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Armenia: President Kocharian Visits France

Two weeks after France officially recognized the 1915 massacre of Armenians as a genocide -- the only Western country to have done so thus far -- Armenian President Robert Kocharian today began his first state visit to France. The trip is intended to expand bilateral commercial ties, and Kocharian also hopes to build on French President Jacques Chirac's commitment to help Armenia pursue peace talks with Azerbaijan over the 13-year-old Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.

Prague, 12 February 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Armenian President Robert Kocharian today started a five-day landmark visit to France.

The visit comes less than a month after the National Assembly -- the lower house of the French parliament -- voted to recognize the 1915 massive killing of eastern Anatolia's Armenians as genocide. On 30 January, President Jacques Chirac signed the bill into law, making France only the second country in the world -- after Lebanon -- to do so.

Kocharian was scheduled to meet with Chirac later today. He is expected to hold talks with Prime Minister Lionel Jospin tomorrow. He was also due to meet with the heads of both houses of France's parliament.

In an interview with Armenia's "Azg" daily newspaper, Armenian Ambassador to France Eduard Nalbandian said last week that Kocharian's visit signals what he called "a new stage in relations between France and Armenia."

Talks Kocharian will hold with his French hosts are expected to focus on ways to boost bilateral trade and French investments in the south Caucasus republic.

Officials of France's chief business federation (known as MEDEF) will meet with Kocharian and a delegation of Armenian businessmen on Wednesday (Feb. 14).

Today, France is among Armenia's largest economic partners, with bilateral trade exceeding $500 million last year. But French investments in Armenia remain limited to a few industrial projects, mainly factories producing alcoholic beverages.

Both governments have stressed that Kocharian's visit had been on their agendas for months, long before the National Assembly voted the controversial bill on January 18.

In an interview published in today's edition of the French daily "Figaro," Kocharian says he hopes the world community will follow France's lead in recognizing the 1915 killing of Armenians as genocide. He called on other countries to express their opinion on the genocide issue, saying they should have done so long ago.

According to Kocharian, French, German, British, and U.S. archives contain documents that prove the genocide occurred. He also told "Figaro" that Germany has already handed over its archives to Armenia.

Kocharian said: "There is no room for doubt. Therefore, we do not expect the international community merely to confirm that there was a genocide, but rather to make a judgment on this historical reality."

Kocharian also told "Figaro" that, until now, the Armenian diaspora has taken the lead in lobbying Western countries to recognize as genocide the 1915 massacres of what it says were 1.5 million Armenians. But Kocharian says the issue is now among the top priorities of Yerevan's foreign policy.

The French recognition of the 1915 genocide prompted a wave of public outcry in Turkey. Ankara has since retaliated by canceling millions of dollars worth of potential contracts with French firms and by suspending its military cooperation with Paris.

Turkey has consistently denied the genocide charges put forward by the Armenian diaspora. It says that only 300,000 Armenians died in eastern Anatolia, most of them killed while on their way to Syria. Ankara also fears eventual demands for compensation from Yerevan.

Turkish media recently quoted Kocharian as saying that his government wants only an apology from Ankara. Turkey, Kocharian said, is wrong to fear that Armenia would ask for damages or file territorial claims.

But Kocharian has left open the question of whether individual Armenians should be allowed to ask for compensation.

Kocharian and Chirac are also expected to discuss the Nagorno-Karabakh issue, which has been poisoning relations between Armenia and Azerbaijan for 13 years.

France co-chairs with the United States and Russia the so-called "Minsk Group," which is mediating between Yerevan and Baku under the aegis of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, OSCE.

The Karabakh conflict broke out in 1988 when the majority of ethnic Armenians in the enclave tried to secede from Azerbaijan. Some 35,000 people died in six years of fighting, which was halted by a 1994 ceasefire.

Armenian forces still occupy an estimated 20 percent of Azerbaijan's territory, including Karabakh and six adjacent districts.

Chirac met with both Kocharian and his Azerbaijani counterpart, Heidar Aliev, in Paris late last month (Jan 26) to discuss peace prospects in the region.

The trilateral meeting took place one day after Armenia and Azerbaijan officially joined the Council of Europe.

Speaking at a press conference in Strasbourg the same day, both Kocharian and Aliyev hinted at progress made toward unspecified "compromises" that could lead to a solution to the conflict.

Aliyev also said that OSCE mediation had so far produced little results. He underlined the necessity for the two presidents to hold direct talks to sustain international efforts.

Kocharian has met with Aliyev 14 times over the past three years. French officials -- who asked not to be named -- tell RFE/RL that both men are committed to reach a peace agreement before their presidential mandates expire.

In his interview with "Figaro," Kocharian said: "We are making small steps, but in the right direction. We're moving forward, we're moving forward,"

Armenian nationalists fear that an agreement between Yerevan and Baku would damage the interests of Karabakh authorities.

Among those accompanying Kocharian to France are Foreign Minister Vardan Oskanian, Parliament Deputy Speaker Tigran Torosian, and Constitutional Court chairman Gagik Harutyunian.

Armenia is expected to change or amend nearly half of its constitution following its admission to the Council of Europe. Last week, Kocharian ordered the creation of an ad hoc commission to monitor the expected constitutional changes. The commission includes Oskanian, Torosian, and Harutyunian.

During his stay in France, Kocharian will meet with representatives of the Armenian community, estimated at between 350,000 to 500,000.

Tomorrow, the Armenian president will attend a concert at Paris' Notre Dame Cathedral to celebrate the 1,700th anniversary of Armenia's adoption of Christianity as a state religion. Armenia was the first country in the world to make Christianity a state religion.

On Thursday Kocharian will travel to Lyons, France's second largest city, which has one of the largest Armenian communities in the country. He is due to fly back to Yerevan on Friday.