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Turks Join Russians in Armenian Wargames
The parade ground at the military institute outside the Armenian capital Yerevan was a patchwork of colours from the flags, uniforms and medal ribbons of soldiers from 19 countries.
With just a few minutes to go before the start of NATO's first ever training exercise in Armenia, commands in English, Italian and Greek mingled with shouts in Russian, Armenian and Polish.
As the opening ceremony got under way, all 19 national anthems of the participating countries were played in alphabetical order. Everyone keenly waited for the historic moment when the Turkish national anthem sounded out for the first time ever. Among these standing to attention as an Armenian army band played the tune were the new speaker of parliament, Artur Baghdasarian, carrying out his first official function.
Aside from marking NATO's debut in Armenia, the Cooperative Best Effort 2003 exercises saw two remarkable firsts - three soldiers from the Turkish military set foot in independent Armenia, and Russian soldiers took part in a NATO military exercise.
After the national anthems, the band struck up a march and defence minister Serzh Sarkisian, looking pleased but tense, walked around inspecting the soldiers from different countries.
Journalists seized their chance to ask visiting Russian colonel Stanislav Shevchenko, why he failed to take part in NATO exercises in Georgia, which has Russian military bases, but did decide to come to Armenia.
Shevchenko paused and then said he had no answer. As the journalists drifted away, he shouted after them ,"The way those exercises were set up was unacceptable to us."
The 12-day exercises are being carried out under the aegis of NATO's Partnership for Peace programme of which Armenia is a member. The 400 soldiers will act out a fictitious scenario in which they provide military support for an international peacekeeping operation.
The operation itself has so attracted far less attention than its diplomatic sub-plots. In particular, Armenians have been fascinated by the arrival of Turkish soldiers on their soil.
The two countries have no diplomatic relations and their common border is still closed. Armenia accuses Turkey of committing genocide against its people in 1915 - and of still not admitting to it. Turkey says the Armenian state attacked its ally Azerbaijan in the war over Nagorny Karabakh.
There are signs of a new diplomatic dialogue between the two countries. Recently the two foreign ministers, Vardan Oskanian and Abdullah Gul, met on the sidelines of a NATO meeting in Madrid
"New dangers for the region and the world demand that, despite their disagreements, countries join forces in their fight against them," said Sarkisian as he welcomed the visiting military delegations.
"It would have been short-sighted on Armenia's part not to permit a NATO country to take part in NATO's own exercises," he said of the Turkish involvement.
The first ever Russian military involvement in a NATO operation is also being widely debated in Armenia.
"Russia is drawing the right conclusions from its old mistakes," said political analyst Stepan Grigorian, arguing that Moscow had been wrong to oppose NATO's growing ties in the east in the past.
In an interview to Armenia journalists, James Jones, NATO's Supreme Allied Commander for Europe expressed pleasure with Russia's decision and attributed the breakthrough to the new NATO-Russia Council founded last year.
Colonel Shevchenko had a more mundane explanation for the Russian's involvement: they liked the details of the planned exercises.
The exercises are providing Armenia with some welcome international attention and a chance to exploit the thaw in relations between NATO and Russia.
Armenia joined NATO's Partnership for Peace programme in 1994 but has maintained a cool attitude to the alliance since then - in contrast to Azerbaijan and Georgia, which have expressed their desire to become full NATO members. This was mainly because Armenia is a strongly military ally of Russia, which has two army bases in Armenia as well as providing the bulk of its border guards.
Recently though, Armenia and NATO have become increasingly friendly. NATO secretary general Lord George Robertson visited the country last month in advance of the military exercises. Armenia has said it hopes to send some soldiers to join the NATO peacekeeping force in Kosovo.
Armenian officials say that since their country is a signatory to the Russian-led "collective security treaty" between a number of former Soviet states, it would have been impossible to invite the NATO troops prior to the new thaw between Moscow and the European alliance.
At the same time, some observers say Russia's military influence in the Caucasus is waning. "It's a natural process," said Grigorian. "Russia does not have the resources to allow it to play a dominant role in the region."
As a result, he said, countries in the Caucasus and Central Asia no longer have to choose between the West and Russia. "Take Kyrgyzstan," he said. "American and Russian units are coexisting there side by side. I think it's quite possible that the same thing can happen here in Armenia in the future."
The exercises will continue until June 27.
Tigran Avetisian is a journalist with the Orran newspaper in Yerevan.
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