By Armen Zakarian
A former Russian prime minister, Sergey Stepashin, said on Wednesday that Armenia will draw substantial benefits from its upcoming assets-for-debt agreement with Russia. Stepashin, who now heads Russia's Audit Chamber, told reporters in Yerevan that the deal, finalized in December, will give a strong boost to economic links between the two countries.
The liberal ex-premier, who is reportedly close to President Vladimir Putin, spoke at a news conference at the end of a three-day visit to Armenia. He met with President Robert Kocharian, Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian and other top officials on Tuesday.
Bilateral economic ties topped the agenda of his meeting with Sarkisian. The latter is also a co-chairman of the Russian-Armenian intergovernmental commission on economic cooperation and has been personally negotiating the terms of the debt settlement. Sarkisian and his Russian opposite number, Ilya Klebanov, have already agreed on the list of five state-run Armenian enterprises that will be handed over to the Russians in payment for the $94 million debt.
Stepashin said the deal will ease Armenia's external debt burden and help the country attract Russian investments into its stagnating Soviet-era industries. It will also cement the close relationship between Moscow and Yerevan, he said.
Stepashin, who headed the Russian cabinet for several months in 2000, said he and Kocharian agreed that the private sectors of the two states should play the dominant role in deepening Russian-Armenian economic cooperation. He claimed that there are now three million Armenians in Russia who are "not the poorest people in the country" and are eager to invest in Armenia.