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By Ruzanna Khachatrian

The influential chief of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s staff met with President Robert Kocharian in Yerevan Wednesday to discuss, among other things, Moscow’s escalating dispute with neighboring Georgia over Chechen rebel activity.

According to the Armenian president’s office, Aleksandr Voloshin and Kocharian spoke about the situation in Georgia’s lawless Pankisi Gorge where Chechen militants have been holed up for the past several years. They reportedly cross into Russia's separatist region of Chechnya to attack Russian troops stationed there.

No details of the Pankisi-related discussions were reported. Voloshin refused to talk to journalists when he visited the Armenian Genocide memorial in Yerevan later in the day.

The situation in Pankisi was on the agenda of Kocharian’s talks on Tuesday with visiting Georgian Defense Minister David Tevzadze. Tevzadze handed to him a written message from Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze explaining Georgia’s position in the increasingly acrimonious dispute.

Moscow has threatened to launch attacks against suspected Chechen bases in the mountainous area. Putin kept up pressure on Tbilisi on Tuesday, saying that Shevardnadze has failed to give guarantees of tough action against the Islamist rebels. Georgian leaders have warned that any Russian assault would amount to a military “aggression” against their country.

Armenia, which is Russia’s main regional ally and has Russian troops on its soil, is keen to avoid taking sides in the row, fearing that an armed conflict over Pankisi could damage its relations with Georgia, its main conduit to the outside world. Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian said last week that Yerevan is ready to mediate in the standoff.

According to the presidential press service, Kocharian and Voloshin also addressed “a broad range of issues pertaining to Russian-Armenian relations,” including bilateral economic and military-technical cooperation. Voloshin, who was one of Russia’s most powerful men under former President Boris Yeltsin and remains influential, is scheduled to meet with Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian on Thursday.

The two officials are likely to discuss the $97 million equities-for-debt deal finalized by their governments in July. Sarkisian, who is a co-chairman of the Russian-Armenian intergovernmental commission on economic cooperation, has personally negotiated its terms.
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