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Armenian Weekly

Ekmanian: Commentators Criticize New Armenia-Russia Defense Pact

Upon the invitation of President Serge Sarkisian, Russian Federation President Dmitry Medvedev and his wife Svetlana Medvedeva arrived in Yerevan on a state visit for two days on the evening of Aug. 19.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, Defense Minister Anatoliy Serdyukov, Transport Minister Igor Levitin, Special Representative of the President in the north-west region Ilya Klepanov, Ulyanovka Governor Sergey Morozov, Russia’s Ambassador to Armenia Vyacheslav Kovalenko, and other officials were among the Russian delegation that landed at Zvartnots Airport.

The main objective of the visit was to finalize the proposed 49-year lease on Russia’s 102nd military base presence in Armenia, which was the hottest topic of the Armenian media in the last few weeks.

On Aug. 20, the two presidents had a 45-minute private conversation, which was followed by the negotiations of the full delegations. After the meetings, Medvedev and Sarkisian signed a number of agreements, including the amendments to a 1995 treaty regulating the Russian military base in Armenia, and a contract with “Rusatom” to build a new nuclear power plant (which will cost $5 billion, 20 percent of which will be covered by the Russian company).

Russian projects are more inclusive in Armenia than anywhere else. There are more than 200 agreements between the two countries, and more than 1,400 projects in Armenia run by Russian capital. Plans to construct oil refineries, oil pipelines, and energy systems, the Armenia-Iran railways, the mining and petrochemical sectors, as well as substantial investments in the telecommunications industry are among those projects, which amount to $2.75 billion. Russia already has military bases deployed in Abkhazia and South Ossetia and, just four months ago, signed an agreement with Ukraine extending the presence of the Black Sea fleet in Sevastopol to 2042. As a result, Russia is strengthening not only its economic presence, but also its military existence in the Caucasus.

The amendments on the Armenian-Russian defense pact will extend Russia’s basing rights by 24 years, to 2044, and upgrade the mission of its estimated 4,000 troops headquartered in the city of Gyumri by removing the restrictions of the deployed Russian Army to defend the former USSR borders, to include providing for Armenia’s security and providing the Armenian army with modern technical equipment.

“The agreement will resolve the problem of keeping the balance of forces in the region, and will prevent military resolution of the Karabagh conflict,” said Armenian Parliamentary member Eduard Sharmazanov from the Republican Party during an interview last week. “After making changes in the status of the base, it will protect not only Armenia’s frontiers, but will also solve the questions of its security. Therefore, military resolution of the Karabagh conflict will be excluded,” he said. The strengthening of the Armenian-Russian military cooperation is an answer to Azerbaijan’s “militarism” and the increase of its military budget, added Sharmazanov.

Not all parties, however, share that vision. The agreement sparked heated criticism of the Armenian government for allegedly selling short the country’s independence, claiming that the security partnership serves Russian aims far more than Armenian interests.

Radio Liberty reported that Giro Manoyan, a senior member of the opposition Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutyun), on Aug. 13 said that the changes would be “worrisome” as long as the government has not convincingly explained their rationale. “My impression is that Russia has found an opportune moment to clinch from Armenia an extension of its basing rights in return for satisfying some of Armenia’s demands,” Manoyan said at a news conference.

Speaking about the 25-year lease on the military base in Gyumri, Civilitas Foundation analyst and journalist Tatul Hakobyan said that there were still 10 more years until the end of the original agreement signed in 1995—which is not a short time in this rapidly changing world.

“I think they could wait a little more, because we can’t know what could happen in the region in the near future. It is absurd to prolong the agreement to 49 years because so many things could change in these coming 10 years’ time. Empires could collapse for example,” he said.

David Shahnazarian, a representative of the radical opposition block Armenian National Congress, said during a phone interview that the new amendments in the Armenian-Russian defense strategy are the result of the possibility of a new war in the Nagorno-Karabagh Republic (NKR). “However, these amendments are about the security of Armenia, not NKR,” he explained. “The Russian Army deployed in Gyumri is not responsible for the security of NKR, and Armenia remains the sole granter of the
security of Karabagh.”

“I think that the presence of the Russian Army in Armenia is more related to the political situation than to any agreement. If we look closely in the region, we see that Russian troops get out of their bases in foreign countries not according to their agreements, but as a result of changed political situations,” he said.

Richard Giragosian, the director of Armenian Center for national and International Studies (ACNIS), commented for the Armenian Weekly, saying that “in military security terms, there is little to benefit Armenia and suggests a ‘colonial approach’ by Russia’s desire to extend basing rights but offering little more than vague suggestions or aid and assistance. Thus, there is an imperative for a correction of current Armenian-Russian relations, to a more equal or even respectful level, but this visit will certainly not accomplish this, especially as the Armenian side is still far too reluctant to demand more from its Russian ‘partner.’”

“There is a growing recognition of the possibility that Russian policy in the region has been shifting, as Moscow has steadily improved its relationship with Azerbaijan and may actually go further, moving away from Russia’s traditional pro-Armenian stance to a more ‘neutral’ position regarding the Nagorno Karabakh conflict,” said Richard Giragosian.

Two months ago, Professor Gerard Chaliand, an international expert in armed conflict studies and international and strategic relations, was the guest speaker at a discussion forum in Yerevan organized by the Civilitas Foundation. There, he stressed that the possibility of war was greater than ever. “If I wanted to harm Azerbaijan, I would target its population. But if I want to make it an international crisis, I’d bomb the pipelines,” said Chaliand. “I think the best alternative is to harm the pipelines,” he added.

However, a few weeks ago, unconfirmed news reports about Russia’s alleged sale of S-300 surface-to-air missile systems to Baku changed these dynamics, raising more suspicions about the new Armenian-Russian defense pact. Some criticized Russia for making Armenia more vulnerable and dependent.

Hovhannes Nikoghossian, a research fellow at the Yerevan-based Public Policy Institute, told the Armenian Weekly that in some ways Russia has provoked Armenia to signing this document by selling the S-300 missile-defense systems to Azerbaijan. (The system will protect strategic installations, including pipelines and the Mingechevir reservoir, from the reach of possible Armenian reprisals in the event of renewed aggression by Azerbaijan.)

“The situation with the regional stability became unpredictable with the Aug. 16 signing of a strategic partnership agreement between Turkey and Azerbaijan which, according to the Foreign Ministry of Azerbaijan, has a military component as well,” said Nikoghossian. “As a result, the Russian vector of development remained the only possible and de facto forced political choice for the leadership of Armenia, while the air in the south Caucasus is increasingly smelling of gunpowder,” he added.

Foreign Minister Lavrov, who was honored with St. Mesrop Mashtotz order on Aug. 19 presidential decree for his “efforts in strengthening and developing the centuries-long Armenian-Russian friendly relations,” stated during an interview on Armenian public TV that Russia has clearly expressed that the conflict can be solved only through peaceful means, as a response to Azerbaijan’s militarist statements.

The statements by Medvedev in Yerevan were in the same vein. In particular, he stated that “we would like to see in the Caucasus such events [August 2008 war] are not repeated.” Nevertheless, while answering a reporter’s question about Turkey’s involvement in the Karabagh peace process, Medvedev said that “so far, the OSCE [Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe] was the most successful mediator in the process,” without clearly leaving out the possibility of other mediators in the conflict, which could be Turkey in this case.

Parliamentary member and chairman of the parliamentary assembly of NATO Karen Avagyan told reporters that Medvedev’s visit “is of high importance because it gives the opportunity to the Russian Federation president to see matters on the ground, especially what it concerns the NKR conflict and the Armenian-Turkish relations. Seeing matters on the ground is something. Knowing about them through documents is another,” he said.

According to Nikoghossian, however, it is the strategy of the current administration in the White House to provide a definite but coherent and mutually agreed upon freedom of action to Russia and Turkey in the south Caucasus.

“The periphery of Europe nowadays was solely interesting for only Turkey and Russia, while the EU and the U.S. temporarily have been busy with other issues and obligations, and the strategic choice of Armenia in many ways was forced by the mutual love with Russia,” he said.

Commenting on Armenian-Russian relations in light of the new agreements, Hakobyan said that “in the south Caucasus, especially in Armenia, only Russia tells the rules of the game. Thus, we can assume that the will to sign this agreement was from Russia. Specifically, it is in line with Russian interests in the first place, because the priority of the Russian base in Armenia is safeguarding Russian interests, not Armenian ones.”


Original source: http://armenianweekly.com/2010/08/26/defense-pact/

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About Harout Ekmanian

Journalist, lawyer, netizen and an observant gentleman.

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