Every once in a while you meet someone you really connect with and get on with. Whether it’s your because of a shared hobby, a common experience, a similar sense of humour or for a reason completely tangential or unexplainable, you just do.
Her Excellency Karine Kazinian, the Armenian Ambassador to theUnited Kingdom and Ireland, was one of those people.
I first met Karine after our mutual friend Charles Tannock, a Member of the European Parliament forLondonand one of Europe’s leading foreign affairs experts and human rights advocates, suggested I might like to meet Armenia’s new Ambassador to the UK. She was, Charles told me, looking to “make a difference” during her time in the capital.
We met for lunch at a small Italian restaurant in Notting Hill; the aim of our meeting being to discuss ideas for how to improve awareness in the United Kingdom of the challenges facing Armenia.
It’s often said that first impressions are the most important ones you ever form about a person and that remedying negative ones is an uphill or almost impossible task. Thankfully, my first impressions of Karine never changed. “Welcoming”, “friendly”, “convivial”, “sincere”, “caring” and “confiding” are all adjectives that came to mind – and never ceased to be words I associated with her.
At our first meeting we spoke at length not only about what we could do to help Armenia– a small, landlocked nation steeped in ancient history and possessed with a people whose integrity and dignity is peerless – but about our lives and families. Before long, she wasn’t an Ambassador to me; she was my friend.
She was fascinated to hear about my Brazilian background, exchanging Portuguese phrases with me that she had learned during her time working in the Soviet Embassy in Mozambique and Portugal. She listened with delight as I outlined by holiday plans in Armenia, offering to organise me guided tours of Yerevan and introductions to her many friends throughout the city. She asked about my brother and sister, smiling from ear-to-ear when I told him my brother had been admitted to Oxford and my sister was saving lives every day as an intensive care nurse. She also spoke about her own family, telling me stories about the fervent pride her son living in Moscow had at being Armenian, her daughter’s recent wedding and her son-in-law’s burgeoning career as a comic illustrator. I don’t know any of her family – but the warmth with which she so often spoke about them makes me feel a strange familiarity with them.
It’s exactly a year today since Her Majesty The Queen welcomed Karine to Buckingham Palace to formally induct her into the Court of St James. In that time, she has truly changed the face of relations between the UK and Armenia; helping people to better see the wood from the trees when it comes to some of the misconceptions that exist about the country and forming an indelible link in the mind of everyone that met her between the word “Armenia” and an image of hospitality, decency and kindness.
The archetypal image of a senior diplomat, one honed in the minds of most from scenes of elaborate drinks parties in James Bond films, is that of a mildly aloof figure dispensing formal niceties to the assembles hordes in a mechanical manner, secretly aghast at having to deal with the marauding masses.
Karine wasn’t like that; she was genuine. And that’s why everyone who came into contact with her adored her - other members of the diplomatic corps, Members of Parliament, Peers of the Realm or the legion of young politicos she once unwisely allowed me to unleash upon her wine collection!
Despite being tremendously dedicated to and outstanding able at her job as a diplomat, Karine had never intended to become an Ambassador.
At heart she was a scholar, mother and wife, elevated to the role of Armenian Ambassador to Romaniaafter the tragic death of her husband in his early 40s. Initially asked by then President Levon Ter-Petrossian to temporarily hold the fort in Bucharest as Chargé d’Affaires, she went on to serve as the country’s Ambassador to Germany and Deputy Foreign Minister with responsibility for negotiating the EU-Armenia Association Agreement before coming to London last year.
I landed at Amsterdam Airport a little after 7am yesterday morning to an email letting me know that Karine had passed away during the night as a result of complications arising from surgery.
When we last met up a few weeks ago, she mentioned she would be going to Los Angeles for a complicated and potentially risky operation – but only after she had secured a meeting for President Sargsyan with UK Ministers and organised a successful series of events to celebrate the 20th anniversary of British-Armenian relations. She did both of those things with her typical style and aplomb, putting her sense of service to country well ahead of her own personal needs – just as she always did.
It’s gut-wrenching for those of us who counted Karine as a dear friend to think that we’ll never seen her again.
For her family, the pain at this cruel twist of fate must be unbearable. I only hope that, when the initial devastation passes, her family will be able to draw upon not only their own memories of her but the affection of so many others felt for her and smile.
Yesterday morning, I contacted a colleague of Karine’s to offer my condolences. In his reply, there was one phrase that really stood out about his experience of working – but more importantly – knowing her: “we had so many plans”. We all did.
Sleep well, Your Excellency.