Russia and Armenia are working out an agreement to ban the presence of “foreign soldiers” in Armenia, according to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
Lavrov made the comments while calling attention to the presence of American-built infectious disease laboratories in Armenia. These sorts of laboratories across the post-Soviet space have recently become a touchstone for Kremlin concern (and often, concern trolling) about U.S. influence in its backyard, as Russian officials regularly allege that they are part of a plot to unleash biological warfare against Russia. (U.S. and host country officials counter that they are actually intended to combat diseases, not spread them.)
In an interview with Russian radio Komsomolskaya Pravda, aired December 17, Lavrov was asked about the presence of U.S.-funded laboratories in Georgia.
Lavrov said: “On the biolaboratories: they’re not only in Georgia, but also in Armenia, in Kazakhstan, in Uzbekistan, in Ukraine… In Ukraine it’s useless to talk on this theme but in Georgia we’re talking, through the relevant organizations, through the Biological Weapons Convention. We’re also talking to Kazakhstan, with Armenia. With Yerevan, by the way, we are concluding the process of preparing documents which would guarantee the absence there of foreign soldiers and that all that is done there will be transparent in terms of the lack of threats and risks.”
In his mention of “foreign soldiers,” Lavrov appeared to not be talking about the roughly Russian 5,000 troops based in Armenia. In any event, the negotiation of such a geopolitically sensitive agreement came as news to everyone in Armenia. It wasn’t entirely clear what Lavrov was talking about – that “by the way” is open to interpretation – but Armenia’s foreign ministry said that he was speaking solely about biological labs.
“The context of that remark clarifies that Mr. Lavrov is speaking about biological labs,” said Anna Naghdalyan, the spokesperson for the foreign ministry, the following day. “Cooperation in sanitary and epidemics control sector is a part of our bilateral agenda. Armenia is upholding all its international commitments aimed at peaceful conduct of bacteriological researches,” she told reporters.
“The labs belong to Armenia and have a civilian character,” she said. “As far as Armenia is concerned, there is no question of military presence there.”
And Russia’s ambassador to Yerevan, Sergey Kopirkin, walked back Lavrov’s comments a bit. “The dialogue with Armenia is rather constructive, as we have a mutual understanding. I do not rule out the possibility of reaching a common conclusion. But I cannot make predictions as to the possible form for now. The issue is still under discussion,” he told news website Tert.am.
Russia-Armenia relations have been volatile since the rise to power of Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan; many of Pashinyan's team are openly pro-Western and Russia has taken a correspondingly dim view of the developments in Yerevan. But Pashinyan has made a handful of notable concessions to the Kremlin since coming to power, including agreeing to send a small team of mine-clearance specialists to a Russian-led mission in Syria. It's not yet clear if this is another such concession.
In September, Pashinyan said that he had “personally ordered” Russian specialists to be allowed visit the labs. “There have never been any problems with access and there will not be, from the moment that I became prime minister of Armenia,” he told the Russian newspaper Kommersant. The laboratories, he said, “cannot be used in any way against Russia. On the contrary, we invite Russian specialists and we are ready to discuss the issue of joint use of these laboratories. They have already visited, and when they want to again, there will be no limitations.”
Over the last few years the U.S. has renovated several biological laboratories across Armenia, using about $9 million in funding from the Pentagon’s Defense Threat Reduction Agency, according to U.S. embassy press releases. (The embassy did not respond to Eurasianet’s request for comment by the time this post was published.) In 2016, at the opening of one such facility, then-ambassador Richard Mills called it “one of the largest programs implemented by the U.S. government in Armenia.”
At another opening, in 2017, Mills said: “This new facility will allow Armenian scientists to do their job safely and effectively — to respond to any potential infectious disease outbreaks that could threaten Armenia’s citizens, its livestock, its economic livelihood, or national security.”
The entire Lavrov episode was received poorly among Armenians sensitive to the occasionally proprietary attitude of their overbearing ally. “The list of @NikolPashinyan's concessions to Putin after the blunder with CSTO head Khachaturov is growing apace. The latest being a soon-to-be-signed document on American biolabs in [Armenia],” tweeted Artyom Tonoyan, a researcher on Armenia at the University of Minnesota.
“First of all, we learn about the fate of the American biolaboratories in Armenia by Lavrov’s interview, and secondly, what does Russia have to do with it?” asked Aram Sargsyan, a former MP and the founder of the Republic Party, in a Facebook post. “We are a sovereign country and we can decide for ourselves what to allow or not allow. This obedience to Russia is useless and humiliating, guys.”
Joshua Kucera is the Turkey/Caucasus editor at Eurasianet, and author of The Bug Pit.
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