By Armen Zakarian and Atom Markarian
Russia’s President Vladimir Putin arrived in Armenia late Thursday on a brief working visit which Armenian officials say will cement the close relationship between the two allied countries.
Putin will meet with President Robert Kocharian on Thursday. The two men are also scheduled to attend the opening ceremony for “the year of Russia in Armenia” that will see a series of mostly cultural events.
It was not clear if the two governments plan to sign any major agreements. A Kremlin official cited by the Russian Itar-Tass news agency said the talks will be dominated by economic issues, notably Russian-Armenian cooperation in the energy sector. Further development of bilateral military ties will also be on the agenda, the official said.
The Armenian side is expected to again raise its concerns about the implementation of a 2002 swap agreement that settled Yerevan’s $100 million debt to Russia. Armenian officials have repeatedly complained that the Russians are slow in revitalizing the five Armenian enterprises that were handed over to them in payment for the debt.
Putin and Kocharian could discuss the apparent desire by Russia’s state-run power utility, RAO UES, to buy Armenia’s electricity distribution network currently owned by a British-registered company. The Armenian government has so far been against such a takeover, arguing that UES already controls most of Armenia’s power generating capacities.
The talks could also address the construction of a gas pipeline that will link Armenia to Iran. Russia’s Gazprom, which is presently Armenia’s sole supplier of natural gas, is seeking the exclusive right to use Iranian gas for power generation. Gazprom and UES hope to acquire an Armenian thermal power plant for that purpose.
“This is definitely cause for serious concern for Russia,” political analyst Aghasi Yenokian told RFE/RL. “Russia may therefore be trying to add that pipeline to its energy assets in Armenia.”
Supplies of Russian gas to Armenia account for a considerable part of bilateral trade which has been steadily declining in recent year. Last year it fell by 13 percent to $250 million, making up only 12.5 percent of Armenia’s overall external trade. Meeting with Kocharian in August, Putin expressed concern about the trend.