Russian Defense Minister Visits Armenia

YEREVAN (Armenpress/RFE/RL)–The defense ministers of Russia and Armenia praised close bilateral military ties between the two countries and said they will continue to develop despite an unresolved dispute over the price of Russian natural gas supplied to Armenia.

"We concluded that Russian-Armenian military cooperation is steadily developing and there are no serious problems that need solutions," Defense Minister Serge Sargsian said after talks with his visiting Russian counterpart Sergey Ivanov on Thursday.

Ivanov arrived in Armenia from Azerbaijan on Wednesday 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 Sargsian. "We have managed to achieve practical results in that area."

Ivanov said the Russian military would 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.

After inspecting the Russian base in Gyumri–Ivanov 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 shut-down in 2008 in accordance with a Russian-Georgian agreement signed earlier this year.

The Russian side has already moved some of the weapons from the Akhalkalaki base to Gyumri–sparking protests from Azerbaijan–which fears that they will end up in Armenian hands. Ivanov assured Azeri leaders in Baku on Wednesday that they will remain Russian property.

The Russian base is part of a joint air defense system of the Commonwealth of Independent States–which was deployed in Armenia in 1995.

In December 2005–Russia and Armenia’signed a set of bilateral documen’s to expand the base. Armenia is to transfer plots of land and real estate to the base under the agreemen’s.

The Karabagh conflict was also on the agenda of Ivanov’s visit. Kocharian–according to his press service–briefed Ivanov on recent progress in Karabagh peace talks and his upcoming crucial meeting in Paris with Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev.

Russia is taking an active part in its settlement as a co-chairman of the OSCE Minsk group for Karabagh. During talks with top Azeri officials earlier this week–Ivanov said a military solution of the Karabagh problem had no prospects.

"This problem should be resolved by political and diplomatic efforts; the military solution of the Nagorno-Karabagh problem has no prospects and can only aggravate it," he said after talks with his Azeri counterpart Safar Abiyev.

Ivanov–accompanied by Sargsian–also paid a visited to Dzidzernagapert and put a wreath on the memorial to the victims of the Armenian genocide.

The director of the Genocide Museum-Institute Lavrenti Barsegian presented to the Russian defense minister the latest books about the Armenian genocide published by the museum.

Ivanov’s visit to Armenia came as the Armenian government is trying to negotiate the price of Russian natural gas. The government has so far been unsuccessful in getting the Russia’s to reconsider their decision to double the price of natural gas supplied to Armenia.

It was not clear if Ivanov discussed the matter with Sargsian and Kocharian. He said–"there are authorized bodies and high-level officials in the Russian Federation who are in charge of this issue."

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