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Staying True to Their Roots

Ethnic diaspora in U.S. and elsewhere keeps watch over compatriots in ex-Soviet state, providing aid and investment.


YEREVAN, Armenia — Surrounded by luxurious velvet scarves and piles of hand-sewn throw cushions, Armenian New Yorker Nina Hovnanian looks at home in the new workshop that she has established for her line of haute couture here in the capital of this former Soviet republic.

Hovnanian and others in the 6-million-strong Armenian diaspora keep a constant eye on the progress of the ancient homeland of their parents and grandparents and the well-being of their compatriots in times of need.

"Armenia's lucky to have such a strong diaspora," Hovnanian said. "They tend to be extremely successful people who have a lot to offer to Armenians living here."

The urge to return and help is strong among the large Armenian communities of Los Angeles and Boston. And since the victory of nationalist Robert Kocharyan in presidential elections here last month, many expect a large, new influx of diaspora aid and investment, making their influence even more extensive.

Kocharyan, 43, has long been the diaspora's favorite because of his nationalist ties and his birth in, and subsequent leadership of, the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh--geographically inside neighboring Azerbaijan since Soviet map makers redrew the area's borders. He has promised Armenians living abroad dual citizenship and a greater role than his predecessor, Levon A. Ter-Petrosyan, would countenance.

Despite the lure of their roots, only 10 Armenian Americans have decided to live here full time, according to the Armenian Assembly of America, a group that lobbies Congress on Armenian issues. Many more, instead, prefer to shuttle between the U.S. and Armenia.

But their impact is felt throughout this country and in every area of life. Last year, remittances from the diaspora totaled more than $350 million, $100 million more than in 1996.

Diaspora money provided crucial support during a six-year war with Azerbaijan for control of Nagorno-Karabakh, which is peopled by ethnic Armenians. Funds from abroad helped to rebuild Karabakh's bombed-out capital and construct a highway linking Armenia to Karabakh.

Members of the diaspora say they have merely provided their poorer cousins living in Armenia with the support that they needed to get through hard times after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.

"Without the diaspora, no one would know about Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia--it would have become just another former Soviet republic with no prospects," said Arpi Vartanian, acting director of the Yerevan office of the Armenian Assembly of America.

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