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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.

September 29, 1992|CAREY GOLDBERG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

No American politician ever had to face the nasty geopolitics that confront Hovannisian, though, in what he terms the bad "neighborhood" that surrounds tiny Christian Armenia's nearly 4 million citizens.

To the west is Turkey, held responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands Armenians during forced expulsions in 1915 and holder of former Armenian lands. To the south is Muslim fundamentalist Iran. To the north is war-torn Georgia, and to the east is hostile Azerbaijan, which is caught in a de facto war with Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh, the mostly Armenian enclave within Azerbaijan. A cease-fire with Azerbaijan collapsed over the weekend, as have many others before it.

When Hovannisian took office, Armenia lacked any real foreign policy other than "knee-jerk reactions," he said.

The guidelines he chose for Armenia's strategy reflect its tenuous position. Armenian diplomacy now seeks to normalize relations with all of its neighbors, even the unfriendly ones, and to build friendships the world over without depending solely on its natural sympathies with the West.

That global bent, Hovannisian acknowledges, comes in part from the teachings of his father, renowned UCLA historian Richard Hovannisian, who specializes in the brief period of Armenian independence between 1918 and 1921. Armenia's First Republic was badly let down by President Woodrow Wilson and Western European leaders, who pledged to protect its sovereignty and then let it be partitioned between Russia and Turkey.

"I've been put in the very awkward position of assuring my father on behalf of the Armenian people that history will not repeat itself," he said, "and our return to the world community will be a permanent one."

Despite his conciliatory approach to neighbors, Hovannisian also makes sure that Armenia's enemies see "we are no pushovers."

Somehow, his own bulk, clad in sharp Western suits with size 17 1/2 shirt collars crisply folded at his bull neck, demands that respect even while his articulate charm disarms his diplomatic opponents.

Armenia faces no imminent threat, Hovannisian insists, but there is the danger of reawakened pan-Turkism, an ideology that could lead Turkey to try to extend its territory into Armenia and onward.

The biggest danger he sees to Armenia, he said, is that the millions of Armenians in the Diaspora will not help it enough to see it through its difficult birth.

"In these conditions, Armenia has been given a second chance," he said. "In many ways, whether it makes it or not--or the quality of its making it--depend on how the Diaspora rises to the occasion."

Few Diaspora Armenians can rival Hovannisian in a dedication so deep that he and his wife, Armine, 29, even named their three sons after provinces in western Armenia that are now part of Turkey: Garin, 6, Daron, 3, and Van, 18 months.

"We feel that they are ours," Armine, an Armenian who emigrated to America when she was 10, said of the provinces.

Despite Hovannisian's minimal salary--about $10 a month--and their rapidly dwindling American savings, Raffi and Armine said their life here is more fulfilling in many ways than it was in America. The children have unglued themselves from the television set, and "whatever you do in Armenia, it doesn't feel like work," said Armine, a lawyer who oversees Project Hope charity distribution here.

But that enthusiasm does not mean she is foolhardy enough to have the fourth child she is now expecting in a Soviet-style Armenian hospital instead of flying home. And neither is the couple willing to rule out a return to what Hovannisian calls "the sunny shores" someday.

"If a time comes when Raffi is more effective working from the United States, then, yes, we will go to the United States," Armine said.

With his sky-high popularity rating, some suggest that Hovannisian could even run for president.

"I say, 'God forbid!' " Armine burst out. And then, more calmly, she added: "I think Raffi is where he should be. His role is perfect for him."

Biography Name: Raffi Hovannisian Title: Armenian Foreign Minister Age: 32 Personal: Grew up in Southern California; father is renowned UCLA historian Richard Hovannisian. Graduated from Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University in Medford, Mass. Worked as lawyer in Los Angeles. Has been foreign minister of Armenia for a year. Lives with wife, Armine, and three sons--ages 6, 3 and 1 1/2, in Yerevan, and is expecting a fourth child. Quote: "Armenia has been given a second chance. In many ways, whether it makes it or not--or the quality of its making it--depend on how the diaspora rises to the occasion."

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