By Ruzanna Khachatrian
The presidents of Armenia and Russia failed to hammer out a final agreement on the price of Russian natural gas during their latest talks in Moscow on Sunday, officials in Yerevan said on Monday.
The issue is thought to have topped the agenda of President Robert Kocharian’s meeting in the Kremlin with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin. It followed their joint attendance of the opening ceremony of Armenia’s Year in Russia, which featured speeches by the two leaders and performances by prominent Armenian artists.
“I wouldn’t say that the negotiations were only about the gas issue,” Kocharian’s press secretary, Victor Soghomonian, told RFE/RL. “As you know, they opened Armenia’s Year in Russia and the opening concert was broadcast by Armenian Public Television.”
“Naturally the presidents spoke about the gas issue after the concert and agreement was reached to continue the negotiations. We hope that a final agreement will be reached by mid-February,” added Soghomonian.
Kocharian and Putin praised the “strategic partnership” binding their nations both during their face-to-face meeting and the opening ceremony. But none of them mentioned the gas dispute in their speeches and televised remarks. Nor did they issue any statements after their talks.
Armenia has until now paid $56 million per thousand cubic meters of Russian gas. Russia’s state-controlled Gazprom monopoly has put forward a much higher price tag: $110 per thousand cubic meters. It agreed last month to give Yerevan a reprieve until April 1.
Citing a “highly placed source” in the Kocharian administration, the Moscow daily “Kommersant” claimed on Monday that the Armenian leader offered the Russians to keep the gas price unchanged in return for a 45 percent stake in the Armenian section of a pipeline that will pump Iranian natural gas to Armenia. “But even after taking such an unfavorable step, Yerevan is not sure that Moscow will not demand a greater share in the constructed pipeline,” it said.
But Soghomonian denied this. “I am familiar with that report,” he said. “The facts cited there do not correspond to reality. The Armenian side made no such offers.”
Asked whether the Russian side offered any swap deals, Soghomonian said: “Unfortunately, I am not aware of those details.”
Speaking with RFE/RL last week, a spokesman for Russia’s state-run Gazprom monopoly said that Armenia will not be charged more for the gas if it agrees to give the Russians control over an incomplete but modern plant in Hrazdan and the right to use Iranian gas. Prime Minister Andranik Markarian has spoken out against any asset handovers to Russia.
The dispute is increasingly casting a shadow over close political and military ties maintained by the two countries since the Soviet collapse. Moscow’s apparent drive to exploit the issue for tightening its grip on the Armenian energy sector is causing an anti-Russian backlash in Yerevan.
The past few weeks have seen an unprecedented amount of anti-Russian rhetoric aired by Armenia’s leading television stations controlled by the Kocharian administration. Opposition politicians and commentators critical of Russia have been frequent guests on their talk shows. The state-run Armenian Public Television likewise lambasted Russia during its prime-time news program on Saturday. And just as it gave live coverage of the Moscow concert attended by Kocharian and Putin the next day, a top news anchor of another pro-government channel accused the Russians of subjecting Armenia to a “gas blackmail.”