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Belarus/Russia: Union Charter -- Is Armenia Next?

By Liz Fuller and Harry Tamrazian

PRAGUE, 27 May 1997 (RFE/RL) -- Belarussian President Aleksandr Lukashenka said over Moscow radio this weekend that a unification charter he initialed with Russian President Boris Yeltsin leaves room for other former Soviet Republics to join. That's a prospect that's already causing disquiet far to the south in tiny Armenia.

Since Russia and Belarus signed their Treaty on Forming a Community in April a year ago, some Russian politicians have been seeking another prospective community member. Armenia, which traditionally has looked to Russia as its ally and protector against Turkey, is an easy target.

This idea is not, however, favored by most Armenian leaders. In fact, they have been trying to strengthen relations with both Iran and Turkey as a counterweight to a special relationship with Moscow. Last year, the Communists were the only Armenian political party to advocate joining the Russia-Belarus alignment.

Since Moscow and Minsk agreed in April to upgrade their alliance to the status of a union, General Aleksandr Lebed , former Soviet Prime Minister Nikolai Ryzhkov, and other high-profile Russian politicians have traveled to the Armenian capital Yerevan to promote the idea of Armenia's also integrating with Russia.

A group of 600 highly respected Armenian intellectuals and representatives of small left-wing parties convened in Yerevan two weeks ago. All speakers at the meeting criticized the Russian-led Commonwealth of Independent States as unworkable and incapable of achieving economic and political cooperation. They argued that joining the Russia-Belarus union is the only alternative for Armenia. Their country, they said, is surrounded by -- in the words of one speaker -- "the newly-created hostile alliance between Georgia, Azerbaijan, Ukraine and Turkey." Telman Gdlian, an ethnic Armenian and member of the Russia's Regions faction of the Russian State Duma, told the meeting that he had been delegated by unspecified Russian political forces interested in seeing Armenia accede to the Russia-Belarus Union. The meeting culminated in the creation of the Armenian National Initiative for Union with Russia. Its adherents already are collecting signatures in favor of holding a referendum on this issue.

Four days after the Yerevan conference, the Russian State Duma passed unanimously a resolution of support for the Armenian initiative. Then, two days before Yeltsin and Lukashenka signed the charter of Russia-Belarus Union, members of five factions representing the entire political spectrum within the Duma (including Russia's Regions, Our Home is Russia, and Narodovlastie) announced at a press conference that they plan to form a movement in support of Armenia's joining the Russia-Belarus Union.

Gdlian predicted, unrealistically, that 90 percent of Armenians would vote in favor of joining the Russia-Belarus Union if a referendum were held today. Several articles in the Russian press also have exaggerated the degree of Armenian popular support for the national initiative movement.

The reality is that all major Armenian political parties have condemned the initiative. Opposition leader Vazgen Manukian has described the national initiative as, in his words, "national treason." Independent newspapers have published editorials urging President Levon Ter-Petrossyan to take action against it. The Armenian leadership has not officially commented on the Duma's expressed support for the initiative. But the Armenian official news agency Armenpress issued an unsigned commentary denouncing it as interference in the internal affairs of a sovereign country.

The Armenian Foreign Ministry points out that Armenia and Russia are drafting a treaty on friendship and cooperation to supersede one signed in 1991, and to enhance the level of strategic cooperation between the two countries.

As did Lukashenka, Yeltsin declared last week that the union is open for others to join. He did not specifically mention Armenia. But Lukashenka, Duma Speaker Gennadii Seleznev and Federation Council chairman Yegor Stroev all have invited Armenia to join. What impact the growing Russian pressure on Armenia to join the new union will have on Armenian domestic politics is unclear. President Ter-Petrossyan has at least two central factors to consider. If he chooses to oppose a move that many Armenians perceive as threatening their country's independence, the opposition would support him and his popularity would soar. But a major concession by Yerevan to Moscow could mitigate outrage engendered two months ago by disclosures that Russia has supplied Armenia with armaments worth a thousand million dollars. Or, possibly, Armenia's integration into the union is the price being assessed for the weaponry in question.