Putin Calls for Strong Role in Caucasus

BAKU, Azerbaijan President Vladimir Putin said Tuesday that Moscows military presence in the Caucasus was vital to regional stability and offered to mediate between Azerbaijan and Armenia over disputed Nagorno-Karabakh.

Putin pledged to be a guarantor of any agreement between the nations over the ethnic Armenian region in Azerbaijan and signed documents outlining future cooperation between Moscow and Baku in finance, politics and the use of the Caspian Sea.

"The situation in the world is such that Russias military presence in the Caucasus is still necessary," Putin told a joint news conference after more than two hours of talks with Azeri leader Heidar Aliyev.

The two presidents signed the Baku Declaration, described as a pact designed to guide their countries relations in the future, as well as seven other economic and political documents.

"This document guides us to a new level of cooperation. We should make the level of our strategic partnership higher," Aliyev said of the declaration.

The two leaders also signed a document aimed at the eventual drawing of economic borders in the oil-rich Caspian Sea, which is still not demarcated 10 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

One of Putins main foreign policy drives has been to reinforce ties with Russias neighbors and cement Moscows influence in the Commonwealth of Independent States.

Moscow-Baku relations are generally good but have been tinged with Azeri suspicion that Russia favors Armenia in a long-running and bitter struggle over Nagorno-Karabakh.

Some 35,000 people have died in a conflict that erupted after the regions mainly Armenian population tried to secede from Azeri rule in 1988. A 1994 cease-fire ended the fighting, but talks have not yet produced a peace pact.

"Russia will promote its efforts as a mediator and is ready to be a guarantor of agreements on this issue," Putin said. "We should strive for a stable situation in the Caucasus."

The Azeris have often viewed Moscows involvement in the conflict with suspicion and Aliyev has criticized Russia for supplying Armenia with millions of dollars worth of arms.

Putin rejected these allegations and said the transfer of Russian arms to its military bases in Armenia was under a Russian-Georgian agreement on the withdrawal of Kremlin troops from Georgia.