St Antony’s Looks at the World: Four Antonian Members of Parliament

Development Director Wouter te Kloeze spoke with four MPs who all gave some good advice for aspiring Antonian politicians.

Sos Avetisyan

Sos Avetisyan (MPhil Russian and East European Studies 2014) is Member of the National Assembly of the Republic of Armenia – Civil Contract Party.

When Sos Avetisyan was approached for this feature on Antonian Members of Parliament, he had – as the new Armenian Ambassador to Spain – just handed over the Letter of Credentials to King Felipe VI. Prior to that, from December 2018 onwards, he was Member of Armenia’s National Assembly for the “My Step” alliance of parties.

Politics and diplomacy were, however, not the ambitions Sos had when leaving St Antony’s. The idea was to return to the College for a DPhil but first to get some professional experience. He lectured at the Yerevan State University and the American University of Armenia, and was in charge of the civil society programmes at the Open Society Foundation – Armenia. During this time, he saw himself as participant observer in a generation of progressive young, politically involved, Armenians.

Being a member of the National Assembly’s Standing Committee of Foreign Affairs, the skill set and formative intellectual experience at St Antony’s (he particularly recalls Professor Roy Allison), helped Sos – a recipient of the Calouste Gulbenkian Scholarship – to understand and conceptualise the political, social and economic developments of Armenia, Eurasia and the wider region. However, despite the importance of studying context, concepts, and theories; nothing prepares you for the task of fulfilling the expectations of your voters.

As a member of the ruling majority party in the National Assembly, Sos is proud that he was able to help improve national healthcare, infrastructure, and see actual improvements to a long neglected road to his hometown Ararat. More broadly, he considers his core values as Member of the National Assembly were to be approachable, critical and accountable to his voters.

The intensity and trauma of experiencing war as a Member of Parliament is not something that can be found in textbooks on politics, nor did writing his MPhil thesis on the First Nagorno- Karabakh War prepare Sos for the suffering he saw during the conflict 30 years later. The 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war made him feel even more responsible for the citizens he represented. It was a relief to Sos that Armenians were able to vote in the 2021 elections, despite the trauma and huge losses caused by the conflict. Sos is certain that Armenians will pull together and rise again, but that it will be diplomacy rather than the army, taking the lead in this process.

St Antony’s helped Sos to understand and conceptualise the political, social and economic developments of Armenia, Eurasia and the wider region

Like governments in many other countries, the Armenian National Assembly is polarised. Sos is keen to emphasise the importance of diversity in political representation, and spoke about the issues that arise from the mass media’s lack of accountability, as well as the importance of language in political communications.

Sos advises aspiring politicians to engage with reality but to treat it with criticism, to believe in what you do, and to step away and to observe as well as actively participate.

Dr Vladimir Bilčík

Dr Vladimir Bilčík (MPhil European Politics & Society 1997) is a Member of the European Parliament for the TOGETHER – Civic Democracy Party

My role as Social Secretary of the GCR was an excellent grounding for later in life, working with people and making compromises

When entering the European Parliament (EP) in 2019, Vladimir was well prepared, equipped and motivated.

Following his education abroad, he returned to Slovakia in 1999 to work as an academic and teacher at the Department of Political Sciences of Comenius University in Bratislava. At the same time, Vladimir made sure to stay in touch with policymaking, politics and think tanks through his work as the Head of the Research Program European Union in the Slovak Foreign Policy Association (SFPA).

Having entered politics before the Slovakian parliamentary elections in 2016, when he unsuccessfully ran for the National Council of the Slovak Republic, he helped establish a new political party, SPOLU – Civic Democracy to help turn his country’s drift away from European values upside down. Vladimir described how one pivotal moment in 2018 was a game changer, not only for Slovakia, but also for himself, and that was the murder of investigative journalist Ján Kuciak and his fiancée, Martina Kušnírová. This event gave him a clear vision of what he wanted to achieve when running for the EP, which was the protection of the rule of law and fight for free and independent media and against the spread of disinformation in Europe.

Vladimir explained that having this clear focus and academic and research experience with European politics helped him to establish himself relatively quickly as a newly elected MEP. After the elections of 2019, 60% of EP members were new, and therefore, having a well-defined mission, it was a bit easier to find out who to talk with and to establish relations with relevant colleagues. He considers the biggest achievements of his political career so far to be his involvement in leading the Inter-Party Dialogue among political players in Serbia as the EP’s Rapporteur for this Western Balkan country, keeping the spotlight on the rule of law in Slovakia through regular monitoring, and his contribution to the drafting of the EU’s Digital Service Act for a healthier internet environment.

Vladimir’s time at St Antony’s really helped him shape his ambitions, and with Professor Anand Menon as a driven Programme Director, and Professor Timothy Garton Ash as his distinguished thesis supervisor, he was well prepared for his academic work and political career. Having been the Social Secretary of the GCR, and so being responsible for parties and fun, was a good experience too, and Vladimir emphasised how politics in committees and smaller organisations really gives an excellent grounding for later in life when it comes to working with people and making compromises.

For young aspiring Antonian politicians, the most important pieces of advice Vladimir gives is to be serious and focussed, not to give up after a setback, and to have the courage to speak up about what you believe.

Professor Peter Katjavivi

Peter (DPhil Politics, 1980) is Speaker of the National Assembly of Namibia.

“It was the training I received from St Antony’s that prepared me to serve my country

It is often said that Antonians have distinguished careers in academia, the civil service, civil society, diplomacy or politics. Professor Peter Katjavivi does it all. In 1989, he was elected as a Member of the Constituent Assembly of Namibia following pre- Independence elections, served on the Committee that wrote the Constitution, and was a member of the first National Assembly for two years. He was then appointed as the founding Vice- Chancellor of the University of Namibia, served as Namibia’s Ambassador to the EU, and subsequently to Germany. Returning to Namibia, he served as the Director-General of the National Planning Commission, and then re-joined Parliament in 2010 as the Government Chief Whip. Peter was elected as Speaker of the National Assembly in 2015 and continues to serve in that position.

Prior to his arrival in Oxford, he was active in the liberation struggle in Namibia. He also set up the London Office of the South West Africa People’s Organisation (SWAPO), the organisation that advocated Namibian independence from South Africa. So, not just your ordinary student, although his time at St Antony’s provided a conducive environment to gain a theoretical understanding of the practical issues he was already engaged in, and to look at similar movements around the world. In his own words, he was more of an activist, but sought to extend his academic inquiry by means of research.

It was the training he received from St Antony’s, as well as the comparative seminars and the academic critique offered, that prepared Peter to serve his country. Having already been engaged with SWAPO diplomatic engagements in the UK and Western Europe, he expected to play a role in Namibian national development and the southern Africa region, because SWAPO was not operating in isolation but together with other liberation movements. Alongside his academic and SWAPO activities, he has fond memories of his time in Oxford, including the birth of his son, the daily cycle from St Clements, and learning to swim properly (being from central Namibia, no mean feat!).

The outcome of the UN-supervised elections of 1989 resulted in SWAPO winning a majority of seats, but there were other smaller parties represented in the Constituent Assembly as well. They all had vested interests, but SWAPO, through its Chairperson of the Constitutional Committee, Dr Hage G. Geingob, now Namibia’s President, proposed that all matters should be agreed by consensus, not by majority vote. This helped forge a united way forward for the country, and bring about peace and tranquillity, that – Peter stresses – prevails today.

To this end, Peter quotes Jawaharlal Nehru’s speech, as cited by Dr. Kashyap, in ‘The History of the Parliament of India’: “Democracy, ultimately is a way of life, a way of reacting to circumstances, a way of thinking and a way of putting up with the things we dislike even. And I think on the whole, we have done fairly well…men [and women] may come and men [and women] may go, but parliaments and countries go on… We shall go and others will come after us. But I think whoever may come after us will remember this period of our early years.”

His advice for aspiring Antonians is that whoever goes to Oxford, needs to be ready to learn from those who may know more than they do. Going to Oxford calls for humbleness, a readiness to learn, and to let others learn from you, as well as being self-motivated.

As he concluded the interview, Peter informed us of the sad loss of his compatriot Dr Zed Ngavirue, yet another illustrious alumnus of the college.

Aspram Krpeyan

Aspram Krpeyan (MSt Diplomatic Studies 2018) is a member of the National Assembly of the Republic of Armenia – Armenia Alliance.

“The top of one mountain is always the bottom of another, so always keep climbing

Before entering the National Assembly of the Republic of Armenia, Aspram Krpeyan saw herself as a young professional in the executive branch of the Armenian government. She was full of motivation, energy and hope, but did not have any ambitions to go into politics and to be involved in legislative affairs. Over the course of her career, she worked for, amongst others, the Ministry of Defence, the Permanent Mission of Armenia to the UN Office, and the Office of the High Commissioner for Diaspora Affairs.

On 27 September 2020, renewed hostilities erupted around the unresolved Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between Azerbaijan and Artsakh (the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic) together with Armenia. The Nagorno-Karabakh ceasefire agreement on 9 November 2020 ended the hostilities. It was seen by many as Armenia’s defeat and capitulation. For Aspram, the events of 9 November 2020 forced her to reconsider everything in life, feeling that the survival of her homeland was at stake.

Although, Aspram had no party affiliation, she was invited to join the Armenia Alliance by the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF) the main opposition Alliance that was striving to unseat the ruling Government and its Prime Minister, who was signatory of the ceasefire. Snap parliamentary elections were held on 20 June 2021. These had initially been scheduled for 9 December 2023, but were called earlier due to the political crisis following the 2020 44 day-war. Aspram was elected and took her oath as Member of the National Assembly on the 7 November 2021.

The oath was a very emotional moment for Aspram, as she keenly felt the enormous responsibility that her decision to enter politics entailed. She no longer feels able to have any other challenges in life than the realities of Armenia. The goals that she set as representative of those who voted for the Armenia Alliance is to fight for the Armenian identity, the right to self-determination of the people of Artsakh and historical justice. Aspram will stay in politics as long as required for the realisation of her nation’s collective dreams; because for her Artsakh is not politics, it is identity.

One famous Armenian name is permanently present at St Antony’s, and that is the Calouste Gulbenkian Reading Room below the College Library. Aspram fondly remembers the moment on her second day at St Antony’s when she was the only one of her introduction group who could properly pronounce the name. The time spent at College with her friends from St Antony’s – still very much present in each other’s lives, even though they are spread all over the world – were enormously stimulating and her time studying in Oxford has helped her develop resilience to the challenges in life.

Her credo is to be truthful to your beliefs, words that Aspram uses repeatedly, and never give up the fight for the things that truly matter. As she says at the end of the interview “the top of one mountain is always the bottom of another, so always keep climbing”.

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