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Should Old Acquaintance be Forgot?

Despite close historical and political ties with Armenia, Moscow is wary of backing its old ally over the Nagorny Karabakh debate
By Mikhail Ivanov

Nine years after it won its independence, Armenia still occupies a special place in the hearts of the Russian leadership. This fact was reflected by the sense of occasion which surrounded President Robert Kocharian's recent visit to Moscow. And drivers frustrated by the extensive road-blocks around the Armenian Embassy no doubt took comfort from the fact that the former Soviet republic remains Russia's only real ally in the South Caucasus today.

History is littered with poignant examples of this long-standing camaraderie. In 1829, the poet Alexander Griboedov, Russia's ambassador to Teheran, gave sanctuary to several Armenians who had fled the Shah of Persia's harem. When the Shah learned of the "defections", he ordered Griboedov to return the runaways but the ambassador refused, knowing that such a move would condemn the Armenians to death. At the instigation of religious leaders, thousands of Muslims stormed the embassy and brutally murdered Griboedov. His body was so badly mutilated that it was five months before it could be identified.

More recently, Russia was the first country to recognise the genocide of more than 1.5 million Armenians massacred by Ottoman troops in 1915. In 1995, he State Duma issued an official statement condemning the killings which Turkey claims were part of a wider partisan war.

It is interesting to note that support for the cause in the America - which has a powerful Armenian diaspora - is far from unanimous. On September 28, the debate was postponed by the US Congress, despite attempts by the Democrats to use it as a vote-winner.

The issue has had a powerful effect on public opinion in Armenia. This year, thousands of Armenians joined a mass meeting in central Yerevan calling for a reunion with Russia. One campaigner commented on Russian TV, "Russia has done so much for us and we have forgotten it so quickly."

Armenia's nostalgia for the old days comes in sharp contrast to the stance adopted by Georgia and Azerbaijan, which both seize every opportunity to stab their erstwhile elder brother in the back. Azerbaijan has long been making political overtures to Turkey while the capital Baku has allegedly become a sanctuary for Chechen separatists. The Kremlin has repeatedly accused President Heidar Aliev's regime of allowing Chechen warlords to receive hospital treatment in Azerbaijani hospitals.

Tbilisi has been the butt of similar allegations with Moscow claiming that Chechen rebels are using secret bases on the Georgian border to launch incursions into the breakaway republic. At the same time, Eduard Shevardnadze's government is putting increasing pressure on Moscow to abide by the terms of the Istanbul summit and withdraw its troops from Georgian military bases in the shortest possible timeframe.

Furthermore, NATO Secretary General George Robertson recently visited Tbilisi to address a conference which was aptly entitled, "The Caucasus Today: Regional Cooperation and Prospects of Cooperation with NATO". The move lends added weight to Shevardnadze's long-standing claim that Georgia "would knock on NATO's door in the year 2005".

Not surprisingly, in this context, Armenia was soon named by the Russian press as one of the most likely locations for the Russian military units once they are withdrawn from Georgia. Armenia still depends on Russia both economically and militarily. Russia was instrumental in opening Armenia's first home-grown nuclear power station - a plan which was frozen shortly after the break-up of the Soviet Union when some claimed it was a symbol of Russian imperialism. The power station is now all that stands between Armenia and an energy crisis.

Not surprisingly, during his visit to Moscow, Robert Kocharian made a point of meeting up with Russia's nuclear energy minister, Yevgeny Adamov, and then with premier Mikhail Kasyanov to reassure him that Armenia will pay its debts to its northern neighbour.

However, it was the meeting with Anatoly Kvashnin, chief of the general staff, and President Vladimir Putin which was of pivotal importance to Kocharian. Only after these meetings did political observers begin to talk of a gradual change in Russian-Armenian relations with Moscow attempting to extend its "multi-polar" approach to the South Caucasus.

But, while Putin and Kocharian signed the Declaration of Alliance and Interaction between Russia and Armenia for the 21st Century, Moscow continued to sit on a fence over the Nagorny Karabakh issue. Confirming that Russia will continue to maintain a dialogue with both warring sides, President Putin lashed out at those who claim that "Russia could change the whole situation if it wanted to". He dubbed this approach a "hiccup of imperial thinking", insisting that the deadlock can only be solved by Armenia and Azerbaijan themselves.

In this context, Kocharian was forced to admit that Armenia was eager to involve a mediator in the decision-making process, even to lesser degree - adding that "the position of Russia and its support may be decisive".

However, despite this exchange, there are no signs that Russia is planning to abandon its old ally in the Caucasus. Bilateral historical ties as well as cultural and religious similarities are too strong and it seems likely that Armenia will retain its status as a privileged ally for many years to come.

But, on the other hand, the spontaneous passions of Griboedov's day are gone. Moscow is playing a cautious political game in the south Caucasus and coming down heavily on Armenia's side over the Nagorny Karabakh conflict is no longer an option for the pragmatic Putin. As far as the president is concerned, abandoning the "imperialist" mentality" is vital if Russia is to protect its interests in other parts of the South Caucasus.

And, in this context, the "multi-polar" approach seems to be paying its first dividends. In the run-up to Kocharian's visit to Moscow, the Azerbaijani secret services extradited to Russia seven men suspected of staging last September's bomb attack in Buinaksk. This may be Baku's way of showing that it is prepared to adopted a neutral stance towards Russia's war in Chechnya. After all, in the aftermath of the humiliating Nagorny Karabakh conflict, Azerbaijan has little reason to sympathise with separatists.

Mikhail Ivanov is executive editor of Russian Life, a bimonthly magazine published by Russian Information Services, Inc.

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