By Emil Danielyan
After months of training and preparation, a Greek-sponsored platoon of Armenian troops flew to Kosovo on Thursday to join NATO-led peace-keeping forces in the restive former Yugoslav province on Armenia’s first-ever military mission abroad.
The 33 soldiers led by a junior officer boarded a Greek military aircraft to the accompaniment of brass band music, waving to Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian and the top Armenian army generals present at the ceremony. Sarkisian spoke of a “historic day” for the Armenian military as they were lined up on the tarmac of Yerevan’s Zvartnots airport moments before the takeoff of the C-130 transport plane of the Hellenic Air Force.
“Dear peace-keepers, let me assure you that we consider your participation in the Kosovo peace-keeping operations… no less important than the defense of our fatherland’s borders,” he told them. “You will enjoy the constant attention of the Defense Ministry and especially its leadership.”
“I urge you to perform your duties with a high degree of professionalism. Bear in mind that you will be forming [international] opinion about the Armenian Armed Forces,” he added before giving a farewell handshake to all of the soldiers.
Each of them was also mentioned by name in a ministerial decree on the peacekeepers’ dispatch to Kosovo that was read out by Deputy Defense Minister Artur Aghabekian at the ceremony.
“The platoon has undergone necessary training and is prepared for the peace-keeping mission,” Aghabekian told journalists. He again confirmed that it will serve in Kosovo as part of a Greek peace-keeping battalion and will be rotated every six months.
Greece’s ambassador to Armenia, Antonios Vlavianos, was also in attendance. “I am confident that the Armenian soldiers will once again prove the combat-readiness of the Armenian army and its commitment to regional peace,” he said in a speech. Their departure to Kosovo testifies to “excellent” cooperation between Armenia and Greece, he added.
The Greek government has played a crucial role in the creation of a special peace-keeping battalion of Armenia’s armed forces in the summer of 2001. That has in turn made possible Yerevan’s participation in the multinational operation in the breakaway Serbian province that has been run as a United Nations protectorate since 1999.
Each of the servicemen left for Kosovo’s capital Pristina with about 30 kilograms of state-of-the-art personal military equipment provided by the Greeks. That included expensive items like flak jackets and night-vision binoculars that are hard to come by in most of Armenia’s regular army units. In addition, the Greek military will pay every Armenian soldier a daily allowance of 12 euros ($15) and take care of his life insurance during the Kosovo mission.
Sarkisian was quick to thank the government of “friendly Greece” for the hefty contribution. He also stressed the fact that Athens has helped to set up the first volunteer detachment of the conscription-based Armenian army. The experience that the peacekeepers will gain in Kosovo will be “extremely important and invaluable,” he said.
That the professional unit’s first mission will take it thousands of miles away from Armenia did not seem to trouble its contracted personnel. “I think it’s good that Armenia is cooperating with NATO countries,” said private Vyacheslav Zaytsev, 25 and already a father of two children.
Asked whether his family tried to dissuade him from risking his life in an area little known to most Armenians, Zaytsev said: “The folks at home got a bit anxious. But that’s OK. They will greet me back with tears of joy.”
“I don’t think my family was against my departure because I always wanted to serve in combat-like conditions. It’s now time to attain that goal,” said another serviceman, Albert Choboyan, 26.
According to Aghabekian, participation in peace-enforcement operations abroad, which will inevitably mean closer ties with NATO, is also important for Armenia’s security and international reputation. “We are convinced that our involvement will help boost our country’s standing and our armed forces’ combat-readiness,” he said
Aghabekian also reaffirmed Yerevan’s plans to join the U.S.-led occupation force in Iraq with non-combat military personnel, including doctors and demining experts. But he would not say when the ongoing U.S.-Armenian negotiations on details of the operation will be over.
“Our demining platoon is already prepared to take part in the [Iraq] mission,” he said, adding that Armenia will also commit military drivers for Washington’s post-war stabilization effort.