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By Hrach Melkumian and Gevorg Stamboltsian
An opinion poll conducted by a Yerevan-based think-tank shows unexpectedly strong support for Armenia’s membership of NATO among Armenian political and public policy analysts. It also suggests that they are overwhelmingly critical of the geopolitical role played by Russia, their country’s main ally.

The findings of the survey, conducted among 50 local experts, were made public on Thursday by the Armenian Center for National and International Studies (ACNIS). The research center, headed by former Foreign Minister Raffi Hovannisian, did not publish the list of the respondents. It said only that 70 percent of them are affiliated with private institutions.

According to the poll, almost two thirds of the experts believe that Armenia should join NATO within the next decade and even more of them do not regard the Russian military base headquartered in Gyumri as the main guarantor of the country’s security. Furthermore, when asked to name a foreign nation or bloc that “limits Armenia’s independence,” 56 percent of them singled out Russia. Only 4 percent referred to arch-rival Turkey, a country that has served as the main rationale for the close Russian-Armenian military ties.

Armenia’s government has repeatedly ruled the possibility of seeking membership of the U.S.-led alliance in the foreseeable future, and the military alliance with Russia remains a rare issue of consensus among the country’s biggest political groups. Only a handful of small opposition parties advocate a pro-Western U-turn in the Armenian security doctrine.

One of them, the Liberal Progressive Party (AAK) was set up three months ago and has since been aspiring to the status of Armenia’s most pro-Western political forces. Its leader, former pro-establishment lawmaker Hovannes Hovannisian renewed on Thursday his strong criticism of Armenian foreign policy, saying that it has left the country in international “isolation.” “We have reached a point where our country is considered a Russian region,” he told a news conference.

Similar attacks were made by prominent Soviet-era dissident Paruyr Hayrikian during a conference of his National Self-Determination Union party. Hayrikian, who worked as an aide to President Robert Kocharian from 1999-2001, lashed out at the Armenian leader for agreeing equities-for-debt deals with Moscow that left more than 80 percent of the Armenian energy sector under Russian control.

“Only a foreign agent or an immature politician can hand over his country’s energy facilities to a foreign state. A state that has repeatedly proved its disloyalty to human and Christian values,” Hayrikian charged.

The ACNIS survey also shows strong expert support for Armenia’s integration into the pan-European structures. Seventy-two percent of those surveyed said the Council of Europe and the European Union play a positive role in strengthening Armenian statehood, while 82 percent found “unsatisfactory” Yerevan’s fulfillment of membership obligations to the Strasbourg-based organization.

“Instead of having positive results three and a half years after [joining the Council of Europe] we see phenomena like political prisoners,” Aram Harutiunian, a Yerevan State University professor and one of the authors of the survey, said during the presentation.

“This is something which runs counter to the principles of the organization of which we are a member,” he added. “Our political leadership has acted in a way that resulted in a movement backwards rather than development.”

In a resolution on Armenia adopted last January, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) said “no progress has been made in the current reforms” over the past year. It denounced “massive fraud” in the 2003 elections as well as the authorities’ failure to ensure media pluralism, the independence of the judiciary and legalize a non-traditional religious group.

However, a top representative of the human rights organization’s executive Committee of Ministers, struck a more positive note during a visit to Yerevan in February. Ambassador Pietro Ago said the Armenian authorities should be “congratulated for their good actions” which he said are fostering the country’s democratization.
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