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A Tectonic Plate Shifts?

by Emil Danielyan

19 October 2005

Armenia’s defense minister signals a further drift westward. From EurasiaNet.

Armenia’s strengthening ties with the West are raising questions about the future of Yerevan’s special strategic relationship with Russia. President Robert Kocharian’s administration has stepped up military cooperation with the United States, has begun upgrading Yerevan’s participation in NATO’s Partnership for Peace (PfP) program and plans reforms designed to bring its armed forces closer to Western standards.

Armenian Defense Minister Serge Sarkisian, whom many political observers consider a potential Kocharian successor, has stated that closer defense and security links with the West are vital for the South Caucasus nation’s security. “The guarantees of ensuring Armenia’s security are the Russian-Armenian military alliance … and the development of cooperation with NATO structures and the United States,” he stated in a wide-ranging speech at a NATO-sponsored seminar in Yerevan on 7 October.

Sarkisian’s comments were noteworthy, given Armenia’s status as one Russia’s most loyal ex-Soviet allies. The military alliance with Moscow has been the bedrock of Armenian foreign policy since the Soviet collapse in 1991. Successive governments in Yerevan have viewed the presence of Russian troops in Armenia as a national-security necessity. As recently as in September, Kocharian saluted the “continuing fraternity” of the two nations as he watched joint military exercises conducted in Armenia.

Still, a perception that Russia’s influence is waning in the South Caucasus and elsewhere has prompted Armenian leaders to hedge their geopolitical bets in recent years. Yerevan has forged closer ties with NATO and the United States in particular. Sarkisian is scheduled to fly to Washington on 23 October on a five-day official visit, including talks with Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and top officials at the U.S. military’s Central Command. The trip will come less than a month after the latest annual “defense consultations” that were held in Yerevan between senior Pentagon officials and their Armenian counterparts. The consultations focused on a plan of joint U.S.-Armenian defense-related actions for next year and ongoing U.S. military assistance to Armenia that has totaled over $20 million since 2002.

The two sides may also have discussed Armenia’s deeper involvement in NATO’s PfP framework under an “individual partnership action plan,” or IPAP. An Armenian government inter-agency commission developed IPAP-related proposals, which Sarkisian submitted to NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer in June. NATO’s special representative to the South Caucasus, Robert Simmons, described the move as a “significant step ahead in relations between the alliance and Armenia.”

“In effect, Armenia has surpassed Azerbaijan in terms of cooperation with NATO,” Alexander Arzumanian, Armenia’s former pro-Western foreign minister, told EurasiaNet in an interview. “We have approached the level of the Georgia-NATO relationship.”

In his speech, Sarkisian also outlined for the first time “defense reforms” that he said will stem from Yerevan’s growing engagement with Western powers and security structures. He said those reforms will result, among other things, in greater civilian control of the Armenian military. The existing organizational structure of Armenia’s Defense Ministry and armed forces essentially mirrors that of the former Soviet defense apparatus, with army officers holding just about every ministerial position. Armenian Foreign Ministry officials have complained that such a system is anachronistic and hampers closer cooperation with NATO.

The planned reforms also involve the development and publication of Armenia’s “national security strategy” and “defense doctrine.” Both documents are supposed to be worked out by Yerevan by 2007 in collaboration with NATO. “As a result of such activities, Armenia’s capability to interact and institutional and conceptual compatibility with European and Euro-Atlantic structures will grow further,” said Sarkisian.

A key question asked by local analysts is how Armenian authorities can maintain good relations with Russia and the West at the same time. The NATO seminar in Yerevan highlighted the difficulty of pursuing this so-called “complementary” policy. A senior British diplomat attending it openly questioned the need for continued Russian military presence in Armenia, while a Russian participant challenged the Armenian defense chief to explain why his government is “putting national security into several baskets.”

Although Sarkisian emphasized that closer ties with the West could be achieved without damaging the Russian-Armenian special relationship, some observers believe that Yerevan will eventually have to make a choice between the two powers. “The time for making such a choice is slowly approaching and Serge Sarkisian is well aware of that,” Arzumanian said. He suggested that the choice will not necessarily be in Russia’s favor, especially if the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is resolved in the near future.

Prospects for the conflict’s settlement have brightened significantly in recent months. International mediators say a peace deal may well be finalized shortly after the November parliamentary elections in Azerbaijan and constitutional referendum in Armenia. Karabakh peace would also have important implications for the unfolding succession struggle within the Armenian leadership. Sarkisian, widely blamed for Armenia’s chronic vote rigging and government corruption, is seen as the top candidate to replace Kocharian after the latter completes his second five-year term in 2008.

Arzumanian, who is highly critical of Kocharian’s regime, sees a direct connection between Sarkisian’s pro-Western rhetoric and presidential ambitions. “I think that Serge Sarkisian has realized what the West expects him to say,” said the former foreign minister. “Given the current lack of alternatives [within the Armenian opposition], it could be tempting for the United States and other Western powers to support his presidential bid. He is already becoming quite acceptable to them.”

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