YEREVAN (RFE/RL)–President Serzh Sarkisian has made clear that Armenia will not formally recognize Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states any time soon, while reiterating his support for their residents’ right to self-determination.
In a wide-ranging foreign policy speech made public late Wednesday, he also indicated that Armenia will continue to seek simultaneously good relations with Russia, the West and other major regional players after the conflict in neighboring Georgia. He said the Russian-Georgian conflict underlined the need for his landlocked country to have “alternative transit routes” for external commerce running through Iran and Turkey.
“Today one is wondering from time to time why Armenia is not recognizing the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia,” Sarkisian said, speaking at an annual meeting of Armenian ambassadors abroad. “The answer is simple: for the same reason that it did not recognize Kosovo’s independence. Having the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, Armenia can not recognize another entity in the same situation as long as it has not recognized the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic.”
The realization of a nation’s right to self-determination “takes time” and requires the understanding of “all interested parties,” explained Sarkisian. That is why Armenia will keep trying to “convince” Azerbaijan to come to terms with the loss of Karabakh, he said.
Russia unilaterally recognized the two breakaway regions after crushing Georgian military forces in a brief war over South Ossetia and seems to be pressing Armenia and its other allies to follow suit. The issue will be on the agenda of Friday’s meeting in Moscow of presidents of Russia, Armenia and four other ex-Soviet states aligned in the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). President Dmitry Medvedev already discussed it with Sarkisian at his summer retreat in the Black Sea city of Sochi on Tuesday.
With more than 70 percent of Armenia’s foreign trade carried out through Georgian territory, antagonizing Georgia would prove disastrous for a country already blockaded by Azerbaijan and Turkey. The Armenian economy has already been affected by major disruptions in rail and ferry traffic caused by the Russian-Georgian war. The war has also called into question continued vital supplies of Russian natural gas to Armenia through a pipeline passing via Georgia.
“Naturally, we are interested in a rapid and peaceful resolution of Georgia’s problems and the establishment of lasting peace there,” Sarkisian said. He at the same time again criticized Tbilisi for attempting to settle the South Ossetian conflict by force and said the de facto secession of this and other territories does set a precedent for the settlement of the Karabakh conflict.
“Let them repeat that Kosovo is not a precedent, and some may say that Abkhazia and South Ossetia are not precedents either,” he said. “But the fact is that exceptions not considered precedents are beginning to set a pattern for the resolution of such conflicts.”
Sarkisian further announced that Armenia is poised to end its heavy dependence on Russia for natural gas with the impending launch of a gas pipeline from Iran.
“The gas pipeline has already been built and we can receive gas from the Islamic Republic of Iran as early as tomorrow,” he said. “Work on enhancing the capacity of that pipeline will likely end in late October or early November, and we will be able to import from 2 to 2.5 billion cubic meters of [Iranian] gas each year. That is, as much as we import now [from Russia.]”
Sarkisian went on to speak of his “political expectations” from Turkish President Abdullah Gul’s upcoming visit to Yerevan and the broader thaw in Turkish-Armenian relations. “Without forgetting the past, we should look to the future, form an agenda of mutual interest and start contacts without preconditions,” he said.
The Armenian leader specifically stressed the importance of reopening the Turkish-Armenian border, telling his top diplomats to help generate greater international pressure for the relaunch of the Gyumri-Kars rail link.
“Arm yourselves with maps, statistical data and argumen’s: we must make sure everyone realizes that these several kilometers of railway can radically change the whole picture of regional partnership.”
Sarkisian further stated that he intends to “deepen and strengthen” Armenia’s “friendly partnership” with the United States as well as other Western powers and structures. He said he will be personally overseeing his government’s implementation of a plan of actions stemming from Armenia’s inclusion in the European Union’s European Neighborhood Policy program.
And he confirmed that a planned NATO-led military exercise in Armenia will go ahead later this month despite the latest upsurge in Russia-West tensions over Georgia. Yerevan will “consistently” take other actions stemming from its Individual Partnership Action Plan (IPAP), he said. Those include Armenian participation in the NATO-led peace-keeping missions in Kosovo and possibly Afghanistan.
Sarkisian and his predecessor Robert Kocharian have repeatedly stated that despite growing security ties with the West, Armenia will not seek membership in NATO in the foreseeable future and that the military alliance with Russia remains the bedrock of its defense doctrine. Sarkisian reaffirmed this “complementary” policy in his speech.
“We will by all means develop and expand our strategic allied relations with Russia, which are based on the centuries-old friendship of our peoples,” he said.