By Armen Zakarian
Turkey will participate in the first-ever NATO-led military exercises in Armenia this June without sending in combat troops, NATO officials in Yerevan said on Tuesday.
“Turkey will take part by sending some officers to the exercise structure,” said Lieutenant-Colonel Zoltan Rot, a Hungarian officer at NATO’s Joint Command South who coordinates preparations for the upcoming war games.
Rot spoke to RFE/RL on the sidelines of a conference in Yerevan attended by top military officials from 19 countries that have decided to join the exercises scheduled for June 16-27. Among them are 8 NATO member states, including the United States, Britain, Greece and Turkey. The exercises codenamed Cooperative Best Effort 2003 will take place at the shooting range of Armenia’s main military academy as part of NATO’s Partnership for Peace (PfP) program, a cooperation framework for the mainly Eastern European states seeking to join or build closer ties with the U.S.-led alliance.
Also participating the exercises will be a platoon of Russian troops deployed in Armenia. Moscow has followed with unease the West’s growing political and military involvement in the South Caucasus
The Yerevan conference discussed final preparations for NATO’s first-ever military activity on Armenian soil. Among its participants were two senior Turkish army officers. They refused to talk to journalists, issuing instead a brief written statement that stressed the PfP’s importance for the Turkish military. “In order to keep stability and security and to develop interoperability through many countries, Turkey is conducting bilateral, trilateral and multilateral exercises as well,” the statement said.
Turkish participation in the exercises has been a sensitive subject in Armenia given the strained relations and a long history of mutual antagonism between the two neighboring nations. Some Armenian groups have voiced concern at the prospect of Turkish soldiers arriving in Armenia.
Ankara and Yerevan have no diplomatic relations and rarely exchange visits of top government officials. This week, however, will likely see an exception from the rule. Turkey’s deputy foreign minister, Alev Kilic, is due in the Armenian capital on Thursday for a regular meeting of top diplomats from the countries making up the Black Sea Economic Cooperation, a loose and largely ineffectual grouping.