Russian President Vladimir Putin underlined Armenia’s geopolitical importance for Russia as he paid a brief working visit to Yerevan on March 24-25. The visit came against the backdrop of Moscow’s loss of influence over its “near abroad,” which has been accelerated by a series of successful anti-government uprisings across the former Soviet Union.
If Putin sought solace and a vow of loyalty from one of his country’s few remaining reliable allies, then he can surely consider the trip a success. Although no concrete agreements were announced after his talks with Armenian President Robert Kocharian, the two men may have cut deals that will reinforce Russia’s economic foothold in Armenia.
The official purpose of Putin’s visit was the launch of the Year of Russia in Armenia. “Dear friends, Russia is cherishing its good relationship with Armenia and I am sure that there is similar sentiment in your country,” he told hundreds of Armenian government officials, politicians, and prominent intellectuals at the opening ceremony of the event on March 25.
Speaking at a joint news conference with Kocharian earlier in the day, Putin sounded satisfied with the current state of Russian-Armenian ties, saying that they are “developing steadily.” Kocharian likewise noted their “great potential.”
“Alarmed by the spate of “rose,” “orange,” and other revolutions in the CIS, Russia fears losing its perhaps last reliable bulwark in the former USSR,” commented the Moscow daily Kommersant. “In essence, the arrival of the Moscow delegation was meant to demonstrate that among the former Soviet republics there are those that have not yet been affected by Western influence,” concurred another leading Russian paper, Nezavisimaya gazeta.
Indeed, the political and especially military alliance with Russia has been a key component of Armenia’s national security doctrine ever since the Soviet collapse. The tiny country, still locked in a bitter dispute with Azerbaijan over Karabakh, thus has a vital source of weapons, supplies, and military training. Besides, the presence of Russian troops in Armenia precludes any military pressure from Turkey, a staunch ally of Azerbaijan.
Still, Western influence on both Armenian foreign policy and public opinion, traditionally oriented toward Russia, has visibly grown in recent years. Armenians have not failed to notice the steady erosion of Russia’s dominant role in the CIS area. Pro-Western sentiment is particularly visible among their post-Soviet intellectual elite and opposition politicians. A growing number of them now advocate Armenia’s withdrawal from the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization and accession to NATO.
Official Yerevan finds the idea too radical. But it does seem to be hedging its bets by stepping up Armenia’s military cooperation with NATO and the United States in particular. Kocharian, for example, hardly pleased Moscow late last year when he sent a small unit of Armenian troops to Iraq despite strong domestic opposition.
Nonetheless, the Armenian leadership still rarely contradicts the Russians both in bilateral ties and the international arena. Its lack of independence was underscored by Kocharian’s highly controversial decision last November to recognize a Kremlin-backed candidate’s victory in the second round of Ukraine’s presidential election that was subsequently annulled due to widespread fraud. Armenia and Russia were the only members of the Council of Europe to accept the outcome of the rigged ballot.
The most important (and least publicized) issue on the agenda of Putin’s talks in Yerevan was Russia’s apparent desire to deepen its already extensive involvement in Armenia’s energy sector. Russia is the sole supplier of natural gas to Armenia and effectively controls 80% of the country’s power generating facilities. The Armenian government hopes to reduce this dependence with a new pipeline that is expected to deliver gas to Armenia from neighboring Iran within two years.
Work on the Armenian section of the 140-kilometer pipeline started last November after a decade of negotiations complicated by Russian opposition to the project. Visiting Yerevan in early March, Georgia’s Prime Minister Zurab Nogaideli reaffirmed his country’s interest in receiving Iranian gas through that pipeline and even re-exporting it to other countries in the future.
Russia’s state-run Gazprom monopoly is categorically against that. Its deputy chairman, Alexander Ryazanov, argued in an interview posted on regnum.ru on March 21, “The project is economically inexpedient and will compete with [Russian] gas delivered to Turkey” via the Black Sea. Ryazanov also revealed that Gazprom wants an exclusive right to use Iranian gas pumped to Armenia.
Another Russian energy giant, Unified Energy Systems (UES), is reportedly seeking to buy Armenia’s electricity distribution network, which is currently owned by a British-registered company. Armenian Energy Minister Armen Movsisian publicly voiced on March 3 his opposition to such a takeover. UES already owns Armenia’s largest power plant and a cascade of hydro-electric plants near Yerevan. In addition, it was granted financial control of the Metsamor nuclear plant in 2003.
Ryazanov and UES’s deputy chief executive, Andrei Rapoport, met Kocharian in Yerevan one week before Putin’s visit. Details of the meeting are still unknown. Information about Putin’s and Kocharian’s conversation on the matter is also very scant. The Armenian leader said only that they discussed “interesting and serious projects” in the energy sector. The result of that discussion should clarify the future course of the Russian-Armenian relationship.
(Haykakan zhamanak, March 26; Kommersant, Nezavisimaya gazeta, March 25; RFE/RL Armenia Report, March 14, 21)