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Russia: Analysis From Washington--Using Minsk In The Caucasus

Washington, 8 April 1997 (RFE/RL) - Even as Russian President Boris Yeltsin seeks to minimize the domestic impact of his new union treaty with Belarus, other Russian officials suggest that it should become the model for Moscow's relations with Armenia.

As in the case with the Moscow-Minsk accord, their efforts are less about promoting new bilateral ties than about about weakening third parties, limiting Western influence in the region, and restoring Moscow's control over former Soviet republics.

Speaking in Yerevan on Sunday, former Soviet premier Nikolay Ryzhkov said it would be "a great accomplishment" if Yerevan would join the Moscow-Minsk accord and thus enter into still closer relations with Russia.

To the applause from his audience, Ryzhkov, who is visiting Armenia as head of a Russian Duma delegation, said "We have always been and should be together."

But Ryzhkov made it very clear that his vision for the future of the Caucasus has less to do with promoting Russian-Armenian friendship than in using Armenia as a means for promoting far larger Russian goals in the region.

First of all, he took personal credit for sending Soviet troops into the Azerbaijani capital of Baku in 1990. Gorbachev, Ryzhkov said, "was trying to hide in the bushes."

And he condemned Moscow's failure to censure Azerbaijan for the 1988 Sumgait pogroms in which many Armenians were killed and even more were forced to flee.

Transparently designed to appeal to his Armenian audience, Ryzhkov's words suggest that many in Moscow would like to continue to use Armenia as a tool against oil-rich Azerbaijan.

Such an interpretation of Ryzhkov's intentions is strengthened by his attack on recent statements by Duma defense committee chairman Lev Rokhlin that Russia had covertly provided massive amounts of weaponry to Armenia between 1993 and 1996.

On Saturday, Yeltsin agreed to a request by Azerbaijan's President Heydar Aliyev that Moscow investigate Rokhlin's charges. Aliyev said that such weapons flows could lead to "the destabilization of the situation in the region."

Other Azerbaijani officials have pointed out that such arms transfers would also have the effect of undermining the provisions of the Conventional Forces in Europe accord.

Such conclusions would be especially valid if the statements of Rokhlin and of Azerbaijan's parliament chairman Murtuz Aleskerov on Monday prove to be the case.

According to Russia's Interfax news agency on Friday, Rokhlin earlier last week had acknowledged in a closed session of the Russian parliament that Moscow had supplied far more weapons to Armenia than it had admitted to.

Alekserov put the total at $1 billion over the last four years. And he warned that "if these arms are not returned, this could lead to a new large-scale war in the region."

Some analysts have pointed out that Rokhlin's words themselves are part of a Russian effort to put pressure on Armenia to join some kind of closer union with Moscow. But Ryzhkov's public rejection of them appear to be part of the same or at least a parallel effort.

In neither case does the motivation appear to be friendship for Armenia. Rather, both appear to be directed at using Armenia against Azerbaijan and even Georgia to weaken the governments in each and to frighten away Western companies interested in doing business there.

And the interpretation that Ryzhkov and others in Moscow are far less interested in Armenia as a friend than as a tool to be used against others came in his discussion of Armenia and NATO.

According to Ryzhkov, Armenian leaders and Armenians generally "firmly support" Russia's opposition to any expansion of the Western alliance.

Obviously, Ryzhkov does not speak for a united Moscow. But his words are consistent with what Russian foreign minister Yevgeniy Primakov and others have said in the past.