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Armenia: Foreign Minister Detailed Policy Of Closeness With Everybody

Armenian Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian returned as a speaker at week's end to Washington's Center for Strategic and International Studies, and detailed Armenia's foreign policy. "We want to be close with everybody," he said. RFE/RL's correspondent Don Hill was there, and finds that the situation is more tangled than Oskanian's sunny remark would suggest.

Washington 2 May 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Armenia's foreign minister says that his country has emerged stronger and more democratic in the aftermath of an assault in parliament last October in which gunmen killed the prime minister and seven others.

Speaking Friday at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Vartan Oskanian laid out in articulate detail the anatomy of Armenia's post-tragedy foreign policy.

Is Armenia tilting toward Russia? Oskanian -- who holds advanced degrees from Harvard and from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy -- spread both hands and spoke straightforwardly. Absolutely, he said. Armenia wishes to be, in his phrase, "close with everybody."

"Armenia is close to Russia. But Armenia is also very close to the United States and other European Western countries. We are also close with China. We are also close with Iran. And that's the beauty of Armenia's policy. We want to be close with everybody."

As Oskanian's other remarks showed, it's not that easy. Armenia is bordered on the east and west by Turkey and Azerbaijan -- with whom it has ancient quarrels -- and on the north and south by Georgia and Iran.

One centerpiece of Armenian foreign policy, Oskanian said, is its desire to build security, stability and peace in the region. Yet it declines to participate in the regional grouping known as GUAM - for Georgia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan, and Moldova. GUAM is merely an ad hoc group and not an institution, he said.

Armenia similarly is cautious with regard to the CIS, the post-Soviet Russia-dominated Commonwealth of Independent States. The CIS could be a useful regional institution, Oskanian said, if Russia's newly elected President Vladimir Putin exercises appropriate leadership. Oskanian said that the CIS should busy itself primarily with economic matters.

Still, Armenia welcomes Russia's strong arm on security matters also. Russian military bases still stand on Armenian soil a decade after the world pronounced the end of the Cold War. Oskanian said the difference now is that the Russians are there at Armenia's invitation to stand as a bulwark discouraging any possible Turkish temptation toward adventurism.

Before last October's assassinations, Armenia was enjoying a period of remarkable stability. The president and prime minister, representing different factions, had developed a comprehensive working pact. The gunmen's assault killed that pact along with the prime minister.

But, Oskanian said, the crisis actually is strengthening Armenia in most ways. That's because, he said, the government and its opposition both have conducted their affairs within the bounds of law, civility and the constitution.

"I believe that Armenia, within the next few weeks or months, will emerge as much more powerful, as much more democratic, and as a country that has truly put its constitution to the test, and which did not fail it. And this will make Armenia an even stronger country. In the Caucasus, it will make a country that could play the role of reliable partner also to the Western countries, to the United States and other countries that have interest in the Caucasus."

Illustrating Armenia's close ties to the United States, Oskanian said that Armenia is, per capita, the largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid. Oskanan said that his country needs U.S. friendship and help. In his speech, he announced that a U.S., Armenian Task Force on economic aid has just been formed and will meet May 8 in Yerevan, the Armenian capital. U.S. Ambassador William Taylor will lead a U.S. interagency delegation.

The most intractable of Armenia's foreign policy disputes is with Azerbaijan over the disposition of the ethnic-Armenian Azerbaijani enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh.

Oskanian said that he met briefly this week in Washington with Azerbaijan's Foreign Minister Vilayet Gouliyev. He said they agreed that the next step should be a summit meeting between their prime ministers.

He said Armenia is open to a negotiated settlement, but will not agree to long-term forced maintenance of the status quo.