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Profile : Armenian Office Has an American Accent : Foreign Minister Raffi Hovannisian grew up in Brentwood. But he says his upbringing prepared him for his new job.


YEREVAN, Armenia — Flash back 20 years. A pre-teen Raffi Hovannisian is complaining bitterly that he has to study Armenian instead of playing baseball with his Brentwood buddies.

Flash back 10 years. Young Hovannisian has just graduated from Tufts University's Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy in Medford, Mass., and has to decide between the two professions. He chooses law and moves up to a six-figure salary in Los Angeles. But something must be missing, or why would he keep setting up aid missions to Soviet Armenia?

Fast forward to today. The most popular man in the newly reborn Republic of Armenia is Raffi Hovannisian, 32, the globe-trotting foreign minister bent on putting his country on the diplomatic map, ending the conflict in the Nagorno-Karabakh region and making sure Armenia's tragic history is not repeated.

"From time to time, I do sort of roar at the improbability of it all," Hovannisian said over a McDonald's takeout dinner of three Big Macs.

But at the same time, he said, when Armenian President Levon Ter-Petrosyan phoned him last fall after Armenia declared its independence to offer him the job, "It was as if my parents and grandparents had always prepared me for that day."

In nearly a year as foreign minister, Hovannisian has traveled to 50 countries; currently, he is in Washington with plans to return home by the week's end. He has helped gain recognition for Armenia from more than 100 governments and struggled to turn the fossilized old Foreign Ministry into something that works as smoothly as, say, an American law office.

Accepted and acclaimed by most Armenians, he remains utterly American--perhaps a bit too American for some.

His detractors, largely older people who also grumble that English is replacing Russian on Armenian street signs, complain that Hovannisian has refused to give up his U.S. citizenship and that his divided loyalties make him less than a true Armenian.

"Has there ever in history been a government in which the head of one of the main ministries was a person who is not a citizen of that country?" asked Sergei Bablumian, Yerevan correspondent for the Russian newspaper Izvestia.

"The CIA would have paid $100 million to control Armenian foreign policy, but they got it for free," a Yerevan photographer said.

Hovannisian's citizenship makes little difference to his fans, however. A recent poll in the Armenian newspaper Epokha found that he enjoyed a mind-boggling 96% approval rating, more than President Ter-Petrosyan. Even among the long faces of a Yerevan bread line, people turned thumbs up when asked about him.

"He's sympathetic and intelligent. So what if he goes back to America someday?" asked engineer Suren Movsesian. "Let him do his part and leave, and we'll find another American."

It is becoming almost commonplace for Americans to return to rebuild their forebears' countries in the chaos of the former Communist world. The returnees range from Yugoslav Prime Minister Milan Panic to Rein Taagepera, a UC Irvine professor who just made a respectable, losing run for the Estonian presidency.

But Armenians, half of whom live outside their historical homeland, show a level of Diaspora involvement unsurpassed in the former Soviet Bloc.

Hovannisian's Foreign Ministry employs seven Americans, including aide Raffi Sarrafian, a former field representative for California Assemblyman Pat Nolan (R-Glendale), and Vartan Oskanian, the outgoing Los Angeles-based editor of AIM, a glossy magazine for Armenian-Americans. Armenia's energy minister is on leave from Consolidated Edison in California, and two of Ter-Petrosyan's top personal advisers are Armenian-Americans as well.

"If this goes on, they'll be speaking nothing but English in the Foreign Ministry," Bablumian warned.

Actually, nearly all the Americans in the Armenian government, including Hovannisian, speak fine Armenian.

Nonetheless, the American presence makes itself felt in different ways.

On the mundane level, it shows in yellow Post-It notes common in the Foreign Ministry, or even in something as simple as Hovannisian's smile, a convincing, genuine flash of perfect American teeth. Even Deputy Foreign Minister Arman Navasardian, a 20-year veteran of the Soviet Foreign Ministry's somber stuffiness, admits that "Raffi has a radiant smile."

In working style, it shows in the whip Hovannisian cracks at the ministry, demanding full 40-hour weeks from Soviet-trained bureaucrats used to what he calls "the lazy old ways, the lying old ways." Even while beefing up the ministry from a pitiful 15 employees to the current 120, he has cleared out deadwood.

In substance, Hovannisian sees his Western values shining through in the approach he takes to politics as he tries "to extend the American dream of democracy," calling for "human rights, civil liberties, fundamental freedoms and self-determination."

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