US-Funded Biolaboratories in Armenia: What Worries Moscow and Beijing?

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Recently, there have been widespread fears about the activities of American Biological Laboratories in Armenia, which are mainly voiced by Russian-Chinese circles, especially in parallel with the outbreak of COVID-19.  On July 24, 2000 an “Agreement between the Government of the United States of America and the Government of the Republic of Armenia Concerning Cooperation in the Area of Counter-Proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction” was signed. The signing of the latter provided an opportunity for further bilateral cooperation on the Biological Threat Reduction Program. As a result, under the Biological Defence Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA), in September 2010, the Ministry of Emergency Situations of the Republic of Armenia signed an agreement with the US Department of Defense concerning Cooperation in the Area of Prevention of Proliferation of Technology, Pathogens and Expertise that could be used in the Development of Biological Weapons. Under this agreement, since 2008, DTRA and the Government  of Armenia jointly implement International Cooperative Biological Engagement Program (CBEP)

First, the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA) is the intellectual, technical and operational leader for the US Department of Defense (DoD) and the U.S. Strategic Command in the effort to combat biological, chemical and nuclear threats. What concerns the CBEP program, part of the DTRA, it works to counter threats posed by select agents, related materials, expertise, other emerging infectious disease risks, and to prevent these agents from reaching any state or non-state actors who may use them against the United States or its allies

CBEP has engaged in the U.S. European Command (EUCOM) region since the late 1990s and is actively engaged in the countries of Georgia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan, and Armenia. The Program has focused on the removal or consolidation of all pathogens of security concern.

In the framework of this program, 6 biolabs are operating in Armenia, the first three of which opened in 2016 in Ijevan, Yerevan and Gyumri. The biolab in Yerevan is a centralized national joint facility, which the other regional laboratories are linked to. Three more laboratories opened in 2017 in Martuni, Kapan and Vanadzor. The purpose of these laboratories, opened by the RA Government in cooperation with their US partners, is to strengthen Armenia’s disease tracking abilities allowing it to quickly counter future outbreaks of dangerous diseases, whether human or animal.

The presence of these laboratories in post-Soviet countries has always worried official Moscow, especially in the context of the recent outbreak of the COVID-19 and in parallel with the tensions of the United States-China relations, Beijing joins Moscow’s criticism.

A clear proof of that is the Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova’s  statement issued on April 17, 2020 which stated that they have a concern about the activities of American biological laboratories in a number of post-Soviet countries, where, according to the spokeswoman, “under the pretext of fighting biological terrorism, dual-purpose biological laboratories operate under the auspices of the US Department of Defense’s Joint Threat Reduction program.” In her statement, Zakharova did not rule out that in those laboratories it is possible that “work is being done to create and change dangerous diseases, various pathogens, including for military purposes.” And the fact that these potentially dangerous biological infrastructures are being formed by the Americans very close to Russia’s borders is a matter of concern for Moscow.

China also shares the opinion of Russian MFA spokesperson and during his regular press conference of April 29, 2020  Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Geng Shuang noted that the U.S. keeps mouth shut regarding functions, purposes and safety issues of the labs operating in former USSR countries, causing deep concerns from local people and surrounding countries. The spokesperson also expressed hope that the U.S. will take concrete measures and heed the concerns from the international community.

 The United States has not yet commented on the concerns of US laboratories in the post-Soviet space, however, Lea Gabrielle, coordinator of the US State Department’s Global Engagement Center, which tracks foreign propaganda, told a briefing that Russia and China’s actions are often coordinated in terms of propaganda, and in the context of the COVID-19, they want to serve this propaganda to their ends and as an example, she brought Beijing and Moscow-backed media, which “recirculate false narratives about US-funded biolabs in the former Soviet Union”.

As for Armenia, it is mentioned regularly on different levels that these biolabs are the property of Armenia and will not be used against another state. However, to eliminate the concerns of Moscow, back in 2018 a visit to the laboratories in Yerevan and Gyumri was organized for Russian delegation by the assignment of the RA Prime Minister. Later in an interview given to “Kommersant”, Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan stated that  “Russian specialists never had access problems and will not have from the moment I became the Prime Minister of Armenia. These laboratories are completely under the control of the Armenian authorities. We are ready to cooperate, and Russian specialists have already been there and made sure that there is nothing wrong with these laboratories. True, these are laboratories of very good quality. I think it is very good that we have such high-quality laboratories. This cannot be used against Russia in any way. On the contrary, we invite Russian specialists and are ready to discuss the issue of sharing these laboratories. They have already been there, and when they would like to make a visit again, there will be no restrictions”.

And in another interview with the same “Kommersant” newspaper in 2019, Prime Minister Pashinyan spoke about the memorandum, which is expected to be signed  between Armenia and Russia to eliminate the concerns about the issue of biological laboratories. In response to the question whether these laboratories will always be available for Russian specialists or not, the Prime Minister answered “In fact, this is a gift to Armenia, a very valuable gift. We are still working on the text of the memorandum. The main purpose of this document is to protect the interests of all parties, so that none of our partners has any worries about these labs. ”

As for the signing of the above-mentioned memorandum, during the joint press conference of the Foreign Ministers of Armenia and Russia in Yerevan in November 2010, the Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation S. Lavrov stated that the negotiations on the text of the memorandum are generally over and are in the stage of interdepartmental agreement and expressed hope that it will be signed in the near future.

The “Memorandum of Understanding on Ensuring Biological Safety” between Armenia and Russia has not yet been signed, which according to the RA Foreign Ministry spokeswoman “undergoes internal procedures, which are delayed because of the declaration of a state of emergency in the country due to the COVID-19 pandemic.” At the same time she added that “the current draft of the Memorandum does not envisage the right to access to the working areas of laboratories for any side or exercise any other unilateral control.”

Thus, the laboratories operating in Armenia, though equipped with US financial resources, are the property of Armenia, are controlled by the RA state bodies, and the staff of the laboratories consists only of the RA citizens. Taking into account that the Armenian government has already allowed Russian specialists to conduct a visit to the biological laboratories in Armenia and steps are being taken to sign a memorandum to expand cooperation in this area, therefore, it would be reasonable to give access to those laboratories to all the friendly countries that are concerned about the activities of these labs. This particularly refers to China.

Photo; American and Armenian officials formally open an U.S.-funded biological research laboratory in Martuni in 2017. (photo: U.S. Embassy Yerevan )