Presentable Protocol


Presentable Protocol

The world changes all the time, while traditions are stable going on through centuries. The traditions shaped in any state are reflected at best in the official protocol of that state. While putting the bag of the monarch of Britain on the right or on the left chair can play a decisive role during a meeting, the official delegations visiting Armenia are also met according to a certain protocol. The Head of the National Assembly’s Protocol Department Artak Hovhannisyan, who has come a long way during his more than twenty years of service, to shed light for the first time on some nuances of his delicate job.

Text : Elen Babalyan    Photo : Araks Kocharyan


Motorcycles for Sarkozy and Putin

Let us begin with the well-known facts, therefore – with conservative England. Barack Obama’s former Chief of Protocol C. P. Marshall revealed one of the secrets of the British monarch’s bag. During a meeting in the Buckingham Palace she tried to take the Queen’s bag away, but the security officers unexpectedly forbade to do so: “Nobody has the right even to touch the Queen’s bag.”

The surprised American would know later that the Queen’s bag and its position have a quite important meaning: if it’s above the wrist, then the meeting was successful. If Elizabeth II puts the bag down, the subjects understand that it’s the time to end up the meeting and that the Queen does not enjoy the talk.

The Head of the National Assembly Protocol Department Artak Hovhannisyan knows everything about the Armenian protocol traditions. Though at the beginning of the talk he, contrary to my assumptions, stated that the official protocol is free of manifestations of “Armenian specificities”, however, as it turns out, there are certain nuances here as well.

The Head of the National Assembly’s Protocol Department Artak Hovhannisyan


While the 1990s, the Protocol Division of the National Assembly of the newly independent republic had merely 3 or 4 employees, it currently employs more than 20. Armenia as a state had grown in importance and the number of official visits has increased. The main protocol points on how to receive and what kind of visits are to offer to presidents, ambassadors, official delegations more or less uniform throughout the world and the mission of the knights of the protocol is to maintain that order. Admittedly there can be some peculiar cases, like for instance the Ambassador of our neighboring Georgia. He showed up at the ceremony of handing his credentials dressed in the Georgian national costume decorated with gazyrs (pockets for bullets) and a dagger.

However, the world’s fashion in protocol is currently minimalism: the least possible flamboyance or luxury and most possible respectful attitude. And, yes, we already seldom meet guests accompanied with a cortege of motorcycles. By the way, the last state officials, who were accompanied with such a cortege from Zvartnots Airport to the Government’s Home of Official Receptions, were President of France Nicolas Sarkozy and the Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin. Things like motorcycle corteges have gradually turned into forgotten traditions.

Central American Parliament’s delegation at the TUMO center


Mounted Escort for Show

Artak Hovhannisyan, studying the nuances of the state traditions in the National Assembly since 2000, remembered his first encounters with high-ranking foreign officials: “The President of the French Senate Christian Poncelet was a legendary man, who passed through war with Charles de Gaulle, used to respect the law, order and strictly followed the established timetables. To work with such people is not only easy, but is also pleasant.” Hovhannisyan says that after the visit in Paris and seeing the French Cavalry Presidential escort, they came up with a plan of creating an Armenian Ayrudzi mounted unit. However ultimately the decision was made not to waste money from the state budget for show. The parliament protocol is restrained, modest and at the same time highly respectful. “I say with full responsibility that in the whole state system of the Republic of Armenia the protocol is among the most well-established services. Here all of us know our job, duties and remits. As our country is in a vulnerable position in the diplomatic sense, in permanently exposed to precarious situations, it has never provoked awkward situations or created additional obstacles for negotiations which were already tough enough.”


Protocol Embarrassments

All of us witness hard negotiations and changing hierarchies in the world, but few of us notice its details. One of the protocol’s classical failures is German Foreign Minister Steinmeier’s official visit to Indonesia, when stepping off the airplane the first thing the high-ranking official saw was the flag of the Democratic Republic of Germany – extinct decades ago – raised instead of his own county’s flag in the airport.

In general, the national flag is a problematic topic, and the Armenian flag is no exception. The Head of the Protocol Department notes that they are especially attentive to the Armenian flag, as in case it is raised upside down Armenia becomes Columbia. In our country we must pay great attention to the sites of visits by the foreign guests. “It could happen that the program includes visits to Garni and Geghard, but just ten minutes before hitting the road a landslide in the village of Voghjaberd destroys a section of the road. We quickly pick another suitable destination and take the guests to Zvartnots or to other place.” In this field there are no textbooks, training courses or workshops, moreover, this profession demands politeness and courage of making unexpected decisions.


Where to go?

The visits with an average duration of three days besides the official meetings include some cultural element. Paying tribute to the Genocide victims in the Armenian Genocide Museum-Institute, leaving a note in the Memory Book is a mandatory point in the protocol. “There were states that refused such visits there, for example, Iraq, Iran or China. The reasons could be different, either they did not want to create unnecessary tension with Turkey, or they have unsolved problem inside their country. In such cases, the Armenian side does not view such visits to Armenia as official resulting in their lower diplomatic status,” Artak Hovhannisyan says.

President of the French Senate Gérard Larcher in Echmiadzin


Another mandatory point in the protocol is also the visit to the Mother See of Holy Echmiadzin. The visits to other cultural places, like Matenadaran, Museums of Sarian, Charents, Komitas and Parajanov are arranged according to the national preferences of the delegation members. For example, we take a Georgian delegation to Parajanov Museum, guests from Russia – to the Museum of Russian Art. We cannot go remote places, the farthest sites being Noravank and Khor Virap monasteries. In response to the question “Who has made up the list of places to go?”  Artak shrugs his shoulders: “That is how it works.”

From the traditions of the National Assembly

Speaking about the traditions of the parliament, Hovhannisyan mentioned about the creation of the alley with silver color fir-trees: “We have a good tradition: during a foreign parliament speakers first visit to Armenia we plant trees.” Promenading in the section bearing the conventional name “the Speakers’ Alley” we can make a distinct picture of the countries from different continents that have not disclosed Armenia. They are, by the way, many. However, it is better to mention those, which have brought their traditions to Armenia. For example, the Japanese delegation visiting Armenia liked it so much they even asked us to provide a small place in the Parliament Park for planting traditional Japanese cherry trees – sakuras. And now, every year in April, a special delegation comes to see their trees. Baroness Caroline Cox made another beautiful innovation as a sign of British friendship, planting English apple trees in the National Assembly Park. 

Baroness Caroline Cox at the Genocide Memorial, Yerevan


About Artsakh Republic

The first thing that what the officials of the Protocol Department specify, are the members of the visiting delegation and the schedule. Accordingly, they begin to develop a visit program specifying those who in charge of meet the guests at the airport, those in charge of placing and organizing catering for them etc. “Previously inter-parliamentary committees were active, but since long no guests from Cyprus and Belarus have not appeared, they discontinued the format in Georgia, now we work only with the Committees of Russia and Artsakh. By the way, we always treated Artsakh as an equal, honoring the President with a flag, etc,” Artak Hovhannisyan has said and added that the protocol is created between the countries to put equals of sign. There are no more empires, big and small countries. Artsakh has also a full-fledged republic.


There is work

At the beginning of the conversation with the protocol guru, I was amazed at his low voice. I had to concentrate to catch his words. At the end of the talk, I understood: it is a working custom, to speak in a low voice as a token of politeness. In response to the question “What professional other features are formed?” he said quite sincerely: 'While watching the news I unwillingly fix on what side they put the folder or whether the flag pole is a good one or it was ignored or who reaches out their hand for a handshake or there was water during the meeting or have they had forgotten to put it on the table to or if there was tea, coffee and chocolate available at the meeting.”

Speaking of the chocolate, there was time, when the meetings at the National Assembly were “sugar-coated” with chocolate produced in Armenian. The question “where is the chocolate?” had a very unexpected answer. It turned out that drinks (with the exception of water) or snacks require waiters to serve them, and it has already been one year and a half that the National Assembly needs a waiter: “We look for a waiter all the time, but we cannot find one. The salary is low, and there is no tip for understandable reasons. Meanwhile tea, coffee or chocolate can’t be served without asking the guest’s wish.”

At the end of the talk the Head of the National Assembly Protocol Department approached the window and had a look at the flag on top of the National Assembly house flying in the wind. There I change my previous intention to ask him about his attitude to the proposal of changing the current national symbols like the flag, coat of arms and the hymn.

Iranian parliament’s delegation visits Matenadaran