By Armen Zakarian
Kirk Kerkorian, an Armenian-American billionaire who has poured hundreds of millions of dollars into Armenia, received the nation’s highest state award from President Robert Kocharian during an unexpected visit to Yerevan on Friday.
The Medal of Fatherland carries the title of “national hero” of Armenia which was awarded to Kerkorian in May 2004. Kocharian said it is given in recognition of his “exceptional services” to the country of his ancestors.
Kerkorian, 87, has been Armenia’s by far the largest Diaspora benefactor since independence, having donated about $180 million through his charity, the Lincy Foundation. The bulk of the money has been allocated and spent since 2001 on various infrastructure projects. Those included the repair of 420 kilometers of major highways and the construction of 3,700 new apartments in the country’s northwestern regions hit hard by the 1988 catastrophic earthquake.
The reclusive tycoon arrived in Yerevan on Wednesday and spent the next day inspecting streets in the city center and roads outside it that were rebuilt with his money. He was reportedly satisfied with the results of the projects, calling them “wonderful.”
“Everything is wonderful here. I just couldn’t imagine how beautiful this place is,” Kerkorian told the “Haykakan Zhamanak” daily as he sat in a street café in downtown Yerevan on Thursday.
Asked by the paper whether intends to provide more multimillion-dollar assistance to Armenia, he said: “We’ll think.”
The Armenian government hopes that Kerkorian will approve another hefty aid allocation comparable to its annual budget. Its possibility was apparently discussed during his meeting with Kocharian.
“The current economic situation, reforms implemented in the country were discussed at the meeting,” read a brief statement by Kocharian’s office. “Also discussed were prospects for the republic’s economic development.”
The implementation of the Lincy projects was personally overseen and coordinated by the chief of Kocharian’s staff, Artashes Tumanian. The transparency and integrity of the process was seriously questioned by some Armenian press reports.
Kerkorian’s visit, the first in nearly seven years, was also welcomed by Armenian opposition leaders. “He is enjoying himself in his homeland and he thoroughly deserves that,” one of them, Aram Sarkisian, told RFE/RL. “I hope that after the establishment of democracy in Armenia, Kirk Kerkorian will visit Armenia more often.”
Kerkorian is known around the world as the owner of Tracinda Corporation, a Nevada-based investment company. The U.S. “Forbes” magazine estimates his fortune at $8.1 billion. Among his biggest holdings are the MGM-Mirage casino and hotel operator as well as the Mandalay Bay Resorts group.
Kerkorian recently made headlines in the Western press with the announcement of his plans to more than double his stake in General Motors, the world's largest automaker, to 8.84 percent.