By Hrach Melkumian and Armen Zakarian
Russia will continue to deliver weapons and military hardware to Armenia “on privileged terms” and plans to modernize its military base there to further strengthen ties with its main regional ally, Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov said on Tuesday.
Ending a two-day visit to Yerevan, Ivanov insisted that the ongoing arms supplies, which have long been protested by neighboring Azerbaijan, do not threaten regional stability as they stem from the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty (CST) of several ex-Soviet states, including Armenia.
“The deliveries of certain units of weaponry and military hardware which Russia has been carrying out to Armenia as its CST ally do not destabilize the situation in the region because they have a purely defensive character,” he told a joint news conference with his Armenian counterpart, Serzh Sarkisian. He did not specify the type or quantity of the Russian-made military equipment, saying only that Armenia is buying it at a knockdown price in accordance with CST provisions.
The two ministers spoke after signing a joint action plan of the Russian and Armenian militaries for next year. They also signed another agreement that allocates more plots of land to the Russian army base headquartered in the northern city of Gyumri. The approximately 5,000 soldiers and officers serving there will now “feel more comfortable,” Ivanov said, adding that the Armenian government will cover the Russian units’ utility expenses’ starting from January.
Ivanov further announced that the Russian military will soon start equipping its Armenia-based troops with unspecified “state-of-the-art” weapons and hardware. But he made it clear that the overall size of the military personnel will not increase as a result.
The Russian base was already significantly reinforced in 1999-2000 with the deployment of about two dozen MiG-29 fighter jets and S-300 air-defense missiles that can spot high-flying targets hundreds of kilometers away from Armenia’s airspace.
Military cooperation has been the linchpin of Armenia’s defense strategy ever since independence. It has helped the Armenian side to gain the upper hand in the war for Nagorno-Karabakh and further strengthen its armed forces after the 1994 truce agreement with Azerbaijan.
The close military ties were marred by a scandal in 1997 over allegedly secret Russian arms supplies to Armenia. Some retired Russian generals alleged that more than $1 billion worth of weaponry, including dozens of tanks and artillery systems, was transferred to Yerevan free of charge between 1994 and 1996. Azerbaijan picked up the allegations at the time, accusing Moscow of pro-Armenian bias in the Karabakh conflict.
The unresolved dispute appears the main reason why the Armenian government plans to increase its defense spending by almost 12 percent to 49.6 billion drams ($87 million) next year. The figure, though modest in absolute terms, makes up over 13 percent of total expenditures projected by the government’s draft 2004 budget. The Armenian military will thus remain the single largest recipient of public funds.
Senior legislators endorsed on Tuesday the proposed defense allocation. “This increase will serve its purpose by raising our country’s defense to a new level,” Gagik Minasian, chairman of the parliament committee on finance and economy, told RFE/RL.
But a member of the parliament’s defense and security panel, Vazgen Karakhanian, downplayed its significance, saying that the extra budgetary funds will largely to go meet the army’s “social needs.” “I am far from thinking that this is sufficient for our armed forces,” he said.
Sarkisian has admitted in the past that the state budget is not the only source of funding for the Armenian military. But he would not specify what the other sources are.
Azerbaijan’s projected defense budget is reportedly set to rise by 7 percent to roughly $146 million in 2004.