Transitions Online, Czech Republic
May 9 2006

Speaker Blindsides President on NATO

by Emil Danielyan
9 May 2006

A potential presidential challenger may be signaling a shift in the
geopolitical mood in Armenia. From EurasiaNet.

The ambitious speaker of Armenia's parliament, Artur Baghdasarian,
has stoked geopolitical controversy in Yerevan by calling for the
country's eventual withdrawal from the Russian-dominated Collective
Security Treaty Organization and, ultimately, its accession to NATO.

The extraordinary statements, which run counter to one of the main
tenets of Armenian foreign policy, prompted a stern rebuke from
President Robert Kocharian and his close political allies.
Baghdasarian responded by threatening to pull his Orinats Yerkir
(Country of Law) party out of Kocharian's governing coalition.

The row is widely linked to the parliamentary and presidential
elections scheduled for 2007 and 2008. Some local observers believe
Baghdasarian is courting Western support to bolster his reputed
presidential ambitions. The controversy also provides additional
evidence that the geopolitical mood in Armenia - a country
traditionally oriented toward Russia - is slowly shifting.

The controversy began on 19 April, when Baghdasarian's comments were
published by one of Germany's most prominent daily newspapers, the
Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. `Armenia's future is the European
Union and NATO," Baghdasarian said, adding that Russia "must not
stand in our way to Europe." Kocharian distanced himself from these
remarks, saying they do not reflect his administration's policy.
"Armenia is not planning to join NATO," the Golos Armenii newspaper
quoted him as saying in late April. He also reportedly demanded an
`explanation' from Baghdasarian. The criticism was echoed by the
leaders of the two other parties represented in Kocharian's cabinet.
Baghdasarian's comments appear to have also raised eyebrows in
Moscow. Senior Russian lawmakers reportedly raised the matter with
Baghdasarian during a meeting of a Russian-Armenian commission on
inter-parliamentary cooperation that took place in St. Petersburg in
late April.

However, the 37-year-old speaker struck a defiant note during a
parliament session in Yerevan on 2 May, asserting that NATO
membership was essential for Armenia's `European integration.' "I see
Armenia's future in the European Union, rather than the
Russia-Belarus union,' he said. Baghdasarian downplayed his
differences with the Armenian government's position, but warned that
if they are deemed `serious' by Kocharian, Orinats Yerkir will not
hesitate to quit the governing coalition.

The pro-presidential coalition - comprising Orinats Yerkir, the
Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF), and Prime Minister Andranik
Markarian's Republican Party of Armenia - has been beset by
infighting ever since the signing nearly three years ago of a
power-sharing agreement. The squabbles have, until now, centered
solely on domestic issues. But the Yerevan daily Aravot on 3 May
quoted ARF leader Vahan Hovannisian as suggesting that the latest row
has exposed `disagreements of a strategic character' within the
pro-Kocharian camp.

Those disagreements may well deepen in advance of next year's
Armenian parliamentary election. Baghdasarian effectively kicked off
his party's election campaign in April when he publicly criticized
the government's controversial privatization policies, scoring points
with the disgruntled electorate. Such opposition-style tactics
already helped Orinats Yerkir form the second largest faction in
parliament on the basis of the results of the May 2003 election. The
party, which now claims to be the largest in Armenia, was not
implicated in reports of serious irregularities that marred that
vote.

The Orinats Yerkir leader, who is often criticized for employing
populist tactics, is also seen as one of Kocharian's potential
successors. The incumbent's second and final term in office expires
in 2008. Observers say Western support would only increase
Baghdasarian's chances of making a strong run in the next
presidential ballot.

Western policymakers and analysts seem to be showing growing interest
in Baghdasarian, underscored by the decision by a major European
newspaper to run an extensive interview with him. Baghdasarian's
comparative youth and stated commitment to democratic reforms have
already earned him comparisons to the revolutionary leaders of
Georgia and Ukraine, Mikheil Saakashvili and Viktor Yushchenko.
Baghdasarian helped foster such an image by traveling to Kyiv last
December to deliver a passionate pro-democracy speech during the
first-anniversary celebrations of Ukraine's Orange Revolution. His
calls for Armenian membership in NATO may thus further boost his
stock in the United States and Europe.

Those calls also reflect an ongoing broader change in the
foreign-policy orientation of Armenia's political elite, a process
that seems to have accelerated amid Yerevan's recent gas dispute with
Moscow, and its controversial settlement. The idea of joining NATO,
unthinkable in the past, is increasingly embraced by the country's
mainstream opposition groups. Some opposition leaders defended the
speaker against the recent political attacks stemming from his NATO
remarks.

Even as Kocharian insists that Armenia's military alliance with
Moscow remains the bedrock of Yerevan's national-security doctrine,
Armenian authorities are enhancing security cooperation with NATO and
the U.S. in particular. Armenia's participation in the U.S.-led
alliance's Partnership for Peace program is currently being
significantly upgraded in accordance with an `individual partnership
action plan,' or IPAP, launched last December. The IPAP calls for
sweeping political and military reforms in order to boost civilian
control over the military, as well as to promote the armed forces'
`interoperability' with the armies of NATO member states. The
Armenian military is already involved in the NATO-led peacekeeping
operation in Kosovo, and has a small contingent of non-combat troops
in Iraq.

As part of the IPAP, Yerevan also undertook to draft and publicize
its `defense doctrine' as well as a broader `national security
strategy.' An ad-hoc government commission headed by Defense Minister
Serge Sarkisian is working on the two documents. `We are working hard
together to help Armenia to realize its desire to have stronger
relations with the Euro-Atlantic family,' U.S. Deputy Assistant
Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Matthew Bryza
said during a March visit to Yerevan. `We are pleased with the
considerable progress made in this regard over the past year.'

According to a senior NATO official who visited the Armenian capital
recently, the IPAP is `not incompatible' with Armenia's membership in
the Collective Security Treaty Organization, as it falls one step
short of accession talks with the alliance. `It is up to Armenia to
decide whether it wants to go further,' the official said.


Emil Danielyan is a Yerevan-based journalist and political analyst.
This is a partner post from EurasiaNet.

From: Emil Lazarian | Ararat NewsPress