It was June 9, 1998. I was in New York attending one of the UN’s Special Sessions when I received an important telephone call from Los Angeles. It was the Lincy Foundation’s, Jim Aljian, who was Kirk Kerkorian’s right hand man and confidant.
“Mr. Oskanian, Mr. Kerkorian’s available to meet with you,” he said.
I had been expecting this call. Two months earlier, as a newly appointed minister of foreign affairs, I had several objectives. One was forming more effective diaspora partnerships, the other was keeping international economic relations on the foreign ministry’s agenda. Kirk Kerkorian was crucially important to both those agendas. I had specifically wanted to meet with Kirk and invite him to strategically engage in Armenia’s development.
I’d never met Kirk. He was a legend whom we admired from afar. But in 1996, in addition to his other support for Armenian institutions in the Diaspora, he had very generously agreed to support Armenian International Magazine. I had established that publication, with some friends, in 1990, and Salpi Ghazarian was the editor. Salpi had established contact with Kirk.
In May, she took to him a letter, in which I had put forward a very specific proposal. Given Armenia’s geographic limitations and problematic neighborhood, I said I wanted to seek his support for a north-south highway stretching from the Armenian-Iranian border to Georgia’s ports, through Armenia. This modern artery would not only turn Armenia into a north-south corridor, but would also solve Armenia’s own transport problems and offer us unique access to the sea.
Now, that May letter was going to be followed up by a June meeting.
I was there in two days. I left New York, headed to Washington the next day to speak at the Heritage Foundation and at the Carnegie Endowment, and to hold several meetings, both with those in and out of government. The following evening, June 11, I arrived in Los Angeles.
Photo from Vartan Oskanian’s personal archive.
Jim Aljian had said to meet them for breakfast at the Beverly Hills Hotel, so that’s where I stayed.
The next morning, early, Jivan Tabibian and Salpi came to see me, prior to my meeting. We had already begun to plan for Jivan to move to Vienna as Armenia’s ambassador to the OSCE, where he served from 1998 to 2008. Salpi would later join me at the Foreign Ministry as my advisor. At that time, however, they were both still in Los Angeles.
I left them to go meet Kirk Kerkorian. I knew this would be a historic meeting, but it was also a meeting that meant a lot to me, personally. A high school dropout, he’d achieved great things, both in the business world and in philanthropy. The 1988 earthquake had been his first opportunity to engage directly with Armenia. The immensity of the need following the earthquake moved him to create and bankroll the United Armenian Fund, which he supported on the condition that the Diaspora institutions work collectively. Harut Sassounian has carried out that mandate as head of the UAF from the first day, and it continues to offer essential support to philanthropists and others doing good work in Armenia.
The UAF is not to be confused with the Armenia Fund, which President Levon Ter Petrossian established in 1992 as a visionary way to strategically connect the Diaspora to Armenia. In 1993, the Armenia Fund met its first major challenge. In the worst days of the war-time blockade, Armenia’s energy shortage was acute. The Armenia Fund, together with the United Armenian Fund, undertook a major international fundraising campaign to purchase sufficient heat to get Armenians through that winter. Kirk promised to triple the amount collected. The $7 million collected became $21 million. That was Kirk’s second significant engagement with Armenia.
Now, in 1998, the Armenian leadership would be approaching this very wealthy, very patriotic, very sincere man, for a new kind of engagement.
Jim Aljian was with Kirk in that Beverly Hills Hotel meeting room that morning. Jim, an accountant by profession and someone with whom I would deal once a week, every week for years to come, was more than the representative of the Lincy Foundation. He was a trusted friend, younger brother, Kirk’s most trusted intimate.
We began with small talk. They asked the question Armenians always ask. Where was I from? Syria? No, that wasn’t enough. How did my family get there? I told them my grandparents were deported from Marash.
Kirk said his parents were from Kharpert, and recounted some of his memories of his parents’ memories. Jim, too, interceded and referred to his own parents’ roots, with one side from Kharpert, as well. That generation of Armenian-Americans clung to those roots. They had brought with them little else.
Their questions were based on what they knew about Armenia and Armenian history and their own eagerness to hear about the newly independent Armenia. Each was patriotic in his own way, and I was feeling more confident in my mission.
Kirk was 81 years old in 1998 – healthy, fit, alert, sharp and quick. It was immediately obvious that here was a big-picture guy -- to the point, with no patience for long stories. Each time I wanted to say something that would take longer than a minute to explain, he’d interrupt, ask one question, and take the response to move the conversation to the next level.
Kirk had clearly read and fully assimilated the contents of my letter. I could also tell he liked it. He kept referring to his father, who would frequently say Armenia was a tough place, with no access to the sea. It was as if by becoming engaged in doing something about it, he would be addressing his father’s worry and honoring his memory.
The discussion got into a lot of detail. Not just being landlocked, but also the country’s difficult terrain, winters leaving much of Syunik unpassable, the implications for economic developing and security – we covered it all. Each aspect of transit, access and security was discussed in the context of our neighborhood, especially Iran, with whom the US was already in the midst of a difficult relationship.
Near the end of a nearly one hour meeting, Kirk left the room for a brief time. Jim and I continued to talk. Over the next several years of working together, I learned that despite years of working with a visionary, he remained an accountant at heart. He was extremely careful and conservative when it came to finances. With Kirk out of the room, Jim turned to me with a question. What numbers are you talking about, he asked. I responded saying $ 100 million, at least. Jim visibly stirred in his chair. “Look, he said, “Let me tell you something. This is your first meeting with Kirk, don’t start with such huge numbers.”
Just then, Kirk walked back in and it was as if he was continuing the same line of thought. Before sitting down even, he asked, ‘Vartan, how much money are we talking about?’ I didn’t hesitate and repeated $ 100 million. His immediate reply was, “You got it.”
As confident as I had been that this was the right idea with the right man at the right time, I was still speechless. The scale and significance of the project and the capacity and generosity of the man – it was all overwhelming.
That’s how our first meeting ended. We walked to the lobby together and talked about his visiting Armenia. He promised it wouldn’t be too long before it happened.
It wasn’t. Later that month, I received a call from one of his assistants. Mr. Kerkorian would like to talk to you, he said. Kirk came on the line and said, “I’m in France. Would it be convenient if I come to Armenia tomorrow?”
He arrived mid-day. We had spent the 24 hours between his call and his arrival figuring out how to greet him, and how to schedule his visit.
President Kocharian and I greeted him at the airport. Kirk immediately became emotional as he got off his private plane. He remained emotional throughout the visit.
His meetings with the president were frequent, short and contentful. Over the couple of days, the immediacy and urgency of the land and the people, coupled with what had grown into confidence in our ability and our sincerity, the $ 100 million discussion was transformed to a $ 200 million discussion.
More than the numbers changed. In addition to the North-South highway, major housing construction and renovations in the earthquake zone, rehabilitating Yerevan’s center and major cultural institutions were added to the program. In later discussions about the north-south highway, we ran into problems because of the US government’s position on charitable funds being spent on projects benefitting Iran. So, the North-South highway project was transformed to construction of roads and bridges throughout Armenia, including a modern more accessible road within Syunik.
In addition to working meetings, Kirk visited various sites. At Tsitsernakaberd, at the entrance of the museum, the director was explaining and he was listening. I was standing a few feet away when I heard him call my name. He was standing before the big carved map of Western Armenia, marked by the immensity of the loss. He turned to me and very sincerely, asked, “What would it take to buy this place?” I responded, wishfully, “It will take more than money, Kirk.”
The program actually began a year later, while legal and organizational preparations were being made. In September of that year, the UAF celebrated its 10th anniversary. The president flew to Los Angeles after speaking at the UN General Assembly. Prior to the beginning of the UAF Banquet at the Century Plaza Hotel in Beverly Hills, the President, Kirk and I met. The fourth person in the meeting was Alex Yemenidjian, an associate of Kirk’s who later headed MGM and who enjoyed what seemed to be a genuine son-father relationship with Kirk. It was at that meeting that we set up the mechanism to implement the many projects. Alex and I were the two responsible for coordinating the work going forward. As the project’s practical phases began, Artashes Tumanyan and Armen Gevorgyan took over for the Armenian side, and Harut Sassounian for the Lincy side.
So began Kirk Kerkorian’s participation in Armenia’s development.
Vartan Oskanian was the Armenian Foreign Minister in 1998-2008.
These views are his own.