Yerevan, 16 April 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Armenia and Russia yesterday formally completed integration of their air-defense systems as a joint-command center in Armenia went on duty for the first time. Military officials from both nations say the center will add significantly to Armenia's defense capabilities. But as RFE/RL's correspondent in Yerevan reports, the growing military ties between Russia and Armenia are raising concerns in neighboring Azerbaijan:
A joint company of soldiers lines up on a parade ground at the Choban Kara military base, 30 kilometers southwest of the Armenian capital, Yerevan.
Surrounded by spinning radar systems, the soldiers salute as the Armenian, Russian and CIS flags are hoisted to the accompaniment of national anthems. The soldiers then march down to a bunker where the new command center is located.
Yesterday's ceremony officially marked Armenia's acceptance into the integrated air-defense system of the Commonwealth of Independent States. The air-defense system also includes Belarus and Kazakhstan.
Colonel-General Anatoly Kornukov -- commander-in-chief of the Russian Air Forces -- said that "from now on, Armenia and Russia bear responsibility for Armenia's air space." He said Moscow and Yerevan have finished what he described as "difficult work" and said their military cooperation has "great potential."
According to the chief-of-staff of the Armenian armed forces, Lieutenant-General Mikael Harutiunian, his country has made a "huge step forward within the CIS framework."
The joint air-defense system has been substantially reinforced recently with the deployment in Armenia of Russian S-300 anti-aircraft systems and MiG-29 fighter jets. More than a dozen of the sophisticated war planes are believed to have already been deployed, and Kornukov said eight more are on their way.
The Russian S-300 anti-aircraft system, meanwhile, is known for its precision and its long-firing capabilities. In the words of Harutiunian, the modern weaponry creates a reliable shield for Armenia's air space.
But the growing military ties between Yerevan and Moscow are raising serious concerns in neighboring Azerbaijan, which has been locked in a long dispute with Armenia over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. Baku has threatened to pull out of a CIS defense pact and invite NATO or Turkish troops onto its soil.
Russian and Armenian leaders dismiss Azerbaijan's concerns, however. They say their cooperation is not aimed against any third country.
Russian Colonel-General Kornukov told reporters yesterday that the doors of the joint system are "open to others," including Azerbaijan. He also said any NATO military presence in the Caucasus would not foster stability.
The 12 CIS republics are all signatories to a 1992 Collective Security Treaty, but only four of them have agreed to unite their air-defense systems. In addition, Azerbaijan, Georgia and Uzbekistan have all recently voiced misgivings about what they see as the ineffectiveness of the defense pact. They are threatening not to renew their participation.
Addressing military personnel yesterday at the Choban Kara base, Kornukov -- the Russian air force chief -- said strengthening air defenses is particularly important in light of NATO's air strikes on Yugoslavia, which he condemned as "barbaric slaughter." But Kornukov said stepping up cooperation with Armenia is not related to the NATO military action. He said it was planned long before the NATO strikes began.
Kornukov said that what is happening now in Yugoslavia shows that small countries alone are unable to repel a massive air assault and should seek help from bigger ones.
Harutiunian agreed, saying yesterday's ceremony is "just the beginning" of further cooperation with Russia.
Moscow remains firmly opposed to the alliance's strikes, which were launched last month after Belgrade rejected an international peace plan for Kosovo. Armenia's reaction has also been negative, but more muted. President Robert Kocharian says he still plans to take part in NATO's 50th anniversary summit in Washington later this month.