Russia secures military presence in Armenia until 2044

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Last week, Russia extended its lease on a military base in Armenia, a former Soviet republic, until 2044, strengthening its presence in the South Caucasus energy transit region.

The deal, signed on 20 August in Yerevan during a visit by Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, extends a 1995 lease on the Gyumri base on Armenia's closed western border with NATO-member Turkey, home to several thousand Russian soldiers who patrol the frontier.

Armenian officials have praised the deal as a guarantee of Russian backing in the event of new conflict with neighbouring Azerbaijan over the rebel mountain region of Nagorno-Karabakh.

The extension is in line with Russian policy of maintaining its influence in the South Caucasus, a volatile region criss-crossed by pipelines skirting Armenia and carrying Central Asian and Caspian oil and gas to Europe.

The original lease ran for 25 years.

Russia also has troops in two breakaway regions of neighbouring Georgia, where it is building up bases in the wake of a five-day war over rebel South Ossetia in 2008.

Ethnic Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh, backed by Armenia, threw off Azeri rule with the collapse of the Soviet Union in a war that killed an estimated 30,000 people. A ceasefire was agreed in 1994 but a peace deal has never been reached.

Asked about the possibility of Azerbaijan carrying out a frequently voiced threat to take back the enclave, Medvedev said Russia was continuing in its role as mediator.

But in a reference to the Georgia war, in which Moscow says it was forced to respond to Georgian aggression, he added, "we went through some difficult events in 2008 and we would not like such events to be repeated".

"It is the task of Russia as the largest state in the region […] the most powerful state, to secure peace and order."

Balancing act

Russia, he said, has "allied obligations" towards Armenia as fellow members of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), a Russian-led security alliance of ex-Soviet republics that does not include Azerbaijan.

Azerbaijan, host to oil majors including BP, ExxonMobil and Chevron, has invested heavily in building up its armed forces on the back of oil sales.

Russia has been careful to seek a balance between the foes in recent years, closely courting Azerbaijan for its energy reserves in the Caspian Sea.

Unconfirmed Russian media reports this month suggested Moscow had sold sophisticated S-300 anti-aircraft missile systems to Azerbaijan, unnerving Armenia.

Military analysts say such a purchase was more likely linked to Azeri unease over retaliation from neighbouring Iran in the event of an Israeli or US strike on its nuclear facilities.

Russia and Armenia also signed an agreement on Friday on Russian participation in construction of a nuclear reactor at an estimated cost of up to $5 billion.

The reactor is to be built at Armenia's existing Russian-operated, Soviet-era nuclear plant, which provides around 40% of the country's electricity.

Some in the Armenian opposition have objected to what they say is Moscow's growing hold over the landlocked country of 3.2 million people, which is heavily dependent on investment and remittances coming from Russia.

(EURACTIV with Reuters.)

Nagorno-Karabakh is one of the so-called 'frozen conflict' areas in the post-Soviet space. It is a landlocked region in the Southern Caucasus, de jure on the territory of Azerbaijan, but de facto governed by the breakaway government of the 'Nagorno-Karabakh Republic'. 

An armed conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan took place between 1988 and 1994 over Nagorno-Karabakh, leaving at least 6,000 dead. A Russian-brokered ceasefire was signed in May 1994. Peace talks, mediated by the OSCE, have since been held between Armenia and Azerbaijan. 

In August 2008, the US, France and Russia (co-chairs of the so-called 'OSCE Minsk' group) began to negotiate a full settlement of the conflict, proposing a referendum on the status of the territory. 

The effort culminated the signature in Moscow by Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan and his Azeri colleague Ilham Aliyev of an agreement to hold talks on a political settlement.

Last July, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said it was a US priority to help Armenia and Azerbaijan settle the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and urged them to refrain from violence over the separatist region (EURACTIV 05/07/10).

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