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Raffi Hovannisian Speaks at Fresno State

Photos by Alain Ekmalian.  See article below.

Back in the 1960s, Raffi Hovannisian and his siblings would pile into his parents' station wagon each weekend and drive from their home in Los Angeles to visit his extended family in Fresno.  There, the spirited youth would hear the stories and historical lessons of his paternal and maternal grandparents-the orphans and survivors of the Armenian Genocide-who had found their "rebirth" in the San Joaquin Valley.

Today, Hovannisian is carving out his own place in history, though not in Los Angeles or even the Central Valley but 6,000 miles away in Yerevan where he serves as a prominent member of the Armenian Parliament and leader of the country's Heritage Party.  His youthful enthusiasm remains, and even though his trek to Fresno isn't as simple as jumping into the family station wagon, he and his wife Armenouhi still visit his extended family-the Hovannisian and Kotcholosian clans. During his most recent visit to Fresno, he spoke to a capacity crowd of almost 300 people in McLane Hall at Fresno State.  The lecture was sponsored by the Charlie Keyan Armenian Community School and the California State University, Fresno Armenian Studies Program.

Born in Fresno, Hovannisian and his family later moved to Los Angeles where he grew up.  Even so, Fresno and the valley resonate very deeply among his childhood memories.

"Fresno for me was the Armenian school I never had.  I had the wealth of information of two sets of grandparents with two different histories...It was they who provided to me the entire breadth of the Armenian and American worlds. They represented a generation that had lost everything, but danced on the face of adversity. They lived because they knew they had to give life to their children and grandchildren. I am very proud to have been their grandchild."

Hovannisian is the son of UCLA historian Dr. Richard Hovannisian, a pioneer of Armenian Studies in the United States.  Published in the mid-1960s, Dr. Hovannisian's history on the first Republic of Armenia, Armenia on the Road to Independence, was a groundbreaking work that helped legitimize Armenian Studies as a discipline in its own right.   

"Fifty years ago, who would have dared to think in the United States of America that we would have academic chairs in Armenian history, that we would have Armenian culture and identity celebrated  without any lack of confidence."  

Out of the backdrop of his grandparents and parents, Hovannisian's own remarkable story began in 1988 when he left his LA law practice to assist in disaster relief after the Armenia earthquake. He also documented the earliest stages of the Karabagh freedom movement first hand and ultimately repatriated in Armenia. 

"And then something that we never thought would happen happened. Who would have ever thought 30 years ago that in our lifetime we would see the Republic of Armenian, free and independent, the tricolor flag of the republic up flying at the United Nations and elsewhere."

Hovannisian's knowledge of international affairs, political activism, and command of both English and Armenian prompted then President Levon Ter Petrossian to appoint him as first Foreign Minister of the (second) Republic of Armenia in 1991.  During his tenure, he established relations with more than 100 nations, represented Armenia at its induction into the United Nations, and laid the foundations of the Karabagh peace process.  Prior to leaving the position over policy disagreements with Ter Petrossian in late 1992, he received a resounding 96% approval rating in a newspaper poll-more than the president himself.  Since that time, he has accepted the challenges that go with leading a minority party in a political environment where the ruling party has historically stacked the deck against its opposition.

While his days as an AYF member have certainly been not lost to him, the idealism and nationalism of his youth now walk side by side with pragmatic concerns of statehood and the accountability that must come with building a democracy.

 

"Independence means taking responsibility for ourselves, that we would have nobody to blame for our ills and our losses than ourselves. Yes, we've lost the lion's share of our land to the aggression of other nations. But right now, with our own country that is 20 years old, this means that we have a responsibility for our own...We love our county. But patriotism from time to time requires not only to drink toasts to each other and for Armenia...but also to be critical... to diagnose the nation's problems in order to realize the potential and capacity that is the Armenia dream."

On this note, Hovannisian outlined three challenges facing democracy in Armenia.  First, it needs to establish a rule of law. Unequal access to resources, voting day irregularities, and political partiality in Armenia's courts not only foster political and economic inequities at the domestic level but injure Armenia's standing and confidence among international diplomats and potential investors.

The second challenge relates to solidifying Armenia's sovereignty. Sovereignty generally refers to the extent that a nation can determine its own diplomatic and economic paths.  While acknowledging the realities of Russia's historical and modern influence in the Caucasus region, Hovannisian remarked that undue focus on a single world power compromises Armenia's ability to decide its own future

"The past vertical relationship between the Soviet Kremlin and the vassal state Armenia is over. We've to respect our sovereignty and have sound relationships with the US and Europe as well as Russia. We should never allow any one county to take a majority share in our electricity network, our nuclear power plant, our communications and transportation (infrastructures).

The last challenge concerns national security. In this regard, he spoke about the threat posed by the still unsettled Karabagh situation along Armenia's eastern borders and the ultimate need to recognize the Nagorno-Karabagh Republic by Azerbaijan and the world's nations, including the Republic of Armenia itself. To the west, Armenia faces closed borders with its neighbor Turkey, whose continuing denial of the Armenia Genocide poses a threat to national security. Hovannisian criticized Armenia's past ruling administrations for their reluctance to integrate this issue into foreign policy.

 

"It's time for the Republic of Armenia to state its case. If Mr. Erdogan (Turkey's Prime Minister), who is giving lectures to Israel and other nations, is going to talk about the unacceptability of the new French law that criminalizes the denial of the Armenian Genocide and place preconditions on the Republic of Armenia, then the Republic of Armenia has to maintain symmetry before the world and place preconditions on the Republic of Turkey."

After his presentation, Hovannisian fielded questions on a variety of topics, including Armeno-Turkish relations, the current situation in Karabagh, and the Armenian Revolutionary Federation party's resignation from the ruling coalition.

Throughout the lecture, Hovannisian praised the support and efforts of his wife Armenouhi who serves as director of Orran, a non-profit NGO that provides assistance to needy families in Armenia.  Also available at the talk was Family of Shadows, a readable and thought-provoking history of the Hovannisian family written by his son and journalist Garin Hovannisian.

Following the lecture, community members gathered at AJ's Restaurant for a reception and to raise funds for the Armenian Center for National and International Studies (ACNIS).  Founded by Hovannisian, ACNIS is a think tank devoted to research and analysis of Armenia's foreign and public policy issues.

 

 
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