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By Atom Markarian
Lebanon’s Prime Minister Rafic Hariri arrived in Armenia on Thursday on a two-day official visit primarily aimed at boosting the modest commercial exchange between the two countries.

Hariri, who is accompanied by cabinet ministers and four ethnic Armenian members of the Lebanese parliament, declined to speak with journalists on his arrival at Yerevan airport, going straight into talks with his Armenian counterpart Andranik Markarian.

The two men then opened a meeting over of an intergovernmental commission on bilateral economic cooperation, with Markarian calling for increased bilateral trade and “mutual investments.” He said Armenia has a lot to learn from the Middle Eastern nation’s burgeoning tourism and banking industries.

Hariri, for his part, said the Armenian and Lebanese business communities should step a permanent joint structure that would explore and facilitate investment opportunities in the two countries. He also requested Armenia’s assistance to Lebanon’s efforts to join the World Trade Organization. Markarian responded that Yerevan, which was admitted into the WTO last year, is ready to help.

The existence of an influential and affluent Armenian community in Lebanon has been instrumental in the warm political ties developed by the two states over the past decade. But in spite of that, their efforts to put economic links on a comparable level have fallen flat so far, with the volume of bilateral trade remaining negligible. Two previous visits to Yerevan by Hariri and one by Lebanese President Emile Lahoude failed to change much in that regard.

“The trade volumes are far from satisfactory, put the potential is great,” the Armenian ambassador in Beirut, Areg Hovannisian, told RFE/RL. He said there are more than 50 joint ventures and other firms with Lebanese capital registered in Armenia. He said the two sides are now discussing plans for the opening of a Lebanese-Armenian bank.

Incidentally, a major shareholder of one of Armenia’s biggest commercial banks, Mikhail Baghdasarov, was among officials who met Hariri at the Zvartnots airport.

The Lebanese-Armenian community, once the most vibrant in the Diaspora, is estimated to have shrunk by half since the outbreak of the Lebanese civil war in 1975, with scores of its active members emigrating to Europe and the United States. Some 300,000 Armenians lived there before the war. Nonetheless, they remain permanently represented in the country’s government and parliament.

(Photolur photo: Hariri, right, greeted by Markarian at Yerevan airport.)
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