By Armen Zakarian in Vaziani, Georgia
About two dozen Armenian soldiers and officers wrapped up on Friday their first-ever participation in NATO-led military exercises held in neighboring Georgia. The small contingent from a recently formed Armenian peace-keeping battalion joined troops from 14 other nations, including Turkey and Azerbaijan, in practicing patrolling, organizing checkpoints and dispersing crowds at a former Russian military base near Tbilisi.
“I would certainly hope that in the future this trend will continue and we will see further participation by the Armenian troops,” General Oktar Ataman, the Turkish chief of NATO’s Joint Command South-East and commander of the exercises, told RFE/RL on Thursday.
“They have been meeting the expectations,” Ataman said as the Armenian troops practiced breaking up a mock demonstration staged by Georgian and British troops. The latter were pretending to be local residents protesting against NATO.
During the 12-day war games, held at the Vaziani base under the aegis of NATO’s Partnership for Peace (PfP) program, the Armenian contingent was part of an army platoon that also included troops from Georgia and Canada. It had no personal and operational contact with the Azerbaijani army detachment, military officials said.
The exercises codenamed Cooperative Best Effort 2002 also included four different military and sporting competitions among the approximately 500 participants. Three of them were won by the Armenians.
“We have certain standards to which all participating troops should adhere,” the Turkish general said. “That’s what all the nations have been trying to do, and Armenia is no exception to this.”
Armenia will for the first time host similar NATO-led exercises on its soil next year. Deputy Defense Minister Artur Aghabekian, who was also at Vaziani, said this fact testifies to Armenia’s “commitment” to deepening ties with NATO within the PfP framework.
Armenia has traditionally been Russia’s closest ally in the South Caucasus and, unlike more pro-Western Azerbaijan and Georgia, has ruled out seeking membership in NATO in the foreseeable future. Still, Yerevan has stepped up its cooperation with the U.S.-led alliance over the past year. Armenian leaders announced recently that the changing geopolitical situation in the world necessitates closer security links with the West.
The Vaziani base was vacated by Russian troops in June 2001. It has since been renovated by the Turkish military which is increasingly helping Georgia strengthen its fledgling and underpaid armed forces. Georgia also regards military ties with Turkey, which are watched with unease in Armenia, as part of its long-term goal to join NATO.
But Georgian Defense Minister David Tevzadze said that despite differing security priorities Armenia and Georgia are planning to cooperate in the area of defense. “There will definitely be military cooperation between our states,” Tevzadze told RFE/RL.
Last April the chiefs of staff of the Armenian and Georgian armies announced plans to begin unspecified “joint activities” in the near future after three-day talks in Yerevan.