YEREVAN (RFE/RL)–The powerful Defense Minister Vazgen Sargsyan said on Wednesday Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh must continue to build up their armed forces to ward off what he saw as a military threat from Azerbaijan. He at the same time announced that Armenian military advantage in the unresolved conflict with Azerbaijan has grown in the past few years.
"Our rival [Azerbaijan] from time to time threatens to settle the [Karabakh] conflict through military means and we must be ready for any development," Sargsyan told hundreds of students at Yerevan State University. He claimed that Yerevan remains committed to a peaceful settlement of the long dispute and that fighting in Karabakh–stopped almost five years ago–could only be resumed by Azerbaijan. "If the war resumes we will make more serious gains," he warned.
A Russian-mediated cease-fire agreement–singed in May 1994–left the Karabakh Armenia’s–backed by Yerevan–in control of almost the whole of the disputed region and large swathes of territory in Azerbaijan proper. The cease-fire has since largely held despite the lack of progress in peace talks mediated by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
Sargsyan–who was one of the founders of Armenian armed forces–rejected the argument that oil-rich Azerbaijan will use its potentially huge revenues to buy sophisticated weapons and reverse the status quo on the front if the stalemate drags on. In his words–the balance of armed forces has become even more favorable for the Armenian forces since 1994. "We are ready for peace [with Azerbaijan] but not at any cost. And since we haven’t been offered an adequate price for it–we have tried to survive that competition," Sargsyan said.
Sargsyan further denied that Yerevan’s growing military ties with Russia are spoiling its relations with neighboring countries. "Our [military] strengthening will only be directed against those who will try to attack us," he said. "The region and period we live in is very complicated and–unfortunately–unpredictable."
A former fiction writer who turned 40 last week–Sargsyan is believed to be one of the most powerful men in Armenia–with his influence going beyond military matters. Opposition parties have held him responsible for the handling of recent years’ elections marred with serious irregularities. He repeated on Wednesday the pledge that he will spare no effort to make sure the next parliamentary elections are free and fair. "I want the elections to be free and kind. I don’t care what the correlation of forces will be in the next parliament. And I will prove that very soon with my actions," he concluded.