By Hrach Melkumian
Boris Yeltsin, Russia’s former longtime president, was given a red-carpet reception on Saturday as he arrived in Armenia for a six-day unofficial visit that includes meetings with the country’s present and former leaders.
President Robert Kocharian personally greeted Yeltsin at Yerevan airport with state honors normally reserved for acting foreign leaders, underlining the importance attached by Armenia to relations with Russia.
“I love Armenia and have been here before,” the 71-year-old ex-president said, answering a question from RFE/RL after he and Kocharian walked past an Armenian honor guard.
“We are linked to Armenia with a long history,” he said. “We have to value it and somehow strive to develop that cooperation further.”
This is Yeltsin’s first trip to Armenia since the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union in which he played a key role. He governed Russia until 2000, presiding over a decade of reform and dramatic developments. The former Kremlin boss is also seen as one of the architects of the Russian-Armenian political and military alliance -- a cornerstone of Armenia’s foreign policy
Speaking to journalists, Yeltsin specifically mentioned the existence of a large Armenian community in Russia. “One should not forget that 2.5 million Armenians live in Russia, and only one million in the United States. So this is the largest [Armenian] Diaspora,” he said.
Yeltsin’s first public engagement was a visit to the Armenian Genocide museum and memorial in Yerevan. His written comment in the visitors’ book condemns “the 1915-1923 genocide of the Armenian people” and calls on Turkey to recognize it. “It is time for Turkey to repent,” Yeltsin wrote.
Later in the day he attended annual celebrations of the city’s anniversary.
Yeltsin is also expected to meet with former President Levon Ter-Petrosian. A warm personal rapport between the two men throughout the 1990s is thought to have cemented the Russian-Armenian ties. Yeltsin had publicly regretted Ter-Petrosian’s forced resignation in February following a revolt staged by his key ministers led by Kocharian.
But the Russian ex-president stressed on Saturday that he is “friends with Robert Sedrakovich [Kocharian].” “He invited me to visit Armenia and I accepted the invitation with great pleasure,” he said.