By Ruzanna Khachatrian
Official Yerevan refused on Wednesday to confirm or refute reports that Russia has begun relocating to Armenia equipment from one of its two military bases in Georgia that are due to be closed within the next four years.
Russian news agencies reported that a trainload of Russian military hardware and equipment left the Georgian city of Batumi late on Tuesday and was due to arrive in Armenia the next morning.
“The train was composed of 15 carriages and platforms carrying ammunition and vehicles,” Colonel Vladimir Kuparadze, deputy commander of Russian troops in the South Caucasus, was quoted by the Interfax news agency as saying.
Officials in President Robert Kocharian’s administration, the Armenian Defense Ministry and other relevant government agencies refused to comment on the information. Some of them pointed to Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian’s earlier comments on the issue.
"There is no discussion about it," Oskanian told Reuters news agency on May 25. "At this moment there is no such decision. At this moment nothing is moving from Georgia to Armenia."
"But if such a decision is taken, it will be a prerogative of Russia and Armenia," he added.
The reported relocation began the day after the announcement of a Russian-Georgian agreement on a timetable for the closure of the Russian bases stationed in Batumi and the Armenian-populated town of Akhalkalaki in southern Georgia. Under that agreement the Russians will start withdrawing from them next year and complete the process in the course of 2008.
Russia's armed forces chief of staff General Yuri Baluyevsky said earlier that Moscow might have to move some of their armor to its military base in Armenia.
But Kuparadze claimed that the transfer of the “excessive” equipment from Batumi did not stem from the Russian-Georgian deal was planned several months ago. "The transfer of this materiel to Russia and to the 102nd base is not related to the Russian-Georgian agreement on the dates for withdrawing the bases signed in Moscow on Monday," he said.
Baluyevsky’s statement drew strong protests from Azerbaijan which claims that the military hardware will end up in the hands of the Armenian military and disrupt the balance of forces in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. The Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry sent a protest note to Moscow late last month. “We are awaiting a response,” the Baku daily “Zerkalo” quoted Deputy Foreign Minister Araz Azimov as saying on Wednesday.
Armenian officials have dismissed the Azerbaijani concerns, with Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian telling a Russian TV channel on Saturday that Russian troops were not and will not be involved in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Colonel Vladimir Menshikov, a senior Russian military commander in Armenia, was likewise reported to say that “any [Russian] involvement in conflict with Azerbaijan is ruled out.”
It is not clear how many pieces of military hardware the Russian military plan to relocate to Armenia. The Russian contingent in Georgia reportedly numbers 3,000 servicemen, 115 tanks, 220 armored personnel carriers and 170 artillery systems.
According to Vazgen Manukian, a prominent opposition politician who served as Armenia’s prime minister and defense minister in the early 1990s, Yerevan is keenly interested in the redeployment of Russian weaponry. “There is a strong desire to see those bases moved to Armenia,” he told RFE/RL. “They just pretend that they don’t care.”