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By Atom Markarian
Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian sought on Thursday to quell a media outcry over his government’s decision to pay for public utilities used by the Russian military base, saying that Moscow has already reciprocated it with “far greater services” to Armenia.

The agreement under which the Armenian government will foot the Russian troops’ electricity, water and phone bills starting from next January was signed during Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov’s visit to Yerevan earlier this week. It is estimated to cost Yerevan $1.5 million in additional expenses each year -- a hefty sum by Armenian standards.

This fact that was resented by pro-Western newspapers critical of President Robert Kocharian. They say Russian military presence is becoming too much of a burden for Armenia instead of being a source of income.

Sarkisian held a special news conference to disprove the claims. "We have gained a lot more [from military cooperation with Russian], than lost,” he said. “In this sphere we have much less to lose than to gain.”

The influential minister, who also co-chairs a Russian-Armenian intergovernmental commission on economic cooperation, revealed that the Armenian side had already covered 70 percent of the Russian troops’ utility expenses from 1996 until last year in accordance with a prior bilateral agreement. He said that the Russians agreed to cover those costs themselves in November 2002 but that Yerevan decided to again reimburse them because the two nations have become “strategic allies.”

Sarkisian would not be drawn on the military “services” provided by the Russians, saying only that last year they wrote off as much $52 million in Yerevan’s hitherto unknown outstanding debts for the training of Armenian officers and other military personnel since 1996.

Thousands of them have been educated at Russian military academies since then. According to Sarkisian, the Armenian military was due to pay $2,500 for every cadet each year, but has actually allocated an average of just $200.

The existence of the Russian military base and broader military cooperation with Moscow is a key component of Armenia’s defense doctrine. The 5,000-strong Russian contingent is primarily seen as a deterrent against its arch-foe Turkey. Ivanov announced in Yerevan that the base will be re-equipped with modern weapons and military hardware in the near future.

(Photolur photo: Sarkisian and Ivanov meeting in Yerevan on Monday.)
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