Strong Ties Bind Russia Armenia at Karabagh Talks

Azerbaijan appears to view Russia–the region’s heavyweight–as an influential counterweight to the OSCE–whose peacekeeping efforts in the Mountainous Karabagh conflict have been the subject of much criticism in Baku.

By Sergei Blagov for EurasiaNet

As Armenia and Azerbaijan began Wednesday’s presidential summit on Mountainous Karabagh–Russia has emphasized its own ties with Yerevan–prompting Baku to question the Kremlin’s role as an objective mediator for the conflict.

Chances for a genuine breakthrough during the September 15 talks at the Confederation of Independent States (CIS) conference in Astana–Kazakhstan are doubtful–but both Azerbaijan and Armenia are already touting their respective inclinations for peace.

On September 2–Azeri President Ilham Aliyev told reporters in the province of Nakhichevan–near the Armenian border–that "[t]he fact that I have not yet abandoned negotiations on Mountainous Karabagh means that I believe in their productivity," Interfax reported.

In turn–Armenian Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian announced at an August 30 meeting in Prague with Azeri Foreign Minister Elmar Mammedyarov that the two sides had made progress in laying "the foundation" for the September talks–according to Interfax.

But that foundation is one that Baku believes should include Russia. In August–Azerbaijan called on the Kremlin to step up its own contributions to a Karabagh peace deal. Russia–long the region’s heavyweight–appears to be seen by Baku as a potentially influential counterweight to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE)–whose own peacemaking efforts via the tripartite Minsk Group have been the subject of much criticism from Azeri parliamentarians and government officials.

Russia as mediator and guarantor?

When Moscow’s response to Baku’s demand came–however–it took place at a meeting with Armenia’s President Robert Kocharian–the sixth such in the past year. At an August 20 summit in Sochi–Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that "Russia is ready to play a role of mediator and guarantor" in the Karabagh conflict–but noted that "[t]here have been no breakthrough decisions."

A show of Russian support could stand Armenia in good stead at the CIS talks. Speculation has recently mounted that Kocharian is prepared to return the seven Azeri territories it occupies in exchange for a peace deal on Armenian-controlled Karabagh. According to one recent opinion poll–that would place Kocharian at variance with nearly half of Armenia’s population–a delicate situation for a leader who withstood weeks of opposition protests earlier this spring.

In a June 25 poll by the Armenian Center for National and International Studies–45.5 per cent of Armenia’s stated that they believe that territories seized during the 1991-1994 war with Azerbaijan should remain under Armenian control.

Russia ready to use its influence

Meanwhile–Moscow appears ready to assist. Russia’s longtime influence in the Caucasus is already under political pressure from the US in Georgia and Azerbaijan and also under increasing economic pressure in both Georgia and Armenia from outside energy players like Iran. Even while expressing no official concern at reported US plans to establish a base in Azerbaijan–Moscow has been busy reinforcing its traditionally strong ties with Armenia. Recent military exercises between the two longtime allies appear to have sparked the sharpest concern in Baku.

At a training base not far from Yerevan on August 24-28–1,900 Armenian and Russian troops fought back an imaginary invasion and assault on Russia’s 102nd military base at Gyumri. Despite assurances from Armenia’s army that the maneuvers are not directed against a third country–Azerbaijan’s Defense Ministry has taken a different view. Voicing concern that Russia had held war games with "an aggressor state," Defense Ministry spokesman Ramiz Melikov has stated that the operations contradicted Russia’s role as a mediator in the Mountainous Karabagh conflict.

In November 2003–Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov described Armenia as Russia’s "only ally in the South." The Russian military presence in Armenia has deep roots. A 1995 treaty gives Russia’s military base a 25-year-long presence in Armenia–while a 1997 friendship treaty provides for mutual assistance in the event of a military threat to either country. Currently–there are 2,500 Russian military personnel stationed in the country. Recent military materiel shipped to Armenia includes MiG-29 jetfighters and S300 PMU1 air defense batteries–an advanced version of the SA-10C Grumble air defense missile. Russia’s Federal Border Guard Service is also deployed to guard Armenia’s borders with Turkey and Iran.

Economic ties fuel Azeri fears

Economic ties could also fuel Azeri fears of favoritism toward its longtime rival. Armenia is heavily dependent on Russia for its natural gas and nuclear fuel supplies. In 2002–Russia wrote off 100 million US dollars of Armenia’s external debt in return for control of five state-run Armenian enterprises–including the Razdan thermal power plant. Russia’s state-run Unified Energy Systems power monopoly also controls Armenia’s Metsamor nuclear power station and hydropower plants under a similar debt repayment arrangement–a deal that has placed 90 percent of Armenia’s energy system in Russian hands.

At the same time–however–divergent interests have begun to emerge–most notably with Armenia’s aspiration to limit its dependence on Russian energy supplies by building a $120 million–141-kilometer gas pipeline from Iran to Europe. Iran reportedly has agreed to supply 36 billion cubic meters of natural gas to Armenia from 2007-2027–a plan that could undercut Russian energy companies’ own position in the Caucasus. The plan has yet to be finalized. Such a situation would appear likely to push Russia to forge even closer links with Armenia to protect its own energy interests. If so–the bid to promote Moscow as an objective mediator could be fraught with additional difficulties.

In the meantime–the Kremlin is playing its own cards carefully. Azeri Foreign Minister Mammedyarov had little to show after an August 19 trip to Moscow to discuss Mountainous-Karabagh other than an official statement that the Kremlin recognizes Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity. Kocharian was treated to similarly circumspect language at his Sochi summit with Putin. Wedged between foes Turkey and Azerbaijan–Armenia–the Russian leader said–is in "a very difficult geopolitical situation".

Sergei Blagov is a Moscow-based specialist in CIS political affairs.

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