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Armenia and NATO Edging Closer

How far down the road towards NATO membership is Armenia likely to go?
By Ara Tadevosian

Armenia’s defence minister Serzh Sarkisian and NATO secretary general Jaap de Hoop Scheffer have come to an agreement that many see as proof of a new strategic shift by Armenia towards the West.

At a meeting in Brussels on June 10, Sarkisian formally presented de Hoop Scheffer with his country’s so-called Individual Partnership Action Plan, IPAP, as well as a personal letter from President Robert Kocharian.

The event marked a breakthrough in relations between Armenia and NATO, which were once quite frosty. It also lays out many new obligations on Yerevan, which NATO will now monitor very closely.

Essentially, the latest agreement leaves Armenia facing a long-term strategic choice: when the IPAP expires in two years’ time, will Yerevan take the next logical step and seek to apply for NATO membership?

Since gaining independence from the former Soviet Union in 1991, Armenia has been a close military ally of Russia. Moscow still maintains a large military base in Gyumri, in the north-west of the country.

But a slight cooling of relations with Russia, overtures from the West and the NATO aspirations of neighbouring Georgia and Azerbaijan have changed the picture. Visiting Georgia last month, US president George W Bush made it clear that he welcomed the idea of Georgia joining the alliance.

“If it turns out that Georgia and Azerbaijan eventually become members of NATO and Armenia does not, then obviously this will lead to new lines of division in the Caucasus,” Armenian foreign minister Vardan Oskanian said last year.

In April, Sarkisian insisted, “After we set ourselves the goal of joining the European family, we must have close relations with NATO and be responsible for guaranteeing security in Europe.”

Armenia and NATO began to develop a closer relationship prior to the alliance’s Prague summit in 2002. In November 2002, George Robertson, then secretary general of NATO, told the Armenian news agency Mediamax that the alliance should pay more attention to the “specific needs of its partners in the Caucasus”.

“We need to organise NATO's advice and assistance on an individual basis and put our resources where they are needed the most,” said Robertson. “We need to improve liaison arrangements between Brussels and capitals in the region. In a word - we need to develop ‘smarter’ instruments of cooperation, to make the most efficient use of our resources.”

This new approach led to the development at the Prague summit of IPAPs for countries from the South Caucasus and Central Asia, setting out practical steps by which they could converge with NATO standards.

In June 2003, Armenia played host for the first time to NATO’s so-called “Cooperative Best Effort 03” military exercise, which was hailed as a success. And in February 2004 Yerevan sent peacekeeping troops to join the international presence in Kosovo.

The recent meeting between Sarkisian and de Hoop Scheffer in Brussels coincided with the start of moves to shift weaponry from Russian bases in Georgia to the Gyumri base.

But in a sign of a change in atmosphere, a leading official in Armenia’s opposition Republic Party Suren Sureniants criticised the move, saying it “only reinforced the prevailing opinion in the West that Armenia is Russia’s forward post in the Caucasus”. Sureniants also said the time had come when “the Armenian political elite ought to raise the issue of the withdrawal of Russian bases from the territory of our country”.

But many Armenians remain deeply suspicious of NATO, of which Armenia’s historical enemy Turkey is a member, and continue to regard Russia as a more reliable ally. “If NATO needs us so badly, then why doesn’t it force Turkey to open its border with Armenia?” asked 55-year-old teacher Misak Alexanian.

President Kocharian declined to attend a NATO summit in Istanbul last year because of Turkey’s refusal to begin diplomatic relations with Armenia and open the two states’ shared border. But the protest achieved little, with NATO officials pointing out that it is not the role of the alliance to act as a referee between two countries or to insist that a member state change its foreign policy.

At the same time, Armenians have welcomed the position taken by NATO on relations with Azerbaijan. Last September the alliance cancelled a planned “Cooperative Best Effort 04” exercise in Azerbaijan, after the Azerbaijani government refused to allow Armenian officers to take part in the manoeuvres.

Kocharian had previously won admiration within NATO for permitting Turkish officers to travel to Armenia for the 2003 exercises. The president said, “On an emotional level I am not thrilled about the possibility of a Turkish contingent taking part in exercises on our territory…However, as president I understand that well-constructed relations with NATO are more important for the country.”

Another problem facing Armenia is that it now finds itself in the tricky position of being both a member of the Russian-led Collective Security Pact of the Commonwealth of Independent States and a growing friend of NATO.

Nicholas Burns, formerly US ambassador to NATO and now under secretary of state, suggested to IWPR last year that Armenia would need to adapt to allow for the differences of approach between the two alliances.

“There are indeed substantial differences in the ways NATO and Russia organize their military forces and defence organizations,” he said. “If Armenia wants to significantly improve its interoperability with NATO, it will have to revise some of those structures.”

American political analyst Ronald Asmus, one of the chief advocates of NATO’s eastern expansion, told IWPR that the alliance, for its part, “needs to try to pursue a dual-track strategy where it expands its outreach to this region and tries to deepen its cooperation with Moscow in parallel. It is clearly in our as well as Armenia’s interest that we succeed in doing so”.

Armenia will also have to bring its own armed forces under democratic control – not an easy process for a country where the military has big political clout and whose conflict with Azerbaijan over Nagorny Karabakh remains unresolved.

In the meantime, public interest in Armenia about possible NATO membership – in contrast to Georgia and Azerbaijan – remains very low. Only one of the country’s daily newspapers printed a small article about the presentation of the IPAP in Brussels.

And the government has other more serious problems to deal with. A decision will have to be made about what will happen to the strategic alliance with Moscow when the two-year IPAP comes to an end. And Yerevan must consider that NATO now identifies itself as a political as much as a military organisation, meaning that Armenia will need to implement democratic reforms to achieve a closer relationship with the organisation.

Ultimately, the strategic choice about whether to apply for NATO membership will be in the hands of the successful candidate in the next round of presidential elections in 2008.

Ara Tadevosian is director of the Armenian news agency Mediamax in Yerevan.

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