By Ruzanna Khachatrian
The Armenian government on Friday pointedly declined to deny reports that it has agreed to hand over more vital energy facilities to Russia in order to avoid a 100 percent surge in the cost of Russian natural gas for Armenia.
Citing unnamed officials at the Armenian Energy Ministry, the Yerevan daily “Haykakan Zhamanak” claimed that Armenia will import $250 million worth of gas free of charge in return for granting the Russians ownership of an incomplete but big power plant and a gas pipeline running from Iran. The paper said the swap agreement will allow the country to continue to pay $56 for every thousand cubic meter of Russian gas for the next two and a half years.
Russia’s state-run Gazprom monopoly decided last November to charge Armenia $110 starting from April 1. The Armenian authorities have since been scrambling to get Moscow to reconsider the highly unpopular decision. They were still holding talks with Gazprom officials in Yerevan as of late Friday.
“Negotiations between representatives of Gazprom and the Armenian government are continuing,” Lusine Harutiunian, an Energy Ministry spokeswoman, told RFE/RL. “Once they are over, their results will be made public.”
According to President Robert Kocharian’s press secretary, Victor Soghomonian, the talks will be completed “before the end of this week.” Soghomonian told RFE/RL that an agreement reached at them will have to be endorsed by Kocharian. It could be made public next week, he said.
Asked about the “Haykakan Zhamanak” claims, Soghomonian replied, “I don’t want to comment on that report now.” Energy Ministry officials likewise refused to confirm or refute the information, saying only that the parties are discussing “several variants” of a settlement.
Gazprom officials admitted earlier this year that Yerevan will be spared the need to pay much more for the gas if it agrees place the power plant located in the central town of Hrazdan, or the pipeline in question under Russian control. The proposed settlement has proved highly unpopular in Armenia. Many local analysts, politicians and even some government officials say that the Armenian energy sector is already extremely dependent on Gazprom and other state-run Russian companies.
The latter directly or indirectly control as much as 80 percent of the country’s power generating capacities and are the sole suppliers of its energy resources. The Russians got hold of those facilities as a result of controversial equities-for-debt agreements signed with the Kocharian administration in 2002 and 2003.
Prime Minister Andranik Markarian personally rejected the idea of fresh asset handovers to Russia, answering RFE/RL questions last January. However, he was far less categorical on the issue on March 22. “I don’t want to go into details now,” he told reporters. “Be patient. Things should clear up in 15-20 days.”
Acceptance of the Russian terms for the settlement of the gas dispute might not only renew speculation about Armenia’s alleged subservience to its ex-Soviet master but also put Yerevan at odds with Iran. The Armenian government pledged last autumn to let an Iranian company complete the Hrazdan plant and repay the large-scale investments with supplies of electricity to the Islamic Republic. That electricity was in turn supposed to be generated by Iranian gas which will start flowing into Armenia next year through the pipeline currently under construction.
The reported Russian-Armenian deal would also raise questions about Armenian state regulators’ recent decision to sanction a drastic increase in the retail price of gas delivered to households and industrial consumers. A spokeswoman for the ArmRosGazprom national gas operator, Shushan Sardarian, said on Friday that the new gas tariffs will take effect as planned “regardless of the outcome of the Russian-Armenian negotiations.”
“ArmRosGazprom will be paying its gas supplier $110 per thousand cubic meters of natural gas starting from tomorrow, and the new domestic tariffs set by the Public Service Regulatory Commission will come into effect on April 10,” said Sardarian.