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Armenia, the Soviet republic that welcomes foreigners

They mingle with the crowds in Lenin Square, in the center of town, watching illuminated fountains rise and fall to recorded music. They draw patient encouragement from the matrons behind hotel desks, as they ask for room keys in the local tongue.

Many come from countries with which this one is at odds - the United States, Canada, or even Israel.

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And yet they often leave with an affection beyond words, as if they had found a bit of themselves here in this small corner of the Soviet Union.

They are Armenians visiting their ancestral homeland - a homeland that has been enveloped by a giant communist state.

Moscow discourages contacts between its citizenry and foreigners elsewhere in the Soviet Union; yet in Armenia such contacts are encouraged, even nurtured. Moscow generally keeps a tight rein on churches; here, they are cautiously expanding. Moscow clamps down on nationalistic sentiment; here, it is at least tolerated.

All this, of course, takes place within certain strict limits. Nevertheless, Armenia, the smallest of 15 Soviet republics, has managed to carve out a niche for itself that is unique within the Soviet Union.

It is, for example, the only Soviet republic that officially encourages immigration, apparently with some degree of success.

And it arguably has more cultural and ethnic ties with foreign countries than any other Soviet republic, perhaps including Russia itself. Each year, thousands of people of Armenian ancestry converge on this arid, boulder-strewn land for brief visits - and many Soviet Armenians return the favor.

The reasons behind this unusual relationship between a land and a people are rooted in the tragic history of Armenia. Situated at one of the invasion routes between Asia, the Middle East, and Europe, Armenia was repeatedly made subject to various harsh overlords. In 1915, a massacre by the Ottoman Turks of Armenians living in the Anatolian highlands set off an exodus of thousands of Armenians. They established prosperous enclaves in such areas as Los Angeles and Fresno, Calif., and Boston and Watertown, Mass. And many came here, to what was the eastern part of the Armenian homeland.

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After the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in World War I, Armenia briefly declared its independence. But it was soon dissected by the neighboring Soviet Union and Turkey.

Most of what was Armenia is now part of Turkey. The Armenian population there continues to decline, according to some reports. Yet it is on the increase in this Soviet republic.

The figure now stands at 3.2 million, up from 720,000 in 1920.

''Approximately one-fourth of the growth is from repatriation'' of Armenians from abroad, says Antranig Martirossian, first vice-president of the Committee for Cultural Relations With Armenians Abroad.

But it should be pointed out that there is also a reverse migration, of undetermined size, of disaffected Armenians who leave after a brief sojourn here.

There are other contacts as well: Armenian language books are exported, and various performing-arts groups are sent on tours abroad.

The Soviet government does not allow such contacts for wholly altruistic reasons, however. This republic reaps substantial gains from the immigration and the benefaction - in hard currency - of Armenians living abroad. A number of public facilities here have been built with the assistance of overseas donors, particularly Americans.

One woman, asked to explain why Armenia seems outwardly more prosperous than many other Soviet republics, says, ''I think the fact that we have many people coming here from other countries helps. They work hard. They're always trying to do something new.''

According to official government doctrine, living standards, as Mr. Martirossian says, ''are the same in all Soviet republics.'' A casual trip to the local markets and stores suggests otherwise, however.

Attractive shoes, blue denim jeans, fruit and produce - products that would spark stampedes in some Soviet cities - are in abundance here. The streets seem cleaner, the public buildings in better repair, than in Moscow.

Of course, such comparisons are imprecise. Others, however, are not. Armenia ranks first among Soviet republics in literacy, first in the percentage of the population with higher education, and fourth in those with scientific degrees, says Dr. Konstantin Khoodaverdian, a professor of history at Yerevan University.

But not everyone here sees things in quite the same way.

''I am an Armenian nationalist,'' says a man who came here from a Middle Eastern country in the 1940s.

''Armenians,'' he adds, ''are not free. We are not free to travel, to emigrate. And, he says, ''We don't like this Russian government. We prefer West European democracies or America.''

He is giving voice to a sentiment that lies just below the surface here in Armenia, and that has driven a deep wedge between factions of Armenians living abroad - and even within the Armenian Apostolic Church.

Simply put, the issue is whether it is better for some remnant of Armenia to survive, even under the control of the Soviet Union, than to run the risk of an independent Armenia's being once again crushed by hostile neighbors, particularly the Turks. It is between some degree of accommodation (some would say collaboration) with the communist regime, and resistance to that regime.

Each viewpoint has its partisans.

Some argue that without some form of accommodation there would not be the relative prosperity, the high educational standards, or the Armenians from abroad mingling with the local populace that one sees in Soviet Armenia.

Others, however, still hold out visions of an independent Armenia.

''I am willing to die,'' says the man who calls himself a nationalist, ''to see my country emancipated.''

Still, it is clear that for many here the independence of Armenia is not a topic for discussion, for the time being at least.

Indeed, there are periodic reports of dissidents here being arrested and hustled off to other parts of the Soviet Union - with or without a trial.

''It is mainly Armenians overseas who are concerned with these political questions,'' says an official of the Armenian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

He says Armenians here are interested in ''peaceful development,'' not political questions.

Whatever their political leanings, some Armenians who come to see their ancestral homeland find the journey can be bittersweet.

Dalita Berejikian, assistant to a dean at the University of Toronto is one.

She found the locals to be a boisterous, backslapping lot.

''That's just not my way,'' she said.

She also said she came under intense pressure to resettle here.

''They keep pushing the idea that Yerevan is good.''

One man in particular was unusually persistent, she added.

''He said, 'You're Armenian. Come and live here.' I said, 'No, I'm Canadian.' But he couldn't understand that.''

As she left, after a final nighttime stroll past the illuminated fountains in Lenin Square, she said, ''I am an Armenian. I know the customs. I'm proud of them.''

But, she concluded, ''I could never fit in here.''

That would undoubtedly puzzle one man on a side street in downtown Yerevan. After trying - and failing - to engage a foreigner in some questionable business transactions, he offered a ripe peach from his garden.

He smiled, looked upward at the blue sky, and then affirmed, ''This is the best place in the Soviet Union.''

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