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 April 19, 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 Saint Petersburg in late April.
However, the 37-year-old speaker struck a defiant note during a parliament session in Yerevan on May 2, 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 quoted on May 3 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 Armenian government's controversial privatization policies, scoring points with the disgruntled electorate. Such opposition-style tactic 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. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
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 policy-makers 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 respectively. 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. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. 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 United States in particular. Armenia's participation in the US-led alliance's Partnership for Peace program is currently being significantly upgraded in accordance 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 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 Armenian 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," US Deputy Assistant Secretary 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.