Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 148

On July 23-25, Armenia’s defense minister and political grey eminence Serge Sarkisian paid his first official visit to the United States. On July 27-28, official Yerevan hosted NATO’s assistant secretary general for political affairs, Klaus Peter Klaiber. And in September, NATO’s Secretary General George Robertson is scheduled to arrive on a groundbreaking visit to Armenia. Cumulatively, these visits represent an incipient movement from the theory to the practice of “complementarity” in Armenia’s foreign policy. That principle entails taking Western interests as well as Russian ones into account in the South Caucasus. Ultimately it entails steering a more balanced course than Yerevan has done in recent years.

In Washington, Sarkisian signed an agreement on technical assistance to Armenia’s customs and border control services with U.S. Defense Secretary William Cohen. Under a wider U.S. program against proliferation of mass destruction weapons, Armenia will receive US$300,000 worth of American detection equipment to prevent the unauthorized transportation of nuclear, chemical and biological arms and components. The agreement represents a first, if small step in terms of providing U.S. military assistance to Armenia. The Pentagon has, moreover, agreed to provide equipment and expert assistance for humanitarian de-mining in the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict theater. The equipment and training will be provided mostly by U.S. civilian personnel on the Pentagon’s behalf. An Armenian-U.S. military-to-military relationship has not yet been established, but does not seem too far down the road. One cautious half step in that direction is inherent in the de-mining program.

Sarkisian, who welcomed the prospect of military relations with the United States, seemed astonished to find out from Cohen that thus prospect is hindered by existing anti-Azerbaijani legislation (fostered by the Armenian lobby) in Washington. Highly controversial, this legislation–known as Section 907 of the Freedom Support Act–bars U.S. government aid to Azerbaijan. Under such circumstances, U.S.-funded military assistance with Armenia but none with Azerbaijan seems out of the question. As a corollary, Sarkisian was led to conclude that an early solution to the Karabakh conflict would open the way for U.S.-Armenian military cooperation. The Armenian minister also held an unprecedented meeting with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Henry Shelton, and invited a senior delegation from the Pentagon to visit Yerevan in September.

On July 27-28 in Yerevan, Klaiber conferred with both President Robert Kocharian and Foreign Affairs Minister Vardan Oskanian, as well as with Sarkisian, on the possibility of Armenia’s participation in NATO’s Partnership for Peace (PfP) program. As the Armenian leaders again admitted on this occasion, their country’s participation in that program thus far has been almost nil. Yerevan has all along been wary that displaying interest in PfP would offend Moscow. That reserve seems now to begin melting. Returning from Washington, Sarkisian redefined the terms of the problem by stating that Russia is ahead of Armenia in terms of relations with NATO, and that Armenia therefore has some catching up to do in that respect. Yerevan’s official line now seems to be that it will not go any further than Moscow in terms of relations with NATO, but will take those relations as a benchmark of how far Yerevan itself may go. Such a redefinition entails the obvious possibility that Yerevan may construe that benchmark in accordance with its own interests, not only those of Moscow.

NATO does not take a position on the Karabakh conflict; rather, it defers to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe to mediate a political solution. However, NATO offered through Klaiber–and will almost certainly offer through Robertson when he visits–the alliance’s good offices in terms of confidence-building between Azerbaijan and Armenia and–no less important–between Armenia and NATO member Turkey.

The Armenian Foreign Affairs Ministry’s spokesman struck an unprecedented note in redefining the country’s policy: “Armenia realizes Russia’s role in the region and the world, but believes that it also needs to develop cooperation with other countries and with NATO. Nowadays, NATO is the most influential and effective organization in the sphere of military and political security” (U.S. Defense Department briefing, July 24; Mediamax, Noyan-Tapan, Snark, July 25-30; see the Monitor, March 15, April 4, June 1).