- The Washington Times - Monday, January 1, 2007

LOS ANGELES.

In this city of angels, populated by a rich mix of Latinos, African Americans, Europeans and Asians, there is a sizable Armenian community. I learned this recently from a taxi driver who told me he had come to America 10 years ago. He proudly displayed an Armenian flag in his car.

We talked of the political situation in his homeland, a country which along with other former Soviet republics like Georgia and Azerbaijan, became independent in 1991. In fact, the Republic of Armenia’s transformation from communism to democracy has not been without obstacles, but the parliamentary elections this spring may prove this strategically located nation between the Black and Caspian Seas has defiantly maintained its independence despite several threats to its security and economy.

Armenia — like Georgia and Azerbaijan— should be praised for its unconditional support for the United States in its war against terror. Following the tragic events of September 11, 2001, Armenia has granted America blanket clearance to fly over its territory. Its hospitals offered medical treatment. More recently, the country — slightly smaller than the state of Maryland — has provided support for the war in Iraq. The distance from Iraq’s northern border to the capital of Yerevan is only 300 kilometers.

Yerevan is now bustling with shops, restaurants, business offices and President Robert Kocharian (who speaks fluent English) should be credited with keeping a firm control over corruption, especially recently with the privatization of industry.

Armenia joined the World Trade Organization in January 2003. The gains have been remarkable: Inflation has been cut, the currency stabilized and unemployment is down. Armenia has emerged as a modern, well-governed nation and a model to other post-Soviet countries struggling to maintain freedom and independence.

Of all the infant democracies of the former Soviet sphere, Armenia seems be faring better than diplomatic experts expected.

The oldest Christian country, Armenia has a rich history and culture. The alphabet is one of the oldest in civilization. Like the Republic of Georgia and the Republic of Azerbaijan, it is so close to Iraq geographically, but eons apart. No violence has erupted in any of these countries — a bridge between Europe and Asia — which remain peaceful and safe.

Azerbaijan, a moderate Muslim country, should also be praised this coming year for its continuing pledge to democracy and freedom, especially under new president Ilham Aliyev whose wife Mehriban recently made a very impressive trip to Washington, meeting with first lady Laura Bush and State Department officials. Observers say her intelligence and beauty, as well as her humanitarian efforts, were recognized. It was a huge political coup for the country.

Together, Mr. Kocharian and Mr. Aliyev are heroes, and represent the diplomatic future of their countries by their strong show of support for the United States.

Although both politicians faced criticism over their tactics, they have proven their leadership skills by imposing peaceful elections. There are legislative and judicial branches in both countries, and several political parties, unheard of in years past.

But the real future of Azerbaijan lies in its vast undeveloped petroleum resources. There’s oil. Lots of it; 1.2 billion barrels of proven reserves, not to mention offshore Caspian fields. By 2010, it is estimated oil exports could exceed 1 million barrels a day.

Both Armenia and Azerbaijan are bustling market economies, and in only 15 years have emerged as viable democracies in a region marked by instability, war and terrorism. Their leaders are committed to freedom.

The United States is in the middle of a gruesome war against terror in the Middle East and should recognize the significance of the South Caucasian countries. Today, as never in the past, America needs to support these plucky nations for their determination to support the West. Georgians, Armenians and Azeris are willing to work together to establish a safe haven in that area for democracy to flourish. That is why Americans should honor these brave South Caucasian nations, their leaders and their strong and enduring commitment to peace, freedom and democracy.

Tsotne Bakuria is a former member of parliament in the Republic of Georgia and is writing a book on post-Soviet democracies.

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