Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 3 Issue: 18

Russia’s gas price hike to Armenia, demands for property in return for temporary price relief, supply cuts following the pipeline blasts in the North Caucasus, unilateral Russian announcements about adding weaponry to the Russian base in Armenia, and finally three murders of ethnic Armenians within one week in Moscow by the usual “hooligans” — all this overshadowed Presidents Vladimir Putin and Robert Kocharian’s festive opening of the “Year of Armenia in Russia” on January 22-23 in the Kremlin. None of those problems were acknowledged at the official love fest, however.

The “year of” a particular republic in Russia, and vice-versa, is a Soviet tradition, replicated by the Year of Russia in Armenia in 2005 and the follow-up in Russia this year. Mixing cultural and political events, they witness the ruling groups engaging in mutual flattery as well as demonstrating “agreement at the top” to their populations and the outside world. Putin and Kocharian’s Kremlin meeting followed a somewhat updated version of the Soviet-style script. They spoke of “strategic partnership and alliance,” rather than “unity of peoples” and had star musicians from the Armenian diaspora in the West (Charles Aznavour, Michel Legrand) perform at the opening event.

Putin’s speech mentioned certain “proposals for innovative solutions to economic cooperation” — a delicate allusion to gas price jumps and Russian takeovers of Armenian assets under the guise of debt-for-property or gas-for-property swaps. Kocharian’s speech intimated that the relationship “should be protected from the [impact of] short-term factors” — an obscure reference to the gas price hikes, faintly echoing Minister of Foreign Affairs Vardan Oskanian’s recent statements. Kocharian’s Komsomol background shone through when he called for using the Russia-Armenia Year to “increase the awareness of young generations in the post-Soviet period [regarding] cooperation among our states and peoples.” He added, “We should eliminate ugly displays of ethnic intolerance from our relationship.” Was this a response to the recent murders in Moscow’s streets? Yerevan is not known to have raised this issue with the Russian authorities.

On the eve of the Moscow visit, Kocharian’s senior adviser, Vigen Sarkisian, and Armenia’s Moscow ambassador, Armen Smbatian, had expressed hope that the two presidents would seriously address the neuralgic economic issues. With the gas price scheduled to double to $110 per 1,000 cubic meters after April 1, these officials argued that the Russia-Armenia “strategic alliance” entitled Armenia to better treatment than the Western-oriented Georgia or Azerbaijan, which are being asked to pay the same price. In a similar vein, Moscow-based MGIMO Professor Andranik Migranian — an outspoken empire-rebuilding advocate — called for differentiating Armenia from the pro-Western countries regarding the gas price. If Armenia’s elite and population conclude that Moscow does not reward their pro-Russian orientation, Migranian warned, then Armenia might turn away from the alliance with Russia (iamik.ru, January 23).

Kocharian’s national security adviser Garnik Isagulian advanced the same argument shortly before the Moscow visit. He cautioned, moreover, that Russia’s indifference toward allied Armenia can affect the results of next year’s parliamentary elections in Armenia, and that disappointment with Russia may push Armenia toward NATO (Hayots Ashkar, January 18). Such remarks from a figure of Isagulian’s background indicate the potential depth of Yerevan’s disappointment: he is a former career KGB officer and has close links with the Dashnaktsutiun party.

Armenia is also disappointed in the Russian state-connected enterprises’ failure to invest in the Armenian industrial plants they took over in the 2002-2003 debt-for-asset swap. Armenia surrendered most of its energy and processing industries in that deal. Yet, those plants remain idle for the most part. Kocharian raised this issue during his June 2005 official visit to Moscow, but did not do so when meeting with Putin in December in Sochi and now in Moscow.

On January 23 while on a visit to Azerbaijan, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov announced that part of the Russian combat hardware due to be withdrawn from Georgia would be redeployed at Russia’s military base in Armenia. Ivanov’s announcement was not coordinated with the Armenian side. Although Yerevan will almost certainly accept the redeployment without objection, Ivanov’s procedure suggests that Moscow need not at least pro-forma consult with its ally in making and announcing such decisions.

(Mediamax, Noyan Tapan, Arminfo, Interfax, January 20-24, see EDM, January 17, 20)