Sargsyan Wins Putin's Seal of Approval

President Vladimir Putin and Serzh Sargsyan on Monday pledged continuity in bilateral relations, as the Armenian president-elect made Moscow his first destination after being declared the winner in a controversial election last month.

"I know that political processes in Armenia are not developing easily, but we very much hope that everything we have built up in bilateral relations in recent years will remain and develop further in the future, regardless of events inside Armenia," Putin said at the start of the talks in the Kremlin.

Sargsyan was elected in a Feb. 19 vote that the opposition says was rigged. The growing protests that followed were then violently dispersed by police and a 20-day state of emergency was imposed.

The state of emergency ended last week.

Sargsyan thanked Putin for Russia's support, including its backing in the run-up to the Armenian vote.

"Both [Armenian President Robert Kocharyan] and our ambassador passed your personal messages on to me, and I will be honest: Never before have we witnessed such an unambiguous approach," he said.

Sargsyan's trip comes on the heels of a visit by Kocharyan, who came to Moscow for an informal Commonwealth of Independent States summit on Feb. 22.

Putin congratulated Sargsyan, currently prime minister, on his victory, while Sargsyan said the election of First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev as Putin's replacement in March instilled hope that the bilateral relations would continue to develop positively.

Sargsyan met Medvedev earlier on Monday. Sargsyan is to be inaugurated on April 9, while the ceremony for Medvedev will take place on May 7.

The talks between Putin and Sargsyan were to focus on expanding trade and economic relations, including nuclear cooperation, the Kremlin said in a statement on Monday. Armenia has been invited to join Russia's international uranium enrichment center in Angarsk and is expected to finalize its commitment in the near future.

Azhdar Kurtov, an analyst with the Russian Institute of Strategic Studies, said continuity in relations with Yerevan was important for Moscow, as Armenia remains virtually its only ally in the South Caucasus.

"Armenia has been successful so far in keeping the Caucasus from drifting toward the West or, rather, the south," said Kurtov, who focuses on the CIS.

Landlocked Armenia borders Azerbaijan, Georgia, Iran and Turkey, in a region that is becoming a key transit route for oil exports to European and world markets. Georgia and Azerbaijan have both said they are interested in NATO membership.

The difference between Moscow's relations with Armenia and its relationship with Georgia was evident, Kurtov said, from the Russian media coverage of postelection riots in Yerevan and of the earlier riots in Tbilisi. The disturbances and the police reaction in Armenia have received much less coverage than did the events in Georgia, he said.

Armenia, which hosts a Russian military base, is part of the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization, a regional body aimed at strengthening military and political ties. Armenia will take over the chairmanship of the organization this fall.

Russian investment in Armenia totaled about $1 billion at the end of 2007, a year that saw trade between the countries top $800 million, the Kremlin said, adding that a figure of $1 billion was a realistic forecast for the near future.

In a standard indication of good relations between the countries, the Kremlin said Armenia would host a series of Russian cultural events this year, while Russia would host a "Season of Armenian Culture" in 2009.

Despite the pledges of continued friendship, however, Gazprom is soon likely to significantly hike the prices that Armenia pays it for gas, analysts have said. Armenia currently pays a mere $110 per thousand cubic meters.