By Narek Galstian
Two former prime ministers added their voice on Friday to opposition criticism of the Armenian government’s controversial decision to trade key energy assets for a temporary reduction in the price of Russian natural gas for Armenia.
Vazgen Manukian and Khosrov Harutiunian claimed that the deal with the Russian gas monopoly Gazprom means Armenia’s declared “strategic partnership” with Russia has degenerated into a dangerous servitude.
Manukian, who is a leading member of the opposition Artarutyun alliance, charged that the Armenian authorities gave Gazprom control over a thermal power plant and apparently a pipeline built from Iran to secure the Kremlin’s support for their continued hold on power. Russia is now well placed to ensure that Armenia’s next presidential election due in 2008 is won by a pro-Russian candidate, he said.
“Russia has thus acquired a new lever to increase its influence on political processes in Armenia,” Manukian told a roundtable discussion in Yerevan. “Russia might say in 2008 that it will raise the [gas] price [from $110] to $250 per thousand cubic meters unless its preferred man wins the election.”
Harutiunian, who normally follows a cautious position on President Robert Kocharian, also deplored the deal but singled out Russia for criticism. “They wrote off more than $30 billion worth of debts owed by countries like Mongolia and Syria, rescheduled repayment of Georgia’s $180 million until 2020, but used Armenia’s $100 million debt for acquiring assets here,” he said, referring to the equally controversial equities-for-debt deal cut by Yerevan and Moscow in 2003.
The Armenian government insists that the latest deal with Gazprom is highly beneficial for Armenia. It emphasizes the fact that Armenian households and industrial consumers will be spared a drastic increase in the price of Russian gas until the end of 2008. Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian, also argued on Tuesday that the Russians will pay as much as $250 million for an incomplete power plant and spend a comparable sum on finishing its protracted construction.
Officials in Yerevan have denied reports, initially confirmed by Gazprom, that the under-construction Armenian pipeline, which is due to start importing Iranian gas next year, will also been placed under Russian control.
Manukian, who headed Armenia’s first post-Communist government in 1990-1991 dismissed the denial. “I think that the pipeline has already been sold,” he said “How that will be formalized is a different matter.”
Harutiunian, for his part, urged the Kocharian administration to consider pulling out of a 1996 accord on Russian-Armenian “strategic partnership.” “In my view, Russia has concluded that it can have partners only in China, the United States or Europe,” he said. “Armenia, Georgia, Ukraine or Belarus aren’t really partners for Russia.”
(Photolur photos: Vazgen Manukian, left, and Khosrov Harutiunian.)