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By Ruzanna Khachatrian and Astghik Bedevian
Prime Minister Andranik Markarian defended on Monday his government’s decision to let Russia tighten its control of Armenia’s energy sector in return for temporarily reducing the price of its natural gas, saying that it poses no threat to national security.

“Not only does it not threaten our energy security, but in fact reinforces it,” he told reporters. “In this sense, I think that the decision we made was the right one.”

Markarian insisted that the deal with Russia’s Gazprom gas monopoly is not at odds with his earlier rejection of further asset handovers to Russia. “We gave away the Fifth Unit [of the Hrazdan power plant] not for lowering the price of gas,” he said. “As you know, the price of gas remains unchanged: $110 [per thousand cubic meters.]”

“We cannot compensate for anything with assets,” he had told RFE/RL on January 13. “We would thereby sort things out only for one year. That would not be a fundamental solution.”

The Armenian premier was commenting at the time on reports that Gazprom is ready to scale the announced 100 percent surge in the cost of its gas if it becomes the owner of the incomplete power plant in Hrazdan and a planned pipeline from Iran. The Russian energy giant did eventually get hold of both facilities as well as a controlling stake in Armenia’s gas infrastructure.

Markarian, whose role in Russian-Armenian dealings is believed to be marginal, said on Monday that the deal with Gazprom is very different from a controversial swap agreement that cleared Yerevan’s $100 million debt to Moscow three years ago. The Russians, he argued, will pay nearly $250 million for the Hrazdan plant and invest $140 million in completing the facility.

However, only $60 million of the $250 million is to be paid in cash. The rest of the payment will apparently take the form of free-of-charge Russian gas deliveries that will enable the Armenian authorities to keep domestic gas prices relatively low until the end of 2008.

“We have kept our industry competitive,” said Markarian. “In neighboring countries production costs have gone up as a result of the more expensive gas, while we have managed to compensate for that.” But he admitted that Gazprom may again push up its prices in 2008.

Markarian reiterated the government’s denial of reports that Gazprom will also gain control of the pipeline through which Armenia is to start receiving Iranian gas next year. “There are no agreements [on the pipeline],” he claimed.

Still, Russian takeover of the pipeline was confirmed by Gazprom on Thursday. The Russian press presented that as the most important aspect of the Russian-Armenian gas agreement.

Meanwhile, Armenia’s largest opposition alliance demanded a parliamentary investigation into the deal. Addressing the National Assembly, Victor Dallakian of the Artarutyun bloc called for the creation of an ad hoc parliament commission that would look into its conformity with Armenian law and decide whether its signing was justified.

The opposition needs the backing of at least 44 members of the 131-strong assembly to force a debate on the issue. But only 20 deputies signed the Artarutyun petition as of Monday evening, with leaders of the pro-Kocharian parliament making it clear that they will block the initiative.

“We see no need to form an ad hoc commission,” said parliament speaker Artur Baghdasarian. “For us, everything is clear. What should we discuss? It is clear that there will be no increase in the price of electricity, while the price of gas will go up only by 10 percent.”

(Photolur photo)
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