Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 53

Armenia’s Foreign Affairs Ministry may be reverting to a principle which it had seemingly forgotten how to practice: that of “complementarity” in external relations. As officially defined in Yerevan, this means pursuing cooperation with Russia and the West on parallel tracks, without sacrificing either. It implies a balancing act in the context of increasingly pronounced Russian opposition to Western interests in the South Caucasus and the Western orientation of Azerbaijan and Georgia. In practice, Yerevan abandoned the principle in favor of a close military and political relationship with Russia. The ruling group under the late strongman Vazgen Sarkisian introduced that unilateralism after 1995, ensured its triumph by ousting former President Levon Ter-Petrosian from office in 1998, and set the stage for its continuation by the successor government of Vazgen’s brother Aram Sarkisian, behind whom the pro-Russian military elements hold sway.

The Foreign Affairs Ministry has been primarily an executant–sometimes unenthusiastic–rather than an author of the policy. It is aware that to gravitate in Russia’s orbit is to sacrifice compelling economic interests and severely to retard Armenia’s development. President Robert Kocharian recently began publicly making that case, albeit obliquely, in the context of seeking a peace settlement with Azerbaijan and accommodation with Turkey (see the Monitor, January 10, 18, 27; Fortnight in Review, January 21). The struggle for power between the Sarkisian clan and Kocharian may decide Armenia’s external orientation for years to come. Foreign Affairs Minister Vardan Oskanian is considered a Kocharian ally. The power struggle at the top has apparently created enough leeway for the ministry to make overtures to the West.

Last week, in an unusual interview which amounted to a policy statement, Oskanian underscored the value of the complementarity principle (Snark, March 3; Golos Armenii, March 4). Simultaneously, Deputy Foreign Affairs Minister Robert Shugarian–until recently the ambassador to Washington–visited NATO’s headquarters and invited its secretary general, Lord George Robertson, to visit Armenia. The visit, scheduled for September, will be preceded by a visit to Yerevan from NATO’s assistant secretary general for political affairs, Klaus-Peter Klaiber. In making these announcements, Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesman Ara Papian implied that the agendas will include the development of Armenia’s participation in NATO’s Partnership for Peace (PfP) program, which the country entered in 1994. Papian admitted that Armenia’s participation has been minimal, a situation which requires correction.

Azerbaijan had some months ago invited Lord Robertson to visit in September (see the Monitor, December 22, 1999; Fortnight in Review, January 7). Yerevan’s decision to follow suit reflects a concern to avoid isolation and, up to a point, to compete with Baku for Western political attention. Oskanian evidenced the same concern when he took a swipe at Baku for “adhering to the Cold War paradigm in order to harm Armenia”–in other words, choosing the West over Russia and hoping to isolate Russia’s ally, Armenia. Azerbaijan indeed seeks the status of an aspiring member of NATO, though mainly out of concern over Russia’s long-term intentions, not Armenia’s.

On March 13, Oskanian began an official visit to the Baltic states, a scene conducive to and perhaps intended for an unprecedented westward overture. Interviewed in Vilnius, Oskanian was quoted as declaring that his country “takes a positive view of NATO’s eastward enlargement,” provided that it results from freely made decisions of the countries concerned, based on their sovereign right of choice. That pronouncement in effect breaks ranks with Moscow by accepting the basis of Western and Baltic policy. In the same statement, Oskanian described Armenia’s foreign policy as based on the principle of complementarity (BNS, March 13). That description reflects, at present, the apparent desideratum of some Armenian policymakers rather than a reality. But the ministry’s latest gestures, presumably authorized by Kocharian, may help initiate some overdue movement from the theory to the practice of complementarity.

The struggle over power and policy in Yerevan is not between a pro-Russian and a pro-Western camp. Rather, that struggle pits the adherents of the current, one-dimensional Russian orientation against supporters of a more balanced, two-track policy. And the road to a viable complementarity passes–as Kocharian seems to recognize–through a settlement with Azerbaijan and detente with Turkey (Noyan-Tapan, March 11; see the Monitor, March 9).