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From Brentwood to Armenian Cabinet

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Raffi Hovannisian, graduate of Palisades High School, UCLA, the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Georgetown Law School and his family’s home-taught school of ethnic pride, is set to take office Monday as foreign minister of Armenia.

The landlocked republic is not quite independent of the Soviet Union, but Hovannisian, 32, a stocky, mustachioed, former high school football lineman--and class valedictorian--is working on it.

With any luck, he said in a telephone interview from Yerevan, the Armenian capital, a few other countries may exchange diplomats with Armenia by year’s end, “and hopefully that will usher in the process that will ultimately lead to world recognition.”

Hovannisian, an attorney with a Century City firm, left for Armenia in January, 1990, as the representative of the Armenian Assembly of America, a coalition of Armenian-American organizations. By the time he left Armenia last June, he had gotten to know members of the opposition who took power after the Communists fell. He was offered the Foreign Ministry position after Levon Ter-Petrosyan was elected president in September.

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Independence for the homeland was little more than a dream when Hovannisian was growing up in Brentwood, the son of a UCLA history professor and a Kaiser Permanente physician.

“We were, as Armenian-Americans, taught by our grandparents, parents and educators alike that we would maintain the Armenian heritage, culture and language in preparation for the day Armenia would be free,” Hovannisian said.

And yet, he said, “I think none of us expected that Armenia would break out of her shackles and become free and independent in our lifetimes.”

As a UCLA graduate student, Richard Hovannisian immersed himself in the history of the homeland.

“The struggles, the inhumanity to man, the unresolved history, somehow penetrated his bone marrow,” said his mother, Vartiter, an internist.

This is not the first time in this century that the Armenians, who now number about 3.5 million, have tried to run things in their isolated enclave, separated from the rest of the Soviet Union by the Caucasus Mountains.

Their history goes back at least 2,600 years, generally under the domination of Russia, Turkey or Persia. The so-called “First Republic” sprang up in 1918, after the collapse of Czarist Russia, but lasted only until 1920, when it was swallowed by the Soviet Union.

“We just hope that the ultimate outcome will be more favorable than the first attempt at independence,” said the new foreign minister’s father, Richard Hovannisian, author of a three-volume history of the 1918-1920 period.

The First Republic faced the same challenges as today’s Armenia: It was resource-poor, bereft of foreign currency, wary of Turkey and dependent on Russia. Its nearest neighbor, Azerbaijan, blocked railroad lines then, and now, to press its demands for control over the bloodily disputed enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh.

But Raffi Hovannisian is optimistic.

“We are confident that history will be enacted differently this time around. Armenia will never turn its back on its history, but the new democracy is committed to fostering friendly democratic relations with all its neighbors--Iran, Turkey, Georgia, and even Azerbaijan--as it also goes along the road to independence.”

Hovannisian’s five-year appointment is expected to become official when Ter-Petrosyan is inaugurated Monday.

Former teachers found Hovannisian’s new job fully in character with the young man they remembered.

At Palisades High, David Weinstein, who chairs the social studies department, recalled that Hovannisian, although “shy and retiring,” once challenged him when he used the word holocaust to refer solely to Nazi Germany’s extermination of European Jews.

Hovannisian argued that the killing of more than a million Armenians in eastern Turkey in 1915 was genocide on a similar scale, and he made that point in an address to an assembly attended by more than 500 students. Turkish officials have denied responsibility for the slayings, blaming the deaths on the chaos of World War I.

At the Fletcher School, part of Tufts University in Medford, Mass., Prof. Alfred P. Rubin, an international law specialist, remembered Hovannisian as “calm, detached . . . not excitable or unreasonable or fanatic at all, but the kind of person in whose considered judgment I’d have a lot of faith.”

Rubin wondered what the appointment would mean for Hovannisian’s citizenship status.

“It’s very hard for me to see how he can be primarily loyal to Armenia and the United States at the same time,” he said. “The State Department or the Justice Department might want to lift his passport.”

But Raffi Hovannisian is not about to give up his passport.

“In fact, it was the extension of the American dream, to help one’s homeland break free of its Communist past and enter into a very important transitional period,” he said. “I certainly do not renounce my American citizenship, and I do not foresee any problem.”

His three sons, 5 years and under, remain for now with family in Los Angeles, but his wife, Armine, is with him in Yerevan.


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