By Hrach Melkumian
A senior Armenian official commended on Tuesday a key subcommittee of the U.S. House of Representatives for supporting equal U.S. military assistance to Armenia and Azerbaijan opposed by the White House. Deputy Foreign Minister Ruben Shugarian also said Yerevan should respond by expanding military cooperation with Washington.
A bill approved by the subcommittee last week calls for $5 million in military financing to each of the two countries locked in a bitter conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh. The earlier version of the bill drafted by the administration of President George W. Bush would allocate $8 million to Azerbaijan and only $2 million to Armenia.
In an interview with RFE/RL, Shugarian welcomed the amendment which has yet to be endorsed by the full House Appropriations Committee. He said it was not only the result of heavy Armenian-American lobbying but also an “explanatory work” conducted by Armenia’s foreign and defense ministries.
Shugarian took issue with the Bush administration’s arguments that Azerbaijan deserves greater military aid because it has already committed troops for the U.S.-led missions in Iraq and Afghanistan. “No matter how much countries differ in their attitude toward Iraq developments, this can not be the decisive argument because the issue relates to our region,” he said. “There is a frozen conflict in our region and when the parity is disrupted…there arise some dangers.”
But Shugarian also stressed that Armenia, which relies on a military alliance with Russia in its national security policy, should seek closer military ties with the United States if it is to maintain the aid parity. “We should think in the future about expanding the [defense cooperation] programs if we want to continue to keep that parity because the aid depends on our proposals as well,” said Armenia’s former longtime ambassador to Washington.
The Armenian leadership has already taken steps in that direction in recent years, stepping up its participation in NATO’s Partnership for Peace program and promising to join the U.S.-led “coalition of the willing” in Iraq with a small contingent of non-combat military personnel. A team of Armenian military drivers, doctors and demining experts is expected to be deployed in Iraq in September.
Shugarian denied any U.S. pressure behind the deployment plans, saying that Yerevan will continue to exercise caution in its Iraqi policy primarily because of the existence of a vulnerable ethnic Armenian community in Iraq. “I can say that both the State Department and the White House understand our approach,” he said.
Unlike neighboring Georgia and Azerbaijan, Armenia declined to endorse the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq last year and did not sent armed combat units to the country. It at the same time welcomed the quick overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s regime.