By Emil Danielyan
President Robert Kocharian is expected to address continuing delays with planned supplies of Russian fuel to Armenia’s strategically important nuclear power station during an official visit to Moscow which begins on Thursday.
His talks with President Vladimir Putin and other top Russian government officials will come on the heels of the Armenian government’s decision to reactivate the Metsamor plant next week without its planned partial refueling.
The extraordinary move, unveiled late last week, highlighted a lack of progress in the protracted negotiations with Russia over fuel supplies that have kept the Soviet-era facility operational for more than two decades. The apparent deadlock has fueled speculation that Moscow is no longer interested in the plant’s continued work or may be seeking additional leverage against the current Armenian leadership.
Metsamor’s only functioning reactor, located 35 kilometers west of Yerevan, was brought to a halt in October for regular maintenance and refueling. The Armenian Energy Ministry hoped to replace one third of the plant’s fuel and bring it back on line within the next 45 days.
Energy Minister Armen Movsisian announced on Friday that although the refueling has again been delayed, a new agreement has been reached to ship the fuel to Armenia “in late April.” He said Metsamor will be reactivated in late January and operate with the remaining fuel until then.
“The negotiations with relevant Russian commercial structures, including Rosenergoatom, are over; the issue of nuclear fuel has been solved,” he said, adding that the next refueling will take place in May or June.
Previous upbeat forecasts made by other Armenian leaders failed to materialize, however. President Robert Kocharian, for example, said on December 3 that a deal with the Russians will be hammered out “in a few days,” while Prime Minister Andranik Markarian assured reporters afterwards that the Russian fuel will be shipped before the new year.
Not surprisingly, the government’s latest assurances are treated with skepticism by some local observers and media. They wonder when the new agreement with Russian atomic energy agency, cited by Movsisian, was reached. The minister’s reply to a reporter’s query was rather pathetic: “When was it reached? It’s none of your business.”
Metsamor’s executive director Gagik Markosian, meanwhile, told RFE/RL on Tuesday that the two sides have not yet sorted out all problems. “There are still some technical matters on which discussions are continuing,” he said without elaborating.
The Russians reportedly want Yerevan to repay $32 million in outstanding debts for their previous fuel supplies. Under a Russian-Armenian agreement announced last September, Armenia was to settle the debt this year with proceeds from its anticipated exports of electricity to third countries. It is still not clear what went wrong during subsequent bilateral talks.
The uncertainty has raised questions about possible political motives behind Russia’s tough stance on the nuclear fuel supplies. Moscow had always backed Yerevan in its reluctance to shut down the Metsamor plant despite strong pressure from the European Union.
The EU believes that its Soviet-built reactor is located in a seismically active zone and is vulnerable to serious accidents. But Armenia, which had implicitly promised to decommission Metsamor in 2004, now insists that it is safe enough to operate for ten more years. The authorities also argue that they have no alternative source of relatively cheap energy.
The Yerevan daily “Haykakan Zhamanak” suggested that the Russians are no longer interested in keeping Metsamor afloat after winning control of Armenia’s largest thermal power plant as part of a recent assets-for-debt agreement with the Armenian government. The plant was placed under Russian ownership along with four other state-run enterprises in payment for Armenia’s $100 million debt.
Russian natural gas is the main source of the more expensive electricity generated by Armenian thermal plants. With nuclear energy costing considerably less, Metsamor’s three-month stoppage has meant millions of dollars in losses for Armenia’s cash-strapped energy sector.
Analysts have also speculated that the Kremlin is pressurizing Kocharian into pursuing a more pro-Russian foreign policy instead of seeking closer security ties with the West. Russian support is very important for Kocharian’s victory in presidential elections scheduled for February 19. The Metsamor issue is thus expected to be high on the agenda of the Armenian leader’s visit to Moscow which begins tomorrow.
The fate of the nuclear facility also depends on the results of a major safety inspection which is due to be conducted at Metsamor by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) later this year. Massoud Samiei, a high-ranking official from the Vienna-based global nuclear watchdog, told RFE/RL back in October that IAEA inspectors will assess implementation of their suggested safety measures.
The IAEA regularly inspects Metsamor and has not reported serious violations of safety standards there so far.