By Armen Zakarian
Armenia’s top foreign policy makers on Thursday officially confirmed that recent geopolitical changes in the south Caucasus have led official Yerevan to seek closer defense and security ties with major Western powers. Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian and Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian indicated Armenia should boost military cooperation with NATO, and the United States in particular, to avoid regional isolation.
The two men spoke to journalists after three-hour special hearings held in the Armenian parliament behind the closed doors. Deputies said they were briefed on possible implications of Russia’s declining influence in neighboring Georgia and Azerbaijan.
Oskanian said Armenia will continue to rely on its “strategic partnership” with Russia but will at the same time step up its security links with “European structures” and the U.S. He said that will “minimize negative consequences for Armenia in the event of any development.”
The minister argued that Yerevan must take note of the changes resulting from the U.S.-led anti-terror campaign, including the impending American military presence in Georgia, Washington’s decision to embark on military cooperation with Armenia and Azerbaijan, and “additional tensions” in U.S.-Iranian relations.
Sarkisian, who paid an official visit to Washington last month, said the U.S. has vowed to be even-handed in its drive to forge military links between the two conflicting states. “The United States is well aware that that balance is vital for regional stability,” he said.
The administration of President George W. Bush announced last week that that it will provide $4.4 million in military assistance to Azerbaijan this year -- roughly as much as it allocated to Armenia. The move was immediately followed by the formal lifting of a 9-year ban on arms sales to Baku and Yerevan.
Agreement on the use of the American military aid was reached during Sarkisian’s talks with U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and other top Pentagon officials.
According to Oskanian, Armenia will also be seeking “closer contacts” with Georgia which is awaiting the arrival of U.S. special forces tasked with training Georgian troops. Stability in Georgia is vital for Armenia, he said.
Sarkisian, for his part, expressed concern at possible Turkish military presence in Georgia. “Turkey’s penetration into Georgia is very undesirable for us,” he said.
Still, Oskanian noted that Armenia will continue its efforts to normalize relations with Turkey. “Armenia should also keep open its channels of communication with Turkey and try to reach progress in our relations,” he said.