitian met Jack Galvin, then dean of the School. Galvin pitched the idea that Fletcher could provide the training for the young Armenian diplomats. Tavitian decided to pay for 15 newly minted diplomats from the Foreign Ministry to spend six months at Fletcher.

“I had gotten the commitment from the foreign minister that they would be young, educated and chosen on merit—no Soviet apparatchiks,” Tavitian says.

That first group included Nairi Petrossian, then an attaché in the foreign ministry’s public affairs department who had joined the Armenian diplomatic service just 18 months earlier. “I have very warm recollections of all the people who taught me at Fletcher,” he says, recalling the “hardcore realism” of Professor Richard Shultz and “insight into the Middle East” from Professor Andrew Hess.

Petrossian, who is an aide and interpreter for Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan, says that his time at Fletcher gave him “various fine keys to quite an extensive number of doors that otherwise would have been closed to me.”

“We studied international law, economics, international relations and negotiation theory and practice, among many other topics,” notes Ara Margarian, a career diplomat posted at the Armenian embassy in London who was among the first group of Tavitian Scholars in 1999. “They aimed to provide younger and new diplomats with this package of knowledge that we could use in our careers.”

Joyce Barsam and Aso O. Tavitian escorted Fletcher leaders to Armenia in October to meet alumni of the training program that Tavitian funds.Joyce Barsam and Aso O. Tavitian escorted Fletcher leaders to Armenia in October to meet alumni of the training program that Tavitian funds.
After a few years focusing on the foreign ministry, the Tavitian Foundation expanded its Fletcher mission. “We decided to reach out to other ministries and the central bank,” says Barsam, who helps select participants. Now the scholars come from a variety of ministries.

The Tavitian Scholars’ backgrounds vary, but they are all highly educated—they typically have at least a master’s degree and a significant number have doctorates. They all share an appreciation for the rigor of the program. “If you ask the students what was the most valuable thing you got out of the course, almost all of them will say a new way of thinking, a new way of analyzing,” Barsam says.

Vahktang Abrahamyan, a 2004 participant and now a board member of the Central Bank of the Republic of Armenia, agrees. “I think that we managed to start thinking in more structured ways—and more globally,” he says.

Richard Shultz, director of Fletcher’s International Security Studies Program, who has taught security studies for the Tavitian Scholars Program over the years, says the goal is to give the scholars a global perspective. “After they are here, you hope that they have a broader view of the world, understanding from a multidisciplinary perspective,” he says.

A Tough Neighborhood

Armenia is in a tight spot geographically. It is still technically at war with Azerbaijan over disputed territory. Turkey closed its border with Armenia in 1993 in support of Azerbaijan, so trade between the two countries has to go through neighboring Georgia. Iran is on its short southern border.

Tavitian tells the story of having dinner with the Armenian foreign minister a decade ago and asking him about the countries that surround Armenia. “He said that Iran was their best neighbor,” Tavitian reports. “My response was, ‘When Iran is your best neighbor, I know you’re in a tough neighborhood.’ ”

It’s not only the geopolitics that are tough. One of the most important challenges for Armenia, the central bank’s Abrahamyan says, is overcoming what he calls the post-Soviet syndrome. “We need to change the way of thinking, way of working, education, health care—everything needs to be adjusted. The only key that can open the door is an educated society—a young generation with ‘Western education,’ with the ability to apply theory in real life.”

That’s just what Tavitian is hoping for. “Whenever I sit with [the scholars] after they finish their program at Fletcher, and I try to understand what they have learned, inevitably what I hear is [a different] way of thinking,” he says.

A Powerful Impact

Last October, Tavitian and Barsam escorted Fletcher School Dean James Stavridis, F83, F84, and Senior Associate Dean Deborah Nutter to Armenia to meet alumni of the program as well as top government leaders. Demonstrating their strong ties to each other, about 200 alumni of the Tavitian Scholars Program showed up for a reunion.

On the trip, the group attended a luncheon hosted by the president of Armenia. “He made a point of inviting his eight senior aides to sit at the table with us,” says Barsam, “and every one of them—from his chief of staff to his senior foreign policy advisor, senior domestic policy advisors, translators and financial advisors—had been to Fletcher.”

Tavitian, Barsam and Stavridis also visited a number of ministries and the central bank, where they met many other Tavitian alumni. “Two hundred and fifty people in a government of a small country is a very powerful force,” Barsam says. “Many of our graduates are now in leadership positions—one is chief of staff to the president. It’s a very powerful trajectory that has been established.”

Shultz agrees. “With all these people who have been through the program who are now working in critical ministries,” he says, “that’s a pretty big footprint.”

This article first appeared in the Spring 2015 issue of Fletcher Magazine.

Taylor McNeil can be reached at

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