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Big Brother Refuses to Take Sides

Both Armenia and Azerbaijan try to win Russia's support over the Nagorny Karabakh deadlock
By Ara Tadevosian

Armenian politicians have dubbed Vladimir Putin's forthcoming visit to Azerbaijan a "diplomatic slap in the face" for Robert Kocharian's government in Yerevan.


The move -- announced during Kocharian's recent visit to Moscow - has ruffled feathers across Armenia, which has always considered itself to be Russia's favourite in the South Caucasus. And many observers suspect Azerbaijan will take the opportunity to win Russia support over the dormant Nagorny Karabakh conflict - during which Azerbaijan lost more than a fifth of its territory.


David Shahnazarian, chairman of the 21st Century Party, said, "Kocharian's visit to Moscow ended in total failure. Like many other states, Russia clearly considers Armenia is not a very serious country.


"The news that Putin would be making an official trip to Baku came as a diplomatic slap in the face for Kocharian. I can't describe it any other way."


Meanwhile, Russian foreign minister Igor Ivanov spent last week in talks with his Azerbaijani counterpart, Vilayat Guliev. Both ministers hailed the forthcoming visit as a "new page" in relations between the two nations.


Early signs that Azerbaijan was working to improve diplomatic ties with Moscow came last month when President Heidar Aliev's security forces extradited seven ethnic Chechens suspected of planning the terrorist bombing in Budennovsk last September.


Baku is clearly hoping that Russian intervention will bring the Nagorny Karabakh peace talks to a swift conclusion. Guliev later told reporters that he met with Ivanov "in a spirit of friendship to discuss the existing issues between our two countries. This meeting again demonstrated that there are no problems between us which can't be resolved at the negotiating table."


Armenia regards such overtures with growing suspicion - especially since Kocharian's meeting with Putin focused on many of the same issues.


After a long discussion behind closed doors, both presidents signed a Declaration on Allied Cooperation between Armenia and Russia for the 21st Century. Among other considerations, the document outlines plans for a Caucasus security pact involving Russia, Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan.


After the historic meeting, Kocharian was quick to tell Russian newspapers of his new-found empathy for Boris Yeltsin's successor in the Kremlin.


"In conversation, we understand one another on many issues by just exchanging a few words," said the Armenian leader. "You get the impression that we are thinking in the same terms - after all, we grew up in the same country. And, in my view, it's impossible for members of our generation not to understand one another."


However, in his first official announcement on the Nagorny Karabakh conflict, the ever pragmatic Putin showed little desire to take sides - or even take an active part in the peace process.


"I don't believe that Russia has any special rights in the regulation of the Karabakh conflict," said Putin. "We have a clear understanding of which boundaries Russia can't cross in the regulation of any peace process, including the one taking place in Karabakh. I often hear it argued that if Russia really wanted, it could swiftly resolve the Karabakh deadlock. I don't agree with such statements and consider them to be the last crumbs of imperialist thinking," he added.


The Russian president also added that both parties were likely to make compromises and concessions during the peace process - and he didn't want to create the impression that they had been pressurised to do so by interference from Moscow.


In essence, Russia is adopting the same stance taken by Minsk Group partners America and France who are "prepared to support any solution that the warring parties can find."


Although Putin's words aroused little comment in Armenia, the Russian media was quick to draw its own conclusions. Kommersant newspaper said that Kocharian had tried but failed to win Russian support over Nagorny Karabakh while another daily newspaper, Nezavisimaya Gazeta (The Independent Newspaper), took the opportunity to hit out at the Russian authorities.


An editorial in the latter read, "Kocharian's visit was a litmus test for Russian policy on the Southern Caucasus. Moscow has apparently opted to set an isolationist course in its relations with the countries of the CIS and sees no real need to conceal this."


However, Kocharian didn't come away from Moscow empty-handed. An inter-state agreement was signed with a view to dropping visa regulations between the two countries while military ties were strengthened during a meeting between the two defence ministers, Serzh Sarkisian and Igor Sergeev.


On the eve of the visit, Sarkisian had hinted to local media that the Armenian army would "soon be equipped with new technology". Most observers have taken this to mean that Armenia will soon be buying military supplies from her northern neighbour.


Armenia continues to see Russia as a guarantor of its security, says the head of the Armenian Ministry for Foreign Affairs, Vardan Oskanyan. He stressed that the underlying reason for this stance is the fact that "Armenia still has unresolved military and political tasks with its two immediate neighbours, Turkey and Azerbaijan."


Ara Tadevosian is director of the Armenian independent Mediamax agency


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