MOSCOW (Reuter)–Officials of Russia and Armenia’signed a friendship treaty on Friday committing their two countries to closer economic and military cooperation but stopped short of considering a tighter union.
"This treaty is not only the will of the presidents but also reflects the will of our peoples to live together," Russia’s Boris Yeltsin told reporters after signing the pact in the Kremlin with Levon Ter-Petrosyan.
The new pact–which has to be ratified by both parliamen’s–will replace the 1991 treaty signed after the collapse of the Soviet Union at the height of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.
"The new document makes a big step ahead compared with its predecessor," Ter-Petrosyan said on Thursday at the start of his three-day state visit to Russia.
Armenia’s have viewed Russia for centuries as a protector against Moslem neighbors Azerbaijan and Turkey–with which they have been in intermittent conflict.
Azerbaijan has accused Russia of supporting Armenia’s during the Karabakh conflict–including supplying them with heavy weaponry and medium-range offensive missiles during 1994-96. Some Russian ministers have confirmed the arms shipmen’s. But no official findings have been released.
The text of the new treaty has not been made public yet but Interfax news agency quoted it as committing Russia and Armenia to consulting each other whenever one of the signatories felt an impending external threat or was attacked by a third party.
Moscow and Yerevan also said they would continue cooperation in guarding Armenia’s borders with Iran and Turkey.
The two countries vowed not to join any unions and blocs aimed against the partner.
However–Yeltsin and Ter-Petrosyan carefully avoided talk of forming a tighter union similar to the one Moscow has with another former Soviet republic–Belarus.
Communist campaigners for a referendum on the issue claim to have collected 800,000 signatures in their 3.5 million-strong country haunted by economic crisis and plummeting living standards.
But officials in Yerevan have said there can be no going back to the Soviet past and that independence should be cherished. Ter-Petrosyan aides said the formation of a Belarus-style union was not even on the table in Moscow.
Armenia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian poured cold water on a big drive by some political groups in the landlocked country of 3.5 million to join the loose union agreed between Russia and Belarus in April or sign a separate union agreement with Moscow.
"I simply don’t take this very seriously. This is an attempt by some people to resuscitate the nostalgia that some people continue to preserve. I don’t think there is too much credence in what is going on at that level," he said.
"Armenia is an independent country and we cherish that. We are determined to keep it that way."
They have found an audience in a country where living standards have plummeted in the wake of the break-up of the Soviet Union and the war with Azerbaijan–which killed 35,000 people before a 1994 cease-fire came into effect. No political solution to the problem has been achieved.
Nonetheless Western diplomats say that Armenia’s foreign policy orientation remains decidedly oriented towards Moscow–unlike Azerbaijan and neighbor Georgia–both of whom have enthusiastically embraced ties with the West.
"As long as there is the war with the Azeris they are going to see Russia as big brother," said one.