By Emil Danielyan
Russia is not alarmed by Armenia’s growing cooperation with NATO and welcomes its main regional ally’s efforts to expand economic ties with Georgia after the recent Russian-Georgian war, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on Friday.
Visiting Yerevan, Lavrov also sounded cautiously optimistic about chances of a breakthrough in the Russian, U.S. and French mediators’ efforts to broker a solution to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.
Sparking talk of a new Cold War, NATO and Russia effectively froze their relations following Moscow’s August military campaign against Georgia that was strongly condemned by the West. Armenia, which maintains close military ties with Russia, has made clear that this will not deter it from continuing to implement its Individual Partnership Action Plan (IPAP) with NATO. Just last Monday Yerevan began hosting three-week NATO-led military exercises shunned by the Russians.
“We are not worried about that,” Lavrov told a joint news conference with Armenian Foreign Minister Eduard Nalbandian. “We too maintain the formats of our relationships with NATO countries. We have a Russia-NATO council that continues to exist, even though some members of the alliance would like to suspend discussion of important issues.”
Lavrov said his country’s sole problem with NATO is the U.S.-led alliance’s readiness to continue to enlarge eastwards into what Russia calls “near abroad.” “We have no differences with our Armenian friends on what kind of a NATO we want to interact with and how,” he said.
Lavrov added that Russia “can only welcome” Armenian-Georgian economic agreements that were reportedly reached during President Serzh Sarkisian’s visit to Tbilisi earlier this week. Sarkisian and his Georgian counterpart Mikheil Saakashvili, vilified by the Kremlin for his aggressive pro-Western policies, announced that their governments will join forces to build a mountain pass in western Georgia that will significantly shorten travel between Armenia and the Georgian Black Sea cost.
The Georgian ports of Batumi and Poti process at least 70 percent of cargos shipped to and from Armenia. These vital supply routes were temporarily disrupted during the Russian-Georgian conflict.
“I hope that these agreements will prevent a repeat of situations during the Caucasian crisis that resulted in artificial obstacles on Georgian territory to the traffic of goods to Armenia,” Lavrov said. “I think these agreements will contribute to the economic development of our ally.”
The Georgia crisis was high on the agenda of his talks with Nalbandian and Sarkisian. Lavrov said the Armenian side reaffirmed its adherence to joint statements on the crisis issued by Armenia, Russia and four other ex-Soviet states aligned in the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). The CSTO criticized last month Georgia’s ill-fated August 8 attempt to win back South Ossetia but stopped short of denouncing it as an act of aggression.
“The Armenian side voiced support for Russia’s active role in promoting peace and cooperation in the region,” Nalbandian told reporters, commenting on the talks. Armenia also hopes that Russia and Georgia will ease their tensions “as soon as possible” because it wants to retain simultaneously good relations with both nations, he said. “Armenia is interested in that, and we will do everything we can in that direction,” added Nalbandian.
The two ministers said they also spoke at length about international efforts to end the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, which are spearheaded by the French, Russian and U.S. co-chairs of the OSCE Minsk Group. Lavrov reaffirmed Russian support support a Karabakh settlement, saying that it holds the key to peace and stability in the entire South Caucasus.
“The parties have agreed on a number of very important points that are contained in the document which the co-chairs -- Russia, the United States and France -- submitted to the OSCE [in November 2007,]” he said. “There also remain unsolved issues, but there are a number of variants that allow us to solve those unsolved issues. I hope that the planned further contacts within the framework of the Nagorno-Karabakh settlement will help us move forward.”
The mediators hope that Sarkisian and Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliev will meet again and finalize the framework peace deal before the end of this year. Such a meeting would most probably take place after Azerbaijan’s October 15 presidential election, which the incumbent Aliev is widely expected to win.