By Shakeh Avoyan
Russia’s First Deputy Prime Minister Sergey Ivanov ended on Wednesday a two-day visit to Armenia which officials said focused on growing economic relations between the two nations.
Ivanov, who was Russia’s defense minister until recently and is increasingly viewed as one of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s likely successors, arrived in Yerevan just a week after Serzh Sarkisian’s appointment as Armenia’s prime minister. The trip was construed by local commentators as a further sign that Moscow supports his apparent plans to succeed President Robert Kocharian next year.
“Serzh Azatovich Sarkisian and I have known each other for a long time,” Ivanov told a joint news conference with the Armenian premier. “Since the last century, to be more precise … During all that time we established not only good businesslike but also personal relations.”
“Therefore, this visit, which is the first in our new civilian capacity, does not create any problems,” he said. “On the contrary, the human capital which we the developed in the past few years is very useful and allows us to discuss many issues in a straightforward and frank manner.”
Visiting Yerevan last week, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov effectively confirmed Russian media speculation that widely anticipated handover of power from President Robert Kocharian to Sarkisian suits the Kremlin. “The official position of Russia coincides with the unofficial position of Russia,” Lavrov said.
Official Armenian sources said Ivanov’s meetings with Kocharian and Sarkisian were dominated by economic issues. According to the Armenian president’s office, Ivanov and Kocharian praised growing bilateral trade and Russian economic presence in Armenia.
Speaking at the news conference, Sarkisian stressed the fact that the volume of Russian-Armenian trade almost doubled last year. “Nonetheless, we think that the volume of our trade is still modest and that we should achieve more,” he said, adding that it will grow faster after this week’s launch of a rail ferry service between Russian and Georgian Black Sea ports.
The Armenian government’s press service said Sarkisian and Ivanov discussed bilateral cooperation in the energy, transport and military-technical sectors. But did not report any details. Both Sarkisian and Kocharian were cited as raising with the visiting vice-premier Russia’s failure so far to reactivate several Armenian enterprises that were controversially handed over to Moscow in 2003 in payment of Yerevan’s $100 million debt.
The Armenian opposition has criticized the so-called equities-for-debt deal and subsequent transfers of other Armenian economic assets to state-run Russian firms, accusing the Kocharian administration of jeopardizing the country’s sovereignty and economic independence. Opposition leaders have also pounced on a senior Russian official’s reference to Armenia as Russia’s “regional outpost.”
“I believe that Armenia is our strategic partner,” Ivanov said, commenting on the remark made by Russian parliament speaker Boris Gryzlov in 2005.
Sarkisian also downplayed the remark, saying that it has been “misunderstood” by the media and exploited by his government’s opponents for political aims.