from 19 countries -- including Turkey -- are
participating in the wargames.
The parade ground at the military institute outside
the Armenian capital was a patchwork of colors
from the flags, uniforms and medal ribbons of
soldiers from 19 countries.
With just a few minutes to go before the start
of NATO's first ever training exercise in Armenia,
commands in English, Italian and Greek mingled
with shouts in Russian, Armenian and Polish.
As the opening ceremony got under way, all 19
national anthems of the participating countries
were played in alphabetical order. Everyone keenly
waited for the historic moment when the Turkish
national anthem sounded out for the first time
ever. Among these standing to attention as an
Armenian army band played the tune were the new
speaker of parliament, Artur Baghdasaryan, carrying
out his first official function.
Aside from marking NATO's debut in Armenia, the
Cooperative Best Effort 2003 exercises saw two
remarkable firsts - three soldiers from the Turkish
military set foot in independent Armenia, and
Russian soldiers took part in a NATO military
After the national anthems, the band struck up
a march and defense minister Serzh Sarksyan, looking
pleased but tense, walked around inspecting the
soldiers from different countries.
Journalists seized their chance to ask visiting
Russian colonel Stanislav Shevchenko, why he failed
to take part in NATO exercises in Georgia, which
has Russian military bases, but did decide to
come to Armenia.
Shevchenko paused and then said he had no answer.
As the journalists drifted away, he shouted after
them ,"The way those exercises were set up
was unacceptable to us."
The 12-day exercises are being carried out under
the aegis of NATO's Partnership for Peace program
of which Armenia is a member. The 400 soldiers
will act out a fictitious scenario in which they
provide military support for an international
The operation itself has so far attracted less
attention than its diplomatic sub-plots. In particular,
Armenians have been fascinated by the arrival
of Turkish soldiers on their soil.
The two countries have no diplomatic relations
and their common border is still closed. Armenia
accuses Turkey of committing genocide against
its people in 1915 - and of still not admitting
to it. Turkey says the Armenian state attacked
its ally Azerbaijan in the war over Nagorno Karabakh.
There are signs of a new diplomatic dialogue
between the two countries. Recently the two foreign
ministers, Vardan Oskanyan and Abdullah Gul, met
on the sidelines of a NATO meeting in Madrid.
"New dangers for the region and the world
demand that, despite their disagreements, countries
join forces in their fight against them,"
said Sarksyan as he welcomed the visiting military
exercises in Armenia this week, a NATO coalition
of soldiers are rehearshing for war.
It would have been short-sighted on Armenia's
part not to permit a NATO country to take part
in NATO's own exercises," he said of the
The first ever Russian military involvement in
a NATO operation is also being widely debated
"Russia is drawing the right conclusions
from its old mistakes," said political analyst
Stepan Grigoryan, arguing that Moscow had been
wrong to oppose NATO's growing ties in the east
in the past.
In an interview to Armenia journalists, James
Jones, NATO's Supreme Allied Commander for Europe
expressed pleasure with Russia's decision and
attributed the breakthrough to the new NATO-Russia
Council founded last year.
Colonel Shevchenko had a more mundane explanation
for the Russians' involvement: they liked the
details of the planned exercises.
The exercises are providing Armenia with some
welcome international attention and a chance to
exploit the thaw in relations between NATO and
Armenia joined NATO's Partnership for Peace program
in 1994 but has maintained a cool attitude to
the alliance since then - in contrast to Azerbaijan
and Georgia, which have expressed their desire
to become full NATO members. This was mainly because
Armenia is a strong military ally of Russia, which
has two army bases in Armenia as well as providing
the bulk of its border guards.
Recently though, Armenia and NATO have become
increasingly friendly. NATO secretary general
Lord George Robertson visited the country last
month in advance of the military exercises. Armenia
has said it hopes to send some soldiers to join
the NATO peacekeeping force in Kosovo.
Armenian officials say that since their country
is a signatory to the Russian-led "collective
security treaty" between a number of former
Soviet states, it would have been impossible to
invite the NATO troops prior to the new thaw between
Moscow and the European alliance.
At the same time, some observers say Russia's
military influence in the Caucasus is waning.
"It's a natural process," said Grigoryan.
"Russia does not have the resources to allow
it to play a dominant role in the region."
As a result, he said, countries in the Caucasus
and Central Asia no longer have to choose between
the West and Russia. "Take Kyrgyzstan,"
he said. "American and Russian units are
coexisting there side by side. I think it's quite
possible that the same thing can happen here in
Armenia in the future."
Editor's Note: This article originally appeared
in Caucasus Reporting Service, produced by the
Institute for War and Peace Reporting. Read articles
of similar interest at www.iwpr.net.