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By Harry Tamrazian in Vienna

President Robert Kocharian wrapped up an official visit to Austria on Thursday, receiving assurances about official Vienna’s support for his efforts to strengthen Armenia’s ties with the European Union.

Austrian President Thomas Klestil said after talks with Kocharian that the South Caucasus is part of Europe and has a “big strategic importance” for European security. He expressed the hope that the dispute between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh will be settled soon, bringing about lasting stability to the region.

Klestil also pointed to his country’s strong support to Armenia’s admission into the Council of Europe one year ago. "Armenia is Europe too," he said.

"This visit is very important, especially in the context of our European policy," Kocharian said on his arrival in Vienna the previous day. "We are seeking to establish very businesslike relations with the European Union."

Later on Wednesday Kocharian also met Chancellor Wolfgang Schuessel and the speaker of the Austrian parliament, Hans Fischer. The talks resulted in the signing of a bilateral agreement banning double taxation and another one on air travel between Armenia and Austria.

Addressing several dozen members of Austria’s small Armenian community late on Tuesday, Kocharian offered a bright economic outlook for Armenia. He said that if the current trends continue his administration will be able to ease the enormous hardships suffered by the population, in the near future. He said "two or three" more years of robust growth will "substantially improve the economic situation" in his impoverished country.

Kocharian pointed to the record-high growth rate of 9.6 percent achieved by Armenia last year.

"I am confident that it is possible to ensure a similar growth in 2002 and keep the growth stable in the coming 4 to 5 years," he said, adding that Armenia needs its worldwide Diaspora's "political, economic and moral support" to get out of its economic doldrums.

Kocharian further assured Austria's Armenians that poverty-driven emigration from Armenia is not as large-scale as it is often portrayed by his opponents. "More than three million people live in Armenia at present," he said, citing the preliminary results of the October census.
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