By Emil Danielyan
(RFE/RL)- President Serzh Sarkisian on March 13 gave the green light to the opening of an Armenian consulate general in Iraqi Kurdistan, underscoring Armenia’s growing ties to the region that enjoys considerable autonomy within Iraq.
Sarkisian signed a corresponding decree more than one week after it was formally approved by Prime Minister Karen Karapetian’s cabinet. “The opening of the consulate will help to step up productive bilateral cooperation,” read a government statement released on March 2.
As recently as on February 17, Foreign Minister Edward Nalbandian held fresh talks with Iraqi Kurdistan’s President Massoud Barzani on the sidelines of an international security conference in Munich. According to the Armenian Foreign Ministry, the planned opening of the Armenian mission in Erbil, the capital of the northern Iraqi region, was high on the agenda. A ministry statement said Nalbandian thanked the Iraqi Kurdish leadership for its “comprehensive support” on the issue.
The two men also discussed regional security and ways of deepening bilateral commercial ties, added the statement.
Armenian Foreign Minister Edward Nalbandian (R) meets with Iraqi Kurdistan’s President Massoud Barzani (L) in Munich, 17Feb2017.
Armenia’s trade with the Kurdish region and other parts of Iraq has grown considerably in recent years. Armenian exports to the Middle Eastern nation account for the bulk of bilateral trade which stood at $138 million last year.
Armenian cigarettes are by far the most important item in those exports. According to Armenian government data, the Iraqi market generated over two-thirds of the Armenian tobacco industry’s total export revenue in 2014.
Speaking at the March 2 cabinet meeting in Yerevan, Nalbandian said that Iraqi Kurdistan accounts for most of the Armenian-Iraqi commerce due to “security and other favorable factors.” The Kurdish autonomy has been the most stable and peaceful part of Iraq ever since the 2003 overthrow of Saddam Hussein.
Iraq’s central government has also supported efforts to deepen Armenian-Iraqi commercial ties. It helped to launch two years ago commercial flights between Yerevan and Baghdad that are carried out via Erbil.
The Armenian government announced plans to open a consulate in Erbil at around the same time. Barzani welcomed those plans when he met with Nalbandian in Munich in February 2015.
Iraqi Kurdistan is thought to be home to several thousand ethnic Armenians. Some of them are former residents of Mosul who were forced to flee their homes when the city was captured by the so-called Islamic State in June 2014.