Yerevan, 20 May 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Defense ministers and officials from the Commonwealth of Independent States who met today in the Armenian capital of Yerevan say they have agreed to step up military cooperation. But the absence of representatives of some member states and a lower-level presence of others underscored growing internal divisions within the loose grouping of 12 former Soviet republics.
A joint statement, issued by nine ministers and deputy ministers of defense, says they have signed "documents determining further practical steps for and directions of developing military cooperation." The statement said their agenda also included "issues related to creation of joint military systems within the Commonwealth framework." No other details were reported.
At a joint news conference after the talks, Russian Defense Minister Igor Sergeev said the meeting resulted in "yet another step forward."
Three CIS countries - Uzbekistan, Moldova and Azerbaijan - did not send representatives to the Yerevan session of the CIS defense council, while Georgia and Ukraine were represented by deputy ministers. The five nations are part of an ex-Soviet grouping, dubbed GUUAM, that is seen as a counterweight to what they perceive as Russian domination of the CIS. The GUUAM countries have repeatedly distanced themselves from Russia's geopolitical priorities.
Russia's Sergeev indicated that GUUAM is not an obstacle to closer military ties among ex-Soviet republics arguing that the grouping has no "military component." He said CIS armies will conduct joint military exercises in August. But it was unclear which countries will take part in those maneuvers.
Azerbaijan, Georgia and Uzbekistan have expressed misgivings about their continued participation in a CIS defense pact. They have threatened not to renew their participation in the CIS Collective Security Treaty, signed in 1992 by almost all members, unless major changes are made in the document.
Today's joint statement said the defense chiefs discussed ways of "adapting (the treaty) to the existing geopolitical situation." By contrast, several other CIS members are keen to further their military cooperation -- with Russia serving as a linchpin. Last month, Armenia and Russia formally completed the integration of their air-defense systems when their "joint command point" near Yerevan went on duty. Armenia thus became part of an integrated air defense system that also includes Belarus and Kazakhstan. The joint air defense has been substantially reinforced recently with the deployment in Armenia of Russian S-300 anti-aircraft systems and MiG-29 fighter jets.
The growing Russian-Armenian military ties are causing unease in Azerbaijan, with which Armenia is locked in a long dispute over the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave. Baku has threatened to invite NATO or Turkish troops on its soil to counter what it sees as a danger to Azerbaijan's independence.
But officials in Moscow and Yerevan say their cooperation is not directed against other countries.