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Armenian President Gets Enthusiastic Welcome : Politics: Levon Ter-Petrossian, country’s first popularly elected leader, arrives on a mission to strengthen economic ties with U.S.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The first popularly elected leader of an independent Armenia arrived Sunday for a three-day visit with political and business leaders in Southern California--home to one of the world’s largest Armenian communities.

Levon Ter-Petrossian, who was elected in 1991 after Armenia gained its independence for the first time in 600 years, is on a seven-day visit to strengthen economic ties between his embattled republic and the United States.

Ter-Petrossian met with President Clinton and made stops in Boston and Detroit before arriving here, where he was greeted by hundreds of well-wishers as well as Mayor Richard Riordan and other dignitaries.

His arrival touched off cheers, shouts, whistling and applause that lasted from the moment he stepped from his private jet until he got into his limousine. He was given armloads of roses by two students from a Hollywood Armenian school who had waited or over an hour on the boiling Tarmac, clad in ankle-length traditional dancing dresses of red and green velvet.

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Ter-Petrossian and his wife, Ludmila, made a brief midday visit to a Westside Armenian church. He addressed about 10,000 Armenian Americans on Sunday night in a 90-minute speech at the Los Angeles Convention Center, in which he outlined recent economic reforms in Armenia and declared himself impressed that so many Armenian immigrants here want to learn more about their native country and its recent independence.

Wherever he went, the political leader, who is also an expert in the authenticity of ancient texts, was greeted as a hero by Armenians, for whom he embodies the centuries-long dream of independence.

Among those who braved 100-degree-plus temperatures at the airport were John and Rose Ketchoyian of Sherman Oaks, whose grandparents were among more than 1.5 million Armenians killed by the Turks between 1915 and 1923.

The U.S.-born Ketchoyians, like many Armenians, have strong emotional ties to the country of their forebears. “Whether it was hot or cold, we’d still be out here,” John Ketchoyian said. “Armenia is trying to get established as a country and we’re here to support him the best we can.”

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“Armenia is our country,” said Rose Ketchoyian, adding that she would go there “at the drop of a hat” to assist in its recovery.

Ter-Petrossian’s trip comes during a cease-fire in the conflict with adjacent Azerbaijan that has crippled the Armenian economy.

Although not officially at war, Armenia has supported the breakaway of the Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh in Azerbaijan. That conflict has claimed more than 15,000 lives.

In retaliation, Azerbaijan shut down oil pipelines and overland trade routes that Armenia depends on.

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If the July 27 cease-fire agreement holds and peace can be achieved, officials hope those lifelines can be reopened so the country won’t have to endure another brutal winter with only an hour or two of heat and electricity each day. Moreover, peace would set the stage for Armenia’s industrial renewal, generating opportunities for foreign investment.

Krikor Greg Tashjian, of Glendale, said he has been receiving upbeat reports on the situation from his brother, a government energy official in Armenia. Tashjian said his brother thinks very highly of Ter-Petrossian, who he said is “the right man for the mission” of rebuilding the former Soviet republic.

Many said Ter-Petrossian has pushed for privatizing farms and industries despite the war, the blockade and the devastating 1988 earthquake, which forced the shutdown of the nation’s nuclear plants out of safety concerns.

But economic aid will be needed to reopen Armenia’s nuclear plants and rebuild its industries.

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On this trip, Ter-Petrossian and his delegation met with officials from the World Bank, which agreed to help restore the country’s irrigation system and its reactors.


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