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By Hrach Melkumian
Moscow’s popular mayor, Yuri Luzhkov, on Thursday stopped short of explicitly endorsing President Robert Kocharian and denied any political motives behind his two-day working visit to Armenia.

“To talk about backing the incumbent president would not make sense,” he told reporters in Yerevan. “He is not falling down, is he? You usually back those who fall.” He insisted that there is “no political subtext” to the trip.

Some observers viewed Luzhkov’s visit to Yerevan, the first in more than four years, as part of Kocharian’s efforts to showcase Russian support for his presidency. Kocharian’s recent visit to Moscow was widely attributed to that. Meeting with the Armenian leader in the Kremlin, Russian President Vladimir noted that the Russian-Armenian relationship have further improved under Kocharian. But he added that Moscow hopes they will remain cordial regardless of the outcome of the Armenian elections.

Luzhkov and Yerevan Mayor Robert Nazarian signed on Thursday an agreement calling for closer economic, educational and cultural ties between the Russian and Armenian capitals. Luzhkov said the commercial exchange between the two cities accounts for a third of Russian-Armenian trade and has a big potential for expansion. But he complained that bilateral ties are seriously hampered by the absence of railway communication between the two countries.

The bulk of Armenia’s external trade is carried out through the Georgian Black Sea ports of Poti and Batumi. Local and foreign businesspeople complain that the transit of goods through Georgia means disproportionately high transportation costs. Luzhkov said neighboring Iran with its Caspian Sea ports could serve as an alternative transit route in Russian-Armenia trade.

The Moscow mayor also visited a Russian military unit in Yerevan and a nearby Russian Orthodox church. He is due to meet with Kocharian on Friday.

(RFE/RL photo: Luzhkov, left, during the signing ceremony with Nazarian)
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