By Ruzanna Stepanian
The defense ministers of Russia and Armenia praised on Thursday close bilateral military ties and said they will continue to develop despite an unresolved dispute over the price of Russian natural supplied to Armenia.
“We arrived at the conclusion that Russian-Armenian military cooperation is steadily developing and there are no serious problems there that need solutions,” Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian said after talks with his visiting Russian counterpart Sergey Ivanov.
Ivanov arrived in Armenia from Azerbaijan the previous night on a visit that also included a meeting with President Robert Kocharian. A statement by Kocharian’s office said the two men expressed their satisfaction with the current level of Russian-Armenian “military-technical cooperation.”
“Our military-technical cooperation has continued to successfully develop in the last three years,” Ivanov told a joint news conference with Sarkisian later in the day. “We have managed to achieve practical results in that area,” he added without giving details.
Ivanov also said the Russian military will continue to hold joint exercises with the Armenian army and train its officers, citing the fact that as many as 500 Armenian cadets are currently studying at Russian military academies.
Ivanov’s visit was overshadowed by a controversy surrounding Russia’s decision to double the price of its for Armenia. The Armenian government’s efforts to get the Russians to reconsider the decision have been unsuccessful so far, leading pro-government media outlets in Yerevan to launch unprecedented scathing attacks on Moscow. The outcry fueled speculation that the Kocharian administration feels hard done by. Kocharian’s spokesman warned this week that the Russian stance on the issue has dramatically increased anti-Russian sentiment in the country.
Ivanov, who is also Russia’s deputy prime minister, refused to be drawn on the subject and it remained unclear whether he discussed it with Sarkisian and Kocharian. “Do you want me to deal with gas?” he asked a reporter. “Thank you for the offer, but I think there are authorized bodies and high-level officials in the Russian Federation who are in charge of this issue.”
Sarkisian, for his part, dismissed suggestions, endorsed by parliament speaker Artur Baghdasarian, that Yerevan should consider charging Russia for the presence of its military base in Armenia in retaliation for the gas price hike. “There is no need to draw hasty conclusions. Negotiations on the gas issue are still going on,” he said.
“Secondly, the price of gas has nothing to do with our security,” he added. “The Russian base is one of the components of Armenia’s national security and we still need that base.”
Incidentally, the Russian base headquartered in Gyumri was inspected by Ivanov during the trip. He said Moscow plans to further “reinforce” it with military hardware from a Russian base stationed in the nearby Georgian town of Akhalkalaki. The latter facility is due to be closed down in 2008 in accordance with a Russian-Georgian agreement signed earlier this year.
The Russian side has already moved some of the Akhalkalaki base weapons to Gyumri, sparking protests from Azerbaijan which fears that they will end up in Armenian hands. Ivanov assured Azerbaijani leaders in Baku on Wednesday that they will remain Russian property.
The Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh was also on the agenda of his visit. Kocharian, according to his press service, briefed Ivanov on recent progress in Karabakh peace talks and his upcoming crucial meeting in Paris with Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliev.