Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 50

Until very recently, Armenia’s relations with NATO were almost nonexistent, having been circumscribed to episodic bilateral military cooperation with Greece, a NATO country which official Yerevan found palatable because of a shared history of conflict with Turkey. In spite of the stated principle of complementarity in its foreign policy, Yerevan chose to demonstrate loyalty to the alliance with Russia by cold-shouldering NATO. That attitude may now be about to change.

Admiral Guido Venturoni, chairman of NATO’s Military Committee, paid a visit to Armenia on March 8-9, capping a series of official contacts in recent months between NATO and Yerevan. Venturoni conferred with President Robert Kocharian, Prime Minister Andranik Margarian, Defense Minister Serge Sarkisian and Armed Forces Chief of Staff Lieutenant-General Mikael Harutiunian. All these leaders declared that Armenia’s alliance with Russia does not constitute an obstacle to initiating cooperation with NATO. Venturoni, for his part, summed up the Armenian leaders’ position as signifying that “Moscow’s attitude toward NATO would not affect Armenia’s [stance on] cooperation with the Atlantic alliance.”

The visit produced an informal agreement on creating an Armenian peacekeeping unit with NATO assistance in the framework of the Partnership for Peace program. Yerevan envisages a battalion-size unit–an ambitious goal in light of the experience of other PfP countries, which began with platoon- or company-size peacekeeping units before a few of them progressed to battalions. The Armenian side showed interest also in officer training in the West, English-language training for military personnel, and other prospects that PfP can offer.

In light of Azerbaijan’s and Georgia’s already existing relationship with NATO and intentions to draw steadily closer to it, the Armenian leaders were pleased to hear from Venturoni that the alliance would place Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia on an equal political footing in terms of PfP cooperation. Venturoni, moreover, reaffirmed NATO’s policy of noninvolvement in the Karabakh issue and unconditional backing for a negotiated solution.

Armenia’s political and military leaders made clear that their security policy based on the alliance with Russia will in no way be affected by the incipient cooperation with NATO. They stuck to the familiar view that Russia’s military presence in Armenia is required for “preserving balance and stability in the region”–a view, however, that no country in the region would share. That singular Armenian view rests not so much on an irrational threat assessment with regard to Turkey as it does on a calculation that Russian support can for the foreseeable future guarantee Armenia’s gains in the Karabakh war.

Illustrating Armenia’s durable military ties with Moscow, a massive delegation of Russian military industry executives visited Yerevan just ahead of Venturoni. The delegation conferred with Serge Sarkisian and other officials on plans to create Armenian-Russian joint firms in the military electronics sector. Yerevan welcomed the proposal which would employ and modernize the idle Soviet-era production capacities in Armenia.

Without in any way questioning the alliance with Moscow, Kocharian and Serge Sarkisian are at the moment looking over their shoulder to a newly formed Republic Party which seems to outbid the other Armenian parties in terms of Russian orientation. The party was founded on March 5 by former Prime Minister Aram Sarkisian–brother of and immediate successor to the slain Prime Minister Vazgen Sarkisian–together with a number of staunchly russophile political and military figures. Its leaders are spreading the word that their initiative has the blessing of the Russian embassy in Yerevan and of the General Staff in Moscow. Serge Sarkisian–who is Kocharian’s closest political ally–has lost no time expressing in a newspaper interview his displeasure with the Russian embassy’s and General Staff’s failure to deny the claims that they support that newly formed party (Golos Armenii, March 6; Snark, Noyan-Tapan, Armenpress, March 8-10; Hayots Ashkar, March 10).