Putin Talks Up Ties With Azerbaijan

BAKU, Azerbaijan President Vladimir Putin was upbeat Wednesday as he ended his first visit to neighboring Azerbaijan, a country that has viewed Moscows ties with rival Armenia with deep suspicion.

Putin called for deeper military cooperation with oil-rich Azerbaijan and saw no need for a tough visa regime of the kind slapped on Georgia.

"I am very satisfied by the visit and consider we have solved not only the tasks we had, but also formed a very good base for a positive development in bilateral ties," Putin told journalists at the Baku airport at the end of his trip.

He told the Azeri parliament earlier: "Military cooperation between Russia and Azerbaijan has been showing signs of progress lately. I think our contacts in this area may be intensified."

Putin got a friendly welcome on the visit despite previous criticisms by Azeri President Heidar Aliyev that Russia has supplied Armenia with millions of dollars worth of arms.

Azerbaijan has also accused Russia of favoring Armenia during the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, which erupted in 1988 when ethnic Armenians tried to secede from Azerbaijan.

Putin tried to dispel Bakus suspicions over the Russian-Armenian ties and said Russia did not support the stalemate in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.

"The present situation gives us no chance to develop valuable relations with Azerbaijan and Armenia," he said.

Putin also pledged to be a guarantor of any agreement between the two over Karabakh and said Moscow was ready to accept any decision that suited the Azeris and Armenians.

Some 35,000 people died in the Karabakh conflict, which ended with a cease-fire in 1994. However, no peace deal has been signed.

Russias interest in Azerbaijan is economic as well as political, since the Caspian Sea state has oil reserves that Russian companies are interested in helping exploit.

Putin said Russia was interested and ready to cooperate with Azerbaijan in all areas of the fuel and energy sector.

Deputy Prime Minister Viktor Khristenko said a transit tariff of $15.67 for one ton of crude could be cut if both sides reached agreement to boost the amount of oil transported by the Baku-Novorossiisk pipeline.