Deukmejian Seizes Chance, Pleads Case of Ancestral People : Armenians: The governor has a ‘mini-summit’ with the Soviet leader, who proved well-versed on California.
For George Deukmejian, governor of California and folk hero to thousands of Armenians the world over, it was the opportunity of a lifetime: the chance to plead the case of his suffering ancestral people to the leader of the Soviet Union.
It was not exactly a summit conference. They met standing in the chill night air in a courtyard at the Soviet Consulate, between an iron entry gate and the front door. It lasted about seven or eight minutes.
The time was late--after 11 p.m., Sunday, which was early morning Monday by the body clock of Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev, and he was tired, having just flown from Washington with a stop in Minneapolis. So an on-again, off-again, delicately negotiated “tea” inside turned into a brief, spare-the-small-talk exchange surrounded by floodlights and KGB agents.
“It was a security and logistical nightmare,” commented Greg Kahwajian, a special assistant to the governor who, among other things, is Deukemejian’s liaison to California’s Armenian-American community, which numbers around 250,000. That is the largest group of Armenians anywhere outside of the Soviet Union.
And Deukmejian is this nation’s highest-ranking elected official of Armenian descent. So, even if he did not get invited inside, the governor happily grabbed whatever opportunity offered to lobby the Kremlin leader about the plight of Soviet Armenians.
Basically, Deukmejian gently lectured Gorbachev about Moscow’s need to provide more protection for the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh in their long simmering, often bloody conflict with the Azerbaijanis in the surrounding republic. He also asked for more sensitivity from Soviet troops, who last month killed two dozen Armenians whom Moscow characterized as “terrorists.”
Armenians living in the enclave want to secede from Azerbaijan and be governed by the nearby republic of Soviet Armenia. The conflict continues not just between Azerbaijanis and Armenians of both the enclave and the republic, but with Soviet troops sent to keep peace between them.
Deukmejian urged Gorbachev to break up an Azerbaijani blockade of relief supplies destined for Armenia to rebuild the republic after its devastation from a 1988 earthquake that killed an estimated 25,000.
As Deukmejian stood with Gorbachev and their wives, the Soviet consul general, an interpreter and some gubernatorial aides, he began to tell the Soviet president of his ancestry--how his parents had fled the massacres of Armenians by Ottoman Turks and come to America early in the century.
But Gorbachev, according to a Deukmejian aide, interrupted him and said: “Let me tell you frankly, governor, that I totally understand your concerns. The earthquake was a tragedy. And the violence is very sad. . . . “
Later, the aide, trade specialist Jim Robinson, said: “Nobody is reading any tea leaves about policy implementation or anything, but the governor is convinced there was concern there (by Gorbachev).”
For good measure, Deukmejian handed Gorbachev a personal letter talking about the “very tragic history” of Soviet Armenians and “strongly” urging him to “ensure” their present safety. The letter also urged peaceful self-determination for the Baltic states, and trade between California and the Soviet Union.
Indicating he had been well-briefed about the state, Gorbachev also interrupted Deukmejian when the governor briefly discussed his desire for more California-Soviet trade, observing: “Oh yes, you’re a nation within a nation.”
This may not have been a summit, but some sticky negotiations went into setting it up. According to one adviser who asked not to be identified, the back-and-forth went like this: Deukmejian requested a personal meeting and the Soviet officials agreed that Gorbachev would present the governor a medal for his help in the Armenian earthquake relief effort. Deukmejian had donated $100,000 of his personal political funds to relief organizations.
But Deukmejian said no--if he as an Armenian-American accepted a medal from the Soviet Union it could be used as propaganda in Armenia and Azerbaijan.
“Their two purposes were at loggerheads,” said the adviser, speaking of Deukmejian and the Soviet government.
Finally, a compromise was reached. Deukmejian would accept a medallion on behalf of California--not himself.
Deukmejian later told reporters he was pleased with the meeting and felt that Gorbachev was “very sympathetic to the plight of the Armenian people,” adding, in reference to ethnic unrest throughout the Soviet Union, “I think it’s a very difficult situation he’s in.”
Not all Armenian-Americans in San Francisco were as sympathetic, however. A few hundred demonstrators chanted “Gorby-Stalin” near the consulate.
Deukmejian wound up several hours of being around Gorbachev at various events by introducing him at a gala civic luncheon Monday--and doing it with uncharacteristic humor that drew long applause and laughter.
“It occurs to me, Mr. President, that if your father had become a member of the Russian settlement at Ft. Ross (in Northern California) and my father had gone from Turkish Armenia to Soviet Armenia instead of coming to the United States, that our positions would perhaps be reversed,” he addressed Gorbachev.
“I’m sure you would have been elected as governor of California.”