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Thursday, September 16, 1993 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Armenian Advances Spur Ambitions -- Nationalists Dream Of Return To Great Empire Of Centuries Past

AP

ARMENIA ONCE ruled from the Caspian Sea to the Black Sea. Many Armenians, to the chagrin of their neighbors, harbor hopes of a new empire.

YEREVAN, Armenia - In homes, stores and offices across this small country, new maps show something that hasn't been true for centuries: Mount Ararat rising from the middle of Armenia.

The mountain where the Bible says Noah's Ark came to rest is in Turkey. But many Armenians, encouraged by this year's military victories in Azerbaijan, have begun dreaming of the return of Greater Armenia, an empire that once straddled Europe and Asia.

The popular new maps show a "historic Armenia" 10 times the country's current size, including large parts of Iran, Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey.

Armenia's foreign minister, Vahan Papazian, says the re-establishment of the empire is "impossible, entirely unrealistic." But the nationalist Dashnak Party, which claims to have the support of 20 percent of Armenia's 3.3 million people, does not agree.

Dashnak officials talk of peaceful expansion, but Armenia's ancient enemies allege the nationalists are bent on conquest. Iran and Turkey have built up their border forces in recent months.

Armenians have been fighting for five years to gain control of Nagorno-Karabakh, a 1,700-square-mile region of Azerbaijan populated mostly by ethnic Armenians.

This year, the Armenian militants captured all of Nagorno-Karabakh - and still fought on, advancing deeper into

Azerbaijan. They now have seized about 20 percent of Azerbaijan.

Armenia claims that the advancing army comes entirely from Nagorno-Karabakh and is not backed by the government in Yerevan. Azerbaijanis allege that Yerevan is supplying weapons, troops and know-how.

Either way, many Armenians are proud of the advance and assert a moral right to the land. Many consider themselves victims, dispossessed of an empire that shrank and grew and shrank again through the centuries.

Greater Armenia was independent from 189 to 67 B.C.; partitioned by Persia and Rome in 387 A.D.; and invaded by the Ottoman Turks in 1405. It became part of the Soviet Union in 1920.

The main symbol of Greater Armenia is the 16,945-foot Mount Ararat, which is visible from Yerevan, about 50 miles away.

"This is not just any old mountain. Ararat has witnessed all the tragedies and victories of our people and is daily reminder of our fate," Siranoush Horhannissian, an unemployed tour guide, said plaintively.

Armenians are now debating what Nagorno-Karabakh's future status should be: a permanent part of Armenia, or a second Armenian state in the Caucasus Mountains.

President Levon Ter-Petrosian and other senior officials refuse to take a position.

"History has led us to treat international offers of protection with disdain," said Dashnak historian Levon Mkrtchian, referring to the mass expulsion of Armenians from Turkey from 1915 to 1923, when an estimated 1.5 million Armenians perished in what the United Nations has formally called a genocide.

Copyright (c) 1993 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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