Putin Kocharian Meet Reserved on Recent Talks

YEREVAN (RFE/RL)–The presidents of Russia and Armenia met in the Russian city of Saint Petersburg on Sunday for talks seemingly motivated by the dramatic regime change in neighboring Georgia.

Neither President Vladimir Putin–nor Armenian counterpart Robert Kocharian mentioned Georgia in televised remarks preceding the meeting; few details of the meeting were reported. Putin commented instead on the unresolved Mountainous Karabagh Republic conflict and Russian-Armenian economic ties.

Kocharian’s office refused on Monday to disclose any details of the talks.

A deputy chief of Putin’s staff Sergei Prikhodko–told journalists in Saint Petersburg that the two leaders discussed the current state of the Karabagh peace process ahead of a fresh flurry of diplomatic activity by international mediators expected next weekend. He voiced Moscow’s support for a further "political dialogue" between Armenia and Azerbaijan.

Television crews were allowed to videotape the opening remarks by Putin and Kocharian. "The Azerbaijan leaders have a positive attitude to this issue–even though this is a difficult and chronic problem," Putin said–pointing to his phone conversation with the recently elected President Ilham Aliyev.

American–French–and Russian negotiators heading the Minsk Group of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe are scheduled to open a new round of regional shuttle diplomacy on Friday which could answer the nagging question of whether a Karabagh settlement should be expected in the coming years. It should also clarify whether Aliyev is in a position to embrace a compromise peace deal reportedly reached by his ailing father and predecessor Heydar and Kocharian in 2001.

Putin also mentioned bilateral economic ties–notably the implementation of the equities-for-debt agreemen’s that settled Armenia’s debts to the Russian government and energy resource suppliers totaling $140 million. In exchange for writing it off–Russia was given control over the bulk of Armenia’s power generating facilities.

Putin said the two governmen’s have yet to work out unspecified "technical" issues. He also praised the 84 percent jump in the volume of bilateral trade in the first nine months of this year–saying that it is an indication that commercial links between Armenia and Russia are developing rapidly. Kocharian likewise welcomed the "serious boost to economic relations."

Prikhodko confirmed that the leaders’ agenda covered the political situation in Georgia in the aftermath of the November 23 overthrow of President Eduard Shevardnadze by tens of thousands of opposition supporters furious with his handling of the November 2 parliamentary elections.

Significantly–Prikhodko mentioned that Georgia is home to some 300,000 ethnic Armenia’s whose cultural rights–he said–must be protected. A large part lives in the economically depressed region of Javakhk that borders Armenia and Turkey. The region also hosts one of the two Russian military bases still stationed in the country that has officially declared its intention to join NATO.

In a separate development–the man’slated to win the January 4 Georgian presidential election has pledged to seek closer ties with Armenia and facilitate its communication with the rest of the world. In an interview with the state-run Armenian Public Television broadcast on Sunday–Mikhail Saakashvili accused Shevardnadze of paying little attention to the "vital" Georgian-Armenian relationship.

"Armenia is Georgia’s key strategic partner and neighbor," Saakashvili said. "A stable and prosperous Armenia would be a guarantor of Georgia’s success and prosperity."

Saakashvili was also receptive to the concern of Javakhk’s Armenia’s about the possible closure of the Russian base in the local town of Akhalkalaki–the impoverished region’s single largest employer. He said Tbilisi should provide them with an alternative source of income before citing a 1999 international treaty that obligates Russia to close all of its military facilities on Georgian territory by 2007.

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