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By Emil Danielyan and Hrach Melkumian

Russia’s President Vladimir Putin started a two-day official visit to Armenia on Friday which is expected to focus on ways of expanding economic cooperation between the two allies.

Armenia and Russia maintain close political and security relations but the volume of their bilateral trade has so far been quite modest. It stood at $176 million or just 15 percent of Armenia’s overall external trade last year.

“Not much will be left if we exclude the gas component from it,” President Robert Kocharian told ITAR-Tass news agency on the eve of the visit. “And yet the available potential is very big indeed.”

Officials in both countries see the outlook for commercial exchange improving, saying that bilateral trade is now on the rise for the first time in three years. Putin is accompanied by a large group of Russian business people, including the chairman of the Gazprom monopoly, Alexei Miller.

Putin and Kocharian are due to sign several agreements on Saturday, including a ten-year plan of economic cooperation. Armenia plans to grant the Russians major stakes in several enterprises of its military-industrial complex in payment for its $100 million debt to Moscow. The list of those state-run businesses and other details of the deal have yet to be agreed by the parties.

ITAR-Tass quoted the deputy chief of Putin’s administration, Sergei Prikhodko, as saying that it is not up to the two presidents to decide which specific Armenian enterprises will be turned into joint ventures or transferred under Russian control. Their task is to facilities the deal, Prikhodko said.

After a reception ceremony at the Zvartnots airport the two leaders headed straight to
Kocharian’s retreat on the mountainous Lake Sevan 60 kilometres north of Yerevan. They were also expected to discuss the unresolved Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and wider issues of regional security.

Putin’s schedule for Saturday includes a visit to a memorial to more than one million Armenians massacred in Ottoman Turkey in 1915.

The security dimension of the Russian-Armenian relationship was highlighted earlier in the day when the two countries’ defense ministers signed more agreements in Yerevan designed to strengthen their cooperation. One of them is designed to regulate the status of Russian military advisors in the Armenian armed forces.

“It will allow us to dispatch our specialists and experts to Armenia on a contractual basis as is the case in the entire civilized world,” Russian Defense Minister told a joint news conference. Details of technical assistance to the Armenian army were not disclosed.

A Russian military base numbering several thousand servicemen has been stationed in Armenia since the break-up of the Soviet Union. Visiting one of its facilities in north Yerevan just before Putin’s arrival, Ivanov declared that the Russian troops will stay there “for long.” “The base is equipped with modern weapons and is supposed to carry out missions in the interests of Russia and Armenia,” he said.
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