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ARMENIA: US SUPPORT FOR KOCHARIAN HOLDS FIRM

Haroutiun Khachatrian 2/22/05

When a top US diplomat recently referred to Nagorno-Karabakh leaders as “criminal secessionists,” policymakers and pundits in Yerevan worried that the White House was rethinking its support for Armenian President Robert Kocharian’s administration.

Armenia’s ties with the United States have long been a subject of vigorous discussion in Yerevan. While the United States ranks as the country’s main foreign aid donor, Armenia has traditionally hinged its foreign policy on a strategic partnership with Russia, the only country in the South Caucasus to do so. Maintaining equilibrium between the two powers has not been easy for Armenian authorities, and recent events have strained the policy still further.

The January 2005 deployment of 46 Armenian military personnel to Iraq was met by strong public opposition, mainly caused by concerns that the move might spark anti-Armenian reactions in Iraq and other Middle Eastern countries with Armenian minorities. Opposition members claimed that the troop deployment was an ill-calculated maneuver by Kocharian and Defense Minister Serge Sargisian to curry favor with Washington. [For background see the Eurasia insight archive]. Government officials, however, have denied that support for US Iraq operations was ever named as a condition for aid to Armenia.

After the so-called Orange Revolution in Ukraine, in which opposition demonstrators in late 2004 reversed the results of a rigged presidential election, some regional political analysts suggested Armenia might be next in line for a political make-over, noting some similarities in the political mood in both Yerevan and Kyiv, in particular the bitter relations between government and opposition forces. They went on to suggest that the United States might welcome any regime change in the region that was viewed as accelerating the pace of democratization.

Not all analysts agree. “I do not see a reason why the American administration, which has cooperated with Kocharian so far, should take any moves to remove him now,” Alexander Iskandarian, a Caucasus analyst and director of the Caucasus Media Institute in Yerevan said. Tevan Poghosyan, executive director of the International Center for Human Development, a Yerevan-based think tank, agreed. For the United States, stability in Armenia and the South Caucasus is the most important factor, he said.

Conjecture about Washington’s intentions reached its peak in late January, when reports circulated that US Assistant Secretary of State Elizabeth Jones had used the term “criminal secessionists” to describe ethnic Armenian leaders of the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Despite Jones’ later apology, many analysts and opposition politicians in Yerevan saw the comments as a sign that Washington’s stance on Nagorno-Karabakh was becoming “anti-Armenian.”

Aid numbers tell a different story. Armenia remains one of the world’s largest recipients of US financial assistance, in per capita terms. Although the US draft budget for fiscal year 2006 would leave the country $20 million less than was allotted last year — $55 million – the document also contains the first humanitarian assistance for Nagorno-Karabakh, some $3 million. More assistance could also soon be in the works. As part of Washington’s Millennium Challenge program for developing democratic countries, Armenia could receive up to $350 million in the next two years.

Despite the aid commitment, some political observers believe that Armenia is a comparatively low foreign policy priority for Washington. “For the USA, the key countries in this region are Azerbaijan, for its oil, and Georgia, for its role as a territory needed for the stable [transport] of this oil,” said Poghosyan. “Armenia presents an interest for the American government mainly due to the 1.5 million ethnic Armenians who are American citizens.”

Even as Armenia struggles to balance its relations with Washington and Moscow, it continues to look to diversify its policy options. In recent years, Yerevan has cultivated relations with Iran, which plans to build a gas pipeline to Armenia that would allow the country to break its dependency on Russian natural gas. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Tehran has also indicated a willingness to broker a resolution to the standoff with Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh. In addition, Yerevan has begun talks to gain observer status in the League of Arab States and the Organization of the Islamic Conference, while exploring an expansion of trade ties with the Persian Gulf states of Kuwait and Bahrain.

So far, Washington has not publicly responded to the strengthening Yerevan-Tehran relationship. Armenian leaders are thus treading carefully, hoping to avoid angering the Bush administration. For now, though, Washington appears ready to accentuate the positive – at least in public. Speaking at a February 11 meeting in New York City with representatives of the Armenian Diaspora, Ambassador John Evans was succinct: “Armenia today is on the right track.”

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