By Hrach Melkumian
A small detachment of the Armenian army will take part in NATO-led military exercises in neighboring Georgia slated for June, officials said on Saturday.
The announcement, which contradicted earlier statements by some Armenian generals, came as military representatives of 14 countries began a three-day conference in Yerevan to discuss final preparations for the wargames. Among the participants was a delegation of the armed forces of NATO member Turkey, which has no diplomatic relations with Armenia.
Photo: Turkish army officers at the Yerevan conference
The exercises, codenamed Cooperative Best Effort 2002, will be part of NATO’s Partnership for Peace (PfP) program, a cooperation framework for the mainly Eastern European states seeking membership in or closer ties with the Alliance. The preparatory work is being overseen by NATO’s Joint Command South-East in Izmir, western Turkey.
“We plan to send at least a dozen soldiers and several officers,” Major-General Mikael Melkonian, head of the foreign relations department at the Armenian defense ministry, told reporters on the sidelines of the conference. “Their status and role at the exercises will be decided today,” he said.
The chief of the Armenian army staff, Colonel-General Mikael Harutiunian, told RFE/RL as recently as on January 12 that Yerevan is unlikely to send any military units to Georgia.
Melkonian said the Armenian military, in particular, looks forward to joint activities with Azerbaijani troops that have also confirmed their participation. He said: “The whole idea of these exercises is to unite around a common idea even those countries that are in conflict with one another.”
The general further confirmed that the next NATO-led regional exercises will take place in Armenia in the summer of 2003. The participating armies will test their coordination of possible joint peacekeeping operations.
The head of the Turkish delegation at the Yerevan planning conference, Lieutenant-Colonel Naim Babuoglu, did not rule out his country’s participation in the Armenia exercises, saying that Ankara “will at least send observers.” “Because this is a PfP exercise and we are a member of NATO, we are eager to participate,” he said.
Armenia, which has a close military alliance with Russia, has been more cautious in developing ties with NATO than its two ex-Soviet neighbors, Georgia and Azerbaijan. Tbilisi and Baku have said they might seek NATO membership in the future.
The Canadian co-director of the Georgia exercises, Colonel Serge Labbe, acknowledged that the Alliance “works with some [PfP countries] more than with others” but stressed that “this is just a function of geography.” He welcomed as “excellent” Yerevan’s decision to host similar wargames on its soil.
General Melkonian, for his part, insisted that the close defense links with Russia do not hinder Armenia’s ties with NATO. “We have never considered our military cooperation with Russia to be an obstacle to our cooperation with NATO,” he said.