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By Emil Danielyan
Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian chided Russia at the weekend for doubling the price of Russian natural gas delivered to Armenia, saying that the move is politically motivated and could damage close ties binding the two nations.

"When Russia says the decision to raise gas prices was taken for solely economic reasons, this is not true," he told Armenian Public Television, adding that political factors were also at play.

Oskanian said the price hike has already resulted in “negative political consequences for both Armenia and Russia in Armenia and the region.” He expressed hope that the ongoing Russian-Armenian negotiations on the issue will result in an “optimal solution.”

The remarks represent an extremely rare public criticism of Russia by a high-level Armenian official. They came just over week after a meeting held by Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Armenian counterpart Robert Kocharian in the Russian Black Sea city of Sochi. The gas dispute was high on the agenda of the talks. But no definite agreement was apparently reached by the two leaders, with Putin telling reporters that he is not in a position to intervene in “commercial” matters.

Armenian officials say they still hope to get the Russians to rescind or at least water down their decision to charge $110 per thousand cubic meters of gas pumped to Armenia and neighboring Georgia. The situation should clarify after another Putin-Kocharian meeting due in Moscow next month.

The Georgian government agreed last week to accept the new price tag after denouncing it as an act of political pressure. In an apparent retaliatory move, Tbilisi also announced a six-fold increase in fees levied from the transit of Russian gas to Armenia.

Russia’s state-owned Gazprom monopoly has announced even greater price hikes for several other ex-Soviet republics effective from January 1, saying that the cost of its gas has until now been disproportionately low by international standards. The move triggered a serious crisis in Moscow’s relations with the biggest of those states, Ukraine.

Russian commentators and even pro-government politicians acknowledge that Georgia, Ukraine and the three Baltic states are paying the price of their increasingly close political, economic and security ties with the West. Russia’s motives with regard to Armenia are less clear.

(GI-Photolur photo: Protesters hold placards reading "Gas-the price we pay for your NATO " during a mass rally organized by the pro-Russian Progressive Socialist Party in front of Ukraine President Viktor Yushchenko's office on Monday.)
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