By Emil Danielyan
The Armenian government still hopes to avert a 100 percent surge in the price of Russian natural gas supplied to Armenia, despite President Vladimir Putin’s apparent refusal to interfere in what he described as a purely commercial matter.
The issue was high on the agenda of Putin’s five-hour meeting with his Armenian counterpart Robert Kocharian that took place in the Russian Black Sea city of Sochi on Friday. The two men announced no agreement on it after the meeting, suggesting that Moscow is reluctant to reconsider the decision taken by Russia’s state-owned gas monopoly, Gazprom.
Prime Minister Andranik Markarian said Saturday that he has discussed the situation with Kocharian and believes that it is still possible to get the Russians to reverse or at least scale down the price hike effective from January 1. He told reporters that the two sides will hold more talks in the coming weeks.
Energy Minister Armen Movsisian, who accompanied Kocharian in Sochi, was quoted by the Arminfo news agency as making similar comments.
Markarian earlier expressed dismay at Gazprom’s decision to double the gas price to $110 per thousand cubic meters, saying that the Russians had promised to keep it unchanged for the next two years. He warned that the new tariff could push up utility prices and even affect Armenia’s overall macroeconomic performance in 2006.
Markarian would not be drawn on its possible political consequences for the close Russian-Armenian relationship at the weekend. “Let’s wait until the negotiations are over and only then discuss that issue,” he said.
Putin, meanwhile, sought to demonstrate his detachment from the dispute, saying that the price of Russian gas should be determined by “commercial organizations” and not the two governments. "They are engaged in commerce, while we are not," the Itar-Tass news agency quoted him as saying after the Sochi meeting.
Russian television showed the Armenian and Russian presidents smiling over glasses of beer as they spoke to journalists in a casual atmosphere.
"Relations between Russia and Armenia go far beyond energy projects,” Putin said. “We develop political, humanitarian and military-technical cooperation. We have many other spheres of economic cooperation besides energy. We discussed these important issues.”
For his part, Kocharian avoided any reference to the gas controversy, praising instead the current state of Russian-Armenian economic cooperation. “Large-scale Russian investments have been made in the Armenian economy," he said.
Russia has announced similar gas price hikes for several other ex-Soviet states, including Georgia and Ukraine. Analysts believe that their governments are thereby being sanctioned for their increasingly pro-Western foreign policy.