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Armenia Ruminates Over Membership

Yerevan seeks to build better relations with Brussels, while not offending Moscow.
By Ara Tadevosian
Armenian politicians say that the issue of their country joining NATO is currently not on the agenda - but they say so far less categorically than just a few years ago. Relations with the North Atlantic alliance are deepening and Moscow is no longer Yerevan’s only strategic ally.



Armenian foreign minister Vardan Oskanian told the Rose Roth NATO parliamentary conference in Yerevan last year that the alliance could play an important role in providing security in the Caucasus. Defence minister Serzh Sarkisian was more cautious but said that relations with the USA and NATO as well as with Russia and Armenia’s membership of the Collective Security Pact of the Commonwealth of Independent States, CIS, were the basis of its security.



“Basically last year was a breakthrough,” Aris Ghazinian, an expert with the Caucasus analytical centre in Yerevan, told IWPR. “Two high-ranking officials made statements that from now on Armenia sees two vectors when it comes to security issues.”



Another leading official, the then parliamentary speaker Artur Baghdasarian, went further in April this year when he told the German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine, “the future of Armenia is the EU and NATO” and “Russia should not stand in our way towards Europe”.



Two days later, President Robert Kocharian corrected his colleague, saying that Armenia had no intention to join NATO. Baghdasarian said that he viewed it as a long-term prospect. Not long afterwards, he resigned and went into opposition.



Public opinion is also shifting in favour of NATO. An opinion poll conducted in Armenia in August showed that 42 per cent of Armenians favoured joining the alliance and the number of strong opponents was a mere nine per cent.



Last year, Armenia and NATO agreed an Individual Partnership Agreement, or IPAP, under which they agreed to work together to forge a “Strategy of National Security and a Military Doctrine”. This is the basis for a programme of reform of the armed forces of Armenia up until 2015.



This irritated some politicians in Russia, which was presented with a finished document, despite regarding itself as Armenia’s chief military ally - and the only country to have its troops stationed on Armenian territory.



“Russia’s attitude towards cooperation between Armenia and NATO is one of jealousy,” said Ghazinian. “In NATO, the South Caucasus is perceived as a single whole, despite an individual approach to each separate country. And the basic feeling of jealousy is linked to the fact that NATO perceives the region as a single whole.”



Under one of Armenia’s commitments in IPAP, an Information Centre on NATO opened its doors in Yerevan on November 13. David Alaverdian, who initiated the project, said that its aim was not for Armenia to join NATO, but to inform Armenians about the alliance and the benefits of cooperation with it.



“It is no secret that very many people in Armenia continue to perceive NATO through the prism of the Cold War,” Alaverdian told IWPR.



Many Armenian experts welcome the IPAP on the grounds that it demands serious reforms of Armenia’s armed forces.



“The IPAP foresees the forging of closer links between the army and society and the introduction of a mechanism of public control over the armed forces,” said Tevan Poghosian, executive director of the Armenian Atlantic Association. “As a result of these reforms, the Armenian army will grow stronger as the public’s trust in our armed forces grows.”



Poghosian also noted that Azerbaijan - with whom Armenia is in dispute over Nagorny Karabakh - had its own IPAP and reform programme.



“Today we could say that a parallel process is taking place in Armenia and Azerbaijan,” he said. “I think that it will be extremely beneficial for NATO to have a situation in which the armed forces of Armenia and Azerbaijan become more predictable for the alliance and will operate on the basis of similar standards. In the future, it could provide the opportunity for collaboration between the armies of Armenia and Azerbaijan, for example in dealing with the aftermath of natural disasters.”



However, the Armenian political elite is still treading a fine line in its public comments over cooperation with NATO.



Last year, defence minister - and leading presidential contender in 2008 - Serzh Sarkisian said that Armenia’s armed forces aspired to reach “international standards” – a phrase that commentators suggested was carefully chosen to avoid specific mention of NATO.



Sarkisian went out of his way this week to say that there should be no contradiction between Armenia’s membership of the Moscow-led CIS Collective Security Pact and good relations with NATO.



“We should understand that military and political blocs are formed for the sake of something, not in opposition to something,” said Sarkisian. He went on, “The agreement on the Collective Security Pact was signed not against NATO, but to protect the security of the countries that are part of it.”



This message was repeated by Kurt Volker, the US principal deputy assistant secretary for European and Eurasian affairs, in a recent conversation with Armenian journalists.



Other politicians are worried about the implications of closer relations with NATO, when Turkey, its historical foe, is a member of the alliance.



“NATO cannot guarantee the security of Armenia, as long as Turkey is a member of the alliance, with whom Armenia has no diplomatic relations,” said former prime minister and defence minister Vazgen Manukian.



In any event, the tone of the conversation about Armenia and NATO has changed, with NATO no longer being perceived as merely a hostile bloc and relations with the alliance now being a subject of pragmatic discussion/



Oskanian told IWPR that future plans with regard to NATO depended to a large degree on developments in the rest of the Caucasus.



“It is quite possible that Georgia will really join NATO within the next five or six years,” he said. “Azerbaijan is not yet talking about NATO membership. As for Armenia, processes are underway which we can’t stop. It’s hard to say what the next step will be. I think that a lot will depend on the time frame of Georgia joining NATO. In any case there is still time.”



Armenia Tadevosian is director of Armenia’s Mediamax news agency. IWPR’s Armenia country director Seda Muradian contributed to this report.